Neo-pastoralist imagery of Kenya’s agricultural transformation constitutes an aesthetic semiosis of sorts, but the landscape is simultaneously encoded through nonsemiotic means, through a calculus of risk absorption. Swynnerton justified his application for development funds in terms of both its politically stabilizing effects and its economic output, outlining the precise crop yields and revenues to result from this investment. If previously Kenyans had managed risk in part through semiotic performance and ritual (through oath-taking, for example, as argued by Robert Blunt), an agrarian capitalist regime of risk calculation was to be backed by land as guarantor. Semiotic pledges of responsibility were displaced by another form of presumed fidelity: fidelity to the soil through proper stewardship of its productive nature, a task requiring private ownership and enlightened agricultural methods as its basis.
Soil has long served as collateral against the speculation of capital, tethering the latter’s vicissitudes back to a reassuringly solid anchor. Perhaps for this reason, inter alia, land was crucial to the European discourse of nationality that emerged concomitantly with the rise of capitalism. According to the eighteenth-century Physiocrat François Quesnay and his disciple, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, landownership as a form of political rule was the only way to guarantee a politics invested in the general interest of the nation. Political power had long been derived from control of land and labor, but this relationship received a distinct articulation in Physiocratic doctrine in three respects: first, in Turgot’s recommendation for a “juste distribution des voix,” which would apportion votes according to a landlord’s yearly rent; second, in Turgot’s claim that, through this national voting structure, the monarch would be excused from directly legislating on all matters, allowing him to instead “govern like God, according to general laws”; and third (anticipating Carothers), by designating “the village” as the basic unit of national governance, whose interests would be represented by landlords. In other words, the divine right of kings could be supplanted by a system of natural of law linked to the ownership of soil.
Although presaging the demise of divine monarchial right, this conception of parliamentary legislation still conserved the magico-religious element of divine right. Turgot offered little explanation of why votes should be premised on land ownership, beyond an unsubstantiated assumption that to own land was to be deeply invested in the welfare of the nation and its people. It appears, within the context of Physiocratic thought, that the natural laws operative in the terrestrial world are magically transposed from land to landlord, conferring to the latter the right and responsibility to govern the earth and its human and nonhuman processes. The landlord’s ability to ventriloquize the natural law of the land presupposes an affluence of voix (designating both “vote” and “voice”) as an instrument of power.
As noted, Physiocratic doctrine was far from unique in linking sovereigntyto the management of land. Among countless such examples, it has been widely noted that for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Kikuyu society, acquiring land was a constituent part of males’ passage into adulthood, enabling them to marry and assume the responsibilities of a patriarch. The land shortages caused by settler colonialism did not only materially impoverish many Kikuyu, they also created an epidemic of prolonged adolescence for young men deprived of the responsibilities of adulthood. It is likely that the KCA literacy campaign had an important function in this respect, as literacy provided a different path to adulthood, as it redirected a crucial instrument of colonialism toward purposes of decolonization.
It should be recalled that at various points in the history of Euro-America’s first national republics, landownership and literacy numbered among the basic qualifications for political suffrage. The very term “suffrage,” formerly referring to intercessory prayers, was strongly suggestive of pastoral power, indicating the right to speak on behalf of others, essentially so as to save them from themselves. While it made sense in some respects for a republic of letters to premise political rights on a person’s ability to parse newspapers, pamphlets, and books, the additional stipulation of landownership argues for a different interpretation of the linking of suffrage and literacy. Just as Physiocrats’ mystification of nature made landownership into a form of imperial subjectivity enabling landlords to speak for others, so literacy requirements bespoke a privileged form of semiotic subjectivity enabling the literate to ventriloquize the nature inhering to the nonlettered, anthropological remainder of humanity. The landless are relegated to muteness because they are landless, and they are condemned to landlessness because they are deemed mute: lacking, that is, the semiotic self-consciousness required of political thought.