Freud and property rights

In a recent, short discussion of property rights, I offered that property is an extension of the body, and therefore property rights can be naturally assumed as equal to our bodily rights. It was responded to highly critically. The body is intrinsically tied to our identity, as most recently stated with Sosa-Valle’s article; most people would agree to that. I feel similarly about personal property, even if proving this is somewhat more difficult.

The question of property comes up in an infinite number of discussions. If I own a Sharpie, acquiring it through legitimate transaction, I can legally prohibit another from using it. Isn’t this more of an intrusion on another’s freedom to explore the world than it is a utility of my freedom to protect this object? Why is this Sharpie mine such that I may disallow others its use? How is it within my freedom to prohibit it from others?

Where property rights actually come from, and what concerns, aside from economic or consequentialist, validate their protection, is a fundamental question. Here is a perspective from a Freudian dissection of ego relations, and historical-technological advance.

Technology is fundamentally an extension of human attributes. What is a record, but an upgrade of human auditory memory; what is a video, but an upgrade of human visual memory or imagination; “materializations of the power [man] possesses of recollection”? “With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. Motor power places gigantic forces at his disposal, which, like his muscles, he can employ in any direction,” and so on (Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 43).

It’s not remarkable to consider that material objects may take precedence over actual limbs, given technology is simply human advancement. When a woman loses her ability to walk, and is outfitted with a mobility scooter or likewise, the apparatus takes the place of natural walking endowments; prosthetic advancements, still infantile in Freud’s time, increasingly distort what are “legs” and what are not. We wouldn’t lessen the strength of the legal bodily autonomy just because her legs are composed of different material than the organic.

Our accessories, aside from restoring us from disable- to able-bodied, take us far beyond what the human was ever capable of accomplishing, creating “prosthetic Gods.” The modern cellphone contains the entire world of knowledge in its hardware and software. Many people feel more connected to their tablets than their hidden organs. (Or maybe, more accurately, people are more connected to the functionality of their tablets, than the automatic, reflexive actions of their organs. This is clear because tablets are replaceable but the overall attached feeling persists.) The ego, per a Freudian perspective, is extended to the external world, through some fulfillment of instinct that technology allows in an otherwise impossible situation (see instinct displacement, Instincts and Their Vicissitudes, p. 121, James Strachey translation). It becomes difficult to delineate what is attached to “me” and what is not, contrary to the simplistic, phenomenological dichotomy of body and world.

How is it anyway that our body is even connected to our psyche? For an extremely brief discussion, consider that our sense of self, as a straightforward consciousness, is not immediately crippled by, say, the removal of an appendage through a freak accident. The attachment that we feel, then, is cerebral and historical, and functional. These same conditions in and of themselves are equally possible for relating the sense of self to foreign, i.e. materially external, objects. Indeed, the “connection” we feel to our body is perfectly capable of being transferred onto other objects. See, for instance, Freud’s discussions in An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (this point of transference could be argued to be the central pillar of the classical psychoanalytic perspective on childhood and ego-formation); David Chalmers’ arguments for the phone as a part of our mind via cognitive extension; and recent psychological studies of “joint action,” through dancing and the like.

Given these instances, I think it’s more sensible than not, at least providing one accepts even a little Freud, to perceive property rights as on the same ground as bodily autonomy.

Of course, Freud never argued for property rights from his analysis of technology as ego-engagement. His political views were mostly impersonal and disinterested. He left Vienna after his daughter was summoned by Gestapo in 1938, to live in London, but unfortunately left no direct commentary on totalitarianism, and most of his political views have to be derived.


3 thoughts on “Freud and property rights

  1. If, as you point out, what is valued of tools is their utility (e.g. the ability to comment on NoL using my phone) and not the tools themselvew, couldn’t someone argue that no right to a specific tool exists? Instead a ‘right to the internet’ could exist.

    • Robert Nozick wrote along similar lines in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The immediate idea is that, of course – even if the right is to the utility – we don’t possess a right to things that would require other people to create them for us. Materials do not fall from the sky like manna for the Israelites. We possess a right to travel the globe, but that right does not necessitate that planes and attendants must be constructed and summoned for us in order that we may do it.

      I was more concerned, in this essay, with the idea of retaining property, as opposed to acquiring it. Mature ego-incorporation is invariably directed at objects that already have the merit of being private property. (I contrast this with infantile attachment to objects, which is less about incorporation into the “self” and more about instinctual fulfillment, and with schizophrenia, which could be looked at as immature or delusional ego development.)

      And again, using a Freudian magnifying glass (and this glass has been surgically installed into my retina for a few months now), the purpose of a technology’s creation is to extend human ability (/utility), thus we could say either (a) the fact of value of a tool’s utility is a positive function of the tool’s creation, or (b) the tool and the utility cannot reasonably be separated. Thus the “right to the internet,” if real, is collapsible to the right to your property that gives you this utility.

      However, I do think your comment raises some interesting questions I can’t immediately answer, which I might write about in the future.

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