On Thresholds, Boundaries, Filters and Privacy: An Anthropological Perspective

This blog post is written by anthropologist Kirsten Marie Raahauge. Kirsten Marie is associate professor and head of the Center for Interior Studies at the Royal Danish Academy. She is a member of the STAY HOME perspective panel[i].

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Danish homes, this blogpost discusses the spatial zones and thresholds of privacy, focusing on the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities. It is suggested that the idea of privacy is under transformation along with changing spatial settings[ii].

I shall discuss the filtering of privacy in and out of homes and cities from the point of view of spatial anthropology. The discussion takes its point of departure in the theoretical perspectives on space of Frederik Stjernfelt, Peter Halley, and Michel de Certeau. Moreover, it is based on two of my fieldworks dealing with Danish homes of the upper middle class in the 2000s. In these projects, I focused on the interrelationship of space, things, and humans among well-off neighbourhoods in Aarhus (2001-2004),  Sønderborg (2006), and Frederikssund (2006).

On Space, Homes, and Cities

In his article Locale, Street, Square, a Naïve Theory of the City from 2007, Frederik Stjernfelt outlines three basic categories of urban phenomenology and semiotics based upon the simple notion of a trajectory through a network of streets. The Locale is the figure that signifies the end goal: it is a blind alley or the place where you have reached your destination. This could be a bodega, where people stay for a long time, or your home. The Street is the figure that signifies space allowing you to move from A to B, passage spaces, such as a city streets or stairs, or a café where people go in and out. The Square is the figure that signifies a space for making decisions: should you go to the left or the right, or take another of the streets that meet here? Crossroads, entrances: It is the space of choice, and the place of pointing to civilization; it is here that a statue is placed, at the square, since it is here you have to stop and think and chose your way. In this scheme, the home acts as a locale, placed in the city-network of streets and squares, thus giving the impetus to get out and into the street or get back to the home. This theory is rather clear and offers an efficient apparatus for dealing with for example the filtering of privacy between cities and homes.

In the article The Crisis in Geometry from 1984, the artist Peter Halley suggests that the city is a system of cells and conduits; you drive from cell to cell in your car, which is another cell. Later, in the article On Line from 1985, Halley argues that devices such as TVs or computers change the ways of being in the city, since it is enough to sit at home and watch TV, making you stay in your physical cell, while at the same time allowing you to get out of it by way of imaginaries produced through the TV images. In recent years, a new aspect has emerged that might be added to these perspectives on the city-home-privacy-interrelations: Since it has become the norm to go out into the city while wearing ear pods and to use mobiles and other devices attached to the body, the city has changed. No matter whether on streets, where you flow along with other people, or in squares, where you are forced to make a decision, you can stay in your own private sphere and avoid blending into the commonness of the city. Without cars, you can move along the conduits without being outside the cell, since the private space of being secluded from strangers is secured by way of technology. In this way, ear pods and mobiles allow for new hybridizations of home and city, and for new ways of performing privacy. It has an enormous impact transforming the city as well as the home.

The Wandersmänner of the City

In 1984, in the famous chapter Walking in the City, Michel de Certeau suggests that the city is inhabited by Wandersmänner. They are using the small tactics of everyday life, turning this corner instead of that, stopping here or there, while the city planner is gazing at the city from an aloof strategic perspective, thereby overviewing the city, but also thereby seeing something entirely different than the city dwellers. Furthermore, Wandersmänner are not only walking in the concrete streets and squares; they are walking in the city of proper names. De Certeau writes:

“By a strange toponymy that is detached from actual places and flies high over the city like a foggy geography of “meanings” held in suspension, directing the physical deambulations below: Place de I’Etoile, Concorde, Poissonnière…these constellations of names provide traffic patterns: they are stars directing itineraries(de Certeau 1984:102).

These proper names evoke memories and imaginaries, and one could add that it is unavoidable to be dreaming of other places. What is absent in the surrounding space is present as proper names of streets and squares; Oxford Street in London points towards Oxford, Place de Paris in Luxembourg points toward Paris in France. Today, nearly 40 years later, the pointing of proper names towards other sites beyond the horizon has been supplemented by billboards and posters. It awakens our desire for what is not present; it is absent, still it is there to dream of.

This tension between presence and absence is amplified by recent technological devices, ear pods, and mobiles that follow us and reshape the relationships between the city, the home, and other sites that are imagined and desired. At the same time, the technological devices restrict the city that you are actually situated in into a scene for being surrounded by your own private sphere. Furthermore, they restrict the home that you are situated in, changing your private sphere from the concrete spaces of the home to the digital spaces of technology.

