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Sand to Land


Conference panel exploring how legal thought leaves its imprint on the sand by turning it into land. During the Middle Ages and the first years of the “invention of America,” there were some passages from Roman Law that were debated time and again. In them, the legislators mentioned that it was rather infrequent that a new island appeared in the middle of the sea, but not so rare that a new island appeared in the middle of a river. Whether the island emerges in the middle of the sea, or in the middle of the river, the questions raised are equally important: Who is their owner? What is their legal status? What are the legal fictions that govern legal thought about them? How did that erase the traces of men who used to practice the space of those particular beaches, only to be replaced with new ones? How does legal thought articulate theoretical languages, concepts, ideas of the common, about those emerging lands? What is the place of fertility in this legal questioning?

Sand to land is the title of the panel I organized for the Babel Working Group Biennale, at the University of California, Santa Barbara 1. My fellow co-panelists were Simone Pinet (Cornell University), Bruno Bosteels (Cornell University), and Seth Kimmel (Columbia University). Our session was scheduled for October 17th, 2014, 11:30-12:30.

Each intervention needs to be rather short. I will be talking about “Wandering Islands“, which is an image inspired from the myriad islands that seem to be floating Eastwards in Jafudá and Abraham Cresques’s Atlas Català of 13752. This image allows me to interrogate another important treatise on islands, Bartolo de Sassoferrato’s De Insula. In this treatise, he discusses a legal consideration from Digest 41, 1, 7, 3-4 about the emergence of new islands either in the middle of the sea (quod raro accidit) or in the middle of a river (quod frequenter accidit)3.

Bartolo includes this treatise in the company of others that deal with fluid deposits, alluvium, or rivers. He suggests a new way to look at the whole question, based on mathematics (in particular geometry and trigonometry), thus acting as a quite original political idiot. It is evident that the relevance of this question is not only related to Bartolo’s 14th Century, but also extremely important for the discussions in the escuela de Salamanca during the early 16th century, for those other included in the 1555 edition of the Siete Partidas and all the subsequent editions, or for those raised by early modern political scientists like Grotius in his 1609 Mare Liberum.

I will engage in a conversation with different scholars and theorist, but mainly with scholars who are friends, like Simone Pinet, Seth Kimmel, or Dan Nemser.

Finally, what I intend to do is to delve into the processes whereby emerging sand becomes land, and what are the cultural and political consequences of these processes4.

Last Updated 3 years ago


Jesús R. Velasco, « Sand to Land », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on October 3, 2014. Full URL for this article

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