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16th Annual Edward Said Lecture- Brenna Bhandar: Cultivating the Soil : Use, Improvement and the Colonial Conditions of our Present

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Location: via Zoom

“Cultivating the Soil: Use, Improvement and the Colonial Conditions of our Present”

Cultivation would come to function, throughout the British colonial world, as a justification for the appropriation of indigenous lands. Narrowly defined by a political imaginary of private ownership and market exchange, cultivation was intimately tied to an ideology of improvement. The ideology of improvement bound together the twin ideas that land not cultivated was legitimately open for appropriation, and that its inhabitants required civilizational improvement so they too could enjoy the fruits of possessive individualism. This use of the concept of improvement to impose private property relations where they did not previously exist, in conjunction with a racial order of white supremacy, is captured by the term “racial regimes of ownership”. Indigenous lands, urban environments – designated as potentially ripe for appropriation and investment – continue to be laid waste by neoliberal property logics that privilege extraction and exploitation over use. This comes at the expense of myriad forms of life, in a moment of intensified speculative accumulation that has land at its centre.

Brenna Bhandar’s primary research has centred on the colonial foundations of modern law, taking property (broadly conceived) as its main focus. This research culminated in the publication of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Duke University Press, 2018), which excavates the co-emergence of racial subjectivities and modern property law in various settler colonies. She examines how from the 18th century onwards, prevailing concepts of race and racial difference, understood as always gendered in ways specific to each context, were forged in conjunction with economic ideologies that rendered race contingent on particular forms of labour and property relations – captured by the term “racial regimes of ownership.”


Dr. Bhandar has published widely in the areas of critical legal theory, sovereignty and indigenous rights, contemporary disputes over ownership and property rights, amongst other themes. Brenna takes a fundamentally transdisciplinary approach to her research, and draws upon critical race and feminist theory, critical indigenous studies scholarship, post-colonial theory, political philosophy and legal history.

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