Thursday 2 April 2020

Reframing Home

Over the past couple of weeks (and most likely for the foreseeable future), home in all its imperfect glory has become a site for reflection, and so it seems timely to reflect on the language and framing of 'home' in the context of quarantine and forced isolation. The government's mantra of 'Stay home, protect the NHS save lives' is being repeated ad infinitum, but what isn't being considered within this frame is the politicised nature of domestic space and place. What is meant by 'home', and what ideal is being invoked by it?  This blog attempts to provoke some thinking and as ever I would be really interested to hear your views.

'Home' as promoted in Conservative party ideology suggests a hetero-normative calling to a world of standard families, warm sunny gardens, the scent of fresh baking and the sound of happy children crafting in spacious rooms downstairs. The reality for most, of course, is something quite different. Home, as a concept, is never neutral; it is an ideological as well as physical space, and this global crisis is calling these unspoken assumptions into question.  For many, home may be 'not-work'; a space of antithesis and refuge from a neo-liberal world of forced productivity and consumption. For others, particularly those at risk of domestic violence and coercion, home invokes a sense of threat or imprisonment. Home, for those bound to it through disability and caring responsibilities, will have long been problematised, and isolation may well be nothing new. Meanwhile, the nuclear family of two heterosexual parents and 2.4 children, routed in humanist ideals, has long since stopped being a standard, and is certainly not something to aspire to (if it ever was).   As Stacy Alaimo (2016, p.17) states '...domestic space has served as the defining container for the Western ''human'', a bounded space, wrought by delusions of safety, fed by consumerism, and fueled by nationalist fantasies.''

We are also seeing the leaky boundaries of home, as work creeps into spaces which may have previously appeared impermeable. Rooms are now being given over to makeshift work spaces and classrooms; 'surveillance creep' via management diktat to log hours and productivity is becoming commonplace.  We're reminded of Foucault's 'panopticon', where '...disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. ...It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.' (1977, p.187)  We are realising the extent of the leakiness of bodies too, as fears of the virus contaminating parcels, supermarket food and leaflets dropping through the letterbox remind us daily that our home is no longer our castle. Our houses - just like our bodies - are full of holes. 

Harriet, Inside
We are realising the unbounded nature of our local environments. From Welsh mountain goats to foxes and deer in East London; social media is full of stories of nature reclaiming spaces which were previously overrun by cars and humans rushing about their daily business. The nature/culture binary, and seeking of 'pure' spaces 'just for us' are being truly troubled; just as invisible viruses transcend our breathing space, so animals previously kept out through imagined or physical boundaries are beginning to return.  Perhaps it is time to rethink humans as species, as we move from anthropocentric frames to an understanding of a greater and much-needed relationality. After all, we marvel at the architectural skills of bees without respecting them as architects. Is it time to decentre the human and begin to see ourselves as more animal, whilst at the same time elevating our views of the 'minds' of non-human others?

These re-imaginings are not easy, and old habits of mind are hard to break. In re-thinking our relationships to the natural world, Alaimo refers to Walter de Maria's art installation, New York Earth Room; a permanent exhibition of soil filling a city apartment to waist-height. Visitors can view the earth and breath in the smell, wondering at the juxtaposition of pristine white walls and ageing humus. As ever, art can offer a route into reconfiguring our understanding of the nature/human divide, and in the months to come, may well play a key role in the emergence of a new sociological imaginary.

The zoonotic nature of the virus, and the increasing sense of blurred boundaries (both human and non-) speaks to the breakdown of dualistic beliefs which have separated humans both physically and ideologically from the natural world.  For me, this time of interregnum raises the following questions. What might it mean to embrace multi-species living, but with a new respect for difference and kinship? What does it say about entrenched global and local inequalities, and how do we challenge Western dualisms which perpetuate ideas of difference? And what might it mean for our homes, to know that we were never really separated at all?

Alaimo, S. 2016. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

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