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September 26, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 2

II. Control Of Your Property
The United States of America is a very property-oriented society. It is a global advocate for market-driven capitalism, promoting the dream of achieving personal luxury through innovative business. We have many laws in place to protect the possessions that a citizen accumulates -- and many lawsuits pursuing enforcement.

A word needs to be said here about distribution of wealth in the U.S.. I have no complaint about protecting ownership rights -- I've yet to hear a truly compelling argument for the abolition of private property, and see a number of ways in which owning things (one's body, clothes, books, home) protects individuals' well being. However, I'm deeply troubled by the disparity in how much stuff different people own -- the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Where does extreme wealth come from? And how just is inheritance? Without actually labeling myself a socialist (yet), I have to say that I favor placing some kind of upper limit on how much money a person can earn, and making some sort of safety net that places a lower limit on poverty. On a personal level, I eagerly await a well-reasoned proposal for how people of conscience ought to go about redistributing their assets, independent of a change in government. That said, I will set aside the question of how people come to possess what they own, and proceed on this philosophical exploration of property with the presumption that uncontested claims of ownership are legitimate.

In the U.S. it is generally recognized -- socially and legally -- that it is the right of the individual to control their property. This right borders on the absolute; attempts by government or citizen agencies to intrude on this privacy tend to elicit the strongest kind of outrage. Control of a thing means being able to change or maintain its current condition according to one's will. Let's consider what this means in some detail.

(1) Permission to touch. You are not allowed to (not supposed to) physically touch anything I own without my permission. This is a rule riddled with exceptions based on social norms and intimacy: it is accepted that strangers may knock on your door, and a guest in your home is expected to take toilet paper without asking. Yet, the rule holds true more often than we realize. Imagine your surprise, walking toward your parked car and seeing that someone is leaning against it. Or if you caught someone stroking your laundry as it hung from the clothes line. Or if within the first few minutes of meeting someone, they reached across the table and touched your nose. Most people don't hoard permission to touch -- they give it away freely as soon as they know a person better, often expecting the intimate other to simply know that they have become welcome. However, the person who presumes too much (e.g. copping a feel on the first date) may receive a punishing rebuff.

(2) Staying put. When I put a piece of my property somewhere, I expect it to stay there. If I put my coffee mug down on the breakfast table, I don't want to come back in five minutes and discover that it's been moved to the kitchen counter. When I go looking for a book on my shelf, I don't want to discover that someone has moved it to God knows where. The coffee mug is like an annex of my stomach; the book is like an auxiliary memory cartridge for my brain. I want these extensions of myself to stay in order. Just as I'd feel unsettled to lose control of some other part of my body, finding that my possessions don't stay where I put them makes me feel helpless, angry, or violated.

(3) Moving things. Whereas others are prohibited from touching -- let alone moving -- my things without permission, it's my right to freely pick them up and move them whenever I choose. I can drive my car to the other side of town and park it there. I can rearrange my furniture to suit a whim. I can stand up, stretch my body, and go out for a walk (so long as I'm not infringing on anyone else's property rights in the process).

(4) Physical alteration. If something belongs to me, then I can substantively alter it in a physical way. I could dye my hair green or pierce my ears. I could write in my books and fold the pages. I could repaint my car and put in a new engine. I could cut a hole in the wall and build an addition onto my house. I could chop down the tree that's part of my backyard. As the Fats Waller song goes, "'t ain't nobody's biz-ness if I do."

(5) To destroy or create. That which I own I may also destroy. I could seize this coffee mug and smash it on the floor. I could take my hair and chop it all off. I could burn my books. I could have my car crushed into a cube. I could rent a crane with a wrecking ball and turn my home into a pile of rubble. On a similar scale of transformation, if I own the raw materials to make something entirely new, then the resulting product must belong to me. If I had lumber, nails, and land, the house I built would belong to me. If I took some ingredients out of my cupboard and baked a cake, the cake would be mine. If I swept up my hair and wove it back into a toupee, then that wig would be my property too.

...A final word about the powers of ownership. The things you own are an extension of yourself, so you are entitled to use them as you see fit. But just as you are responsible for your actions, so too are you responsible for the actions / impact of all those things connected to you. if you park your car on a hill, the brakes give out and it rolls down, smashing into someone's house while you're away -- it's your problem to deal with. If I invite someone to sit in my big comfy chair, which then collapses in a heap, breaking the guest's leg in the process -- then I'm responsible for breaking their leg. As much as I might want to sever the possession from my self at this point, put blame for the accident on "an act of God", the logic of treating my possessions as part of my self carries through.

