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The four walls are not what we think they are

by Eva Illouz Sunday, Jul. 05, 2020 at 5:51 PM

For Arendt, modernity in general is characterized by the loss of the world. The private home cannot compensate for all that is lost. The private home must be a part of the "world." By being imprisoned, we have lost our freedom and the world itself.

The four walls are not what we think they are

By Eva Illouz

[This article published in June 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Crisis, reproduction, lifestyles, gender relations, Covid-19

It would seem obvious to classify the corona pandemic as a natural disaster rather than a man-made evil - although it would be easy to argue that the pandemic is due to a zoonotic infection for which humans are responsible and that the totalitarian regime in China allowed many precious weeks to pass before trying to contain the virus. In the meantime, however, everything concerning the handling of Corona has become so extremely politically and media charged that it is almost impossible to see in it merely an inescapable scourge of nature. The pandemic has exposed and made visible, and at the same time tended to dissolve, the often unnoticed threads and connections that run through and hold together most areas of our societies. There was something overwhelming about the Corona crisis, and it is this state of paralysis that interests me here. Solidification is, by and large, a very rare condition. It is a state that captures us from one moment to the next, a state where neither habits nor common categories can help us to understand it and get rid of it.

That is why I would like to begin my remarks with a book whose subject is the evil that emanates from man: "Eichmann in Jerusalem". With this book, Hannah Arendt also tried to give meaning to an event that had left a feeling of paralysis: the brutal murder of the Jews in Europe. In order to take this shock into account, she used a methodical approach in her analysis that could be called anti-historical: They avoided using analogies from the past. For them, one thing was clear: the past can illuminate neither the present nor the future, because, as Tocqueville put it: In times of crisis, "the human spirit wanders in darkness"... Humanity has always been confronted with epidemics and even pandemics. But the Corona pandemic is a milestone, not because of the high death toll (while I was working on this paper, its mortality rate was well below that of other epidemics and diseases), but because of the way we deal with it socially, economically, politically and symbolically.

More than four billion people worldwide have more or less voluntarily accepted enormous restrictions on their mobility, employment, and social life. There have been few protests against this. People had to stay in their houses or flats (provided they had their own home in the first place), were not allowed to go out on the streets, could hardly go shopping or use public transport. The fact that people willingly renounce their freedom when it comes to protecting their health is in itself not particularly surprising. After all, as Thomas Hobbes (and others) put it, we will always be prepared to sacrifice a large part of our freedom for our security. The fear of death is so powerful that people are willing to accept the authority of a state, provided it promises protection and security. To this end, they also accept surveillance measures that override basic civil rights, as well as exit restrictions that border on house arrest. Netanyahu's and Orban's decision to disempower parliament and the Supreme Court respectively is part of the common anti-democratic repertoire of authoritarian leaders.

But what is undoubtedly unprecedented is the form that this restriction of freedom has taken: There has been a kind of collective house arrest almost everywhere on the planet. Equally extraordinary is the fear that accompanies this quasi house arrest. Let us compare it to wartime. In a war, people are afraid to die, but normally this is a process that has to do with other groups of people. In a war, we know who the enemy is, but at the same time, we have the possibility of using various instruments from the extensive symbolic repertoire of heroism. We can decide to face the battle, but we can also hide from the enemy.

But in the current corona pandemic, we are thrown back on very small units and in some cases completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is hardly anything we can do against the danger, there is only a very limited symbolic repertoire of action from which we can draw. The deadly threat this time is not the bomb that the enemy drops on us, but what we unknowingly carry within us and with which we can harm others. For this reason, we have all withdrawn into our own four walls, for fear of something invisible that has dissolved our relationships with others. (This virus differs from Ebola or the first SARS virus in that 25 percent of those infected react asymptomatically, which means that everyone, including oneself, becomes a priori a source of danger).

Invisibility is joined by ignorance and uncertainty about what exactly happens when you catch the virus. This has further restricted our freedom, even within our own apartment or house, as people are isolated to varying degrees. And yet our own homes are seen as central to mobilizing symbolic resources at the present time to give people security and help us overcome the crisis. But can the apartment/house, what we call home, really meet these demands?

