Territories and States: Lessons on Political Materialism From 17Th-Century France


Chandra Mukerji (1992) ,"Territories and States: Lessons on Political Materialism From 17Th-Century France", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 31-34.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 31-34


Chandra Mukerji, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

Materialism has until recently meant to me (and I suspect many of you) a cultural system acting in the economy, giving goods economic value, affecting their design, and privileging economic reasoning in social relations. I (and many others) have called it the culture of capitalism and traced its diverse manifestations in early modern Europe. To study it, in my first book I focused on material culture and the cultural environment which, during the early modern period, gave those objects now power in the constitution of social life. [Chandra Mukerji, From Graven Images: Patterns of Modem Materialism. Now York: Columbia University Press, 1983.] Recently, I have been forced to expand my view of materialism. In my research on 17th-century French territoriality and my reflections on the meanings and manifestations of territoriality in politics, I have been encouraged to see a new element in the materialist culture of the West: a materialist politics which identifies power with territorial identity and control. In this cultural configuration, a state's territory is a material marker of its reach and power and the site for the development of a national style of material culture. [Chandra Mukerji, "Reading & Writing with Nature: Social Claims and the French Formal Garden". Theory & Society. 19: 651-670, 1990.]

I see territorial politics as deeply tied to the transition to capitalism that developed first and dramatically in one way in 17th-century France. It is an aspect of the culture of capitalism that students of materialism need to understand, even if they come to the subject mainly to analyze economic life. This is because territorial identities affect the development and meanings of material culture and thus have great economic importance. Belonging to a region of the world is often equated with a way of life, meaning a mode of consumption. In my earlier research I paid particular attention to the play between local and international styles of dress and their economic consequences. What I did not notice at the time was that these geographical patterns of fashionable change were predicated on a territoriality that I had taken for granted.

The existence of a special culture of territoriality in early modern Europe is easy to overlook either if one assumes that extant theories of territoriality is a natural feature of human beings or if one believes that private property are adequate for explaining fierce attachments to land. If territorial control is naturalized as a characteristic of primates, we do not need to explain it. But then why does it become such a passionate issue in some times and places but not others? On the other hand, If countries can .own* their territories in much the way individuals can own property, then there is no special political materialism needed to explain territoriality. We can just assume that since the development of capitalism, control and use of land has been at the heart of economic relations, and that political bodies as well as individuals have participated in the same forms of land control. However, private property is not the same as political territory. Both may have roots in a sense of ownership, but the conditions of ownership are quite distinct. With political territoriality, the person belongs to the land as much as the land belongs to the person. When people are defined as French, or British or American, they are given an ascribed, rather than an achieved, identity. People can hold a political identity -even if they do not want it - just for living in an area.

In looking at the growth of territoriality in 17th-century France, I came to see it as a cultural form that bridged elements of feudal and capitalist culture, associating people with their location to the land in a quasi4eudal manner, but giving the land and its control new meaning within a culture of measurement and engineering which was associated with capitalist development. By the middle of the 17th century, the political significance of marking borders is striking in France. Territorial disputes along the borders became political tests that Louis XIV used to assert his military prowess; he became a surprisingly legitimate ruler at a young age in part because of his success in gaining control over contested border areas and claiming them in the name of the French state. Later when he wrote in his memoirs notes to his son about how to rule, he wrote almost exclusively about international politics and the way to position France within it by selectively waging wars with others. Of particular importance to him were countries which shared a border with France. In order to guard the borders that he held, he had Vauban develop a vast system of fortress cities around France - an early Maginot line. This obsession with territorial marking and control was not just a peculiarity of the king. Other French military leaders were equally interested in territorial thinking, as we can see from the maps they commissioned and collected throughout the century. They decorated walls with maps, laying them alongside murals of battles (at chateaux like Chantilly and Versailles), and they had constructed wonderfully elaborate models of towns and fortresses that could be used for strategic planning. French surveyors wrote books for elite audiences to teach the application of triangulation techniques for warfare. At the end of that century, the government contracted for a great national survey to be made to lay claim to and embody the territorial reach of the French state. The techniques of land control obsessed the court during Louis XlVs reign. [Louis XIV, Meirricires do Louis )UV, dcrits par lui-mime, composds pour Is grand dauphin, son gils, at adress4s a ce prince. J.I-M. do Gain-Montagnac, ad. Paris: Garnery, 1806; Joseph Konvitz, Cartography in France, 1660-1848. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, ch. 1; see Roux. See also Michel Parent and Jacques Verroust, Vauban. Paris: Editions Jacquaes Freal, 1971; M. Picaird, Trait@ du Nivellement. Paris: Estionne Michallet, 1964; Sebastian Le Clerc, Practique do la goometrie sur is papier and sur is terrain. Paris: chez Thomas Jolly, 1669.]

