considering the basis of property in violence, just as it is slipping away

An essay written about land and the idea of property, before humans, and as subject to the violence of contemporary human cultures. Measuring Loss was written in response to The Anthropocene River Campus seminar “Claims/Property: Making and unmaking property in the Anthropocene”
I'm grateful to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt for the support of this work and especially to Fiona Shipwright for editorial support, Shana M. griffin to her vital work in New Orleans about housing, gender and race, and to Geneva LaBeouf for generously sharing her home and knowledge with us.

Measuring Loss

Long before it will become someone’s property, this place is a salty inland basin that fills and empties over long intervals, drawing down silt and nutrients from hot equatorial forests that feed teeming microscopic life forms, the precursors to oil. Much later come intervals of extreme cold, years of glaciers advancing and retreating, and then finally a melt. Some people on this continent know of the ice from their ancestors’ stories. Now, around 2500 BCE, the Mississippi River is really starting to get going, moving its fresh water and silt down a slow grade, carving and filling land, avulsing into new channels, and dumping successions of sediment loads in lobes of soil that extend into a sea. Small bands of people move through and live on these spits and marshes, gathering shellfish, hunting; some are the predecessors of people who still live here, while others leave only remnants of their occupation in shell middens and mounds. A rich time; buffalo graze all the way down to the gulf. A thousand years from now, in 1540, an adventurer from afar named Hernando de Soto will drift down the Mississippi and leave his remains as well. Another hundred years pass, and the French explorer Robert de La Salle takes his turn to float down the channel. He claims the land, valley, waterways, trees, bayous—all of it and more—for France.

The terms “claims” and “property” composed the title of a seminar convened during the November 2019 Anthropocene River Campus to investigate how cultures of property support, infiltrate, and inform processes of the Anthropocene. This topic emerged from a process of collective analysis and writing at the Anthropocene River Midway Meeting in St. Louis in the spring of 2019. As seminar conveners, we hoped not only to address land as property but to draw out gray zones of epistemic significance, such as how the practice of property sees all life as its potential object. Indeed, the pervasiveness of property and its sedimentation through both space and time made it difficult to settle on a plan. For one, how were we to pursue a subject that is more social practice than thing? Neither “property” nor “claims” can be observed as material or infrastructural projects, such as a dam, hospital, prison, or school can. Yet property provides the economic and political underpinnings for such projects—whose benefits are subsequently unevenly distributed.

To think about property is to think about its political predisposition and social effects as part of a broad and subjective variegation of emotional charge. Who is able to have access to or “make” property, and how, and for what purposes? Claims, whether to territory, speech, or narrative, are likewise enunciated by social subjects and infused by feelings. We needed to encounter the narratives and feelings that generated these claims. But it seemed paralyzing to imagine how, and with whom, especially for those of us who live far from the context of New Orleans. And for some, our identities also mattered, as white people from settler or immigrant ancestries who enjoy advantageous property relations through no efforts of our own. We recognized that contingencies and differences between people are symptomatic of and charged with the full weight of the contradictions and inequities issued in society. Our initial conversations hovered on the sticky questions of how the historical making of property has disproportionately negated the existence of some more than others—the same people who suffer environmental vulnerability, and political and economic exclusion. It seemed important, then, to situate our seminar’s practice as one of observing and listening to these experiences, even though imagining such conversations with roughly thirty people beyond our initial convening group (Morgan Adamson, Bruce Braun, Ravi Agarwal, Shana M. griffin) seemed overwhelming.

We did not want to use the form of a tour, because claims and property, rights and access, are precisely the facts that tourism conceals. An investigation into place should instead entail learning about the means through which people are able to animate that place to make it home, and the obstacles that prevent that. We decided to explore New Orleans as a territory alongside our hosts, experts, and conveners. We leaned heavily on the knowledge, generosity, and affinities of Shana M. griffin, Grace Treffinger, Geneva Leboeuf, Laura Kelley, and Nathan Jessee. We reflexively reframed our questions about property and claims through listening to their experiences, divulged formally and informally, walking, eating, and being together.

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