Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Property Theory and HBO's Deadwood (part 5)

I previously discussed how Deadwood portrays the link between property and power -- i.e., how property creates a sphere of sovereignty that can be used as a force both for tyranny and liberty.  In this final post on Deadwood, I'd like to focus on what the show suggests about the link between property and identity.

Most discussions of this subject begin with Hegel's philosophy, which posited that individuals need property to become self-actualized.  Hegel defined a "person" as "a consciously free will . . . consist[ing] in a formal, simple and pure reference to itself as a separate and independent unit."  A chief problem for the person, so defined, is that it lives in a world of physical things and, therefore, must somehow interact with those things in order to express itself.  This is where property comes in, providing the material mechanism by which the will achieves some objective realization.  As most propertyprofs know, Margaret Jane Radin built on these ideas in her influential article, Property and Personhood, 34 Stan. L. Rev. 957 (1982).  In that article, Radin argued for a continuum of property rights based on the degree to which the property at issue formed a part of its owner's identity.  Radin suggested that property can be more than just an object or bundle of rights; rather, in certain cirucmstances it also can be something that is "almost part of [oneself]," id. at 959.

These ideas loom large in Deadwood, where the gold seems to be the driving agent behind almost all of the characters' activities.  In Hegelian fashion, the residents of Deadwood seem to find initial actualization by relating to their physical environments.  The surrounding gold deposits act as the catalyst that both draws them to the camp and determines their actions once there.  The gold becomes a part of who they are as persons.  But in their individualistic quests for the gold, something else happens -- a community beings to emerge.  Their separate relationships with the gold -- an external commodity -- begin to bind them together in deep and powerful ways.  The gold not only becomes a part of each individual's own personal story, it also entwines those stories with the stories of others, forming a common narrative in the process.  This, too, seems to comport with Hegel's ideas, which suggested that the self-actualization that begins with property ultimately leads to better expressions of the self in the context of relationships with other persons -- primarily in the family and the state.

An vivid example of this occurs in Season Three, where Hearst's machinations against the town are in full vigor.  As noted in my last post, the only significant counter to the threat posed by Hearst comes from the gold claim of Alma Garrett, which has alluded Hearst's grasp.  The rest of the town, understanding the significance of her claim and the strength it provides, gradually begins to identify with Garrett.  At one point, Hearst's gunmen take shots at Alma as she is walking down the street, an act that seems to be more about intimidation than a desire to take her life.  The town nonetheless rallies to her rescue, including some of her former enemies who had designs on her claim themselves.  Through their shared relationships with the gold, the residents of Deadwood begin to relate and identify with one another.

In Deadwood, we see how property can help shape both individual and collective identity.  As the characters' individual relationships to property become bound up with the individuals themselves, and those individuals become bound up with each other, a larger collective is formed that is also linked to (and by) property.  Thus, the property in Deadwood simultaneously serves as a means of promoting both individual freedom and community welfare.

Mike Kent

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