Against the Romances of Belonging

This Blog Post is written by Hanna Reichel.

Hanna Reichel is a theologian and Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, USA.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the keynote lecture of the author.

Two romances of the home

Home is a deeply romantic idea: the projected source of authentic, aesthetic experience for the individual in its social nucleus, an imbuing of the simple and every-day with an aura, a chase for fragments and glimpses of an impossible idea. Home, then, is an idea that galvanizes and directs emotion in powerful ways, in aspiration as much as in nostalgia, which we might interpret as two different variations of the romance of home, marked, as I want to argue, by two different theological orientations.

On the one hand, there is home as “heaven on earth” – the compensatory overdetermination of our earthly dwellings and relationships that is constantly evoked in commercials, in certain brands of religion, in patriotic celebrations. It shows red-cheeked children playing, perfect meals prepared by a loving homemaker, cozying up around an open fireplace, a wholesome vision of laughter and comfort. This home is not an ideal or a projected future, this home is always already filled with nostalgia and with the sense of looming threat. We know that the warm fuzzy feeling will not last, that the in-laws will not appreciate the lovingly prepared dinner. We know that we cannot buy the kid’s affection or secure their sheltered innocence as they grow up and turn into ungrateful brats. We know that the loving wife will leave us for a feminist lesbian witch, that immigrants will take our jobs, that the neighborhood will be gentrified to the point that it will look at us as less than respectable contenders for these holy grounds.

These threats, real or perceived, generate powerful emotive reactions: anxiety, envy, and resentment. We see them at work in our societies from the doubling down on the traditional family and its supposed values, to xenophobia and Christian nationalism. This vision of home quickly sprouts white picket fences and border walls, security cameras, neighborhood watches and “stand your ground” laws. “A gentleman’s home is his castle” and woe to those who dare invade this space — or change its interior decorations. “Home is where the heart is” – and woe to those who are unable or unwilling to fit the rosy vision, who are not always loving, self-sacrificial, community-oriented, useful, industrious, and productive of “good feelings” because they are, say, moody, strange, queer, disabled, old – or simply do not quite belong, because we do not own them, they never belong to us. The space of home turns into a territory to be defended, a shelter or bunker of the privileged, and people are turned into prized possessions or excised as disruptive, “anti-social” elements.

The home as “heaven on earth” is unachievable – fleeting at best and violent at worst. A different romance of the home ensues when one gives up trying to bring “heaven onto earth” and instead projects home into the beyond. Its theological orientation is that of Hebrews 14: “We have here no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Other biblical accounts celebrate our status as merely guests in this world, as pilgrims toward heaven, our eternal home. If “home is where the heart is,” St. Augustine cries to God, “restless is our heart, until it finds rest in you.” Home is something that is always not (yet!) fully realized, something yet to come, something we can only keep moving toward in tireless pursuit.

Projecting home into a future (and ultimately into a beyond which we of course never reach), will keep your gaze fixed to the horizon rather than to a nostalgic vision of an imaginary past. This second romance of the home also generates powerful affective responses. Reveling in longing and yearning, restlessness, and zealousness can be very comforting amidst the necessary disillusionments with any actually existent home. It will allow us to survive the disappointment and keep going, it might prevent us from forming the strong attachments to a particular place and space that can so easily turn into violence when it slips from grasp. This romance might even engender some solidarity with other dwellers in our shared predicament. However, more often than not, it relativizes such bonds.

Throughout history and into the present day, people have critiqued such a transcendent theological orientation as relativizing our existence here and now in favor of a beyond, whether in the future or a full-blown afterlife, as making Christians indifferent towards suffering or even valorizing it as a prize to pay for an eternal reward. Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach, or in our days, Martha Nussbaum or Martin Hägglund formulate versions of such a critique and claim that only by giving up the romantic idea of a “life to come” will we really be able to commit to the struggles of “this life” and truly seek the flourishing of earthly creatures, both ourselves and those around us.

Seek belonging and distrust it

Against the romantizations of the home, feminist, queer, and crip (critical disability) scholars have long pointed out the ambivalences of the home – with special attention to the entanglement of its material and its epistemic effects. Home, this supposedly universal necessity and universal desire, is even at its best a material, social, and emotional privilege that only few enjoy, and mostly temporarily. And even those who “have” it often do not feel that way.

