Allison Turner

Society of Fellows in the Humanities
Columbia University

Lives of property

Course Description

Today, John Locke (1632-1704) is famous for his “labor theory of property”—the idea that persons acquire property in objects by mixing their labor with the materials that had previously been common to all: you make it, it’s yours. Locke’s theory defined the person as the sort of entity who was capable of using his body for this purpose—for the purpose of acquiring property. In this course, whose title is drawn from Brenna Bhandar’s book on the racialized logic of European property law, we’ll interrogate Locke’s theory by exploring how his conception of personhood intersected with emergent conceptions of race, gender, and class in the colonial Atlantic world. We will explore how the notion of the person as both capable of possession and self-possessed helped to produce racialized and gendered subject positions that were coded as pathological and subordinate, respectively. We’ll be interested, too, in the historical and economic transformations that meant increasingly that those who actually labored with their bodies were not, in fact, the owners of their products. Through readings of fiction and poetry, political and philosophical treatises, slave narratives, as well as legal texts and cases, we will explore how the post-Lockean distribution of personhood affected the lives of laborers, women, and enslaved Africans. We will read works by authors including Locke, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Steven Duck, Mary Collier, Mary Leapor, James Grainger, Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Thomas Jefferson, Phyllis Wheatley, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Maria Edgeworth, and others, as well as an anonymous work, The Woman of Colour.