In an odd way, one of the clearest (albeit not immediately obvious) expressions of the new political interest in land in the period lay with the massive gardens that began to be constructed around the great royal chateaux of France. The gardens in 117th-century France grow dramatically in size and cultural importance. They became highly articulated and deeply structured forms, emerging from chateaux as quasi-architectural features and continuing along pathways and beyond sculpted masses of trees toward the horizon. They delineated living spaces and ceremonial stages beyond the walls of buildings; they constituted a site for an aristocratic way of life that linked social standing to territorial control and the accumulation of property. It seemed that buildings in this historical moment were no longer large enough or complex enough for the now cultural possibilities of the age. Something more was needed to contain the sculpture, fountains, and plants; a bigger stage was required for the elaborate Was (or even frequent but modest promenades or hunting parties) that were part of court ceremonial life. Land itself needed attention and celebration, requiring ingenious decorative strategies and engineering feats, and embodying new visions of natural order. Enormous energy and passion were harnessed to bring together garden designers, gardeners, trees, shrubs, sculptures and water systems to facilitate a massive restructuring of hills and valleys. This kind of activity seemed so important that Louis XIV began building the great gardens at Versailles before he began expanding the chateau there.  [The chateau at Versailles was being only slightly modified when Le Notre started important work in the gardens. The famous first fete at Versailles took place before major renovations made the chateau large enough to function as the center of court life. William Howard Adams, The French Garden, New York: George Braziller, 1979, pp. 79-80; H. Franklin Hazlehurst, Gardens of Illusion. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1980, pp. 59-64; Guy Walton, Louis X(V's Versailles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. ; Alfred Marie, Nascence do Versailles. Paris: Editions Vincent, Fral, at Cie., 1968, pp.26-27.] Why was this the case? The growth of territoriality and its association with capitalism provide an answer.


The political culture of France at the point of French state-formation and territorial self-reflection clearly needed redefinition in the 17th century precisely because of the growth of capitalism. Capitalist successes were potential threats to traditional politics since feudal political culture rested on the legitimacy of a hierarchy that was undermined by the use of wealth over status to claim power. Most legitimate social power was still centered at court and depended at least in part on religious sanction of noble power, but as financiers became essential to court treasuries, this traditional religiously-based political culture was placed in jeopardy. A now one was needed to make sense of a court that was as dependent on bourgeois wealth as on noble power. Moreover, this culture had to justify simultaneously noble privilege and social mobility through wealth.  [Ranum, particularly, ch. 12. For the thesis that financiers were recruited into a quite feudal culture of statecraft than most histories suggest, see Julian Dent, Crisis in France: Crown, Financiers, and Society in 17th-Century France. New York: St. Martin's, 1973, introduction.]

A solution to the problem that became prevalent in 17th-century France was to extend aristocratic titles to the powerfully wealthy. Early in the century, the state turned to selling estates and titled offices in order to raise money, particularly for war; this practice provided a means for bourgeois social mobility, while serving the military ambitions of the nobility. This kind of bourgeois mobility into the aristocracy was greater in France than elsewhere in Europe, making the mix of class cultures in the French court particularly rich and problematic. [Perry Anderson says that in the 1620s, 38% of the state's income came from the sale of offices. See p. 94.] There the practice of selling titles to bourgeois elites was so extensive it called into question traditional ideas of political legitimacy.  [For descriptions of this mobility in France, see Anderson, pp. 94-95; see also John Locke, Locke's Travels in France. J. Lough, ad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953, pp. 154, 164-7. The problems of legitimacy raised by these practices, albeit in an earlier period, are documented in LeRoy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans. New York: George Braziller, 1979.] Buying iand and offices to enter the aristocracy, then, undermined feudal bases for aristocratic privilege while also giving land and the bureaucracies new importance in defining social location.