-- to be continued --

September 26, 2002

Posted by Sven at 04:32 PM | Comments (2)

September 25, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 1

The concepts of property and ownership are a cornerstone in the practice of writing and interpreting legal code. As the saying goes, "possession is nine-tenths of the law." The same could be said of ethics. In western philosophy, the guiding light in ethics has been the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Various thinkers have embellished on the concept (e.g. Kant's categorical imperative), but I think their work usually boils down to the same thing: be kind, play nice. Simple enough. The tricky part is in explaining "nice" -- what exactly would you have others "do unto you"? This is where property and ownership comes in. ...What goods or services do other people owe me? What do I owe them? ...What stuff belongs to me? What belongs to them? ...Where do I end and you begin? ...Whether you're designing a personal ethics, the code of ethics for an organization, or the legal code for a nation-state (a sort of de facto system of ethics), it seems to me that you need a well defined understanding of property and ownership as its foundation.

My intention in this essay is to begin articulating the ethics of liberation activists. Much of this system is identical to the liberalism of the United States' founding documents (e.g. "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal..."). Some of the ideas come from the writings of progressive and radical activists -- some from living discussions that I've been privileged to listen in on. Much of it, however, is my own formulation, which I've put together to satisfy my own sense of completeness, and to remedy areas of thought that often seem muddled among our communities.

I think property is the key concept to understanding what our inherent rights are. It tells us what treatment we should expect from others. By telling us how things should be, it also gives us the key to understanding how things go wrong: in our daily relationships, in extreme cases of interpersonal abuse, and in oppression at a societal level. Most social wrongs can be explained by pointing to an individual's poor sense of boundaries, or to how someone expects to receive goods or services that were not fairly negotiated for, or to how one person / group has chosen to take what rightfully belongs to another. By becoming more aware of ownership issues, one gains a powerful tool for self-defense. It gives you the ability to identify what's gone wrong in an intimate relationship -- or to analyze and strategize against a group that's harming a whole category of persons.

Let's now take a closer look at the concepts of property and ownership.

I. Defining "Self" -- The Owner of Property
What is property? For the moment let's just deal with private property that's owned by one person rather than many. For now, let's also limit ourselves to dealing with inanimate objects -- for instance, a coffee mug.

There is no coffee mug that is a "property" in and of itself. "Property" is a symbolic status that we assign to the object -- it means "this coffee has a relationship to something else." In this case, the mug has a relationship with me -- I say (and hope you'll agree) that this is *my* coffee mug. A rough definition: "property" is some material object that is owned by a person.

[Could property be immaterial, as with copyrighted "intellectual property"? Could property be owned by a non-person, like a doghouse belonging to a pet dog? Perhaps -- but let's not quibble just yet. My intention here is to describe the basic nature of property, not to exhaustively address each potential loophole.]

What, then, does it mean to "own" a piece of property? I think we (human beings) understand the things we own as extensions of the self. It's as if everything that I own is actually connected to me -- physically -- by an invisible string. Imagine, if you will, me standing out on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, a huge bundle of twine looped around my neck. Strands of string trail behind me, leading inside to where they're tied: to each one of the books in my library, to each chair and piece of furniture, to each piece of food in the fridge. A big thick rope is looped around the entire house, and another around my car in the driveway. If you look closely, you see that a string is tied to the watch on my wrist. Strings drag behind my shoes, attach to my hat, and to all my articles of clothing.

If you follow all these strings back to their origin, you find the "self". Consciousness is the most striking feature of the self. However, for our purposes here, it's at least equally important to notice that the mind is located and constrained to a specific place in the world. The self of any person could be identified with a point in space; for simplicity's sake, let's say a point that is coterminous with their brain.

Defining the self in terms of a geographic point is useful because it allows us to broach some traditional philosophical questions without leaving the framework we've begun to establish. For instance, I start to wonder: is the body itself property? I'd say yes -- I think the body is the epitome of the self's personal property. I've heard students of philosophy ponder over what the essence of a person is... If a person loses a hand, is it still them? Or if they lose all their limbs, or somehow survive as a brain in a jar...? Personally, I find these questions distasteful, and am perfectly content to encompass all of the naked body in my notion of the integer self -- for most purposes.

