The objects that people interact with on a daily basis speak to and of these people who acquire, display, and handle them—the relationship is one of exchange. People living among household objects come to care for their things, identify with them, and think of them as a constituent part of themselves. A meaningful problem arises, however, when people who have deep connections to the objects that populate their lived spaces are not those who possess the legal rights of ownership. These individuals and groups—usually excluded from the realm of property ownership along lines of gender, race, and ethnicity—live on an axis of property precarity, persistently subject to the anxieties as well as the realities of dispossession. This Article’s launching point to explore these dispossessions is Henry James’ novel, The Spoils of Poynton, which involves a dispute about the settlement of a father’s estate and describes the battle between mother and son over the furnishings of the family home, Poynton. On a descriptive level, The Spoils of Poynton is a novel about a wife’s dispossession and the gendered nature of inheritance. The novel is also, however, about the exclusions built into property theories of labor and personhood. Accordingly, this Article explicates tactics of dispossession inherent in traditional theories of property ownership, explores the legal claims made to property ownership by those who have been dispossessed, and analyzes the ways in which the meaning of property for these individuals and communities is reconstituted within the political imaginary. The novel therefore tells the story not only of a property conflict between mother and son but also of how individuals who straddle the fragile boundary between personhood and objecthood both experience property as liminal fragments of the rightsholder they could have been and perform their property ownership as a political declaration. In this way, the novel tells the story of what it is like to live in the home of the dispossessed.
Allison Tait, Home of the Dispossessed, Michigan Journal of Gender & Law (2022).