While noble power was partially discredited by these practices, bourgeois culture could not gain ascendency because wealth itself could not legitimate political power. The nobility remained the sanctioned carrier of power. Wealth might make some people necessary political actors, but, during the Fronde, for example, the financiers of Paris were not able to assert themselves over the Crown - even with the support of key nobles. The Crown could not live without the financiers, but neither could the financiers extend their power without the blessing of the Crown because they did not have the legitimacy to rule an their own.  [See Ranum on the Frondeurs, ch. 10.]

Colbert's solution to the problem (derived from Mazarin's earlier moves) was to concentrate power and legitimacy within the state: a political institution outside the hands of both the traditional nobles and new merchant/financier elite. [Anderson, pp. 94-101. For a brief but useful discussion of Colbert's relationship to Mazarin, see Ins Murat, Colbert. Cook and Asseit, trans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984, ch.3. For his role in constructing the French state, see Murat, ch. 6.] This system of state power was a form of political culture used to promote capitalist development and yet contain the political disruptions resulting from it. This highly centralized and interventionist state was a political actor that had the legitimacy of the aristocracy and the economic mission of a capitalist institution. The state then took over activities that had been sources of power for the nobility and bourgeoisie. The state no longer derived its military power from the nobility, but developed a professional army. And the state took control of many forms of manufacture and most international trade, no longer depending for economic development on bourgeois financiers. Instead, both nobles and bourgeoise were pressed to seek their power through the state, and provided economic and military support for that state. This state became a now kind of vehicle for political action, containing and exploiting bourgeois economic ambition and feudal authority. The resulting state entered into capitalist competition on the world scale and tried to make a capitalist economy serve the state. In this way, the state contained the politico- economic conflicts within French society brought to life by market forces which were creating strains within the French elits. [Anderson, p. 100; Norbert Bias, The Court Society. New York: Pantheon, [1969] 1983.] The result was a peculiarly French way of integrating the bourgeoisie and the nobility, the market and feudal relations. Bits of market culture entered the world of the French court, not as a threat to the king or his legitimacy, but as a way to enrich and empower his reign through the state.


The political territoriality that developed in France in the period was the culture that made sense (naturalized) this now configuration of power. It was an effective cultural system because it was simultaneously a form of material practice and a means of political representation. We tend to think of territoriality as a state of mind, a way of feeling about a portion of land, but the territoriality that developed in 17th-century France was, first of all, a form of material practice, a way of acting on the land that helped to make it seem like France. Land was politically mobilized as territory in the period using engineering skills to reshape it and, in the process, to alter its meaning. Land was measured and fitted within the languages of maps so it could be carried on pieces of paper and make a public image; it was marked and bounded with military fortresses so its breadth would be visible and its relation to state power tangible; and it was suffused with humanly engineered waterways and roadways that gave it internal orderliness and tied it to an economic rationality that was also associated with the state. In all these ways and more, defining state territory for France and making it useful for the state was an activity, not the consequence of a propaganda campaign but the result of a now way of life in which the state intervened in the landscape and gave it now form. Land was not just seen in a now way in the 17th century; it was handled differently, and this made it represent simultaneously a new materialism and new political trajectory. [This view of culture as a material practice comes from anthropology through science studies where making the "world" through material practice is seen as the central activity of scientists. See Bruno Latour's work, particularly Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press, 1988.]

