The critique of settler space is a pressing task in the context of movements for Indigenous justice in settler-colonial societies across the world. My recently awarded PhD thesis contributes to this critique by investigating the historical production of settler space, on the premise that thinking through this project of settler spatial history may help shed light on the contradictions and contours of settler spaces today. It is available to download from the University of Sydney Library here.
What I sought to understand through studying nineteenth-century Sydney was how Indigenous dispossession organises the production of space and how the production of space re-organises ongoing dispossession. For example, the early decades after invasion witnessed serial colonial violence in what Stephen Gapps calls The Sydney Wars, including state-organised massacres, which were the outcome of the colonial seizure of land and nature. Thus, this colonial violence was nested within relations of land, labour, and nature, and set the terms for the production of settler space. In turn, these relations were re-mobilised and transformed over the course of the century alongside mutating settler projects of dispossession.
The historical arc of my argument is bookended by the landing of settlers in 1788, and the colonial violence that ensued, and the centennial celebrations of 1888, which were accompanied by a spate of state activity in shaping urban space. My purpose was not to recapitulate the history of Sydney, as such, but to develop an account of the distinctive production of settler space through a spatial history of this period.
Towards this end, I proposed that we can usefully criticise the production of settler space through a critical reworking of Henri Lefebvre’s account of the production of space, in dialogue with contemporary settler-colonial theory. Lefebvre aimed at a critique of space on the grounds that it was through space that capitalist social relations are sustained. In his words:
Social relations, which are concrete abstractions, have no real existence save in and through space. Their underpinning is spatial.
He goes on to say that analysis of such social relations “must imply and explain a genesis and constitute a critique” of the processes which produce the space in question.
Likewise, a critique of settler space is required because it is through space that settler social relations are sustained. What Lefebvre provides to this task is a geographical and historical materialist account of the production of space: one which is sensitive to the complex layering of space, from the imperial and global to the everyday and local, all of which is piled on top of itself in the tumultuous accumulation of history.
This is borne out in Lefebvre’s project of spatial history, which I argue is fundamental to his critique of space, drawing also from others such as Stuart Elden. For those interested in the conceptual underpinnings of Lefebvre, my thesis sets out the links between his ‘rural sociology’ of the 1950s – where he developed the regressive–progressive method and explored Marx’s theory of ground-rent and landed property – and his later work in The Production of Space. These connections, especially around land and ground-rent, pose some fruitful lines of inquiry into the formation of settler landed property.
At the same time, however, I argue that we need to critically appraise the limits to Lefebvre. As Stefan Kipfer and Kanishka Goonewardena have argued, despite Lefebvre’s criticisms of colonisation, he does not go far enough because his account “does not adequately specify the distinction between different varieties of ‘colonisation’ and their particular forms of determination.” For the critique of settler space, the value of Lefebvre rests in his method and his commitment to an open and fragmented concept of totality, but the specifics of his critique of space need to be reworked in the context of settler-colonialism and the foundational role of dispossession. My thesis provides a critical reconstruction of Lefebvre’s project of spatial history, illuminating both his method and how his key concepts (including the concept of abstract space) are coordinated through a European spatial history.
One distinctive feature of (some, but not all) settler spaces today is the separation of their histories of dispossession from the production of space. On the surface, there is very little that marks out settler spaces as settler or dispossessed Indigenous lands. This separation can be seen in how signifiers of Indigenous history and sovereignty – like some place-names, or signs along walking tracks – almost appear to be on a different spatial plane, so to speak, separated from the circulations of labour and capital, or the markets for land and housing, or the sundry humdrum activities of life. These are part of a liberal politics of recognition that, as Glen Sean Coulthard argues, aims to “reproduce the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend.”
Elaborating how this came about, and its continuity today, requires drawing together the historic moments from which this separation originated, as well as their mutation over time. I explore a crucial originating moment for this separation through a study of the public works and architecture of the Macquarie period (1810–1821). These interventions in the built and natural environment express what I term the logic of devisualisation, evident also in the set image to this blog post by Frederick Garling Jr. of Sydney Cove, or Warrane (1839). Here I refer to the erasure of Aboriginal presence, life, and sovereignty, in the face of their ongoing presence, survival, and resistance. This was predicated on the attempt to consolidate a peculiar moral order of space: one which linked the moral reformation of the convict with relations of land, labour, and nature, and buttressed by colonial violence.
This logic is taken up and reformulated in successive periods of the production of settler space, coordinated through shifting relations of landed property. By turning to a Marxist account of landed property, and drawing on the theory of ground-rent, the thesis offers a set of insights into the materialist dialectics of settler property formation, and how this underpins the mutating production of settler space.
On this point, the thesis advances on critiques of the spatial abstractions of settler societies which address specific state spatial technologies (e.g. surveying) and forms of property title (e.g. Torrens title). Drawing on Lefebvre’s emphasis within the critique of space on underpinning social relations, I follow how the abstraction of landed property was achieved through its internalisation within imperial circuits of capital and, in parallel, with the rising capacity of the settler state to shape the production of space. It was these social relations which impelled the rapid pace of dispossession through the pastoral frontier, and which in turn reshaped the production of settler space within the Sydney Basin.
The upshot of this view is that it enables us to trace how the logic of devisualisation is reformulated through the emergence of settler abstract space. As an example, I explore the making by the settler state of some of Sydney’s oldest parks – Moore and Centennial Parks, amongst others – from their origins as peri-urban commons into emblems of a “civilised” and prosperous city. These projects required complex webs of finance, debt, and rent, and were nested within internal settler struggles over landed property. The outcome was the invocation of an urban aesthetics of nature, inspired by the imperial heartland, and which sought to forge a nativist settler society.
On the whole, the account provided by the thesis is one of settler space as a dynamic system of domination, articulated through specific interests and agents, that creatively reformulates its own conditions as part of its socio-spatial reproduction. By no means is this a unitary or static project or logic: rather, contradictions and tensions internal to settler society abound. The perspective provided by the spatial history developed in this thesis, then, might enable opportunities for the contemporary movement for Indigenous justice to exploit the fractures and interstices of settler spaces.