ownership, philosophy, suburbia

I own therefore I am

I am on my way home, in my car, listening to my radio, I stop at our beach. We call it ours, this stretch of sand on this continent that is now my home. My country, this is how I refer to the 7,682,300.0 square kilometres beneath my feet. I have a passport which confirms my citizenship of the state. It is navy, embossed in gold, official looking. The cover is bendable but thick. It will not easily be damaged from frequent use. It holds the allure of adventure. This is how the institution of state draws us in and places the spell of attachment on us. “With us you may travel freely, ” it seems to say, “you are not the citizen of the world you imagined you were. You are not as free as you thought you were. This book marks that you are owned. We call this state of being owned ‘citizenship’.”  

It contains, inside, a black and white photograph of me, unsmiling. One is not encouraged to smile for official photographs. So here I am in my country seriously wishing to understand how I assume that so much is mine. I have even purchased a piece of land with a house on it and that I call mine but really, it is the bank that has deemed me fit to speak of it thus. I earn a salary, paid fortnightly. Most of this goes to the bank so that I can one day, decades from now, call the house truthfully, mine. Strange isn’t it? To speak of it seems strange, this suburban ritual of possession. I am told that it was not always so. I have read articles by clever men on the history of ownership and possession and it would appear that Indigenous people worldwide never considered themselves owners of land. My mate Matt, a Noongar man, once laughed off the notion of buying a home. “Why would I buy dirt cobber?” he asked me. Indeed, why?

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It seems to be a distinctly European invention, this idea that ownership begets identity. We assume it has always been so, genetic even, like violence. Seems we have been wrong about many things. They really started something those restless fifteenth century Spaniards and Portuguese. Further back the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings caught it; this contagion of land-greed. Their desire to possess was passed on to the English, the Germans, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch and the Italians. What formed their view of the world? Why did they think a first meeting ought to be followed by the planting of their flags, declarations of ownership and brutal oppression? It’s a fundamentally flawed human practice that we continue to emulate 500 years later.

Where does this language of ownership came from? How did it come to be the mode of my tongue, my mind? The pronoun ‘mine’ is one of a child’s earliest words. It defines the boundaries of their existence: ‘my nose’, ‘my mummy’, ‘my house ‘. What does it mean to ‘have‘? How do I ‘have’ this home, ‘have’ this toothache, ‘have’ this bruise, ‘have’ these thoughts? In the marriage union I get to ‘have’ and to ‘hold’. I have a great deal, but when was I bestowed ownership of ‘my’ character? Who is this ‘me’ I speak of?

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Studies of human society suggest that one of the prime forces in our history is ownership. We have evolved through ownership. From feudalism to mass consumerism we have organised our social structures around competition for land and artefacts. We call land ‘real estate’. It forms our reality. Being landless thus presents itself as a an ‘unreal’ condition, an undesirable state of being. Material poverty is perhaps more an indictment on our modern tendency to insulate ourselves with our possessions. Poverty represents the way we think about the world, not a way of the world. It is perhaps more a consquence than a condition. It is a word denoting what one does not have. A street vendor in Mumbai, India told me there was no poverty in India. I did not understand what he meant. It appeared self-evident to me that poverty was not only real but rampant as well. I’m beginning to realise what he meant. I’m seeing more of it living in the first world.

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