Property Vs. Possession

Temptation One is tempted by what one sees, and seeing is the basic experience in cyberspace. One perceives the wondrous site, the desirable realm, but also the density of the transparent space that comes in-between – a psychological double of the transparent obstacle of the screen. René Girard, in Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, selected many a literary example in order to support the hypothesis that one is tempted precisely by something that tempts another too; any desire is triangular, since it implies the mediator, the rival, the adversary; any possession is an act between three partners, a ménage à trois. Without the implicit presence of the mediator, I sometimes wouldn’t even notice the object of my desire. The art critic points to the picture that eventually would make the amateurs dream, the prestigious lover decorates a woman with his passion, setting her as a goal for the others’ pursuits. The owner of a web site is vanity-prone, if not downright mercenary. He wants his property to be visited, admired, made profitable (why not?) and collects feverishly the signatures and e-mails that constitute his proofs of success. However, in cyberspace, one is still little aware of the importance of the mediation involved in the relationship between the exposure of a property and the desire for its possession. At present, few attempts were made to assess the quality of the web sites, so that the cyber-surfer would be lured to specific sites, not merely directed to them. The promotion of a web site by mediators involves an approach quite different from the rating of sites (just like hotels!), from their filtering for content (according to sexual or political incorrectness), or from their inclusion in the search engines. It requires a multiplicity of assessing-sites which, similarly to literary or art criticism would develop a multimedia meta discourse about the meanings, intricacy and relevance of the various proposals from the web. Until now, we know only such attempt:, which is worth studying and following.  The Site-Collector The cyber-surfer that falls into temptation while exploring a site thinks more often than not that he can fulfill his mediated desire by simple commands such as copy-and-paste or save-as, thus creating, almost painlessly, his own collection. This will be hosted at his own site, much in the same way that, in other times, the connoisseurs filled their homes with precious acquisitions. However, the appropriation of multimedia information, picked up here and there, points out to the failure of possession in a more clear-cut way than art collecting has ever done. “You treat me like an object, like a painting from your collection,” cries out Lady Hamilton1, a “new woman” in revolt against aristocratic values. “You probably ignore how much I cherish my paintings,” replies dignifiedly the husband. The connoisseur is sensitive to the energetic emanations of the works of art and wants to be exposed to their daily influence. The property of a hand-made artistic object is akin to the property over a prestigious body. The painting and the sculpture preserve the corporal imprint of the movements of their creator, the surge of his energy. Unlike the case of the manufacturer’s workmanship, here one deals with a more rare, highly gifted body to be possessed. The amateur desires the artist’s body in order to expose himself to the personal energetic aura the object still is capable to emanate. We encounter nothing of the kind in the case of the site-collector. The information he gathers – as delightful as it can be – has no intimate relationship to the cyber smith’s body, so that no interpersonal interaction occurs. Moreover, the possession relationship is reversed. Exploring a site made up of chunks selected from the web suggests a fragile identity of its owner, molded and fashioned by the informational objects it had idly selected. The appropriation of information is no longer a sign of power, since it requires neither fight nor payment, it is no longer the occasion for self-improvement, since it does not trigger any intimate encounter. Once the identity of the collector is defined by his choices, it results that the property has come to possess the possessor, in the sense that Blake unveiled when claiming, “one becomes what one beholds.” Once the relationship to information is mostly visual, devoid of corporal involvement, the dissolution of ownership is almost certain. Napoleon, who had managed to conquer Vienna twice, would have gazed longingly at Schoenbrunn, the palace of the Hapsburgs, form the height of Glorietta. He was surely contemplating the possibility of changing his conquest into a possession. In order to do this, it was not enough to penetrate into it, to visit it, to take a keepsake. True possession would have amounted to the access to the history of the site, to the condensed time, which adheres to the walls and floats in the damp, dreary and lofty halls. The emperor had the revelation that conquering the space without conquering the time too, ruins the idea of possession. However, time cannot be either snatched or bought. This is a disappointment not only for those “riding in triumph through Persepolis2,” but also for the money Moguls of the day. Napoleon knew that he had in extremis a way to affirm his will of possession: to erase the castle with his cannons, its past with it. “One possesses only what one destroys,” whispered to him the phantom of Genghis Han. Napoleon thought better than that. He tried to possess by unification, not by destruction, so that he married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor. This would eventually also prove to be a failure, since only the dusty Empire-style cradle of the King of Rome remains to remind us about it, a moving symbol of the impossibility to possess.  When Property Becomes Possession There is however, a last means to turn the property of a collection into the possession of an experience and this is assimilation. I undoubtedly possess what I eat, since this raw material becomes part of me, part of my body, my energy, and my life. The desiring is overcome by the devouring; the food is initially destroyed, but then it is transmuted. I possess what I eat not because I sweep it off from being, but because I transform it into my being. It is easy to extend this pattern of relationship to other objects of desire than food. One is thirsty for knowledge, hungry for information. One devours a book, swallows many a story, hunts for advice, and absorbs instruction. In such cases, the destruction is inexistent; possession involves only symbolic deconstruction, which leaves the symbolic object intact, while providing the “bricks” for another object to be constructed from. A book is not possessed by buying it and putting in on a shelf, neither by reading it with delight and immersion (in this case the book possesses you), but by penetrating its meanings, weighing up its partial truths and making it obsolete by writing another one. The same goes for cyber-possession, which transfigures cyber-property. The cyber surfer who does not get immersed in the delightful diversity of multimedia, but keeps his awareness alive by critical appraisal has got the opportunity to reach possession by disregarding property. In the French 17th-century remake of the Odyssey, the hero claims that he is a little bit of all that he had met. The cyber surfer is also a selection of sites. However, if the fragments gathered are sufficiently small and their re-composition innovatively meaningful, the cyber-appropriation has the chance to be transmuted into cyber-possession.
1 Vivien Leigh in Alexander Korda’s 1942 patriotic movie.2 Marlowe’s Tamerlane.

by Adrian Mihalache