Home sweet home, happiness alone?

The infamous home has become the crucial place from which to manage a crisis of unprecedented planetary proportions. Home or home-home today is usually understood to be a private space where men and women meet as equals. This idea is, culturally speaking, a relatively new phenomenon. Medieval castles served less for living. Rather, people camped in them, met there in the large halls to eat, sleep, and have fun together. There was neither privacy nor sanitary facilities in them.

Some believe that the concept of the private home dates back to the 17th century, in the Netherlands, when more intimate spaces and settings began to emerge that offered a certain comfort and where domesticity could take place (paintings by Vermeer or Franz Hals are well-known depictions of this type of domestic life). Later, in the 18th, but above all in the 19th century, the home became a privileged place for women, a place where feelings could be expressed, what the historian John Demos called a "hothouse of emotions", a place where children and spouses received affection and closeness from the wives or mothers.

Of course, the separation between the private and public spheres was not new. In ancient times, the female private sphere and the male public sphere were clearly distinguished from one another and were hierarchically related to one another. What changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, was that the private home was charged with moral significance. Women were responsible for its design; it was increasingly understood not only as a counterbalance to the sphere of work, the market, and male egoism, competition and self-interest but was placed above all these things. The home was given a morally elevated status. It was increasingly linked to certain notions of domesticity and femininity, it was seen as removed from the public sphere, as the realm of the authentic self and as a place morally superior to the falsity of the external world.

That is why the modern home developed into a place that stands for the ideals of security and intimacy. The numerous glossy magazines devoted to questions of furnishing and decorating houses and apartments are evidence of the enormous importance that the home has acquired for one's own lifestyle. Concepts of domestic security and comfort as we know them today contributed decisively to the emergence of the capitalist consumer society. Style at Home, Decor, House and Garden, Beautiful Homes, Style at Home, Kitchen and Baths and Maison Decoration are just a few of the countless examples of how the (own) home became the place where the middle class and working class could express their identity, their relationships, their social status, and their family ties. They did this through various means and practices, all aimed at embellishing their homes and making them a repository of feelings and intimacy.

Hannah Arendt was an opponent of this romanticization of the domestic-private sphere, its idealization as an escape and counterpoint to a hostile outside world. With Aristotle, she believed that the private corresponded to the realm of the materially necessary. In ancient Greece, the home was the place where physical labor was used to achieve what was necessary to preserve the human body and to reproduce the human species. Accordingly, the home was the sphere of women, children, and slaves.

Arendt also distinguished the private sphere from the public sphere as the realm of freedom, where mature, reasonable, and free people exchange ideas, debate, and make decisions. Only the citizens of the polis were free: they owned land, could participate in public affairs, and were freed from low household duties (McKeon 2007). Domesticity was synonymous with a lack of freedom and citizenship. Arendt was not a feminist and could only think of power in the context of the public sphere, but her views on the home were similar to those of many feminists who later criticized the nuclear family and housewife existence. For her, "own four walls" were far too often a place of oppression, violence and the bare exercise of power by men over women, and thus something to escape from.

Perhaps the isolation and quarantine measures associated with the Corona pandemic are a huge global experiment unparalleled in history. In any case, it would be a good idea to use them to put Arendt's and many feminists' theses on the domestic sphere to the test in practice. For those of us who are not endowed with the temperament of Emily Dickinson (the greatest American poet who spent the last 15 years of her life as a recluse), the question arises: what happens to our own home/flat when it becomes our only living space? If we were indeed the subject of a gigantic experiment, carried out by a brilliant and slightly mad scientist, one of the main results of her observations would be The public sphere of conviviality and togetherness in the streets and in cafés is much more fundamental to the constitution of our identity than we have so far assumed. This has eluded us because we have always clung to the idea that home is the place where we express our authentic selves.

