When you start an essay with this title, it’s pretty open. I recognize that. We could be talking about anything from the history of slavery on down to “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. And perhaps that’s the problem with ownership, at least the way we Americans tend to conceive of it. I mean, wasn’t it a sense of ownership that compelled all those (mostly white) people to violently invade the Capitol with guns and deadly violence because “their” country had been unfairly wrenched from “their” grips? It reminds me of that moment in Paris is Burning when the category is rich people (or something like that) and the MC yells encouragement at the ball walkers, “YOU OWN EVERYTHING!” That’s the American Dream, right? You own everything, and everything is in the context of ownership. (Of course, to do so, it goes without saying, you must be a person who can own, not a person who can be owned—no POC and no ladies or poor folk of any ilk need apply.)
What does it mean to Americans to own? As I can think it, there are three main definitions of the term, “possession” being the most primary. People also say they “own up” to something, which usually means to admit one’s culpability in it. And the kids today (well, as far back as when I was a kid, too) say they “owned” someone when they roundly best them in a sport or game—you got owned, or, as it has been recreated in recent years, you got pwned. All these uses can easily be understood in the context of the first definition, possession, so let’s talk about that one. (You might even say that “possession” owns all the other definitions.)
You own everything. At least, as Americans, we are taught to imagine this is so. This goes for material possessions, but also goes for children, thoughts, animals, actions, land, rights and liberties, and even society. We love the word “my.” It’s hard to make oneself understood in English without the possessive. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to refer to my wife without using “my”—outside of using their name, this is pretty tough. (Let’s not even go into how confused people get about the combination of the gender marker “wife” and the pronoun “they;” nor shall we go down the rabbit hole of “owning” one’s gender). When it comes to the dogs and cat who live with me, take up most of the bed, nuzzle me when I’m crying or yelling, depend on me for food and defend me fiercely against falling leaves and twist ties on the floor, the word “pet” feels wrong because it seems like a euphemistic way to say “my” animal. “Animal companion” has always felt a little too awkward, but I’m left with nothing else.
This is one instance of the language trouble I think is good for me: I like being confronted with the discomfort and inadequacy of language when it comes to expressing reality. It reminds me how powerful language is, how much it can do to shape the way we think, and it makes me rethink unchallenged assumptions. (If I choose to submit to the language, I choose to imagine I own “my” wife, “my” dogs and cat, “my” house, and even “my” gender. I choose my way into that moral and philosophical mess, whether I’m conscious of doing so or not.)
Thinking in terms of possession does a few things for the thinker. First, it brings the world into reach, makes it smaller and accessible and manageable. If they are “my” feelings, “my” wife and “my” house, I can ostensibly control them. If I begin to think of the world as Jacques Derrida saw language, things change. Derrida is known as the one who developed “deconstruction,” which suggests that each word or concept we know depends upon us knowing another word/concept, and that depends upon another, so that if one obliterates one, a huge hole opens up in the web of what we “know,” like a run in a stocking. For instance, in order to understand what a mother is, one must also understand “woman” and “child,” and probably “nurture,” “parent,” “father,” “pregnant,” etc. Things had to change when “mother” began to apply to women who parented non-biological children. We learned to say “mother” and “biological mother” in an effort to make it clear just what kind of possession we are talking about. Do you genetically possess that child, or just emotionally/fiscally? Did you possess that child with your body for nine months? Is someone who births but then kills a ten-year-old child a “mother”? (Were they a mother before, but then stop being one?) What about someone who does not birth the child, nurtures that child, but is not a woman?
Nowadays we understand “mother” is not concomitant with “father” (we can have a family with only a mother, or two mothers, or no mothers), we are struggling to change our understanding again.
I don’t even want to slip down that slope of “woman,” because it’s rocky and muddy and long and deserves an article devoted to it alone. But just begin to think: if we no longer understand “woman” to be a biological female, a “lady,” a good and proper companion for a “man,” and all that comes with that business, can we properly understand “mother”? What makes a mother and not a father?
You get the point. This can go on and on (for Derrida, that is the point): if we unravel “woman,” then “mother” comes undone, but so does “sister” and “daughter,” “widow” and “wife,” “seamstress” and “party girl” and “slut” and “princess” and “lesbian” and even concepts like ladies’ rooms or pink ribbons for breast cancer (you are aware, of course, that plenty of non-women get breast cancer, even those who are Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB)).
“Having” a gender suggests that one “owns” one’s gender, but this is generally not something we experience. Your gender is defined for you by “your” culture—when you are born in the US, for example, you are declared by the doctor in charge (“It’s a boy!”), and then by the birth record, which records the sex of the child (how do we conflate sex with gender still?) and the child’s name (which most often is meant to declare your parents’ choice of your gender as girl (Sarah) or boy (Stephen)). Then your parents send out a birth notice, and most of these primarily declare your gender (pink ones, or ones that anounce “It’s a boy!”).
I can’t help but think about all those “gender reveal” stunts that have been going awry and blowing people up and setting the planet afire all in the name of hanging on to the predictability of an imagined stability of the concept of gender. It’s just too poetic: a person attempts to make a big, flashy declaration of the expected sex of their baby, which is understood to confer the gender on the child and it winds up killing them or burning everything down. If it weren’t so tragic (and here I think about how a child will feel, growing up knowing their father died trying to declare them a girl), it might be funny. (This is to say nothing of the fact that “reveal” is a verb, not a noun. A noun, by the way, is a thing you can own–you can’t own a verb… what does this suggest about a gender “reveal”?)
Much of this, in my mind, wends its Derridian deconstructivist way back to the concept of “ownership.” Who owns my gender? If I am not free to declare it myself, but it is conferred upon me by others who recognize me as man, woman, trans man but “really” a woman or genderqueer but “you can tell he’s really a man,” I do not own it. Real men don’t eat quiche, they used to say in the 1980s. Pink is for girls. (Did you know that before WWI, pink was considered a stronger color–related to red–than the calming blue, so pink was for boys and blue was for girls?) If crossing my legs a certain way, wearing a certain article of clothing, speaking with a certain tone or timbre of voice, or thinking certain things indicates to others some signal that causes them to read my gender in a particular way, then I do not own it. Even if I declare myself a woman, if my womanhood is dependent upon recognition by others (do I “pass”?), then I do not own it.
“Possession,” which is defined as having or owning something, works this way. It’s tricky. You can possess something (I possess a great pair of shoes), or you can be possessed (I am possessed by anger often) but still can “have” it or “be” it. If I am possessed by a ghost, I am inhabited by it, but it may leave or be expelled. If I am possessed by an idea or desire, does it own me, or do I own it? Possession is temporary (those shoes will fall apart, I will not be angry at some point, that ghost will give up). If it is temporary, is it about being or having (nodding hello to Cathy Opie)? Is it, in our American conception, about both?
Alysia Constantine’s latest novel, Luckmonkey, features a group of activists trying to force questions into the unquestioned ideas of possession and ownership.