BEATI POSSIDENTES[1]

Adrian Mihalache

 

1. The Rightful and the Just

Property may be sacred according to some, a theft according to others. Both camps refuse to realize it is a burden. It has to be maintained, nurtured, cared for, and defended. It makes you feel responsible and takes you down to earth when inspiration calls you elsewhere. The eye of the needle is too small for the camel-property to pass through.[2]

 

The respect for property is a mark of civilization. A man of property is assumed to be proper, and concern with property suggests respect for propriety. Capitalist ideology founded property rights on the habeas corpus, i.e., on the unquestionable authority over one’s body. Indeed, property is the natural extension of one’s body, a body strained in the effort of producing it, or subject to the risk of mutilation when fighting for it. It is also the prize for the bright who managed to play skillfully in games of exchange. The right one has to possess what one created, conquered, bought or inherited[3] stems from the fundamental right one exerts over one’s body, mind and soul, wherein lie power, patience, courage and talent.  The respect for property is equivalent to the respect for the human being.

 

The laws that protect and guarantee the right to one’s property provide the framework wherein the drama of possession is performed. This drama enacts the tense confrontation between the subject and the object, the desire that arises from it, and its most improbable fulfillment. Indeed, while property is tangible and, as such, can be protected, possession is illusory, hence deceptive. To what extent can we possess what we rightfully own, how long can we preserve what, by chance, we once possessed are questions which puzzle and obsess the righteous, as well as the just. Examining the issue of property in cyberspace may provide such questions, if not with appropriate answers, at least with some meaningful refinements.

 

Property and Position

In cyberspace, property is not a commodity, but a place. To own a domain relates to the essence of nobility and, as such, can be legitimized only by taking risks. The nobleman holds to his domain, defends it with his arms and adorns his name with glory. The cyber-smith holds to its web site and covers its domain-name with prestige. The first ingredient of cyber-prestige is the e-mail address. A good cyber-address shows cyber-people who you are. A name which reproduces exactly your RL (real life) identity may be convenient to remember, but is usually too long to type.[4] Use of first names is childish, especially as they seldom single one out.[5] Next come the ISP (Internet Service Provider), which should be prestigious, and the TLD (Top Level Domain), which should be dignified. Their combination confers on the owner a position in cyberspace, similar to occupying a good address in real life. Madame de Sévigné, perhaps the greatest letter-writer of all times, could have proudly used as an address sevigne@marais.fr, since she lived in Marais, one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. However, there are important differences between a good real life address and a good cyber-address. The fact that you live in the East Village, Bloomsbury, Schwabing or St Germain des Prés does not necessarily imply that you carry on with the literary people who also live there.

 

On the contrary, being appointed to a specific server simply means that: (a) you can afford to share the services of precisely this ISP with a specific, hopefully constrained, group and (b) you belong to the category indicated by the top-level domain. Usually, the two meanings are strictly connected. For instance, in the case of malbright@whitehouse.gov the TLD gov could not be changed to edu, com, org, net, or mil. Moreover, if one belongs, say, to the academic world, one’s address will be naturally related to the TLD edu.[6] As a private person with a commercial ISP, one will get the TLD com, irrespective of whether one is in trade or not. aol.com, as a popular provider, does not lend any sparkle or distinction to one's address. The free e-mail provided by many a site may be convenient, but it is by no means distinguished: hotmail.com, netscape.net, yahoo.com are practical, but common.[7] A cyber-address resembles the combination title-name of a nobleman. Both suggest a spatial localization, but signify a social position. Edmond, Count of Monte Cristo is not necessarily the owner of the island Monte Cristo, neither is he supposed to live there. However, Edmond would be a beautiful name for a cyber-agent; “of” an old-fashioned @; Monte Cristo a sonorous ISP; and “count” (or “baron,” “duke,” “prince” etc.) plays perfectly the part of a TLD. In summary, a good e-mail address should satisfy the following requirements: (a) it is euphonic, so that it can easily be remembered and (b) it suggests one’s position in cyberspace by indicating the type of interest and/or the kind of people one is involved with.

 

The second element of cyber-prestige is the domain-name.  “What’s in a name?” wondered Juliet, persuading Romeo to give up his Montague name, since “that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet was utterly wrong as far as the importance of signs is concerned and her tragedy proves it. She played a risky game with signs, i.e. with the symptoms of her apparent death, assuming that it is only “the real thing” that matters. However, no sign manipulation is innocent; the play proves that it can be quite dangerous. Today, when the domain names of cyberspace are auctioned off at spectacular prices, nobody doubts the value of a name. An attractive, suggestive, meaningful and easy-to-remember name is a gold mine: business.com was auctioned for 7.5 million USD and loans.com for 3 million. Unfortunately, the majority of such names under the TLD com are already sold out. That is why the would-be proprietors of cyberspace wait breathlessly for new TLDs to emerge, such as shop, news, bank or info. The creation of these domains would be similar to the discovery of new continents to be colonized. However, ICANN is, at least for the time being, opposed to the proliferation of TLDs, trying to keep some measure of control over the expansion of cyberspace.

