Real and Personal Property and Possession

Schiele Blind Mother

My boss, Martin Varsavsky, wrote a post today on how his computer just crashed. He went on to explain how the loss of his computer wasn’t such a crisis because all of his important “things” were stored externally from his PC in web-based services and applications. These “things” included his photos, emails, word documents, videos, music, etc. Prior to these online storage services, the loss would have been great. With technology, our tangibles have all been converted digitally into intangibles, accessible on demand.

This got me to thinking about “things” and the nature of “things”. In its most basic legal sense, a “thing” is either Real Property or Personal Property. Real Property is what we normally consider to be “real estate” or property that is immovable. On the other hand, personal property (also known as “chattel”) is everything else that is movable. So, my house and the land that it rests upon are real property, and my photographs, music collection, and books are all personal property. Thus, when Martin talks about there being no love lost over the death of his PC, he means that his personal property had been safeguarded from the wreckage.

This seems to say a lot about how the digital age has revolutionized the way we possess things. We no longer need to physically “possess” personal property in order to have ownership over it. What we have is not “possession” over an object but free access to it at any time, anywhere. We can carry what we own, without having to actually carry it on our person. Absent clothing, it seems that we no longer need to check in heavy luggage at airports any more, for everything that is important to us fits somewhere in cyberspace.

Beyond this revolution in storage space, there is an ontological question about possession that mimics this technological phenomenon: what do we have, what do we not have, and how do we have it?

In one of my favorite poems, Pablo Neruda writes

Of night and water my mouth is filled
The abiding moon determines
what I do not have

What I do have is in the midst of the waves,
a ray of water, a day for myself,
an iron foundation.

Personally, I hate losing things. I always keep my keys and wallet in the same place. I almost never lose chattel, and yet I have come to seeing what I do in fact own as being as effervescent as a ray of water, a day for myself, and yet as being as real and solid as an iron bottom. Just like Martin’s important files located in cyberspace, my “things” of value can all be reduced to digital format and kept out of danger (books, music, photos).

Nevertheless, what I truly possess I store in my own memory. The books, the music, the images, the people that I have known, and the experiences that I have lived are all personal, movable property. Meanwhile, the ability to process and access those possessions on demand are my real property. They are immovable, belonging solely to myself like a plot of land where only I have sole title and interest, unencumbered by the temporality of a PC, subject to loss from carelessness, or theft.

The Buddhists will tell us that everything that exists in this world and in life is impermanent and that everything that binds us and attaches us to that which is impermanent will inevitably cause us suffering. Thus, one of the paths to escape suffering is the cessation of a desire for possession (holding on to what is impermanent).

This reminds me of the scene in the English Patient where Almasy tells Katherine that what he most detests is ownership, being possessed by someone. Yet on two later occasions in the film he tries to take claim over her. First, he wants her “supersternal notch” to be named the Almacy Bosporus, and then later he pleads with her, “I want to touch that which is mine.”

This is the ridiculous quagmire of the overly possessive. He only stands to lose what he has never had, yet he fights on to claim that which is not his. One of the precepts of the Law of Property is that one can never claim or transfer the rights or interests in property that one has never fully possessed. Thus, you cannot lose what you have never owned.

As I tried to express with my limited poetic abilities in Body, the objects of all of our desires grant us absolutely no interests in ownership over them. We own nothing. Rather we are granted something akin to license agreements, like the right to use a given software. Maybe we are given even less — a mere bailment, like a car for us to take care of as if we were valet parking attendants. We are nothing more than guardians or trustees.

How ridiculous are the possessive and the jealous! Ownership is something much more profound and less temporal. It is keeping something apparently tangible, in its most intangible form — a ray of water, a day for one’s self, in the iron-clad foundation of our minds. We may not be able to possess anyone or anything, but we can keep all of our experiences alive in our minds.

I recall reading Nuruddin Farah say

All that death does is to deny you the opportunity to reinvent your life as you live it. Because dying, you cease to dream.

I often thought that for me the most unbearable thing about death would be no longer hearing my favorite music, discovering a new book, or seeing the images of those I loved. But maybe the tragedy of death is that, after definitively losing all of our tangible things, we finally lose our only possession — the intangible.

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps what I would most miss is the daily wish and hope for just a few more minutes of sleep.


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