Sunday, August 29, 2010

Personhood, Property and Pamphlets

The New York Times is running an interesting story about an online collection of real estate pamphlets, curated and displayed by Columbia University's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.  The collection includes pamphlets from as long ago as the 1880s to as recent as the 1970s (interestingly, if you browse through the sample that accompanies the Times article, you are interrupted by . . . real estate pamphlets).

There are over 9,000 pamphlets in the collection, which is enough to sidetrack an obsessive like me for weeks, but they are fascinating.  One immediate realization: advertisers understood that property is an extension of personhood long before Radin's seminal work.  Look at the this advertisement:

20100829scapes-custom5It's beautiful, and the image perfectly captures the address of the property: One Gracie Square.  What's missing entirely, of course, is the actual, physical property.  What's for sale here is a piece of 'personhood' -- graciousness, elegance, a way of being.  Don Draper would have understood it perfectly.

By contrast, the least effective pamphlets are the ones that focus on the physical aspects of the property.  They are informative but don't stir the idea of oneself -- which is the essence, in some ways, of the property as personhood idea.

It might be useful to use these pamphlets as a discussion launcher when teaching a case like Kelo -- what, after all, is really at stake for Mrs. Kelo, and taps into our outrage, other than a sense that something intrinsic to a person's identity is being demolished?

Mark Edwards

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