The Fieldwork of the early 2000s

Looking back from this here-and-now situation, my fieldwork concerning Danish Homes in the 2000s seems far away and long ago. In these fieldworks, privacy filtered in and out of the homes in Aarhus, Frederikssund, and Sønderborg in ways that were rather analogous; privacy was filtered in and out of homes and cities through social relations. The technological devices that wire us up have changed the scene somewhat, turning the filtering of privacy between home and city through social relations in space into a filtering of privacy between home and city through technological devices working in a virtual space, which is also social, but less reliant on actual space. This new setting has made the boundaries between private and not-private less visible, and the private space more private. At the same time, those who are not online are excluded from the social exchange that might take place in the techno-social-privacy of mobiles and ear pods.

Seen from an anthropological point of view, one might argue that the relations which are taking place between city and home are relations of social exchange, as Marcel Mauss argued in 1924 in the seminal work The Gift. These relations have specific spatial settings. Furthermore, you exchange gifts, goods, help, rituals, food etc., and the giver has the upper hand, Mauss argues. It is always attractive to be the giver because the receiver is in debt to the giver. This is an impetus to become the giver and repay, hopefully giving a larger gift to the former giver, who now becomes a receiver. This exchange creates social relations, thereby becoming the engine of society. Exchange works globally, it is also the important factor in the fields where I worked in Denmark. Furthermore, in my fieldwork this exchange arguable functions as a carrier of privacy between homes and cities: much of the filtering that I noticed in my fieldwork happened through exchange of social relations, gifts, help etc.

Filtering Privacy in the 2000s

In Aarhus, the city came into the home by way of dinner invitations to guests from work and networks. The exchanges of dinner parties took place in the representational space inside the home, normally the dining room, which, in many cases, had a flappergasting view over the woods or the sea (Raahauge 2006). In this case, Stjernfelt’s locale became something else; possibly some aspects of the square (choices) and the street (people) were added. Privacy came into the city by way of the Saturday afternoon event of going to the city center: from home to city center and back home again. This weekly repetition of going to the city center in order to enjoy oneself was a structuring of time that was similar to a ritual. Normally, rituals are performed in order to change somebody or something from one phase to another, this ritual intendedly had no effect but stabilizing what was attractive, namely the continuation of everyday life, peace, and order. Using the city as a repetition of a good event, shopping and meeting your friends, exchanging café latte or wine at the same cafés Saturday afternoon, thus created a small space of privacy in the city. The city was invested with the feeling of Stjernfelt’s locale, although it happened in streets and squares, shops, and cafés.

In Frederikssund and Sønderborg, the city came into the home by way of neighbours (Raahauge 2007). They came visiting each other on a daily basis, having an open invitation, just walking in. In that way, the city came into the home, but even more the privacy of the home emanated out into the neighbourhood. Maybe it is wrong to say that the city came into the home, since it was only neighbours. Applying Stjernfelt’s notions may clarify this. The square aspects of choice were absent, while the street aspects of people were present inside the homes of the inhabitants. Furthermore, an abundant gift exchange was going on: “borrowing” sugar or eggs, coming over for a quick cup of coffee or a spontaneous dinner of home-smoked salmon, giving small presents such as plants for the garden or a jar of homemade jam. Privacy did not emanate into city in any large amount; the social exchange mostly stayed within the boundaries of the neighbourhood, maybe turning the neighbourhood into a huge locale, maybe hybridizing the street-with-people aspect and the locale but avoiding the square-and-choice-part.

Privacy or Privacies

In the cases of my fieldworks, two very different approaches to the home-city-privacy-relations were at work. Inviting colleagues to orchestrated dinners in specific representational rooms is different from having neighbours walking in and out of your home following a collective, open invitation. The distribution and character of “privacy” also differed, as did the rules of exchange. In Aarhus, there was a clear boundary between the home and the city, the neighbourhood being present but not very important. The imaginaries and the actions taking place at home and in the city were quite distinct, and homelife was kept discretely distanced from city life. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, the boundary between home and neighbourhood was blurred. The neighbourhood played a major role while the city was not much present. The neighbourhood was a para-private area, where you felt at home and in your private comfort zone although eating smoked salmon in the neighbour’s garden or having a cup of tea in the kitchen of another neighbour.

