A Transnational Feminist Paradox: Property, Rights, and the Pursuit of Ownership

Annie Isabel Fukushima

August 11, 2014

Dear Reader

My mother, a diasporic Korean who came to the U.S. in the 1970s, used to communicate to me in the form of letters. She would handwrite a note on a notepaper (it was always on a yellow notepaper). At the end of her letter, regardless of how difficult the subject matter, she would always sign with love. She would then fold the letter into an origami shape and leave it in a place where I could easily see the letter: on the bathroom counter where I would get ready for work or the day, on my desk, on my school bag when I was still in school, or on my bed. Her intention was always to communicate. When our spoken communication seemed impossible, my mother left letters, love letters so to speak, that have since left me with the impression that some letters, no matter how difficult the subject matter, were my mother’s commitment to communicating with love. While I don’t know if I love you as a reader, for our notions of love and intimacy vary, I can say that here in this letter I am committed to communicating, even if the subject is difficult; therefore, this is my commitment to communicate a transnational feminist paradox: property, rights, and the pursuit of ownership.

My desire to unravel the paradox I am in, stems from events that have unfolded since 2013. In 2013, the Institute for Impossible Subjects (IIS) formed, comprising of feminists, activists, artists, and scholars from various locations: Berlin, France, South Korea, Spain, and the United States. The idea: we would create a publishing platform via the web. IIS envisioned navigating the complex question of: how does one create a transnational and decolonized space for thinking, visualizing, theorizing, and practicing (art, activism, and scholarship)? As IIS’s earlier conversations navigated imagining what sort of spaces “we” would collectively create, and how this platform would enable creation, “togetherness” and ruptures, it also included how the online platform could not be solely defined by IIS; documentation of IIS meetings illustrate an envisioning of the space as including other voices, perspectives, visual aesthetics, sounds, movements, and invocations, as being integral to shaping IIS. And to invite other sounds, voices, visualities, perspectives, words, into IIS, in these neoliberal times, our conversations could not avoid issues of intellectual property, the commons, ownership, and property.

As IIS discussed ownership and the commons, questions arose: Who would “own” the work on IIS? Would it be IIS? The author? Will it be appropriated? Are the works on IIS part of a (creative) commons?

This letter is neither a call for a particular type of ownership nor is it a call for a rights framework. Instead, I am committing to what Maile Arvin has described as the “productiveness of the uncomfortable.” As I navigate writing through what it means to own and property, I find it useful to navigate the coloniality of ownership and how it is also embedded in slavery, so as to theorize the contradictions that I find myself immersed in as I participate in conversations about ownership and property. A recognition of such contradictions, or what I refer to as paradoxes, are needed to even begin envisioning for myself the (im)possibility of a radical positioning in regards to ownership.

In this letter “A Feminist Paradox: Property, Rights & the Pursuit of Ownership” I take on the question of what it means to property in neoliberal times, and the impositions that are sustained by not navigating the paradoxes one is obligated to. First, I define property and ownership. Second, I frame the paradox of language and elisions that occur in incidents where rights violations and ownership conflict with one another (I examine the recent history through United States v. Cortes-Meza). And third, I close with radical visions, where the question, then, is not about ownership, but rather, what does it mean to envision and enact a radical space of the commons when my/our reality is inextricably linked to neoliberal capitalist structures. I conclude with the positioning of a radical vision and also its (im)possibility: ritual hacking of ownership. That is, there are rituals that societies establish in regards to ownership. The structures and ideologies that shape how one relates to ownership are ritualized in the everyday; therefore, to call for new visions is to call for a hacking of the rituals that (we) partake in everyday.

1. Properties and Owners

Ownership is imbued in modern nation-states where the rise of the nation-state went hand-in-hand with capitalism. And to property and own property, is internationally recognized as a human right by nation-states and a right of states (i.e., federal properties). For some, it is recognized as “inseparable from liberty.” Property is a colonial construct (with material and human consequence). For John Locke, property is defined as “the labour” and “work” of a person by his own hands – the land that “man tills” and product of such work. In this sense, Locke’s argument in regards to work, labor and land as intrinsically defining characteristics of ownership, reflects western belief systems of land as property. As Locke saw that land is property to those who work the land, Mishuana Goeman has illustrated how property is “distinctly a European notion that locks together labor, land, and conquest.”

The trail of tears and the forced relocation of native peoples through the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and the Alien Land Ownership and the Kuleana Act (1850) in Hawaii that propelled the Kanaka Maoli into a foreign system of land ownership were among some of the policies that changed indigenous people’s relationship to land from one of communal use (and non-ownership) to one of western practices of ownership. Western ownership led to indigenous dispossession and displacement. This violence and rationale for property are ideologies that are my (and yours if you live in this global modern economic system) inheritance today.

