Introduction: Temporary Possession

From the Series: Temporary Possession

Photo by Rebecca Empson.

At a prestigious auction house in London, as the hammer descended to confirm the final offer on a painting, the item in question destroyed itself through a shredder embedded in the frame. People looked on in horror as guards wrangled the painting away from public view. Something usually thought of as a stable investment retaining its value over time was transformed into something temporary, blurring the boundaries of what was owned or possessed and by whom.

In this series, we explore shifts in forms of possession around the world. One generation ago it seemed as if people believed in the possibility of outright ownership of books, videos, music, cars, houses, and land. Now, people experience access to a range of different assets through apps, subscriptions, and a variety of rental options that grant use on a temporary or open-source basis. As the legal scholar Hanne Petersen highlights in her contribution to the series, intangible property regimes, digital currencies, and the proliferation of debt are eroding private property as we have come to know it, making the concept outdated and in certain respects dysfunctional. Limited and contingent access to resources, objects, and forms of wealth define contemporary capitalisms, generating new patchworks of association between those who own, those who possess, and those who manage the relations in between.

Given widespread shifts to the temporary, we ask: How do people access things that allow them to live well? Through what means and brokered by which agents are they able to do so? What is the difference between use and possession, and how does their blurring create spaces for innovation?

Many features of temporary possession echo ideas about usufructory ownership. A concept with roots in Roman law, usufruct denotes a legal relationship in which someone may be granted temporary access to a thing (res) while it remains owned by someone else. What grows (can be reaped, derived, enjoyed, or can yield interest) out of such temporary access may be held in possession by the user, even as ownership is retained by another. This series thinks with the temporary access characteristic of usufruct as a theory machine (see Helmreich 2011) to interrogate contemporary states and strategies of disaggregated ownership.

In the essays that follow we see how temporary possession allows for access to a range of resources and assets, but on the condition that we broker relations with custodians or owners, and on terms that are not always our own. In fact, the boundaries between who determines access to what is often ambiguous. For example, portioning access among leftovers or sections involves an array of intermediates, trusted third parties who allocate and manage these allotments—often at a distance and through complex technopolitical arrangements. Yet, even if possession is granted, use may not always follow suit, as Antonia Walford reveals in her example of data cleaners in Brazil.

The rise of temporary possession appears linked to the prevalence of complex forms of financialization and changing forms of governance. Scholars have deployed concepts like accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2004) and precarity (Allison 2013; Muehlebach 2013; Han 2018) to describe relations of dependency, inequality, and insecurity that have made ownership, control, and stability feel fleeting and out of reach. In the background here are complex processes of privatization, deregulation, offshoring, outsourcing, debt, austerity, crisis management, and enclosure.

Individuals are increasingly tasked with responding to such shifts by embracing the temporary through participation in the so-called sharing economy (Rival), or by cultivating resilience to navigate uncertainty (Evans and Reid 2014). While this may be experienced as an imposition by the excesses of industrial modernity (Tsing 2015), new colonialisms, and global environmental changes (Chakrabarty 2009), the essays in this series also reveal that the shift to temporary possession can be a deliberate strategy for living and reworlding (Zigon 2014).

It is here that temporary possession carves out a space for difference and variation within forms of contemporary capitalism, a dynamic that Rebekah Plueckhahn explores in urban Mongolia. As J. K. Gibson-Graham (1995), the Gens collective, and others have highlighted, capitalism contains messy edges, multiple owners, spillages, salvage, and leftovers that allow innovation and difference to flourish. We seek to engage in acts of noticing such spaces, allowing us to explore a plethora of ways that temporary possession permits new possibilities, freeing resources from past structures that restricted access and use.

In food justice movements around the world, for instance, people utilize new access to gather crops left in fields (Bize), where the role of the leftover destabilizes ownership such that the one who gleans “takes without taking.” In Xenia Cherkaev’s study of Bail Bloc, an app that mines a cryptocurrency, owners are obliged to produce leftovers for others to use, so that the question of fructus (who benefits) generates unexpected access. Luiz Costa’s example from the Kanamari turns a master–custodian relation on its head, playing on ideas about who possesses whom, transforming a potentially difficult relation of servitude into one of profit.

The proliferation of the temporary is, we argue, a fundamental feature of a new kind of capitalism. This is a kind of capitalism that is more financialized than the privatization characteristic of the 1990s and 2000s, with a greater blurring of private and public domains and increasingly hazy demarcations of responsibility and sovereignty (Sassen 2014; Bear 2015). While neoliberal policy focused on monetarism (Guyer 2007), rising private interests, and the rollback of the state, now it is difficult to know who owns or manages what. The prominence of public–private partnerships (Muehlebach) and the growth of transnational infrastructure projects (Schindler) are striking examples of how opaque and spatially distributed ownership has become. This quality has critical implications for struggles over use, control, care, and responsibility of resources, since it is not necessarily clear at which authority struggles (be they environmental, economic, or political) should be directed. Obfuscating ownership—temporally and spatially—can absolve responsibility and blur intentionality.

Temporary possession is, then, not just a new mode of ownership that sustains capitalism; it has begun to radically change familiar forms of capitalism. While foreclosing certain ways of living, it also opens space for innovation, access, and flexibility, allowing alternative ontological projects to emerge. In light of these diverse features of temporary possession emerging at the edges of our perception, we call for ways to rethink our vocabularies and concepts around property and ownership, illuminating that within contemporary capitalism there are the seeds of new worlds in becoming.


In addition to those who attended the “Rethinking Usufruct” workshop from which many of these contributions have been gleaned, we wish to thank the Emerging Subjects Research Group at University College London and the National University of Mongolia, as well as the Anthropology of Capitalisms course at UCL for extended discussions around this topic. A European Research Council grant (ERC-2013-CoG, no. 615785) helped support this project.


Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Bear, Laura. 2015. Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt along a South Asian River. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2: 197–222.

Evans, Brad, and Julian Reid. 2014. Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1995. “Identity and Economic Plurality: Rethinking Capitalism and ‘Capitalist Hegemony.’Environment and Planning D 13, no. 3: 275–82.

Guyer, Jane I. 2007. “Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time.” American Ethnologist 34, no. 3: 409–421.

Han, Clara. 2018. “Precarity, Precariousness, and Vulnerability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47: 331–43.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2011. “Nature/Culture/Seawater.” American Anthropologist 113, no. 1: 132–44.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2013. “On Precariousness and the Ethical Imagination: The Year 2012 in Sociocultural Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 2: 297–311.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2014. “An Ethics of Dwelling and a Politics of World-Building: A Critical Response to Ordinary Ethics.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, no. 4: 746–64.