Privacy between physical and virtual Space

These examples of filtering privacy in and out of homes and cities in different ways, spatially and socially make one wonder whether the notion “privacy” means the same in the two cases. In Aarhus, privacy could be understood as opposed to representation, which meant that it was intentionally isolated from the busy everyday life of work and representation. In Sønderborg and Frederikssund, privacy could be seen as extended to the neighbours, isolating the rest of the city from the para-privacy of the neighborhood. While the Aarhusian privacy is shielded from representational duties, the privacy performed in Sønderborg and Frederikssund is isolated from the rest of the city. Still, both fieldworks point towards spatial zones as important for establishing the sensation of privacy. Today’s walking in the city with your ear pods and mobile suggests a performance of privacy that is radically different from the two cases discussed: physical space and its organization is not decisive for the privacy of the Wandersmänner with mobiles and ear pods. Today, virtual space is connecting, separating, isolating, and filtering privacy in and out of our senses, in some ways rendering the space of the home, the neighbourhood or the city superfluous.

In Halley’s terms, only conduits and cells are present, superseded by TVs and computers. In the everyday life of contemporary Danish cities and homes, Halley’s postmodern simulacrum interpretation of privacy and its places is superseded by far by the ear pods and mobiles of today’s Wandersmänner.

Notes

[i] The perspective panel meet annually with the STAY HOME research team to discuss work-in-progress research outputs. Find all the members of the perspective panel here.

[ii] This text is based on a paper presented at the conference Privacy Matters. How Interiors make and break out Cities, held at The Royal Danish Academy, 20th – 21st of April 2023, organized by postdoc Nuno Grancho, supported by Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen.

References

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. “Walking in the City”, in The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press: 91-111.

Halley, Peter. 1984. “The Deployment of the Geometric”, Effects, New York, No.3, Winter 1986.

Halley, Peter. 1985. “On Line”, New Observations 35.

Mauss, Marcel. 1966 (1924-25). The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen and West.

Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2006. En Århusantropologi. Ph.d.-afhandling. Statens Byggeforskningsinstitut.

Raahauge, Kirsten Marie. 2007. “In and out of the house. Housing Hau in Sønderborg and Frederikssund”. Knowledge, Technology, and Policy, 20: 281-289.

Stjernfelt, Frederik. 2008. “Locale, Street, Square. A Naïve Theory of the City”. Knowledge, Technology and Policy, 21(3): 105-113.

Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

This blog post is written by Joanne Begiato.

Joanne Begiato is Associate Dean and Professor at the School of History at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom.

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 by the author.

Drawing of a room with things and furniture scattered all over the floor. A woman sitting on a chair with the back to a man standing behind her.
John Leech, ‘Affectionate Husband’. Punch, 11 Nov 1848, p. 204.

Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

The crisis of lockdown in 2020/2021 changed our real and imagined relationships with home. As a historian of the home, I am struck by the ways in which crises also shaped ideas and experiences of home in the past. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, for example, war and rapid social and economic change, and the dislocation they caused, placed the home at the heart of personal and cultural reflection.

It is the emotional associations of the home that especially interest me. In the centuries I study, homes were freighted with feelings. They were often used as sentimental prompts to elicit emotional responses that bound people to family, locality, region, or nation, or to generate gendered notions of duty, patriotism, and sacrifice in the service of the state. People from all social groups also used the home and the emotions it produced to make meaning of their life trajectories and construct a sense of self and a public persona. Furthermore, as sites of emotional expression, love, desire, anger, fear, despair, and hope, homes were agentic emotionalised spaces that shaped and influenced behaviour, activities, and actions. This blog post focuses on just a few of these themes through men’s relationship with the home and through the themes of distant homes, men’s absence from the home, and men’s presence within the home.

Distant Homes

People often used spatial and temporal distance from home, and the emotions that this stirred, to assess their sense of self, understand their feelings, and construct selfhood and personal identities. My work (2023) on the emotions cluster of loneliness, itself a by-product of modernity, offers evidence of this. The writings of two young Scotsmen who left home to embark on their careers show that both the sense of a ‘distant’ home and encountering distance within other people’s homes contributed to loneliness and its physical and mental problems. At around the age of twenty-two, though separated by two decades, Henry Robert Oswald Senior (1790–1862) and John Dunlop (1823–1867), each spent several months writing a journal as they embarked on the early stages of their careers. Oswald wrote between 1812–13, describing his first six months as Government Surgeon to John Murray (1755–1830), 4th duke of Atholl, Governor General of the Isle of Man, and Dunlop recorded his experiences from 21 October 1845 to 8 August 1846, first as a medical student in Paris and then on his voyage to India after he secured the post of Assistant Surgeon to the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot.