What is “property”? If it is a possession, then what does it mean to possess a thing (and what kinds of things)? The turning into property occurs in ways that is innocuous at times. Property is often assumed to be a noun: material like owning a house, cars, immaterial as my argument, human such as slaves, and nonhuman like a pet. However, property is defined by rules of ownership. For Aristotle, the rules of ownership make property a part of a household, where a slave is synonymous with property. In Politics, Aristotle defines the slave as: “he who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession. And a possession may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor.” In the rules of property, slaves are possessions, and a free person is someone who owns herself/himself. And the rules of ownership in general govern how this paper becomes my property (i.e., agreements to creative commons).

To participate in ownership is to engage with the rules of property; property is defined by rules. There are three ways that property is governed: private (individual), common (things owned by more than one person such as water), and state (the exclusive right of an artificial person). Just because I write this letter while am sitting in my apartment, it does not make the apartment my property. What makes it my property in the 21st century are the rules of economic exchange and contract signing to claim a property – I own a house when I participate in the rules of property through purchase, a real estate agent may help me to acquire and enact the purchase the house (where he/she are knowledgeable about the rules of house buying), and so forth. This letter is written in an apartment I rent. The rules of property means that property is relationally constituted by the owner. In this way, “property” does not exist without an “owner.” My home is owned by someone else. My letter a gift of communication. I own a website, that lists other publications I co-own with publishers. As property does not exist without an owner, what makes an owner unique is the assumption of his/her rights as an owner. Although property is relationally constituted through the owner, it is solidified through the language of rights – the owner’s right to his/her property. The discussion of rights is also a global north framework.

For Crawford Brough Macpherson, “the concept of property is, historically, and logically, a concept of rights in the sense of enforceable claims.” A copyright on an essay is enforced by laws that privilege private ownership. It is only when I need to enforce my privileges (i.e., someone copies my article and reposts it without proper attribution or permissions), does my ownership become a rights claim. One has to exert their rights through actions. And to focus on rights to property means that the rules of property are only upheld (or even needed) when the rights to property are violated. However, to solely see property as a right is then to call for the naturalization of liberal ideologies about individualism, freedom, and rights. Even as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (who were critical of private property) called for the abolition of private property because private property reified class divisions, their call for was for the radical disruption of class and ownership. But, it did not necessarily mean eradicating ownership altogether; they were proponents of “community of property.” Their call envisioned new constitution of the relations of property — one that disrupted how the proletariat had been denied their right to property — through redistribution. However, is it possible to envision non ownership? Such a question is to envision decolonial relationships beyond property and ownership.

What I am left with is: property is a western ideology that led to violence and colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples. While the language of rights may be useful, it is also limiting, and what I hope for (but I have to situate my context in the global north, as an academic, and as I write in English) is a maneuver towards being with the discomfort when acknowledging the paradoxes, so as to envision a new mode of ownership.

As IIS creates a space to publish works, we are promoting a particular type of ownership – the creative commons. Creative commons enables other artists, internet users, writers, scholars, and others, the right to use, repost, and build-upon works published on the IIS, and (re)appropriated with proper attribution. In this way, the work is still individually owned, but also available to the commons. However, if property in itself is embedded in liberal and colonial structures, historically constituted, and seen as a right, then how radical is the Creative Commons? Is it enough? Am I even ready for a process that could be even more radical than the creative commons? To envision this space (the space of IIS) as outside of the contours of capitalism and neoliberalism, would mean to deny my physical and mental reality. My reality: I am tethered to global modern capitalism and neoliberalism. What follows next is a grappling with how the contradictions of ownership (as an individual right) can (and does) collide with other notions of freedom. Therefore, regardless of the rules, even the rules fail us/me.

2. The Paradoxes: Language and Practice through the “Case Study” of Slavery

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) that encompassed thirty articles collectively painting a universalizing image of the rights of “man”.  UNDHR reifies the centrality of nation-states with implementing rights, where the collection of articles are reflective of an agreed upon declaration, of intentions, of the participating nations.  Today, the declaration is translated in 437 languages, including sign language espousing the rights of “man” as: being born free and equal; to life, liberty and security; to not be held in slavery or servitude; and the right to own property (nor be deprived of property); just to name a few. During antebellum slavery and legal slavery, one’s slaves was their property. The 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention, reads: ‘slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’. And in slave states, property was a right of the owner. Fugitive slave laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) protected the rights of the slave owner, requiring the cooperation of free citizens. The popular ideology and images deployed about slavery is that slaves are humans turned into nonhumans. Orlando Patterson discusses how slavery is the turning of a person into a social nonperson. Once a human becomes a slave he/she becomes property/a nonperson. Today, there is a shift in belief systems that there is an ethical boundary of acceptable ownership (and unacceptable ownership such as owning people as slaves). Slavery and the ownership of other people is now seen as being the normative ethical limit in international dialogues and local discourses about when ownership is unacceptable. On the one hand, a universal claim is that ownership is a right, and on the other hand, ownership cannot impede on another’s right to freedom. To turn a human into one’s property is a rights violation.

