Ten thoughts about possession

1. People don’t actually own anything.

2. Ownership of land may seem obvious to us, but it wasn’t to American Indians. They thought they were selling usufruct rights. And given that one can own surface rights without owning subsurface rights, possession of land can become effectively mooted by the conversion of soil into “overburden” to be scraped away and dumped elsewhere.

3. Possession is inherently ephemeral – and again, the law reflects this. Eminent domain provides for the use of property for the “public good,” though that concept can mutate almost beyond recognition. Most new highways, for example, will not do the land or the public any long-term good. And in some parts of the country, it’s becoming an accepted practice for local governments to condemn private property and turn it over to real estate speculators – with the justification that, for example, private residences do not constitute the “highest and best use” of land in cases where retail or industry might be more profitable and would return higher tax revenues. In times of war, virtually any private property may be seized for any reason. Finally, the existence of inheritance and estate taxes (an indirect subsidy of real estate speculators and private contractors) suggests that the privacy of property is little more than a useful fiction; everything ultimately belongs to Uncle Sam.

4. Do we own ourselves? Clearly not. There is no constitutionally recognized right to privacy. The government can institute a draft at any time, which means it retains the ultimate power of life or death over its citizens, despite what the Bill of Rights may say. Even more tellingly, it’s a crime to kill yourself, and a crime to kill others unless you are in uniform and following orders from the government. (Very few murders by police are ever prosecuted. And the U.S. government goes to great lengths to ensure that its soldiers may not be prosecuted by any international court for crimes committed while in uniform.) We do not own our own freedom: we cannot engage in so-called victimless crimes, such as ingesting certain banned substances. Given that the main reason for banning these substances appears to be societal discomfort with the alteration of the consciousness, we must conclude that our minds are not free, either. And individual liberty of movement – what imprisonment robs ones of – seems intrinsic to self-ownership. (If imprisonment were recognized as a form of slavery, the United States would probably be the world’s second-largest slaveholding society, right after China.)

5. Are there any limits to possession? How you answer this question depends on whether you believe anything can truly be known. If even an idea can be copyrighted or trademarked, nothing is safe. Consider that access to drinking water is being privatized around the globe. In Texas, an entire underground aquifer is owned outright. And life forms can now be patented – a blasphemous notion if there ever was one! Probably only the fear of adverse publicity prevents someone like Monsanto or Microsoft from patenting the human genome.

6. Are there any historical precedents for reversing categories of ownership once they have been admitted? Yes. At one time, it was assumed that owners of land had full rights to everything on it. Then market hunters wiped out wildlife populations in large sections of the East. Now, game species are recognized as being held in common, by the citizens at large. Endangered species and migratory birds are subject to national and international regulation respectively. Under the Clean Water Act, the regulation of wetlands belongs to the federal government. The animal rights movement seeks to extend legal recognition to nonhuman species; the wildlands movement advocates recognition of the self-willed (“wild”) and self-owned qualities of the land itself.

7. What does it mean to own something? If legal titles can be revoked – or voided by the overthrow of governments – then surely we must look beyond the law. “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” This implies that if/when the concept of possession is universally recognized as illusory and absurd, the practice of law will wither. What will remain? Without ownership – which is to say, without unique and unequal privileges to the earth’s bounty and to products of human labor – what promises would still be so critical that people might need special protection against their violation? Murder, incest and rape would not stop being wrong; what would likely fade is the societal appetite for retributive justice, once these types of crimes were no longer seen as crimes against a form of property.

8. What does it mean to be possessed? I venture to suggest that possession inevitably entails abuse, to owner as well as to the thing owned. There may well have been one or two benevolent slaveholders in the Old South, but human nature being what it is, I doubt there were many more than that. Because, in the first place, what is possession? I maintain that, at one level, Possession is the power to do with another anything we wish. This definition strikes me as perhaps little more than one half of a tautology, however, because power and possession do seem to be two sides of the same coin. Can we understand possession apart from power, or power apart from possession? Only if the self/other distinction can be dissolved through various forms of ecstasy (including death).

9. Wouldn’t complete self-sufficiency also render the need for power over others obsolete? The need, perhaps, but not the reality. The reality is that we are all completely interdependent. This points to a second, more basic definition of possession: it is a human, cultural abstraction of bodily consumption. The violent assimilation of foreign matter into one’s own body for conversion into energy and waste products is unavoidable. As we consume, so shall we be consumed. In this light, Death appears as the ultimate owner. But paradoxically, in death we also sense the potential for self-transcendence. In rebelling against the authority of death, we determine to live in truth – whatever that means. Every culture, every language grapples with this problem a little differently. In the West, we have traditionally talked about grace and about love. Both concepts partake of the aura of the gift.

10. This, I would argue, is what lies at the root of human experience: the intuition of mortal being/becoming as a gift. Power and possession, I suggest, are much more recent abstractions. To become fully aware is to recognize one’s own incommensurability with that portion of life and time one has been granted. Without such an awareness, the relationship between self and Self will begin to resemble the relationship between two parties in an economic transaction. Priests assert ownership over gods, gods assert ownership (“possession”) over priests. This may be inevitable. But it is a mask; and behind that mask lies the leering death’s head. The unadorned truth seems to be that from the beginning everything shines with its own light. Beauty, like truth, is intrinsic – which is another way of saying that things or beings ultimately resist all forms of calculation or manipulation. Consumption in the beginning is an innocent act; only when we cling to forms – when we try to possess things – does life appear tragic.

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