At the end of 1845, John Dunlop recorded that he was leaving Paris, where he was a medical student, and would be ‘gazetted to an assistant Surgery in her Majesty’s service’.  While he ‘rejoiced’ about this, he was uneasy about its implications:

“I was also not ignorant that this summons to London would sever that delightful tie of domestic life, which I had so long enjoyed, that it would launch me forth into the world, and into the uncertain and adventurous life of a military surgeon, where separated from home and all its endearing connections I would require to form a home within my own circle, and in the narrow confines of a small quarter in a barrack, where I must live, all independent and isolated amidst the vicissitudes of a foreign climate and perhaps a foreign war.”

Dunlop understood his professional future to be ‘uncertain’, a state that causes anxiety and was compounded by his separation from domestic family life. He deployed happy, loving domesticity to envisage his potential loneliness, a pervasive cultural motif, which John Tosh has shown, shaped many middle-class men’s sense of self.

It was the emotional and physical distance that Henry Oswald encountered when obliged to board at his patrons’ homes, which led to his feelings of social isolation, physical and mental discomfort, and alienation. When living in their homes, he assessed them according to the patrons’ kindness but also through the provision of food and space. As scholars of loneliness have observed, loneliness is felt in the body and, thus, metaphors of heat are often invoked to capture or convey its impact. Home was crucial in these metaphors too. Oswald associated coldness with indifference, the opposite of the warmth of domestic comforts. Thus the family of his master George Bell showed him a cold heart in 1810, while the Farmer family were ‘coldly polite’ in March 1813, which left him feeling ‘indifferent or rather displeased’. After some months, Oswald took up his own lodgings and was reunited with his trunk that had gone missing on his journey to the Isle of Man. He discussed this good fortune through the tropes of home comfort, signalling the waning of his acute feelings of loneliness:

27th January spent the day as usual, walking & got my trunk, which has been long waiting, safely, the packet containing books – & dined at Home on beef steaks & ale & spent the eve in reading & noting & arranging accounts & expenditures with much comfort & satisfaction.”

Being reunited with his possessions soothed Oswald, acting as ‘emotional objects’ to convey the sense of home and comfort that he had hitherto lacked (Begiato 2018a).

Like many other people in a similar situation, Dunlop found solace in nostalgia, both for his family home and its inhabitants. He consoled himself on his long voyage by recognising that after an absence he could ‘return and enjoy the society of my dear parents, and as a melancholy solace, shall look back as on a pleasant dream, on the happy days of childhood, and a youth spent under the tender care of an affectionate mother and the careful guidance of a kind Father’. Indeed, nostalgia was a tool that was often used to manage the spatial, but also the temporal, distance from home, a way to navigate modernity’s temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. In its early, medicalised form, the condition was a response to spatial displacement and was thus diagnosed in soldiers and migrants who were unable to access their homes. The second type of nostalgia was temporal, where the sense of disruption was due to time passing and the yearning directed to a past lost in time.

Remembering a happy childhood home was fundamental in this latter version of nostalgia, and for memoirists writing in old age or at the end of their lives, the material, emotional, and sensory memories of the happy childhood home were central to constructions of the self and to articulating national and personal identities in the face of accelerating migration and mobility. For the generations writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was the natal or childhood home and its natural environs that was most evocative and reassuring (Begiato 2019).

Thomas Bewick (1753-1823) offers one example. The son of a tenant farmer and collier in Northumberland, this celebrated naturalist and engraver, whose works were widely read by children and adults, began his memoir in 1822. He lovingly evoked his parental home at Cherryburn, Mickley, in the South Tyne Valley: “Cherryburn House the place of my nativity, and which for many years my eyes beheld with cherished delight”. When he left home, and until his parents died when he was in his early thirties, he walked every week from his workshop to visit them. As a nationally successful engraver, his happy natal home was part of his regional, Northumbrian ‘natural’ sense of self, which was constructed as a rejection of a metropolitan identity.

