What does it mean to belong, and consequently, to belong no more? In the myriad ways in which belonging is sown into imagination and law, from claims of lineage to property, one significant path is how the ideas of self are related to land. In the late nineteenth century, the British colonial government embarked on developing a new “cotton belt” in the southern Sindh desert (now in Pakistan). This was an ambitious enterprise, seeking to counter the dwindling supply of U.S. cotton after the Civil War by cutting expansive canals, halfway across the world, on flat desert land. Yet its improbability turned not on ambitious engineering schemes, but in its attempt to change the meaning of land and belonging. Entire villages (my family’s amongst them) were transplanted from the north to the desert along new canals to not only grow new crops but also to undercut the political power of local pirs (saints) by displacing their followers. As rebellions ensued over half a century, brutally suppressed each time, we see competing ways of giving meaning to land in and through depth take shape. Silt, dust, bodies, all appear as correlates of land in their depth. Scottish engineers tweak coefficients to claim keeping a silt particle afloat in the depths of the new canals. Rebel horsemen hide in dust storms to move invisibly through army strongholds. Widows swallow land deeds to disrupt transfer of property. In charting these stories of settlement and displacement, I would argue in this talk that in theaters of belonging and displacement, it is not just the regimes of surface and visibility—maps, property, systems of taxation and water distribution—that determine legitimacy, but modes of giving meaning to depth. Depth figures as an epistemology of the hidden, enabling invisible continuities between land and the various selves that seek to inhabit it.
Ijlal Muzaffar is an associate professor of Modern Architectural History in the Theory and History of Art and Design department and graduate program director of the MA in Global Arts and Cultures program at RISD. His work has appeared widely in edited volumes, biennale catalogues and peer-reviewed journals. He is a founding member of the architectural history research collaborative and publishing platform Aggregate. His first book, The Periphery Within: Modern Architecture and the Making of the Third World (University of Texas Press: forthcoming, 2022) looks at how modern architects and planners played a critical role in shaping the discourse on Third World development and its associated structures of power after World War II. Muzaffar is a visiting professor at Columbia GSAPP in Fall 2022.