Phenomenologies of Home(liness)


To begin to explore how headphone listening may intersect with sonically constituted experiences of the “homely,” I now review phenomenological ideas of home, before outlining a model of “sonic homeliness.” Philosophical work addressing experiences of home and of the homely abounds. Home is often framed as emergent, fluid, and complex, albeit characterized by an assumed degree of affective constancy. Central to the experience of home are feelings of belonging – of home as a fundamental baseline and as a site of presumed stability in which one is welcome and comforted.


As such, being-at-home is often characterized in terms of familiarity and habit. For example, Gaston Bachelard writes in detail of his embodied memories of walking near to his house: 


How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness! […] When I relive dynamically the road that “climbed” the hill, I am quite sure that the road itself had muscles, or rather, counter-muscles. […] As I write this page, I feel freed of my duty to take a walk: I am sure of having gone out of my house. (Bachelard 2014: 33)


Bachelard experiences a near-materialization of his reminiscences as he writes, as though his memories of walking up the road are so vivid as to carry his body with them. The hill is conceived directly in terms of his embodiment, its “counter-muscles” constituting his experience as much as his own “muscular consciousness.” What is revealing here is the manner in which a homeworld becomes familiar through material action – that is, through extensive embodied engagement and habit formation.


Accounts such as Bachelard’s foreground the central role of embodiment in constructions of home. Yet to say that somewhere becomes a home solely through sustained embodied engagement does not suffice to explain the affective anchoring of the home. I may know the corridors and nooks of my workplace intimately, but that does not mean that I would consider such a place a home in any meaningful sense. Instead, being-at-home must be understood as a lived, felt reality. In a rich account of sensory experience after losing his sight later in life, John Hull details how he feels his body relates to his home-space, noting a heightened sense of being enveloped within and as part of it: “The house is an extension of my body. It is like a skin, something within which I can move and which is appropriate for the proportions of my body” (Hull 1997: 177). Hull’s description points toward an experience of home as something beyond that to which he is merely “acclimatized,” instead presenting the home as foundational to his constitution of “self.” Most compelling here is the notion of the home’s extreme “appropriateness” for the body, such that Hull regards the space of the home as an extension of his own corporeal space – as another “skin.” The home-space is therefore appropriated for his body’s needs and embedded into his affective consciousness. He has “made” the space a home through embodied practice and habituation; it is not pre-given, but lived (Lefebvre 1991), representing a space in which his body can nest so intimately that it may become incorporated into his broader sense of embodiment.


Conceiving of the home as a kind of “second skin” for an inhabitant (Leder 1990: 34; Serres 2008: 147) also reveals much about the assumed boundedness of the home – that homes serve to delimit inhabited space in concrete, meaningful ways. Bachelard characterizes being-at-home as a process of “englobing,” by which he means that a home is always already understood in terms of being “within,” as a space that “concentrates being within limits that protect” (Bachelard 2014: 29, 19). To be within a home is therefore to be inside something “greater” than the body. On this account, being-at-home may be framed as a process of becoming bounded as part of a relational structure that ensconces – and even extends – one’s own sense of embodiment. Moreover, phenomenologists note that the felt boundaries of a home are not only constituted in terms of the body but are also necessarily conceived in tandem with a perceived “outside” world. As Anthony Steinbock argues, if there is an important sense of being “inside” something that we experience as a home, there must necessarily be a co-generated alien “outside” beyond a home’s limits. In Steinbock’s words, “we are always already in a liminal encounter with the alienworld, co-constituting the alienworld by reconstituting the home as a normatively significant lifeworld” (Steinbock 1995: 181; original emphasis). Being-inside-home is therefore also a process of figuring meaningful divisions between “inner” and “outer,” and in turn producing spatial delimitations that are as securely felt as they are subject to change.


Despite its lived demarcation of inside and outside, a home is a necessarily permeable membrane, a space characterized as much by its boundaries as by its thresholds. Homes can be opened up to trusted visitors and to the extraneous sounds of the wider environment, just as they can be closed off, to varying degrees of efficacy, to unwanted guests and intrusive sounds. Kirsten Jacobson describes this in embodied terms, noting that, other than in the case of “our organic bodies, there is virtually no other place in our experience that maintains this kind of inviolable self-enclosure” (Jacobson 2009: 357). Home, for Jacobson, is best understood in broad terms as “a situation of refuge for us, a place or way of being in which ‘our own’ is privileged and ‘the alien’ is not manifestly present,” one that may be constituted in excess of pre-given geographical limits:


[E]ven when tangible doors are not present, people regularly set up markings of “their” space through explicit and implicit signs […]. What counts as outside is what is experienced by a person as such; no wall or door is necessary for making the inside versus outside distinction, nor is it necessarily sufficient for securing such a distinction. To be at home is to have a sanctuary of sorts […]. It is a place where one feels sheltered from outside intrusions and considerations, […] a space of familiarity. (Jacobson 2009: 357–58; original emphasis)