The boundedness of the home generates force fields of control and formations of differential access. If the social and material bounds that constitute a home stand for shelter, protection, and safety, they also signify confinement and exclusion, often along lines of gender, age, ability, and employability. If the home invokes visions of belonging, we might also be reminded that belonging participates in the semantics of possession, of property, with territorial effects with regard to space and objectifying effects with regard to people. If the home stands for privacy and intimacy, it also stands for the terrors of intimacy. The shielding of domestic abuse and violence from outside view come to mind, as do many other ways in which homes trap and confine people into unhappy arrangements with little access to public participation, articulation, or recourse: prisoners under house arrest, stay-at-home moms, queer teenagers, and neglected elders might experience versions of these effects. To the restriction of movement and social isolation come added burdens of the hermeneutical effects of their invisibilization.

No wonder that “home” is most often invoked in its acutely perceived absence, in discourses of exile and diaspora, in talk of sin as estrangement and alienation, in eschatological visions of our “eternal home.” Home, then, is “not a place,” but it is also not “a people”: Its invocation is the feeling of longing for belonging, homelessness, restlessness, unsettledness – a perceived lack, and a negative affective response to it. In a time of as much upheaval and transformation as ours, whole societies are haunted by a longing for belonging.

Is our longing for belonging more than a private, is it a “public feeling”? Affect theorists have used this term not just to signal wide-spread sentiment, but symptoms of deep-structural societal malaise. Queer and crip scholars have insisted that, rather than being pathological and in need of correction, “bad feelings” like anxiety and depression are healthy responses to unhealthy structural conditions, and that we should appreciate them for their epistemological value as well as their potential in resisting the normative forces that direct our longings in “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011) to shiny visions of “happiness” or “belonging” whose pursuit and achievement are directly detrimental to our flourishing.

Pandemic refractions

The “Stay at home” mandates of the Covid19 pandemic have further complicated any romance of the home. Staying at home did not create universal feelings of “being at home,” instead, added epidemics of loneliness, anxiety, and depression were quickly diagnosed and seem to persist just like the now endemic covid waves.

The privation of public space brought both a privation of public life as well as a large-scale privation of privacy: Personal space, routines, and moments became very publicly exposed as zoom cameras and social media pushed further into bedrooms and kitchens than ever before. Bringing us “closer to those far away,” it also left us too close to those who were already too close to us. For some, confinement to the home meant additional exposure to domestic violence and abuse, for some it meant that any precarious work-life balance they might have navigated previously now turned into double full-time expectation of “remote work” and care work.

As all equalizing shifts, this one too had highly unequal effects, often amplifying existing global, economic, and gendered inequalities. While “working from home” (as well as socializing and praying from home) afforded more access for those already previously homebound, it also highlighted the privilege of having a home (with the requisite technological infrastructure) and it exacerbated existent unequal distributions of labor (where those shouldering the lion’s share of care-taking and domestic responsibilities were now even less protected against the tentacles of remote work in double exploitation).

It also revealed the unequal distribution of risk, partly exacerbating, partly shifting it: For others, yet, their financial situation or qualification structure meant they never had the choice of “sheltering in place,” taking refuge in the relative safety of their home. Celebrating the contribution of “front line workers” in rhetoric of military sacrifice became a way of glossing over the societally unequal distribution of risk along class, racial, and gendered lines.

As the experience of its physical and social boundedness shifted from one of comfort to an experience of confinement on a global scale, the ambivalences of the home were experienced by much broader segments of our societies than ever before. Suddenly, everyone was acutely confronted with the vulnerability and exposure of one’s own body and mind to overwhelming health threats, with the risk of “being with others,” and experienced the insufficiency of public health approaches in mitigating individual risk that many disabled people navigate constantly. Suddenly many, if temporarily, were prevented by material, social, and legal barriers from public participation as much as from sociality and intimacy.

Experience affords insight. All embodiment comes with vulnerability and (inter)dependence, but those temporarily disabled by the pandemic were acutely confronted with their share in the universal predicament of fleshly existence long theorized by disability scholars. Talk of the “new normal” and calls to “return to normal” became regularly punctuated by the insight that the old “normal” had not been “heaven on earth,” either. Whatever else the pandemic did, it also became a catalyst for pinpointing the ableist, patriarchal, economic, and ecological entanglements of the “old normal.”

