Becoming Spatial Detectives: Legal (Psycho)Geography in the Naked City

NakedCity1948b

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”

This, the closing line to the 1948 film noir The Naked City – reminds us that cities are made of people, each of whom takes the built environment as a starting point and who, with a mixture of power, fate and (good or bad) fortune make their lives there, day-in and day-out. It reminds us that people inhabit the built environment, and bring it to life.

The phrase also, given its link to the film’s prosaic account of an incident, passing encounters with multiple municipal systems and the mundane vagaries of a law enforcement unit, gives us the idea of the city as an awkward, slippery place to govern, or to even get a handle on. Thus the city – even when naked, somehow stripped open to an all seeing analytical eye – is a place in which anything might happen. Here, what happened today is no guide to what might happen tomorrow, for whilst systems of order and arrangement are present, they are constantly struggling to keep pace with the multiplicity of the urban realm, its throngs of people and the diverse lives they are trying to live there, its busy flows of matter and the flux of its built form.

This “problem” of order, and of how a social (and spatial) justice is pursued within dense built environments, is a theme that underlies each of the five articles presented in a special issue of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment on Law and Geography, published today and guest edited by me and Antonia Layard (University of Bristol). The assembled articles, including a longer version of this editorial, will be available open access until the end of May here.

The authors’ common concern in our special issue is to examine the ways in which (and to what degrees of success) people, their laws and their dwellings, streets, places of work and leisure shape (and in turn are shaped by) each other, and how through such interaction the built environment arises and is sustained.

The authors each enquire into a fundamental aspect of urban living – how the built environment and the law attendant to it provides for either shelter, sanitation or sex. In this quest to observe law at work as an important actor in the built environment, the authors roam squatter and relocation camps in South Africa and Central Asia, peer into Canadian street-side waste bins, observe “Sexual Entertainment Venues” across the United Kingdom and spend time with the angry residents of a PFI social housing project in London.

This edited collection of five articles, is the first of a number of outputs that will appear over the next few months, and which will each interrogate the idea of searching out law’s shadowy hand in the making and sustaining of environments. The next will be a commissioned article to be published later this year in the journal Geography Compass, entited ‘Legal Geography: Becoming Spatial Detectives’. This is another Bennett/Layard collaboration, and also plays with the detective/noir riff in its overview of the legal geography field, and its paths taken, and yet to be. There’s an early draft of our paper here on Antonia’s blog (the revised version will be Open Access when published).

Then towards the end of the summer (and I should stress – so as to avoid tainting Antonia’s serious scholarly repute – that this is a solo project of mine) comes my chapter entitled ‘Tentative Steps Towards a Legal Psychogeography’ which will form part of Tina Richardson’s edited collection Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography. That essay takes two passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp and cross breeds it with legal geography’s own attentiveness to mundane spaces, and thereby lets loose a reckless hybrid.

In the meantime, my ‘Ruinphobia’ paper presented at the EU/SEEDS/University of Sheffield symposium in January 2015 on the reuse of empty spaces is now available, alongside the other presented papers and the discussant’s comments here.

And on 13 May, Antonia and I will each (separately) be presenting as invited speakers at the Queen Mary, University of London ‘Mapping Law Globally’ workshop. I will be continuing to plough the ‘law and ruins’ furrow, speaking to the following abstract:

How does law make place? Localisation, translocalisation and thing-law at the world’s first factory

“This paper explores how law is implicated in the formation of place, and how place in turn can shape law. It is an empirical explication of Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations, and thus to seek to show how:  “the world is … brought inside … places and then, after having been transformed there … pumped back out of [their] narrow walls” (Latour 2005: 179, italics in original). In pursuit of this the paper presents a case study focussed around the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century, the industrial scale cotton mill. The study centres around the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire. It shows how a diverse range of legal elements ranging across patent law, the Calico Acts and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape that place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately farther afield. In doing so the paper conceptualises processes of localisation, translocalisation and thing-law by which the abstractions of both place-forms and law elements become activated through their pragmatic local emplacement. Whilst the case study concerns 200 year old place-making machinations, many of the spatio-legal articulations of Arkwright and his opponents have a surprisingly modern feel about them. The paper therefore advocates the benefits of a longitudinal, historical approach to the study of place-making, and in particular, calls for a greater attentiveness in contemporary legal geography to law’s role in business-place formation and its use by site managers.”

Picture credit: stills from The Naked City (1948) dir. Jules Dassin, found at http://baron-wolf.livejournal.com/143395.html (the surrounding text there is in Russian, so I have no idea of the context)

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