[Thinking about the self as a point in space is also useful because it invokes "point of view", which generates the (philosophical) possibility for "conflicts of interest". If, assuming the godlike ability to turn dust into flesh, I was able to conjure up a mind from the nothingness and wrap it in a physical body, immediately upon opening its eyes this being would have a point of view. it would consider its situation and then imagine its needs / wants / desires. Some could be accomplished alone, working upon a non-sentient landscape -- but others would require the presence, resources, and/or labor of another being. If that second being does not want to conform to the plans of the first, then there's a conflict of interests. Two parties negotiating about their interests until some resolution is achieved: this is the story of two people in love, and the history of nations at war. How to do the negotiation well -- is the stuff of ethics.]

"The mind's eye" may be situated on a point in space, but we experience the self as something larger than that -- extending, we perceive, even beyond the naked body. Clothes conform to the body so well, we think of them as a "second skin". It's often been commented that while driving a car the machine becomes an extension of your self -- moving how you tell it to. When you own something, that possession becomes grafted onto your self-image. When you try to picture yourself, do you imagine yourself naked? Probably not. Do you imagine yourself as a homeless person who's been fortunate enough to find temporary living quarters? No -- "person who owns living space" (rental included) is somehow a part of you. The things we own become the outer perimeter of the self. [Somewhere a Buddhist monk -- or one of those New-Agers who say they're "a spirit having a worldly experience" -- is laughing at me.]

Imagine, if you will, figuring out how much everything you own weighs. All the books, the furniture, the car -- how many tons? It's a thought we're most keenly aware of when moving to a new home -- how many car loads (or truck loads) does the move require? In a very real sense, this volume of mass is a measure of how big you are. Imagine if you could swallow all those possessions, absorb them, and become a giant who weighed that much! Or perhaps you own very little, and see the wealthy like these giants walking around, so easily able to ignore your existence, carelessly crushing you with a misstep... Fortunately all that mass is distributed into separate objects.

A mark -- perhaps the essence -- of *owning* a thing is that one feels and acts as if it is a physical extension of one's self. Excluding the body, all the things we own are detached (or detachable) from the self. Yet, it is almost as if all of those invisible strings attaching my property to me are nerve fibers, giving me direct sensory information. Like stubbing a toe, I'm pained when I break a favorite plate. When my house is broken into, I feel violated. The body is the epitome of personal property -- and just as my hand moves when I wish it to move, or stays still when I want it still, I want equal *control* over objects (the coffee mug) that are part of me, despite being physically separate.

-- to be continued --

September 25, 2002

Posted by Sven at 08:07 PM

September 23, 2002

On Writing A 'Blog

"'Blog" -- short for "web log". Having only been introduced to the concept yesterday, my understanding of the form is pretty fuzzy. However, my impression is that the generic 'blog is a webpage with serial entries -- suitable for a daily online diary, or a pundit's column. Seizing the inspiration (and the generous offer of tech support from Michael Hall), I've decided to give writing a 'blog a shot.

The Generator's Previous Incarnation
At the beginning of September 2001 -- just over a year ago -- I announced that I was going to publish a weekly essay series via email. Unfortunately, that announcement was the last anyone heard of it. A number of things happened. (A) Writing, editing, and publishing the introductory essay took 20 hours -- more than I could expect myself to accomplish every week. (B) A new partner joined our poly household -- so there was relationship work to do. (C) The World Trade Center fell on 9/11, making an emotional shock that took some time to get over.

My big plan with Generator was to create a number of books, writing the chapters in a serialized form. I left my position as president of the Portland Bisexual Alliance in July of 2001 largely because I'd come to realize that my books would never get written, given the amount of time that PBA was consuming. However, as I picked up the writing project again this spring, I made a self-discovery: I don't actually know how to manage writing and editing long essays, let alone a book.

