Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Life & Law Panel Recap: "Space Along the Rural-Urban Spectrum"

I’m delighted to report that the Life & Law in Rural America conference had an abundance of strong papers, and amidst a very interdisciplinary crowd there were many legal historians. We’re happy to have three of those legal historians provide us with panel recaps this week: Brooke Depenbusch, Smita Ghosh, and Jillian Jacklin will all contribute. More about the conference can be found, here.

Today, I want to provide a short recap of the panel that struck me the most, “Space Along the Rural-Urban Spectrum.” Elsa Devienne, a Princeton Mellon Fellow, acted as commentator for Alyse Bertenthal, Sean Fraga, Jessica Cooper, and Villiam Voinot-Baron. My apologies in advance for any mischaracterization of any of the panelists’ arguments.

Alyse Bertenthal, Ph.D. Candidate in Criminology, Law & Society at University of California, Irvine, started the panel with an insightful analysis of a publicity pamphlet from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Using the part-advertisement, part-travelogue, “Little Journeys into Water and Power Land,” her concise presentation pushed us to consider the rural as much of an ideology as place. Her analysis of the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s publicity campaign suggests that with regard to the Owen Valley Aqueduct, the rural as an ideology was constructed by urban public officials for the purposes of gaining support for the publicly owned utility and the building of the aqueduct in the early twentieth century. More than that, her narrative is one in which the “public good” was grounded in an urban area rather than those who lived in rural Owen County. Thus, attitudes toward the rural landscape and those who lived there were formed by the Department of Water and Power to achieve specific urban ends, despite the damaging long-term consequences for those in rural communities around the Owen Valley.

The second panelist, Sean Fraga, Ph.D. Candidate in History at Princeton University, presented a fascinating talk about houseboats on Puget Sound in the nineteenth century. Using a variety of sources including case law and legislation, Fraga argued that houseboats have historically been slippery legal objects. In the 1850s, treaties with tribal nations in the northwest governed not just land, but water. After the nation gained ownership over the land and water, however, the two were treated as distinct legal entities. Fraga suggested a conception of water as a place of legal emptiness, one where houseboats first served logging camps as shack shelters for workers squatting on public land. However, by the early twentieth century, houseboats became the retreat of the upper middle-class and entered the legal record. By the 1920s, the city was selling underwater parcels of land for houseboats as a mode of funding the Seattle world’s fair, with houseboats ultimately coming to be understood not as squatters in public space but as landed property. Fraga’s work to trace this process of enclosure suggests that houseboats were a legal problem because they were intentionally “caught between two worlds: water and land, personal property and real estate.”

Jessica Cooper, Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University, offered a moving ethnography of her work in mental health courts. Unfortunately, it cannot be captured in a summary paragraph. Still, as others on the panel, she problematized the nature of space, pushing the audience to consider law as jurisdictional space jostling against other types of space. Specifically, Cooper argued for an understanding of jurisdiction that incorporates movement, asking, what would a deterritorialized jurisdiction look like? She cobbled together the past and present life of one of her informants—a homeless client from the mental health court. The client’s transience is made possible through her Prius, which serves as home and ride. She moves daily for safety, residing in different parking lots during the day and night. Her car allows her to search for Percocet and marijuana. But the mental health court cannot match her movement in providing services. Social service provision usually requires an address and cell service. Peripatetic clients of the mental health court are able to slip through the cracks of a service provision and legal system that is rooted in fixed space. Consequently, Cooper suggested that we consider an atmospheric jurisdiction, which might encompass fixed physical space as well as the less grounded aspects of life.

The final panelist, William Voinot-Baron, Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, presented work examining how the rural/non-rural distinction in federal land has functioned as a settler-colonial conception of space, authorizing the displacement of Native communities in Alaska. In short, the state definition of rural rests on an economic definition of fishing and subsistence. However, this state definition is unable to account for the cultural and social elements—Native American customs and traditions—that also constitute rural. These definitions affect collective life as much as they affect individual livelihoods. In his paper, we clearly see what is at stake in rural status. In creating a protection for rural subsistence in Alaska, rather than a protection for native subsistence practices, the viability of Native American lives and communities are dependent on definitions of rural based on population and proximity to urban spaces. In other words, the hows and whos in defining rural matter. To those outside rural areas, population and economics are most important in defining the rural, but to rural residents, cultural elements matter greatly. What Voinot-Baron so insightfully presents here is that a government definition of rural has legitimized settler presence and imagines a Native absence.

Elsa Devienne, a Princeton-Mellon fellow and historian, provided an insightful and thoughtful comment. Although she offered up feedback for individual panelists, her common threads are what struck me most. She observed that the panelists all had to grapple with a construction of Native Americans as absent from nature or rural places, and this was a key site for scholarship. Similarly, in each of the papers, it was urbanites who saw nature and rural places as wasted land—an opportunity to be exploited, and it was urbanites and outsiders who were privileged in their labeling and definition of rural. And finally, Devienne noted that many of the characters in the panel’s papers illustrated the difficulty of the law to retain its power when the object of governance is highly mobile or transient.

The most important comment Devienne made, in my opinion, was her inquiry whether any of these contributions or claims are inherent or unique to studies of rurality. Indeed, she noted, as an urban historian, much of this seems akin to studying places like New York or Los Angeles. For me, this might be a key for future studies of legal ruralism. Historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and other researchers focusing on rural places and people are not just studying dying parts of the country. Research on small places, I believe, is important in its own right, but it also contributes to what we know about urban communities and mainstream culture. Like other studies of place, studies of small and rural communities make use of many of the same methodologies as urban and legal historians. Importantly, what they add, however, is a reminder that the law does not operate equally and in the same way everywhere. Space and place matters, and can complicate how intersections of race, gender, class, and disability affect individuals and communities. By focusing on rural communities, “ruralists” do much more than contribute to a growing body of literature on rural places, they also illuminate how scholarship on everything from the administrative state to capitalism operates differently when viewed from new locations.

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