These writers used the term ‘happy’ home, projecting onto it their anxieties and taking solace in it when separated by space and time. But what did society consider made a home happy or unhappy? Unsurprisingly, women’s actions were deemed enormously significant through their upkeep of the home, and they were held responsible for their husbands’ encounters with it and subsequent behaviour in it. But it was frequently men who were seen as the primary catalyst for the home’s emotional register, forging ‘happy’ homes not only through their economic provision and frugality, but also through kindness and displays of love and affection.

Absent from Home

For all their cultural centrality to the happy home, representations often imagined men as physically absent from it, working and providing for it, or defending it and fighting for it (Begiato 2015; Brown and Begiato 2019). As such, it was often their absence that society and culture imagined, depicting them leaving and returning home, dreaming and yearning for it, forever on the peripheries of the happy home. Labouring men and military men were most often depicted leaving home, the former standing on their cottage doorstep, the latter the subject of countless Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Farewells. In most of these, happy homes were only glimpsed, functioning as spaces of emotion and sentiment. This sentimental trope of the home and its absent master was especially valorised during periods of war, a response to unsettled times and crisis. When the idealised military man left his home and family to serve the nation, his sentimental manly form stirred patriotism through his self-sacrifice (Begiato 2020).

Absent men were also expected to yearn and long for home, to be psychologically and emotionally inseparable from it. This is seen in the cultural figure of the homesick soldier, where nostalgia was at first a medical condition and then by the mid nineteenth century an expression of patriotic manly self-sacrifice. Such men were intended to retain, moreover, what we can call an ‘absent presence’ in their home. Visual and material culture entreated men’s loved ones to ‘forget me not’ and ‘remember me’. These pleas were often printed on decorative objects in the home. One common verse on vessels variously dated from the 1830s through to the 1860s, was taken from Bernard Barton’s (1784–1849) poem ‘The Heart’s Motto: “Forget Me Not”’ (1820s).

Men’s Presence in the Home

While men were often envisaged away from home, depictions of their presence within the home were ambivalent. For all that working-class men were urged, as the British Workman declared in 1861 ‘to make “home” the happiest spot on earth’, their presence within the home was often characterised as disruptive, even violent. Indeed, ‘Unhappy Home’ was a typical title for reports of marital violence. Like the happy home, it was imagined through the material culture of the home, with pictures and cartoons from the mid-nineteenth century showing the violent husband as a large figure dominating the domestic environment, destroying its comfort, shattering ornaments, and turning over furniture. Men’s presence in the home in these accounts represented a threat, especially in those with a moral message about alcohol consumption, where the drunk husband was the most disruptive force (Begiato 2018b, 2006).

This is because the spaces of home, whatever the scale of that dwelling, were imbued with and directed by patriarchy, which structured both household forms and relationships. Homes could become sites of tension that encouraged spouses, particularly husbands, to assert physical and metaphorical dominance. As geographers have shown us, the space of the home was transformed by domestic violence and by the presence of the abuser, from a haven to a place of terror. Indeed, the home itself – when a man was present – acted as an agentic force, since its spaces and objects shaped marital violence as an act and an idea. This is seen acutely in the ways in which men were able to eject wives from homes and attack and confine them in specific rooms, as well as through the spaces of refuge which wives sought out.

Beds and stairs featured regularly in court cases as spaces in which abusive husbands attacked their wives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bed was not a private space in any social class, due to its centrality to several life cycle functions related to childbed, sickbed, and deathbed. The convergence within the bed of various activities, emotions, and symbolic meanings could be toxic. Indeed, the bed was a space over which spouses sought to exert marital control. The descriptions of Joseph Bentley’s violence reveal that it was often enacted around or upon the bed. On 6 April 1844, Mary Bentley and her cousin gave up waiting for Mary’s husband, Joseph, to return home, and each retired to her bed. When the drunken Joseph came to Mary’s bedside in the early hours, swearing and insisting she rose, she fled to her cousin’s bed. Joseph followed, threatening to pull her out of bed and tear-off the hangings if she did not get up and then punched her with ‘clenched or doubled fist’. On another occasion in the presence of a servant, he slapped Mary in the face and dragged her from the bed by the feet. Joseph Bentley used extreme violence not only to subordinate his wife, but to reassert his power over the home and its servants, which he perceived Mary to threaten.

Court cases also show that men of all social ranks attacked wives on stairs, throwing them down, dragging them up, or pursuing them as they tried to escape. Violence spilled over into these spaces of the home, transforming them into a place of fear, because they were points of communication between rooms, and, in multi-resident buildings, they were points of egress. Thus, stairs spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands and seem to have been sites that especially antagonised controlling men. Such men were exerting their dominance not only physically, but metaphorically too: the stairs were shaping their thoughts and actions.