I was working on a piece titled "Equal [does not equal] Same" over the course of several weeks. I was up to my seventh draft, and still kept on discovering new sections that needed to be written, old sections that ought to be severed and turned into separate essays altogether. The problem was that I hadn't started with a rough draft that deserved so much editing. So I switched my approach. I figure there's probably going to be about a 1:10 ratio: for every ten rough essays I write, there'll be maybe one that I'm really happy with and deserves to get polished up to a publishable form. So, during the late spring and summer I adopted the strategy of "previsualization". That's a term I stole from George Lucas and the making of Star Wars Episode I. "Previsualization" in movie-making is the period where you're making sketches of alien critters, costumes, architecture, and landscapes, before the script is even written. [The word itself seems weird to me -- how can you start "visualizing" before you're visualizing?] I figured I would try writing the books that I have in mind without doing any editing -- simply to get them out of my head and see if the general shape makes sense. If I like the whole, then I could use these "previsualized" essays like a storyboard as I make the real thing -- the serious, edited chapters.

That writing strategy actually worked really well. I don't have any problem creating volume, so I got to try out two long arcs of essays and discover that my overall approach to one of my book projects needs to be shifted. The lingering problem is that it's been a year and still nobody's read my work. It might as well not exist!

Embracing Imperfection
Content. My interests haven't particularly changed during the past year. The seven book ideas that I described in "An Introduction to the Generator" are still the projects I want to tackle:

What I'm beginning to question, though, is my investment in the format we understand as "book". I see in my self someone who's internalized the notion of publication as immortality... which is of course a lie. I think most writers probably get sucked into this one. We hope that we will write one of the Great Books that critics and public alike canonize, a book that is remembered for centuries to come. Reality is that we laugh at books written in the fifties because they're so tragically dated, we remember only a handful of books that were published a decade ago, and most of the stuff sitting on our bedstands right now only gets one reading -- and we skim through the boring parts.

...It becomes a question of economics -- how much greater impact am I getting for every hour spent trying to craft the perfect paragraph? An off-the-cuff conversation is more powerful than the essay that never even gets published. And an essay now that is topical, that responds to current events, is more powerful than the really polished writing that comes out six months too late. The metaphor I need to embrace -- especially as someone who thinks about politics and activism -- is writing as conversation. As the post-modernists say, culture is constantly engaged in "discourse"; for my writing to matter, establishing myself as a participant in the conversation has to come before considerations about the quality of what I have to say. To put it another way, it's better to put my foot in my mouth than to not open my mouth at all.

Conversation isn't like making a business presentation or a press release. In conversation, I say something dumb, muddled, or just plain wrong -- which evokes a response from whoever I'm talking with -- then giving me the opportunity to correct myself, elaborate upon a point, make my position more sophisticated. It's a dialectic. Contrast this with the metaphor for writing that I, like many other writers, have absorbed: writing as product. A piece of writing should be complete, polished, shrink-wrapped -- something that you can put on a shelf and sell. It's a metaphor that originates, I suspect, in the modern book publishing / distribution industry. "Success" is getting a publishing house to make several thousand copies of your work and put copies (2 or 3 each) into chain bookstores around the nation. There's so much distance, so much alienation, from the people you're writing to -- one's focus gets stuck on the production process.

I think I have a block against publishing because the stakes seem so high. Trying to make the perfect product, the one that every anonymous consumer will buy, that will immortalize me as a household name , is a good way to get burnt out. That's why I'm excited to try writing a 'blog. It feels less heavy -- like jazz instead of classical music, like improvisation.

Here's what I want to do: write for two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, and post what I come up with sans editing (just a spell-check). The problem of distribution is essentially done away with, and I'm not putting upon my readers because it's their choice to visit the site. And yet, what I've done is available to them, and I can respond in my writings if I do get feedback. For me it means accepting and living with the fact that I won't like a lot of what I write -- it will seem transparently dumb, wrong, and muddled to me. ...But I can move in the direction of creating a lifestyle where writing is more about how I live with people, less about the shame of failing to get my product out by its announced release date.

A Writer's Routine
Any large project, that requires sustained effort over time, needs a plan. Over the past few years I've developed a routine that works pretty well for me when I'm writing. Here's the outline, including my latest tweaks...

...I'm going to try writing this 'blog for two weeks. If it goes well, I'll continue. I'm optimistic -- the way to becoming a better writer is more likely through volume than sporadic frenzies of editing. Over time I may even have enough good fragments to put together the books I keep fantasizing about. And hell, if I die, now no one's saddled with the job of trying to compile and publish my stuff posthumously. Here it all is.

September 23, 2002

Posted by Sven at 07:02 PM