Let me paint a picture of how ownership – the owning of another human – is contested in the present. Yet, even in issues where it seems obvious (examples of slavery in the 21st century), there is a skirting around grappling with the contradictions of ownership. To begin, I start with a legal case, an example of capitalism gone awry.

In brief, it’s important to define some terms. Human trafficking is codified as a criminal act in many states, including the United States. A common definition of human trafficking is found in Article 3 of the Palermo Protocol. Human trafficking encompasses slavery – the ownership of another person. In fact, human trafficking is not slavery, although it is popularly referred to as “Modern Day Slavery” or in scholarship as “contemporary slavery.” Instead, trafficking is, inclusive of human slavery (albeit, not limited to slavery, but encompassing forced labor). Some trafficked people are bought and sold, not all trafficked people become property to their traffickers. But it can and does happen in some cases as see with Javier and Angelica.

“Javier” and “Angelica” are emblematic of how even in the 21st century, after the abolition of human slavery, slavery occurs in ways that are less visible, not contractual, but rather a belief system that is reinforced through coercive relationships. Yet, instead of calling it slavery (in examples where ownership is discussed), other words are applied, moving the public away from seeing how in examples where ownership as a right and rights violation are entangled. In 2011, a federal jury in Atlanta Georgia convicted a Mexican national, “Javier,” on charges of illegal harboring aliens, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., importation of “aliens” for “immoral purposes,” coercing minor females, and sex trafficking children. During the jury trial, “Angelica,” from Oaxaca, Mexico, described her experience of going from living in a town where people work in fields, planting food like corn and beans, and the language is Chinanteco, to meeting Javier. Angelica met Javier in a park where he invited her to a Quinceanera. Instead of a party, she found herself going on a journey that would take her from her hometown of Santos Tomas to Puebla, to Mexico City, to Sonora, to Arizona, to Vegas, and her final destination in Georgia. Her travels across borders were multiple from ideological to physical. Angelica crossed ideological borders of being witnessed as an “illegal immigrant” to “victim.” She also traversed geographical borders across nation-state borders on foot, and state borders by plane, bus, and car. And another border she oscillated between was the boundary of being seen as human and nonhuman. In spite of having no desires to travel to the U.S., Angelica found herself in debt $20,000 and forced into sexual economies. Angelica states, “I had to work doing [prostitution] because in that job it was easier to make money.”

Angelica states: “because he put me in that job; and if I didn’t do it… he beat me.” Prostituted in Georgia, Angelica gave Javier all of her money, saying, “I was his own property, so he would take all the money.”

Angelica’s story is a legal one that circulated in media networks. Latino brothels like that found in Angelica’s experience, are described as being like fast food chains. The imagery of the fast food brothel reinforces through language the dehumanization of women in sexual economies: “Fast food chains have a common product and common method of selling that product, but each franchise has a different owner.  Yet consistently they are able to provide a similar experience.  These brothels are able to do the same.  In franchise systems there is somebody at the top, but the extent to which there is a central office for these sex operations is not known.” The image of how victims of human trafficking are propertied, turned into objects to be consumed, and again re-consumed by the public as a spectacle (what Wendy Hesford refers to as a spectacular rhetoric), travels transnationally.

What is not addressed in the legal documents describing Angelica: whether or not it mattered that Angelica believed she was treated as Javier’s property. The circulation of of Angelica’s narrative in media and legal networks does not call the reader and consumer of the story to question rights to property in itself, but rather to see Javier (and criminalized migrants like Javier) as a threat to U.S. democracy and rights. The abuse of the women circulated in press releases. And particular types of abuses were privileged (and led to convictions). The convictions: sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, transporting minors for the purpose of prostitution, and smuggling aliens into the United States. To call it “sex trafficking” does not enable public to disentangle whether or not Angelica’s being property of Javier mattered. Because if it were the focus, we would have to add to the list of trafficking, “slavery.” Javier was never convicted for “slavery,” but rather, sex trafficking. And a common misperception is that slavery and trafficking are the same (but as I have discussed already, legally, they are not the same but relational). Instead, the convictions suggest what is priority: prostitution, crimes against the border, and child abuse. All of this is important, however, I am troubled by the multiple ways that property is naturalized – and that the gender, racial, and national investment into what it means to turn something into a property was unquestioned by the multiple actors that participated in circulating the story about human trafficking.

