The Rhetoric of Self-Ownership

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
AuthorTorrey Shanks
Subject MatterArticle
Political Theory
2019, Vol. 47(3) 311 –337
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718786471
The Rhetoric of Self-
Torrey Shanks1
This essay considers self-ownership as a rhetorical and political practice.
Scholarly attention to the rhetoric of self-ownership, notably in feminist
theory, often rejects the term for its capacity to distort and fragment notions
of the self, the body, social relations, and labor. The ambiguous character of
self-ownership, in this view, carries the risk of subversion of more inclusive
and relational uses. Adopting a broader notion of rhetoric as creative and
effective speech, I recast self-ownership from this critical depiction through
a revised understanding of C. B. Macpherson’s possessive individualism and
then to the texts of John Locke, the Levellers, and the Putney Debates. These
early-modern exemplars offer insights into the political promises and risks
of the rhetoric of self-ownership that contemporary critics obscure. The
ambiguity and plurality too often rendered as a liability for self-ownership
instead offer conditions for its agonistic invocation for novel claims and
emerging audiences.
self-ownership, rhetoric, property, the Levellers, possessive individualism
The language of self-ownership is a powerful political idiom and a contested
term of political philosophy. There is a deceptive simplicity to John Locke’s
iconic claim that “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This nobody
1Political Science Department, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Torrey Shanks, Political Science Department, University of Toronto, 100 St. George St.,
Sidney Smith Hall 3018, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada.
786471PTXXXX10.1177/0090591718786471Political TheoryShanks
312 Political Theory 47(3)
has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his
Hands, we may say, are properly his.”1 Centuries later, the language remains,
but disagreement runs so deep as to its meaning and uses that it is not uncom-
mon to encounter a call to discard the term altogether. As Alan Ryan cautions,
“Self-ownership is so intrinsically contestable a notion that appeals to it are
rhetorically ill-advised.”2 Jennifer Nedelsky concurs on the irredeemably
riven nature of the term: “property looks to some like the perfect vehicle to
power and autonomy and to others like the path to oppression.”3 Such conclu-
sive judgments notwithstanding, self-ownership is a remarkably tenacious
idea in politics and political theory. We need only to recall the classic feminist
text Our Bodies, Our Selves and the protest signs for reproductive rights of
the 2017 Women’s March—“My Body, My Choice,” “Mind Your Own
Uterus,” “Get your tiny hands off my rights!”—to recognize the persistence
of self-ownership in contemporary politics. Perhaps this persistence is not
simply intransigence of political actors in heeding the calls of political phi-
losophers to relinquish the notion of self-ownership. Self-ownership, as a
number of its critics assert, is more than a concept; it is also a rhetoric.
The irony is that those scholars who recognize the rhetorical functions of
self-ownership are, for the most part, those most intent on eliminating it from
the political and theoretical lexicon. The greatest strides in considering self-
ownership as a rhetoric have been made by feminist theorists, attending to
differentially gendered modes of labor and embodiment. They recognize the
force of self-ownership is due in part to its qualities as fiction, metaphor, and
rhetoric, as it has been variously labeled by Carole Pateman, Anne Phillips,
and Rosalind Petchesky.4 While they identify the promises and dangers of
self-ownership in different ways, their turn to rhetoric acknowledges the plu-
rality of language and its power to frame perceptions. For the most part, how-
ever, they adopt a negative view of these effects. Phillips’ Our Bodies, Whose
Property? exemplifies this tendency when she writes, “The metaphors of
property encourage fantasies of the person as separable from her capacities
and the self as separable from her body.”5 Self-ownership, here, is an error in
a way of speaking, taking what should be inalienable selfhood—bodies and
embodied labor included—for marketable goods, obscuring human vulnera-
bility and material differences. We can and should speak otherwise, in this
view, about ourselves and our social and political arrangements, eschewing
property as an idiom for the self.
Such criticism recalls C. B. Macpherson’s critique of self-ownership as
“possessive individualism,” although he never significantly addressed gender
or rhetoric. Feminist concerns with atomized and commodified views of the
self and body, available for exchange on unequal market terms, affirm
Macpherson’s diagnosis of the narrowly conceived liberal individual as

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