All posts by Kevin O'Connor

The Failure of Ownership

By poking at Locke’s logic in his Second Treatise of Government I found myself specifically questioning his first premise of property. Do people really own themselves? (By “themselves” I mean both their physical body and their metaphysical self)

To answer my question I started by looking up the definition of the word own as a verb. The result, from the Oxford English Dictionary, reads, “To have or hold as one’s own; to have belonging to one, be the proprietor of, possess.” The first definition is immediately circular, as it defines own with the word own, and upon searching the other definitions I found an equally circular path.

This may explain why topics of ownership are all too frequently difficult to discuss or confusing. The dictionary, the purpose of which is to give a common understanding of language, fails. I believe this is evidence of people’s limited understanding of ownership. I was not satisfied with this conclusion. In order to provide clarity (and sanity) for myself I moved away from formal definitions of ownership to the implications of ownership.

Intuitively, ownership implies that people can control or manipulate a thing that they own based on feelings, morals, and reasons, barring anything opposing laws of physics. I avoid saying based on their feelings, reasons, and morals for two reasons; first in order to restrict my intuitive definition to one instance of ownership and avoid quickly circular definition , and second because I believe that feelings, reasons, and morals are not clearly owned by the person they inhabit.

Regarding the latter point I will draw upon Octavia Butler’s Fledgling for clarity. Shori is frequently stated to be a moral character. We see this when her father comments on how happy he is that Shori retained her previous moral structure as well as through her interactions with both humans and Ina. However, Butler makes sure to point out that Shori does not have complete ownership over the morals she follows. When Shori tells Iosif about accidentally killing the man in the cave Iosif responds, “You’ve forgotten who and what you are, but you still have at least some of the morality you were taught.” Butler identifies Shori’s family as the reasons for the moral structures she follows rather than her ownership of those morals. Of course Shori did at one point endorse the morals instilled in her by her family and therefore accept them as a sort of mental property, but the fact that she then loses her memory, essentially returning to a state of childhood, does not does not allow her  to endorse her morals again. Instead, Shori adheres to the morals instilled by her parents as a force of habit and therefore cannot claim ownership over those morals.

Understanding that Butler complicates the ideas of freedom within the realms of moral discourse, feeling, and reason allows us to view the implications of ownership in a new light. As I stated before ownership implies that a person can manipulate or control a thing they own based on feelings, morals, and reasons. For Butler, these “feelings, morals, and reasons,” may not always be up to them. In fact Fledgling revolves around a character whose feelings, morals, and reasons come largely from an act of nature (memory loss) or outside influence (the Silks). It seems that ownership both as a word and as a concept is doomed to failure from the start.


Shori’s Cave and the Sixth Sense

In light of our class discussion about bringing people together and how a power disparity can complicate the process I found myself drawn to Butler’s motif involving memory and lack of memory. Specifically how memory (or lack of memory) of someone’s own culture can add or diminish their power within a larger society (by this I mean a set of different cultures existing in the same space).

In Fledgling, Butler treats memory as a sort of sixth sense, explaining and reiterating that the Ina people have a heightened memory. Understanding that Shori lacks this sixth sense that everyone in Fledgling has, people and Ina alike, helps us understand that she is still trapped in Plato’s cave, the allusion with which Butler opens her novel. Even though Shori regains her sight like the person in Plato’s allegory who escapes his imprisonment, she never truly regains her memory and as a result remains in an infantile state, never achieving the journey into intellect that Plato describes.

However Shori’s failed journey into intellect does not merely pertain to Plato’s forms, instead Butler wants us to understand that Shiori’s lack of intellect is more accurately stated as her lack of cultural intellect. In a 2003 interview with Daniel Burton Butler explains, “If Shori did not have amnesia she would probably have more in common with the people who raised her than with, say, just an ordinary African-American. But because she has the amnesia, she doesn’t have that much in common with anybody.” Shori in fact exists in a middle space between human and Ina, a culturally ignorant space that suggests she has yet to see the light, to use the Platonic metaphor.

Later Butler depicts how terrible Shori’s cultural ignorance truly is, as we find out that the Ina people do not punish their people with imprisonment, instead they either execute them or, more integral to the point, excommunicate them from the culture. Understanding the Ina culture’s view on isolation helps us to fully understand the tragedy of Shori’s isolation in the middle space of cultural. She exists in a space reserved for the most contemptible people of her culture, those like the Silk family, who at this point in the reading are assumed to be her family’s murderers. The fact that Shiori is aware of her own memory loss and constantly sees the disparity between her own memory and the memory of her people who live and remember hundreds of years is a sort of imprisonment, both in the sense of the Ina form of punishment and again like the people chained to the wall of Plato’s cave.