The first and most obvious realization is that, not least due to the enormous population density in the cities and the increasing real estate speculation, many homes do not offer enough space to allow each family member to behave and act out there like one of the extremely individualized beings modern society has made us into (you have to share the bathroom with others, the bedrooms are close together, etc.). Very few houses or flats have windows, balconies, or terraces large enough to maintain contact with the street, creating de facto living situations and conditions that are completely cut off from the outside world. The full spectrum of cultural meanings associated with the "home sweet home" is only available to a certain section of the population. People who live in poorly equipped tenement blocks, in overcrowded apartments, in slums or in prefabricated housing estates on the outskirts of the city are definitely not among them.

The second insight is that family and domestic life is massively dependent on the institution of school. It is the educators* and teachers* who, alongside the parents, play a central role in the socialization of the children and the entire reproductive work. The home, even the most comfortable and generously equipped households cannot be a real substitute for school: All over the world, parents complained of feelings of helplessness and exhaustion in the face of the enormously time-consuming and energy-sapping interactions with their children every day. The closure of schools in recent months has shown us how extremely important this institution is, both in the domestic and public spheres. There can be no real economic recovery without the reopening of the daycare centers and schools.

The third insight is that the home or domesticity is a prerequisite for men and women to be able to live structurally separate lives, i.e. to have the option of pursuing different routes and activities during the day. It is noteworthy in this context that men who have become unemployed often suffer from a loss of self-confidence and can thus become a threat, both to themselves and to the women with whom they live under the same roof. Reports of rampant domestic violence during the current pandemic are a painful reminder that for many people, the home is only bearable if there is an outside world that guarantees that both sexes can live separate lives from which sufficient self-esteem can be derived.

After the lifting of the lockdown in Hubei, record-breaking numbers of couples filed for divorce: they had discovered that if the outside is missing, the shared home was not such a good place to live out their marriage. For them (and many others), the promise of the "home away from home" has not been fulfilled.

The architecture of most modern houses and flats today is based to a large extent on the assumption that their inhabitants spend most of the day outside their own four walls, either at work or with various leisure activities. In a survey carried out in France at the end of March 2020 by Vertigo Research, participants were asked to answer the following question: "If the restrictions imposed by the Corona crisis are eventually lifted, what are the activities/activities you would like to pursue first? First place was given to: "Eating out and going to a cafe". In second place after the restaurant and café was the answer "watch a film in the cinema" (after TV consumption reached new highs during the pandemic). Third place was taken by "pursuing sports hobbies" (Ludivine 2020). Another survey commissioned by the newspaper France Soir concluded that what French women missed most was direct contact with their friends. A majority of those questioned here said that they wanted to be the first to see friends after the contact and curfew was lifted.

A superficial interpretation of these results could be that we have become accustomed to the hedonistic pleasures of the public sphere, or even addicted to them. Arendt, however, offers a different interpretation. The private or The private or domestic is in contrast to the realm of public appearances, the world of appearances, which for Arendt is the key to understanding the social world and, according to Barbara Carnevali, also a philosopher, is even of decisive importance for social life: Here, aesthetic questions are negotiated (it is about how we present ourselves and confront others through the choice of our clothing, hairstyle, make-up and our entire physical form), and at the same time, various interactions take place in which we never gain access to the "deep" inwardness of others, but only to their outer existence. The field of sociability is anything but profound: It consists of various forms of politeness, formal etiquette, casual conversation, hollow but necessary rituals, codified behavior, teasing and coquetry, one observes and evaluates the behavior of other people as well as their physical appearance. Arendt, who uses Heidegger's concept of "ecstasy" here, argues that people exist "outside of themselves", and it is only through this exteriority that they interact intensively with the world, through objects, their personal appearance and external presentation, and their senses (Carnvali 2020).

Arendt sees (at least this is how Carnevali has interpreted) nothing pathological in appearances and performances. On the contrary: they are the prerequisite for sociability. In April, the TV station CNN reported in its news about a woman in Australia who, for the short distance to the garbage can in front of her house, had dressed conspicuously, put on make-up, and even jewelry. A photo of her that she put on her Facebook page went viral and reached many people even outside the country's borders. This woman had hit the nerve of many people with her fun action and expressed what they were missing so much during the lockdown: public appearances and the encounters associated with them.