What were the manipulations orchestrated by the state and what were their role in building political identity? A central one was the development of the first professional military. This was a crucial change for the political life of France and its relationship to land. Politically, this move had profound meaning. Traditionally, noble families based their political strength on the feudal tradition that defined them as a military elite, centering their relationship with the crown around a pledge of military support for the king. The king's power rested on their support, and their power was sustained by their special access to the king and his land-holdings. Once members of the military were in the paid employ of the state, the military might of the king no longer depended on the support of the aristocracy. And once the military force 'belonged' to the state rather than the king, it became an impersonal force, not part of reciprocal social relations. The purpose of territorial warfare now was to increase the power not of the king but of the state. Land was "controlled" when it could serve that state, and the military's job was to secure this kind of control. Vauban took the mission extremely seriously. He was a vigorous and visionary military engineer, who developed a series of fortified cities around the borders of France to secure them. He studied theories of fortification, using models from the "ideal city" tradition but modifying the walls, using Italian ideas, to make them withstand cannonballs. He built his fortresses primarily on rivers or the sea, so he could integrate canal systems into the elaborately connected sets of wails used for fortresses. The engineeiring of these designs was extraordinary, and the display of control over land achieved in them was quite dramatic. These edifices were not made as symbolic displays; they were meant as practical defenses for state territory. They were a place to house and use the standing army, keeping closer control simultaneously over the soldiers and the territory of France. But they also marked the land in a now way. They brought the representative of central administration to the far reaches of the state, and they symbolized state power there in a tangible manner. Both soldiers and fortresses were part of a material culture of the state, belonging to everyone and no one at the same time, and laying political claim to the land. [See Parent and Varroust.]

While the military had a dramatic and central role in the transformation of the land which mobilized it as a controlled and available resource for the state, it was not the only source of territorial change and identity. The growth of state-sponsored industry was another important and interestingly different source of French identity. While the military might measure, rationalize, and draw boundaries on the land, commercial activities started to define a distinctively French culture on that territory that helped locate it within the world of international commerce and politics.

It is less obvious but rather arresting- to realize that one area of commercial change in the period that helped in the long -run to etch national differences was plant cultivation and its effects on patterns of agriculture, marketing, cooking and eating. Through the plant trade, the development of market gardening, and agricultural experimentation France gained a reputation in Europe as a leader in plant cultivation. The French court was actively involved in the plant trade and experiments in market gardening, bringing new kinds of foodstuff to the king's table and exotic plants to his gardens. Because French market gardeners and the court gardens together were able to produce better fruits and vegetables and earlier ones than their counterparts in many other parts of Europe, foreign gardeners and plant collectors made trips to France to learn their secrets and buy some of their plants. French gardeners and plant collectors also wrote numerous books on their areas of expertise which affected cultivation patterns in France and also presented French gardening as a distinctive tradition to people elsewhere. [Pierre Morin, Catailogue do quolques plantes a flours qui son do prsent au jardin do Pierre Morin /a joune, dit troisiame, fieurist scitue au fauborg Saint Germain proche la Charft. Paris Franois Le Cointe, 1651; Pierre Morin, Catalogue do quolques plantes a fluers. (second edition) Paris: Franols Le Cointe, 1655; Pierre Morin, Romarques nocessaims; pour la culture des Fluers, Difigement observe par P. Morin. Paris: Charles do Sorcy, 1658 (in which he distinguishes between plants for pleasure gardens and those for collectors'gardens); Pierre Morin, Instruction Facile pour connoitre foutes sorfes d1brangers at citronniors. Paris: Charles do Sorcy, 1680; Oliver do Serres, Le theatre d'agriculture at mesnages. Geneve: Mat Hiev Berjon, 1611, (Serres was one of the earliest proponents of putting plants under glass. Fie specifically advocated the use of cioches or bell jars for melons and cucumbers. He also saw his work as serving the economic development of estates in particular and of France in general. See section 6 on the jardin potager); Joan Laurent, Abr6g6 pour les arbres nain at autres. Paris: Charles Sercy, 1675; Dom Claude S. Estionne, Nouvelle instruction pour connoistre Jos bons fruits selon lea mois de I'anne. Paris: Charles Sorcy, 1687.] The French landscape was in modest and local forms restructured by the now French methods of plant cultivation. A flourishing business in market gardening developed around the outskirts of Paris, creating a kind of greenbelt beyond the city wails and serving the urban population there.

