Making somewhere smaller – ownership, use and the challenge of surplus space
April 25, 2012 Leave a comment
The following is an abstract for a contribution, to The Creativity of Property: A workshop on the reinvention of ownership (held at University College, London’s Anthropology Dept in June 2012). My proposal was accepted, and now towards the end of the slide sequence below you can view my commentary amidst two cycles of the surreptitious photos that I have taken in my local supermarket since it started to shrink…
In his 1690 Second Treatise of Government, John Locke set out a theory of ownership, by which property is created through the application of labour to the environment. But what happens to that ownership if such labour – such use of the property– thereafter fades?
Well, a strict legal analysis (of English Law at least) would suggest that ownership subsists even if there is no subsequent active use of the property that has been so created. But if we put the strict legal analysis to one side, and look instead at practices of ownership, we may start to see something that runs counter to that implicit suggestion that ownership does not need to be actively asserted. We may start to see behaviour that suggests that in everyday notions of property, ownership does require active management
My presentation will examine the steps taken by place owners to symbolically and/or physically manage places which have ‘shrunk’ in the face of market contraction and other anxieties. I will draw upon two mundane case studies from my home city, Sheffield. One study concerns the slow redundancy of a failing country pub’s ‘beer garden’, and the steps taken by successive publicans to manage that peripheral, marginal space. The other, observes the locally-improvised steps taken by staff to hide ‘surplus’ space within a down-sized local supermarket.
In each case a formal ‘legal’ reading of the ownership status of the pub and the supermarket would show no change in the abstract ‘bundle’ of rights held by each owner over these properties as static spatial co-ordinates, for these spaces do not ‘shrink’ in terms of their area or legal status. But there is a subtle, yet evident, process playing out in each case at the level of use. A part physical / part symbolic contraction which the formal gaze of law (or political theory) may struggle to name or acknowledge, but which none-the-less is a sign of our times, and a reminder that ‘ownership’ and ‘property’ are inherently unstable concepts: an unsteady mix of custom, bureaucracy and reaffirmation of ownership via use.
Through exploring these case study examples, and their position at the outer-limits of effective ownership, we are given a glimpse of how ownership and territory are ordinarily silently made and re-made through practices of use, and of the habitual nature of many of those daily ownership rituals.