"In times of quarantine and self-isolation, some people in Australia combine everyday household duties with fun public appearances. Just scroll down to the Bin Isolation Outing Facebook group to see examples of this. At first, the whole thing was a joke among friends. In the meantime, the site has half a million followers and the number is growing. The site is now full of photos and videos of people from all over Australia (and increasingly from all over the world) in funny costumes rolling their garbage cans to the curb. Danielle Askew created the site two weeks ago after a friend jokingly wrote on Facebook that she had become a big fan of taking out the garbage because it gave her the rare opportunity to leave the house. Askew, who lives in Hervey Bay, Australia, asked her friend to dress up for the occasion. Askew followed her request and launched the Facebook page, thinking only of her friends.

She responded to the request, followed by Askew, who then launched the Facebook page, thinking first only of her circle of friends. But the page quickly reached a huge audience in Australia and far beyond, even in the USA. What was initially a small circle of fun has become a source of inspiration and joy for people all over the world as more and more people are stuck in their own homes. (Asmelash 2020)

Arendt wrote: "To live is to be dominated by an urge for self-expression, the reaction to one's own manifestation. Living beings have their appearances like actors on a stage set up for them." (Quoted after Carnevali 2020) The fundamental difference between the world of objects and the world of humans is, if you look more closely, exactly the opposite of what we usually think: objects can only be what they seem to be, while we can constantly change and adapt our appearance, which is the essence of our social life. We exist for others, and if the sphere of leisure and pleasure has assumed such crucial importance for our identity formation, it is because it is a sphere in which we can do exactly that: play with our appearance.

Of course, the public world is not just about leisure but is the sphere of work and production that still dominates our societies today. This world of work, as many have rightly pointed out, is characterized by conditions of alienation and exploitation. But work structures and builds the self in many ways, often in an invisible way: it gives the day and the week a temporal structure, a workplace is a place of conviviality where we meet colleagues and strangers, it is a place where we strive to appear fashionably and elegantly dressed. For many from the middle class, work is also something that allows us to demonstrate our skills and abilities. In other words, it has become the most important sphere for both men and women to produce symbolic value. In this sense, feminism has triumphed: It has taken the symbolic (and economic) importance of the private home and housework and has enhanced the outside world.

The private home cannot, therefore, compensate for all that is lost through the absence of the public world. Production and consumption are the central means by which we now create value(s), interact with others, and even create intimacy (the fact that this can be regretted does not change the fact). Through work, we live out our abilities and experience meaning. The world of leisure offers us pleasure, play, and the opportunity to see and be seen. Being imprisoned during the Corona crisis was not only associated with the loss of the public world but the loss of the world itself. If the experience of quasi house arrest in recent months has taught us one thing, it is how wrong Rousseau was: A state of complete intimacy and transparency towards others is hard to bear in the long run.

By being imprisoned, we have not only lost our freedom, but we have also lost the world itself. For Arendt, modernity in general is characterized by the loss of the world. By this, she understood that the sphere of the public sphere, of public action and speech, was pushed back in favor of the private sphere, of introspection and self-reflection, of the selfish pursuit of individual economic interests. Modernity is the age of mass society, in which the animal laborans (the working animal) has triumphed over the homo faber (the creative human being). What we have experienced in recent weeks is a highly restrictive form of domesticity, which for many people was only bearable because technology allowed them to continue their work, watch films, or interact with their friends. In other words, the public world of work and leisure came into the home via the Internet. Now, when many of my friends and acquaintances say that they enjoyed the Corona crisis at home very much or that they didn't really have to change their ways in many ways, they should at least be honest and admit it: the home can no longer exist without a lot of technical requirements. It is modern technology that ensures that we can participate in something like public life from our homes and carry out activities similar to those of the public world of work and pleasure.

The private home can only fulfill its actual function if it is a part of the "world". In the Corona crisis, this world has been lost to us, both as a space in which we can move freely without fear for our health and safety and as a space for appearances and encounters with other people. Now that the world is opening up to us again in many places, it is time to say goodbye to the many myths about the home we have come to know.
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