CFP [Due – Jan 31]: Land Fictions Conference

Land Fictions: The Commodification of Land in City and Country

The 8th Biennial MaGrann Conference

Department of Geography, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

Organized by D. Asher Ghertner and Robert W. Lake

May 1-2, 2015

“What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.”  Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

When Karl Polanyi described the great “commodity fiction” of “separating land from man [sic]… to satisfy the requirements of the real-estate market” (187), he used a comparative analogy between “the colonial situation today and that of Western Europe a century or two ago.” Whereas the process of commercializing land, ripping it out of its feudal ties, and rendering it alienable and investable took place over centuries in the West, it required just “a few years or decades” in the colonies. While acknowledging differences between metropole and colony, city and country, Polanyi noted that across contexts, the “weird” undertaking of commodifying land – be it to earn ground rent or “to constrain the native to produce a surplus of food” – required that local life-worlds first be “shattered” (188).

Despite Polanyi’s insistence that land commodification be studied comparatively across North and South and between the city and countryside, contemporary scholarship on land markets tends to reinforce these very North-South and urban-rural binaries. The vast literature on gentrification and real estate financialization thus evidences a striking silence on questions of customary use or the political economy of tenure, despite the persistence of non-privatized and “intermediate” tenure regimes (such as urban villages) in much of the urban world. Similarly, the emerging literature on “land grabbing” and rural land speculation takes little from the writing on marginality and spatial relegation, or from the work broadly framed around “the right to the city,” or the right to participate in the production of space. What might the analytic of urban gentrification bring to the study of rural dispossession and land monetization now sweeping vast swaths of the countryside in much of the South? What might the study of shifting cultivators and customary use bring to the study of urban squatting? How might existing urban and rural analytical “toolkits” be applied to the study of hybrid spaces such as peri-urban developments or special economic zones, which use land law that is at times derived from cities, at times drawn from villages, and at times wholly new?

In the context of what has been called the rise of the global “precariat,” where former laboring classes are cast out as “surplus populations,” the 2015 MaGrann Conference on “Land Fictions” insists that putting urban and rural perspectives on land commodification into conversation is a political as much as it is an analytical imperative. From overlaps between “the rent gap” in cities and what the World Bank calls “the yield gap” in agricultural land, to the technical effort of global development institutions to increase transparency in land market transactions within both urban governance and rural “land governance,” to linked urban and rural land titling and registration programs that seek to make ownership legible to corporate capital, the 2015 MaGrann Conference aims to bring unique perspectives on rural or urban land markets into conversation with each other. It will do so by raising comparative questions through organized panels and roundtables that facilitate encounters, in a collaborative and friendly environment, between perspectives on urban and rural, land and labor that have too often been pursued separately.

The conference organizers solicit interest from scholars exploring how land is (or is not) transformed into a global commodity and the attendant forms of dispossession that such transformations precipitate. We seek papers that specifically seek to:

  • Provide historical or empirical accounts of how land – including the materials embedded or buried in it – is rendered mutable, alienable, and investable.
  • Explore the “fictions” that justify, reinforce and enact processes of land commodification and the “shattering” of life-worlds they help produce.
  • Evaluate how the “fictions” we tell ourselves about the promises of property or the aspirational qualities of land markets – the dream of homeownership, land title, or urban registration, for example – contribute to projects of political rule.
  • Consider the work done by fiction, literature, popular protest, song and theater in countering, parodying or affirming the “fictions” of land as a commodity.
  • Deconstruct the countervailing tropes of conservation, preservation, heritage, ethnicity, identity and culture (among others) deployed within and/or against practices of land commodification and dispossession.
  • Provide critical genealogies of anti-displacement and anti-commodification movements and their spatial connections across regions.
  • Trace regulatory, legal and/or tenure regimes across time or space, showing how they facilitate or impede dispossession, or political opposition to it.
  • Examine the institutional, legal and regulatory mechanisms (e.g., eminent domain, property law, land use regulation) through which the commodity fiction is performed in the making of land and labor markets.
  • Analyze how rights-based movements and other citizenship claims have gained political traction and potentially moved between or gained inspiration across country and city. Urban examples might include the right to the city, the right to shelter, the right to stay put, or various social security schemes around urban livelihoods and health in cities. Rural examples might include the right to food, the right to be a peasant (recently recognized by the FAO), the right to work, or collective and communal land recognition.
  • Explore the politics through which the material character and properties of land and its infrastructures – such as buildings, pipes, dams, canals and roads – open or constrain possibilities for more or less commodified forms of life; or how certain objects – such as documents, files, maps and cadastres, tax records and identification cards – facilitate or slow down land’s transformation into (dematerialized and globally fungible) commodity form.
  • Put the analytical frameworks of agrarian studies into conversation directly with urban studies, or ask what agrarian studies terms might do to reframe urban struggle, and vice versa: e.g., to see marginal urban lands as “fields,” cultivated patches of earth invested with labor, knowledge and expertise, or villages as “enclaves,” populations invested with depth through state improvement campaigns and patronage politics.

The MaGrann Conference was inaugurated in 2003 as an annual or biennial meeting organized by The Department of Geography at Rutgers University around a pressing global environment or development theme. Participants represent various disciplines across the social sciences, humanities and physical sciences and are drawn from Rutgers University as well as from institutions around the world.

Submission Process:

Please submit paper titles and abstracts of no more than 300 words, along with a current CV, to with “MaGrann 2015: Land Fictions” in the subject line by January 31, 2015. Limited funding may be available to cover partial travel costs and accommodations in New Brunswick but this cannot be guaranteed and will not be known for certain before the closing date for abstract submissions.

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