In an interesting way, the shift in vegetable and fruit growing led to the development of a distinctive French cuisine. The head of the king's kitchen garden, La Quintinie, helped establish what came to be known as French bourgeois cuisine to make best use of his prize agricultural products. He was noted for his ability to grow early vegetables and to stimulate fruits or vegetables from other ecosystems to bear in France. He felt the rare foods he grow should be savoured and appreciated for their own flavors and not thrown into a stew pot filled with different meats and lots of spices. This tendency to differentiate flavors and make individual ones stand out came to be identified with a distinctively bourgeois form of French cooking. Regional specialties did not die out with the growth of this cuisine, nor did some great traditional amalgams (like cassoulet) lose their rich mix of flavors, but what became the identifiably French way of treating ingredients to enhance their distinctiveness came from this impulse to make the best use of the court's superior produce. Again, in this case, transformations of the land and its use helped to produce an element of national identity, not through any overt claims about what would make the French different, but through material practices that made people defined as French come to share a common sense of propriety in the cultivation and use of produce.

With the case of the explicitly state-sponsored industries set up by Colbert, we can got an even clearer picture of how a distinctively French style was derived from state intervention to the economy. Lace manufacture provides an interesting example. in order to give France greater competitive placement in the international lace trade, Colbert set up industrial enterprises for lace making under the state. He placed these in areas where there had been regional traditions of lace-making so there would be a skilled labor force available for the purpose, but he did not hire people to make traditional lace. He presented them with examples of fashionable Italian lace, and gave them the job of trying to make something like it. The result was a now style of lace. It was not typical of any region of France; it was not Italian. It was just French, a creature of the French state's intervention in the economy. A strong French style was woven from local resources by state-sponsored activity to address an international culture. [Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism. Herndon, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1964, Vol. 11, ch. 11.]

A similar pattern can be seen in French fashion during the period. Through the 17th century, French modes of dress moved from Italian models to distinctively French ones which were not descendants of regional styles of dress. They depended heavily on the new kinds of cloth and lace being supported through state industry so, in that sense alone, they were very French. But they also had a French look. They seemed almost an advertisement for these new French products. They reappropriated and restyled scarves and ruffles that had regional roots in France. Within the court and in the styles of dress the king sanctioned, there emerged a new phenomenon: a style of dress that could be called nothing else but French.  [Cole, chs. 10 & 11; Mukerji, ch. 5.]

In sum then, through military interventions in the world of material culture, land was mobilized in the 17th-century to represent the reach and power of the French state: a French territory was born with articulated boundaries set by the military and an internal cohesion derived from commercial enterprise. The state's now political and economic institutions produced not only new systems of power and ways of conducting economic life, but also a political identity tied to a material culture that made it tangible to different parts of France and the world. The French state was increasingly less just a political site that people could hear about and more a national phenomenon that they could see in fortresses, canals, border skirmishes, manufacturing centers, clothes or food. In the process, a new kind of collective life was being born in the common ground that was the state's material dimension.


It is easy to naturalize territoriality and assume that the culture of capitalism does not reach beyond the marketplace, but the French ca suggests that the elevation of the economic sphere in a capitalist society may give rise to a now way of doing politics as well as economics, one in which the material dimension of power, control over clearly delineated and marked land, is central. To the extent that state legitimacy rests on material practices, it necessarily feeds back into the economic sphere and ends up having consequences for the marketplace. French cooking, French fashion, French plant trading, and French engineering used for building roads, constructing fortresses and controlling water in canals all entered into the French economy while also defining a French identity. French material identity itself also affected the market. The European fashion for French goods that lasted through Louis XlVs reign to the late 17th century was centered on the now products of French industry that were not traditionally regional but used regional techniques/looks for addressing an international market. So, in the end, the growth of materialist politics in France is important to recognize both for the way that it made territoriality central to modern politics and for the way that it brought state-level cultural identities to the world of goods and their meanings in the marketplace.



Chandra Mukerji, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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