Although no one would question that violation of turning another human into property, the issue at hand: to property is naturalized and un-interrogated. At the end of the case, what is touted as resolution are the solutions through capitalist structures (to restore Angelica as the owner of her self, propertied to herself). And the discourse of rights is privileged. I find it productive to point to an uncomfortable aspect of the case that has become borderline an ambivalent issue in larger international dialogues about trafficking – how “slavery” as a rhetoric did not matter in the legal case. Was it because there was no legal contract that made Angelica a “slave”? What does it mean to be seen as property to another human being; Angelica was seen as a slave, but no fugitive slave laws or slave policies legally legitimized what is meant when Angelica describes herself as Javier’s property. In many cases, “modern day slavery” is used to describe human trafficking (and has been critiqued because as addressed earlier, not all trafficking is slavery). However, when the language of ownership does come into the fold, why is there an avoidance of grappling with the inherent contradictions of ownership? I believe it’s because in spite of its colonial and slave legacies, ownership is naturalized – turned into an aspect of my and your everyday ways of relating to objects and the people that surround us.

Angelica and Javier, teach me the fluidity of language, the need for specificity and context, to suggest, that in thinking through ownership, it is an unstable terrain to navigate, even in incidents (or examples) where it seems that it would be obvious (human slavery and human trafficking). And yet, in spite of its instability, it is a concept that is legally, politically and socially normalized. To conclude, I consider the (im)possibility of radical solutions.

3. Radical Visions: Ritual Hacking of Ownership

I have spent a good chunk of the time in this letter maneuvering through the paradoxes that I have inherited with regards to ownership: it is embedded in colonial violence, dispossession and slavery. And while there are certain kinds of unacceptable ownerships, it is an issue that the public has naturalized – the rules property – which means amnesia (or an ignoring) of when what is being witnessed (i.e., Angelica and Javier) are the major contradictions of ownership (some acceptable forms, others are unacceptable). I am not trying to find an absolute definition of “ownership.” Instead, I want to say that it is important to sit with this uncomfortable reality. I am not the owner of what happened to Angelica by Javier, but I am the “owner” of my words on this paper having written about the legal case with my own original argument about the complexities of language (and how language even elides and naturalizes universal assumptions about the rights to property). The effect, through language, have I re-enslaved “Angelica” and also her trafficker by turning them into the objects of this letter? If ownership is not absolute, but raises significant paradoxes, and I am in a context where I have inherited the coloniality of ownership, then what sort of radical visions are possible?

Indigenous feminists have already paved the way for understanding ownership as part of colonial systems, therefore to move towards a decolonial act, I draw upon what Gayatri Spivak referred to as “ritual hacking”and I call for the ritual hacking of the way that one relates to ownership. Spivak conveys, “To suture thus the torn and weak responsibility-based system into a conception of human dignity as the enjoyment of rights one enters ritual practice transgressively, alas, as a hacker enters software.” Turning to the subaltern as the site of knowledge, Spivak calls for “ritual hacking” as a means to disrupt and transgressively counter hierarchies (since rituals normalize hierarchies). What are the rituals that one partakes in that continue to sustain dominant practices and ideologies of capitalism and coloniality? Is not ownership one of the rituals that we partake in? So instead of being complacent, I want to participate in the ritual hacking of ownership by suggesting that this paper is not simply mine, but my letter to you.

Instead of calling this an essay, which would mean that these words are “my property” through the word “by”, I write to you, dear reader, a letter. This letter is my public commitment as one of the multiple members of IIS, that each time I write, that I commit to what my mother embodied: not only through her words, but also through each fold of the paper that led to her making me an origami figure, she left me gift of communication in place, somewhere for me to find. I leave this letter on a website, for someone like you to find, it is my gift to you in writing. But because how I relate to love requires a particular intimacy, I cannot say just yet, if this is a love letter, but rather, a letter inspired love.

I hope you read through each part like an unfolding of an origami paper. Through the process of finding and then unfolding, as you unfold, I express, a deep desire to communicate to you, dear reader, the paradox that I am left with about ownership, property in times where the norm is the pursuit of ownership. This letter is a gesture towards rethinking ownership through ritually hacking how I relate to ownership in writing as not simply something I own, but rather, a commitment to communication. While property, rights, and the pursuit of ownership leaves me, a transnational feminist in dialogue with other scholars, activists, and artist in various contexts of IIS, with a paradox. I sit with the uncomfortable, I see the productiveness of this discomfort, and I work towards new visions and possibilities.

Always, Annie Isabel Fukushima, Ph.D.