Quoting: Graeber on Property and (possessive) Individualism

akpress‘Now, I realise that this is a somewhat daring assertion. Not least, because what is considered ‘property’ in the first place can vary a great deal from culture to culture. But I think one an make out an elementary logic to the idea of property that can be said to be more or less constant. Interestingly enough, that logic is very similar to the logic of avoidance.

Social scientists are usually content to follow the jurists and define property as a social relation, a bundle of rights and privileges with regard to some object, held by a person or group of persons to the exclusion of all others. It is important to stress that this is not, fundamentally, a relation between a person and a thing. It is a relation between people. Robinson Crusoe (bourgeois individualist though he may have been) would hardly need to worry himself over property rights on his island, since no one else was there (p. 21).


A number of authors have pointed out how many languages lack any verb for unilateral ownership; one cannot say ‘I own that canoe’, merely that the canoe and I have a special relation to each other – rather as in English, one uses the same word to say ‘that’s my car’, or, ‘that’s my boss’. It’s interesting to note that the English word ‘property’ has two meaning. On the one hand, my property is something I own, that is, something that takes on its identity from me. One the other, one can also say, ‘it is a property of fire to be hot’ – here ‘property’ is what makes something what it is, that gives it its identity.

One might call the latter sense of property (‘it is the property of fire to be hot’) property in its semiotic mode, in so far as it serves mainly to convey meaning (pp. 21-22).


‘If property is so closely related to avoidance, and if these two principles of identification and exclusion really are so consistently at play (and I think they are), then is it really so daring to suggest that the person, in the domain of avoidance, is constructed out of property? Or at least ‘properties?’

‘The etymology of the word ‘person’ is itself suggest. As Marcel Mauss pointed out long ago (1938 [1968]), the Latin persona is derived from an Etruscan word meaning mask; even when taken up in legal parlance as a term roughly similar to our word person, it is still kept its implication of an abstract social being identified by physial objects: properties and insignia of various sorts. Slaves, and most women had no personae for the same reasons the Maori and slaves and and women had no tapu.

Two important observations follow from all this. This first concerns exchange. Mauss (1925 [1954]), has also argued that in giving a gift, one is giving a part of oneself. If the person is indeed made up of a collection of properties, this would certainly be true. But it’s important to bear in mind that the ‘self’ in question is therefore a very particular kind of ‘self’: specifically, that sort which is constituted on the level of avoidance. Gift-giving of the Maussian variety is never, to my knowledge, accompanied by the sort of behaviour typical of joking relations; but it often accompanies avoidance.

Second, in so far as it serves to construct a person in this way, a property need not have any practical use. In ways, it is perhaps better that it does not. It simply needs to say something about its owner. This is a topic I have discussed at some length elsewhere (Graeber 1996), but here suffice it to say that the key thing is some larger code of meanings by which objects can do this, by which properties can be compared and contrasted. This need not be one of exchange value, but that it is a salient example, and I would argue that it is no coincidence that the generalisation of exchange value as a medium for social relations has been accompanied, in Europe, by a generalisation of avoidance. But I will have to return to this argument a little later on.

Before moving on to hierarchy, I should probably throw in a point of clarification. In treating joking and avoidance relations as extreme poles of a continuum that includes everything from playful familiarity to behaviour at formal dinners, I do not mean to imply that all behaviour must necessarily partake of one or the other. I certainly do not suggest that all relations of respect imply subordination; even less, that all relations of intimacy involve some element of competition or aggression. What I am describing, rather, is a logic – while it may come into play in some way or another in any social relation – is at best only one aspect of it’ (p. 23).

(Graeber, D 2007, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire, AK Press, Edinburgh)

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