Mill-mania: how does law spread place-formations? My new Geoforum article


“we all looked up to him and imitated his mode of building…our buildings were copied from the models of his works”

Sir Robert Peel, 1816 Parliamentary Inquiry on the factory system

It’s almost trite in cultural geography to state that place is a multiplicity of individual and collective framings, that it has no singularity and is a flux or swirl of moment by moment encounters. Yes, fine – but surrounding that experiential swirl there are stablisations, common and shared framings which do take root and then influence those encounters. These also act to influence the form and evolution of a locality and they also have the power to influence the framing and evolution of other places. In short, some place-types become clear and potent. In the last couple of years (when not thinking about the potency of the cultural framing of abandoned bunkers) I’ve been thinking about the genesis of one now very dominant (and taken for granted) place-formation: the industrial scale factory. And I’ve done this by looking at the moment, 250 years ago when ‘the factory’ emerged almost accidentally as a new spatial form, and how it became stabilised and started to spread. I’ve been particularly interested in looking at law’s role in the framing of this (then) nascent place-formation.

Accordingly, my article published yesterday in Geoforum (free access here until 12 August) examines how law is implicated in the formation of ‘factory’ as a type of place, and how in turn such places shaped law. It is an empirical exploration of Bruno Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations. Drawing upon recent theoretical work in both material culture studies and legal geography my article examines the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire in order to examine the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century: the industrial scale cotton mill. It shows how a diverse array of legal elements ranging across patent law, the textile tariffs and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape the cotton-mill as a place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately further afield. In doing so the article 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 legal geography to law’s role in the intentional formation of (work)places by their owners.

In my article Cromford Mills is presented as an exemplar of Latour’s maxim that “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). Whilst both the actions of Arkwright and the influence of Cromford Mills are atypical, and few industrialists have ever engaged in such sustained and well documented lobbying and litigating, or produced industrial places that were so directly replicated, the atypical extremity of Arkwright’s industry-forming story, and the influence of Cromford Mills as an emergent place-model, helps us – via sharp relief – to witness processes of localisation and translocalisation that would be harder to spot in more mundane circumstances. Through Arkwright’s plethora of place-making efforts we see the ways in which law enables a place to stabilise (and prosper) through the localisation of law’s command and permission in specific spatial circumstances. We also see how law has the power to crush or alter any place. In the campaigning against the Calico Acts we see the role of lobbying around thing-law, the all-important framing of the matter that will matter at a particular place ( Barad, 2007). In the proximate influence of the place-formations of Derbyshire mining laws we see the multiplicity of place-law, and its tensions and resolutions.

Also, even through the spatio-legal place-making machinations described in this case study took place over 200 years ago, they are surprising time-less in their feel. There is nothing particularly ‘eighteenth century’ about the strategic dilemmas and tactical choices that the early factory masters wrestled with, or in the ways in which we have seen law being used tool-like in some situations or left ‘on the shelf’ in favour of some other solution in others. In the case study we have seen elements of the law (and the case study reminds us the that ‘the law’ is not a coordinated, monolithic system, but rather a swarm of only loosely associated discursive elements and pragmatic applications) sometimes present as enabling Arkwright’s project, and at others presenting challenges to it, challenges to be met sometimes by a legal solution, sometimes by some other manoeuvre, in each case rationally selected.

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