Law and Critique

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 87–108 | Cite as

Smoke, Curtains and Mirrors: The Production of Race Through Time and Title Registration

  • Sarah Keenan


This article analyses the temporal effects of title registration and their relationship to race. It traces the move away from the retrospection of pre-registry common law conveyancing and toward the dynamic, future-oriented Torrens title registration system. The Torrens system, developed in early colonial Australia, enabled the production of ‘clean’, fresh titles that were independent of their predecessors. Through a process praised by legal commentators for ‘curing’ titles of their pasts, this system produces indefeasible titles behind its distinctive ‘curtain’ and ‘mirror’, which function similarly to magicians’ smoke and mirrors by blocking particular realities from view. In the case of title registries, those realities are particular histories of and relationships with land, which will not be protected by property law and are thus made precarious. Building on interdisciplinary work which theorises time as a social tool, I argue that Torrens title registration produces a temporal order which enables land market coordination by rendering some relationships with land temporary and making others indefeasible. This ordering of relationships with land in turn has consequences for the human subjects who have those relationships, cutting futures short for some and guaranteeing permanence to others. Engaging with Renisa Mawani and other critical race theorists, I argue that the categories produced by Torrens title registration systems materialise as race.


Colonialism Land Race Time Title registration Torrens 



Enormous thanks to the careful reading, feedback and support I have received in writing this paper. Particular thanks to Nadine El-Enany for detailed comments on several drafts. Also to Emily Grabham, Nick Piska, Katie Cruz, Renisa Mawani, Shelley Bielefeld, Shiri Pasternak, Lucy Finchett-Maddock and anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts. All errors are mine alone.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawBirkbeck, University of LondonLondonUK

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