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  • Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing
  • Carolyn Sorisio (bio)
Katharine Adams . Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 264 pp. ISBN 978-0195336801, $65.00.

Katherine Adams's Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing focuses on four nineteenth-century women writers' life writing. However, she neither studies life writing as a genre nor revisits questions of classification and form. Rather, she explores how "the figure of imperiled privacy" contributed to representations of US national identity and belonging between 1840-1890 (20, 6). Her scope is broad, and she insightfully connects life writing to privacy discourse and a number of related contexts, in particular African American/white race relations.

The breadth of Adams's study suggests any number of texts that merit analysis. Yet Adams argues that life writing functions as a "metadiscourse that both generates and investigates public privacy," and therefore allows an examination of "privacy discourse at its most self-conscious." Her choice of women [End Page 384] writers is political and theoretical. Adams challenges previous scholarship on US privacy, which focuses primarily on canonical white male authors and ignores the importance of gender and race. She claims that the writers she studies made "particularly self-conscious use of a self-conscious genre" in part because of their embodied experiences and identities. "As black and white women they symbolized privacy," Adams argues, "but did not possess it." As such, they had to "negotiate and revise it from within" (6-7). As indicated by her choice of writers, Adams's nuanced analysis of privacy investigates the intersections among representations of race, gender, privacy, and national identity.

Her first chapter, "Introduction: Imperiled Privacy," critiques earlier studies for assuming a trajectory from republicanism to liberalism, "wherein private life is said to replace public-political activity as the locus of democratic freedom and identity." By contrast, Adams argues, "liberal and republican understandings of privacy coexist in political discourse, so that seemingly incompatible concepts . . . circulate concurrently under the same sign." Adams takes issue with recent scholars for failing to recognize that privacy is not located outside of the public sphere but rather "accessed via public mediation and subject to public negotiation." The recognition of privacy's public nature, in which "the badge of inalienable private selfhood is only ever acquired through strategies of self-display and public circulation," allows for an understanding of privacy discourse as the site "where battles are waged for public authority and national belonging." In summary, nineteenth-century Americans "recognized privacy as a public production" connected to national identity (7-8).

Although Adams eschews linear narratives of privacy, she identifies one shift. If privacy signified "the legal and material status of private ownership" at the opening of the century, by the century's close it signified "a condition of inviolable, psychospiritual selfhood," one that was "insistently anti-material" and idealized as beyond economic and corporeal vulnerability (4). Privacy discourse throughout the century wavers between these views; it is predicated upon a "fantasy of not being owned that is driven by fear of being owned" (11). Three terms are central to understanding Adams's argument: "self-(non)possession," privation, and privitization. Adams deploys self-(non) possession to emphasize privacy's "inherently unstable and dynamic nature." The self-(non)possessive subject negotiates between two extremes: it "refuses any possibility of a selfhood that is divisible from itself " (and thus escapes commodification and appropriation), and it also "defends against the opposite extreme: a self so unmediated that it lacks self-mastery, self-consciousness, or any self-relation at all" (a state that Adams compares to Hannah Arendt's concept of privation). The "self-(non)possessive subject is implicitly white, male, and propertied." Yet self-(non)possessive subjects were situated within an economic market that required the "political and economic privitization [End Page 385] of white women and blacks," and a symbolic structure that often represented white women and African Americans as embodying privation. Therefore, privacy discourse "mimics, naturalizes, and legitimates the inequities of property by figuring white women and blacks as ontologically incapable of possessing or...


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