Governmentality, the Grid, and the Beginnings of a Critical Spatial History of the Geo-coded World

Open Access
Rose-Redwood, Reuben Skye
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 10, 2006
Committee Members:
  • Melissa Wright, Committee Member
  • James P Mc Carthy, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Daniel Leonhard Purdy, Committee Member
  • Jeremy S Packer, Committee Member
  • Foucault
  • street and house numbering
  • geo-coded world
  • grid
  • governmentality
  • critical spatial history
  • urban historical geography
  • Marxian geography
  • political economy
  • New York City
In many cities and towns throughout the world today, the numbering of houses has become such a commonplace practice of local government that its everydayness makes it hard for urban inhabitants to even imagine living without these inscriptions that make up the abstract spaces of everyday life. Yet, as a spatial practice, house numbering is a comparatively recent phenomenon, which did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century. So taken-for-granted has the house number become that few geographers have examined the history of house numbering from a critical perspective. This is particularly surprising given the recent interest in understanding the intersecting “axes” of knowledge, power, and the production of space. Drawing upon extensive archival research, this study brings together the theoretical insights of governmentality studies and Marxian geography to explore the history of house numbering in U.S. cities and towns in general while also providing a case study of the spatial politics of street and house numbering in New York City. I argue that the ordering of space was a key strategy to contain the dialectical processes of capitalist urbanization within the fixed order of logic and number. The project of numbering houses was often first proposed not by municipal officials but by the publishers of city directories to facilitate conducting a privately-financed door-to-door “census.” I argue that the house number and city directory were two of the most important “technologies” of spatial individualization in nineteenth-century urban America, and that one of the principal goals of rationalizing space was, in fact, the economization of time. I further suggest that examining the construction of such a “spatial regime of inscriptions” should be central to a critical spatial history of the “geo-coded world.” The purpose of such an analysis is not to reduce politics to the technical. Just the opposite, it is to provide the analytical tools necessary for illustrating that the technical itself has a politics, which opens the possibility of viewing the realm of the technical as a potential site of democratic struggle and contestation instead of a restricted domain of depoliticization.