 

A clever way around this problem has, not surprisingly, been devised. There are some countries which do not consider their extension in cyberspace to be their most pressing problem, so that they are willing to give up their names to shrewd entrepreneurs who can eventually commercialize them. The procedure is somewhat akin to the practice of registering companies in fiscal havens or to the borrowing of convenient pavilions to serve many a shipping-magnate's interests. For example, the name of Moldova Republic (md), very attractive for medical web sites, has sold for 299USD. The Cocoas Islands exchanged their TLD (cc), which appealingly suggests credit card or computerized commerce, against an investment in a company dealing with seafood processing.[8] Sometimes, the natives make things difficult for the cyber-people. The 49 habitants of the Pitcairn Islands, led by Tom Christian, the descendent of Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutiny, protested against the appropriation of their TLD, pn, by an English company. ICANN eventually imposed the restitution of the name.

 

The significance of the name in cyber-positioning can endow the property of a site -- irrespective of its commercial purposes -- with an aristocratic touch. The cyber-smith and the nobleman both want to display their respective properties for the admiration of others, whom they eventually lead into temptation.

2. 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 as well; 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 have been made to assess the quality of web sites, an endeavor which would enable the cyber-surfer to be lured to specific sites, rather than merely directed to sites at random. 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 in/correctness), or from their inclusion in search engines. It requires a multiplicity of assessing-sites which function similarly to literary or art criticism, together developing a multimedia meta-discourse about the meanings, intricacy, and relevance of the various offerings of the web.

 

Property and Position

"You t reat me like an object, like a painting from your collection," cries out Lady Hamilton,[9] a “new woman” in revolt against aristocratic values. “You probably ignore how much I cherish my paintings,” replies the husband with dignity. 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 possession of a prestigious body. Paintings and sculpture preserve the corporeal 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 is capable of emanating. 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 on the part 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, the result is that the property comes to possess the possessor, in the sense that Blake unveiled in his claim that “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, from 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 survey it, to take a keepsake. True possession would have required 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 time as well 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 Persepolis,”[10] but also for the financial 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, destroying its past with it. “One possesses only what one destroys,” the phantom of Genghis Khan whispered in his ear. 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 of it, a moving symbol of the impossibility of possession.

 

When Property Becomes Possession

There is however, a last means to turn property into a possession: by assimilation. I undoubtedly possess what I eat, since this raw material becomes part of me, part of my body, my energy, and my life. Desiring is overcome by devouring: the food is initially destroyed, but then it is transmuted. I possess what I eat not because I sweep it out of being, but because I transform it into my being. It is easy to extend this pattern of relationship to other objects of desire besides 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, real destruction is nonexistent; possession involves only symbolic deconstruction, which leaves the symbolic object intact, while providing the bricks with which another object may be constructed. A book is not possessed by buying it and putting in on a shelf, nor can one take possession of it by reading 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 holds 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 the opportunity to reach possession by disregarding property. In the French 17th Century retelling of the Odyssey, the hero claims that he is a little bit of all that he has met. The cyber-surfer is also a selection of sites. If the fragments gathered are sufficiently small and their re-composition innovatively meaningful, cyber-appropriation has the chance to be transmuted into cyber-possession.

 

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[1] Happy Possessors (Latin)

[2] Contrary to the popular translation of Mathew 19, 24, the philologists have shown that it is not the camel that is aupposed to pass through the eye of the needle (that would be downright ridiculous), but a camel-hair rope.

[3] There is a natural continuity between my body and those of my ancestors.

[4] Adrian_Mihalache is punctilious with its two capitals, adrian_mihalache is long and by no means euphonic. I also use the alias mad, which may be funny and, I think, mnemotechnic, but many complain that it is cryptic.

[5] I have never thought Adrian was so common.

[6] It is very rare that the ISP should impose a specific name on the cyber-agent. In spite of my protestations, I had to accept the non-euphonic name mihalachea as a condition for belonging to wmich.edu.

[7] The address  adrian_mihalache@hotmail.com is my favorite as far as speed and user-friendliness are concerned. However, I inscribed mihalachea@wmich.edu on my real life card

[8] Cf. Tom Feran In The Plain Dealer, March 19, 2000.

[9] Vivien Leigh in Alexander Korda’s 1942 patriotic movie.

[10] Marlowe’s Tamerlan.