Home, Home Again
Home, in the singular, could easily be heard as a place to gather privately against the collective, one home against another. Indeed, it cannot be heard otherwise unless there arises a force that counters the idea of individualistic separation as an echo of the capitalistic appropriation that drives most contemporary relations to housing and inhabitation. The etymology of the notion seems to already offer this countering force with its intrinsically communal dimension: “home” is the modern expression of hām, which in Old English denotes a village, a “collection of dwellings” (Hoad 2003). This inherent collective dimension implies that a reflection on the sonic expressions arising from home must interact with the political resonances emerging from this domain.
One of the primary characteristics expressed through the notion of home is that it is based on a constant process of division: between an interior and an exterior, owners and tenants, occupant and outsiders, welcomed visitors and intruders, etc. What is encompassed by “home” is always the result of a division implying operations of distinction, distinctions based on various attributes, status, qualities, and capacities involving diverse mechanisms of categorization. In such operations of distinction, the determination of a specific threshold in order to demarcate and, more importantly, to control access to thehome is often crucial. Thus, the home is the private space par excellence. If, as sociologist Irwin Altman (1976: 8) states, privacy is a selective control of access to the self – an operation essential to the very definition of that self – then the frontier of any private domain is the site of the crucial execution of border control operations. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2015: 142) shows how this mastery of privacy has become fundamental in the constitution of modern subjectivity: in societies composed of the aggregation of individual selves, this delimitation of bounded private lives has a critical political dimension. The multiple measures and technologies mobilized to control access to what is considered as “home” (from the surveillance dispositifs throughout the gated cities or to the state border controls) testifies of this intimate connection between contemporary individual subjects and the control of the access to their private space(s).
However in order to achieve status as a border worthy of control, a space has to be delimited and appropriated as such. Indeed, if the control of access to the private space comes to define the self, it is through a process of appropriation that delimits and seizes a part of the world where that self can prosper, enjoy certain comforts, and accumulate possessions. Since John Locke, this intimate relationship between being and belonging rests at the core of liberal societies and is supported by the judicial order. The notion of home is central to this legal fiction, providing a trope that is fundamental to a whole rhetoric of property, settling, belonging. Through this rhetoric, the political figure of the home has become one of the main ontopological enunciations of the nation-state:
Through the notion of belonging, the home is foregrounded as the mimetic account of the nation: to ‘belong’ within the parameters of the nation-state implies being ‘homed’. Within the vocabulary of the nation, the home is theorized as a repository for cohesion and similarity, safety and territoriality. (Manning 2003: 34-35)
The home acts as a conceptual attractor determining the proper organization of whole communities of people and properties in space and time. For Erin Manning such a philosophical metaphor offers an efficient image for state sovereignty, due to its proximity to the daily life of its citizens as well as its apparently incontestable dimension, having imposed itself as a natural form of territorial occupation:
State sovereignty and the discourse of the home are naturalized as normative features of the political and domestic structures of our time. […] The home [is] the governing metaphor of the nation, based on the assumption that state sovereignty is inviolable as the spatiotemporal model of political governance. (Manning 2003: 31-32)
In fact, the establishment and defense of national borders can be considered an extension of the control of the frontier of the private space, as attached to the notion of home: both operate through the semantic determination of a threshold circumscribing a space (be it “private” or “public”) that has been appropriated and that has to be defended as such. And, similarly, both stand on logics of us/them, insider/outsider, and proper/other that create narratives of inclusion/exclusion.
Such narratives have dramatic implications: contemporary events provide too many tragic cases that show how those considered “outsiders” to the nation can pay for their non-belonging at a high price. This discourse, which, in its nationalist expression, rests on the molar structures of nativity/origin, is also at the center of the racist and colonial ideological systems for which the “proper” citizen often has specific cultural characteristics, linguistic capacities, and a valorized skin color. If the figure of the home is still actively mobilized in conservative and xenophobic narratives, it is because, following Manning, it offers a persistent analogy of “the secure entity that presides justly over domestic, racial, gendered, and sexual containment, placing itself as the locus of protection and inclusion” (Manning 2003: 34-35). The persistence of this figure (the home as the site of security) originates from the fear of the other, which has been a recurring theme in political philosophy since Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This theme has had tremendous success, motivating most of the philosophical foundations of state systems of power (including justification for the police, the prison complex, and the judicial system). With its fixed boundaries, its controlled (en)closures, and its promises of safety, it is not surprising that the home continues to be one of the favorite tropes when it is time to establish or justify a safeguard against any potential threats. It is therefore not surprising that the state mirrors the home when it is time to reassure a fearful population: hence the recurrent attempt by the head of government to appear as a paternal figure, a good and strong father who will protect the home against any surrounding threats, a performative stance that has recently become popularized.
These political and philosophical considerations have suddenly become reactualized with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic: faced with such a strange and intangible threat, the reaction of the vast majority of the world’s nation-states has been to close their borders and to impose various levels of lockdowns on their citizens at home. To paraphrase the famous thesis of Walter Benjamin, the sudden worldwide propagation of the virus reveals that what might appear to be an exceptional state in fact serves as a momentary clarification of the persistent rule of the contemporary state.The distinctive feature of the recent surfacing of the reign of the homey was that, for the first time in a century in the Western world, the threatening outsider was not the “immoral” one, the “subversive” one, the “invader” nor the “terrorist”, but the sickness, materialized in the figure of the sick other. If the home has become so much more important in the times of pandemic confinement, it is not only because of its benefits for public health and logistics, but because, on a affective and existential level, it seems to be a more stable and secure rampart against the sickness outside.