Living in the ruins

We are not living “after covid” but we are living after the epistemic rupture that it has effected. Our moment is therefore “post-apocalyptic” in the literal sense: The revelatory catastrophe has happened, but no rapture has ensued, we are left to live “in the ruins” of our romances, an ongoing, creeping disillusionment without a redemptive “fix” or cleansing purge.

As in any good postapocalyptic scenario, the disabled body is a fixture in this endemic state of unbelonging, and the boundaries between physical impairment and social disablement have once more become blurred. The post-pandemic crip might not be the disfigured inhabitant of a toxic wasteland at the remnants of civilization. The post-pandemic crip is instead the pale recluse sheltering, confined to, hidden away in the “home” from the risks of being with other people, the ongoing compromise of the immuno-compromised. The post-pandemic crip might not be the metastasizing body of those exposed to atomic radiation, but rather the person afflicted by the “long covid’s” ongoing toll on physical and mental health as well as social participation.

The post-pandemic crip comes in other forms as well. A few years into Covid19, the disablements of the “old normal” and the exclusions and debilitating effects of the “new normal” continue to exist in superimposed states without redemptive resolution, its fractal edges failing to accommodate ever more bodies. Disability, as scholars have long pointed out, is precisely what cannot be unified, describes nothing shared, has no family resemblance, “no one form of embodiment or orientation of being in the world” (Kuppers 2009, 233). If an epistemology of the home can teach us anything, it is that people are – different, they “misfit” the different romances of belonging on offer in various and never entirely foreseeable ways. A “misfit” occurs “when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it” (Garland-Thompson, 2011, 594). The notion picks up on an incongruence between persons and environments, it treats disability as a material reality, but rather than attributing it to the bodies, it investigates the failure of physical and social structures to accommodate them.

There is no “universal design” for belonging – neither architecturally nor socially nor politically. Aspirations to create it will only double down on violent normalization of misfitting bodies. The desire to effect belonging might thus say more about the ongoing “redemptive fix/ation[s]” of our society than about the potentials of overcoming unbelonging (Betcher 2016, 102). Rather than romantically pursuing our longing for belonging, negative “public feelings” might gainfully direct our attention to specific sites, shapes, and experiences of unbelonging.

“Those who are not quite at home,” muses queer feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed, “have much to teach us about the way things are built” (Ahmed 2019:19). Those who are “not-quite-at-home” in the new and old visions of belonging might have much to teach us about the romances of home and about keeping faith with “damaged life,” about inhabiting a world in which the “wholeness” that marks any of our romances with the home is at best a fleeting experience, which requires force, coercion, and ultimately violence if we try to fix and sustain it. They can teach us that pain is not an “argument against existence” or a form of materialized lack or guilt that must be isolated and excised, but that pain is a signal, it is that which “puts us on notice” to the corporeal reality of interdependence and vulnerability that we all share, even as they appear always in highly unequal distribution. Instead of focusing on fixing the bodies and souls of those who do not quite belong, we might insist on “changing the shape of the world,” of our material and social environments to accommodate their existence and their insights (Garland-Thomson 2011, 597).

References

Ahmed, Sara. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2019.

Augustine. Confessions. Penguin Classics, 1961.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Betcher, Sharon V. “Crip/Tography: Disability Theology in the Ruins of God.” JCRT 15, no. 2 (2016): 98–115.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Milestones of Thought in the History of Ideas. New York: Ungar, 1957.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept.” Hypatia 26, no. 3 (2011): 591–609. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01206.x

Hägglund, Martin. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Reprint edition. New York (N.Y.): Anchor, 2020.

Kuppers, Petra. “Toward a Rhizomatic Model of Disability: Poetry, Performance, and Touch.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3 (December 1, 2009): 221–40. https://doi.org/10.1353/jlc.0.0022

Marx, Karl. “Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right 1844.” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher 7 & 10 (February 1844). https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm

Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. 1st edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 



Cite this blog post
Hanna Reichel (2023, March 24). Against the Romances of Belonging. STAY HOME Research Blog. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ukez

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