Here, Jacobson’s account invokes those experiences of the homely that do not fit simply into “the obvious Western instantiation of a privately owned house” (Jacobson 2009: 356). Her analysis therefore speaks to a more widely applicable notion of “homeliness” as a category of sheltered experience, one that is not limited to traditional models of the home-as-house. In addition, and perhaps most interestingly for the present purposes, Jacobson claims that because home is “that which belongs to us and marks out a space for us,” it may be said that “home is phenomenologically akin to our body” – that the body “is fundamentally the base of our actions, and this is equally true of our home” (Jacobson 2009: 359–360; see also Steinbock 1995: 233). Michel Serres draws similar comparisons between body and home, attending to the co-generation of interior and exterior in embodied terms: 


The house functions as a space of transformation where forces are calmed, like a high energy filter, or converter. Outside reigns harsh spring or unrelenting dawn, inside is the dream space of calm pictures which do not hinder conversation, inside the space of language is created. Like a skull, a brain. […] Second skin, enlarging our sensorium. (Serres 2008: 146–47)


Compelling as such analogies appear, conceptualizing the body-as-home has its phenomenological problems, not least given that the body must be understood as “not out there among things, but on my side,” that “the subject that I am, understood concretely, is inseparable from this particular body” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: 94, 431), and therefore that subjecthood is necessarily indivisible from embodiment.[2] Moreover, as we have seen, a home must be understood as a space into which my body must fit or become “merged” with – as in some sense enveloping me in order that I may be inside of it. Yet to think of myself as being “inside” my body in the same way that I might be within the space of a home is a postulation as phenomenologically counterintuitive as it is symptomatic of a broader Cartesian apologism regarding the body as distinct from consciousness – something that Maurice Merleau-Ponty is quick to consider when he writes that “I am not in front of my body, I am in my body, or rather I am my body” (Merleau-Ponty 2012: 151).[3] It is important to note, then, that Jacobson’s and Serres’s comparisons of home and body should not be regarded as uncritically eliding the two conceptual categories but instead as inviting us to acknowledge the “foundational” role of both bodies and homes by way of analogy.


Maintaining her focus on the body’s central role in home-making, Jacobson contends that spaces not immediately experienced as “homely” can be made more comforting through technological mediation, enabling us to “establish a new – even if temporary – place for ourselves, a home away from home” (Jacobson 2009: 369). By embedding familiar objects and media into the fabric of an unfamiliar space, individuals can increase their sense of security and belonging:


A person with a developed habit of reading, for instance, may carry a book with her if she anticipates needing to sit alone at a restaurant or fill time waiting for someone [… so as] to find a way of settling herself into a surrounding that does not belong to her. The person has carried her home, so to speak, with her. (Jacobson 2009: 369; original emphasis)


Here, it is not the body alone that produces the individual’s sense of being-at-home but the relational nexus that is formed between the individual’s body and a familiar technology. The book functions as a medium through which an individual may “carry” their home – or, as I would prefer to frame it, aspects of the homely – alongside them as they traverse the “alienworld.” Like the furniture that decorates a traditional home-space, one may take objects into the alienworld as a means of “refurnishing” one’s own sense of personal space. Such everyday technologies can serve to mediate experiences of embodied space, enabling individuals to carve out pockets of refuge in unfamiliar zones.


Emerging throughout the phenomenological arguments considered above is a series of theoretical postulations that can be synthesized into an idealized, yet cogent and tangible, model of “homeliness”:


  1. A space may only become homely through intimate, embodied, and affective practice. As such, the home may be understood as an extension or an envelopment of the body. 
  2. While the body should not be considered a home in and of itself, embodied space can be made more homely through technological mediation, understood here as the use of technologies to configure the felt familiarity and lived experience of one’s immediate environment. 
  3. What constitutes homeliness for any individual should be understood as a complex constellation of previous experiences, be they of physical homes, of broader, non-situated feelings of “warmth,” safety, and comfort, and/or of culturally mediated ideals of the homely.
  4. To become homely, a space must have meaningful, lived boundaries, which may be temporary or more permanent, static or mobile, and through which the lifeworlds of “inside” familiarity and “outside” alienness are co-generated.
  5. Within said boundaries, a space must be “furnished” with materials – physical or otherwise – whose perceived meanings encompass the affective dimensions of comfort, security, and “warmth.” 


I now wish to adopt these theoretical predicates as a substrate from which to investigate whether headphones may be said to mediate listeners’ experiences of felt homeliness. In what follows, through direct engagement with first-person accounts of headphone listening, I analyze the relationship between headphones’ sonic-spatial affordances and listeners’ reported feelings of protection, safety, and comfort. First, I nuance and develop the headphone bubble model through a close examination of listeners’ experiences of the spatial dimensionality and boundedness of headphone use, considering such experiences in tandem with individuals’ descriptions of certain “homely” characteristics of headphone listening.