The home’s contents took on similar power and court cases frequently detail men’s destruction of an array of domestic objects in the home. One example will suffice. In 1842, Margaret Doolen took Sarah Williamson to the doctor after Sarah’s husband, Robert, hit her with a poker. On Sarah’s departure, neighbours ‘overheard a noise like the breaking of crockery’ from the Williamsons’ room along with Robert declaring: “I will let them see who is master in this house”. Robert used domestic objects to commit his violence, but they were not simply an extension of Sarah’s body, or a substitute upon which Robert took out his anger; they were also the target of his violence and way he asserted his dominance. Like the spaces of the home, objects marked out individuals, relationships, and emotions and thus provoked actions as well as thoughts. As symbols they also helped construct discourses about class, violence, and gender. As things they catalysed violent men’s emotions and acts.

As we realised during Covid lockdowns, homes are profoundly defined by emotions, as well as through our willing, or enforced, presence in, or absence and distance from them. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes were also conceived of and experienced through emotions and spaces. Just as now, unfortunately, this was structurally unequal, determined by wealth, social class, gender, and ethnicity. History and recent experience converge, it seems to me, to show that the home is the most significant physical and conceptual phenomenon shaping human behaviour.

References

Begiato (Bailey), Joanne. 2006. “’I dye [sic] by Inches’: locating wife beating in the concept of a privatization of marriage and violence in eighteenth-century England.” Social History 31 (3): 273-294. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03071020600763615?queryID=%24%7BresultBean.queryID%7D

Begiato, Joanne. 2015. “Tears and the Manly Sailor in England c. 1760-1860.” Journal for Maritime Research 17 (2): 117-133. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21533369.2015.1094981

Begiato, Joanne. 2018a. “Afterword. Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel.” In Feeling Things, edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, Sally Randles, 229-242. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://academic.oup.com/book/6801/chapter-abstract/150957684?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Begiato, Joanne. 2018b. “Beyond the rule of thumb: the materiality of marital violence in England, c.1700-1857.” Cultural and Social History 15 (1): 39-59. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14780038.2018.1427353

Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 42 (2): 229-246. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1754-0208.12617

Begiato, Joanne. 2020. Manliness in Britain 1760-1900: Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526128577/

Begiato, Joanne. 2023. “’Small uneasinesses & petty fears’: Life-cycle, Masculinity and Loneliness.” In The Routledge History of Loneliness, edited by Katie Barclay, Elaine Chalus, and Deborah Simonton, 359-373. London: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780429331848-28/small-uneasinesses-petty-fears-joanne-begiato

Brown, Michael and Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Visualising the aged veteran in nineteenth-century Britain: Memory, masculinity and nation.” In Martial Masculinities: Experiencing and Imagining the Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael Brown, Anna-Maria Barry, and Joanne Begiato, 102-138. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://www.manchesterhive.com/view/9781526135636/9781526135636.00012.xml

Domestic Boundaries, Frontiers & Kitten Filters

The County Attorney and the Kitten Filter

On February 9th 2021, Rod Ponton, a county attorney in Presidio County, Texas, entered the 394th Judicial District Court room remotely via Zoom for a routine civil forfeiture case hearing. However, what ensued was anything but ‘normal’ with the lawyer appearing on screen as a talking kitten, unable to establish how to turn off a digital filter unknowingly applied to his camera feed. Immediately following the event, a video that is less than one minute long capturing this interaction went viral on the internet and ends with Ponton proclaiming the now iconic line, “I’m here live, I’m not a cat.”1 While highly amusing, this event highlights the blurring in conventional boundaries between professional / personal and public / private that many people have experienced due to an increased use of videotelephony since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic. This breach in established boundaries between public and private has become an everyday occurrence for many people that have had to work remotely from the confines of their home. During the 2nd quarter of 2020 alone, 40% of Danish employees were required to work remotely from their homes, with this statistic rising to an unprecedented 75% within the capital region of Copenhagen.2 With this in mind, we might ask, what has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the ‘frontiers’3 between the domestic interior and the world outside?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the subsequent social restrictions that have been introduced globally with the intention of reducing the spread of its resulting disease Covid-19, have drastically disrupted our daily lives and domestic practices. Many activities, previously reserved for the public domain, such as working, educating, dating, fitness training, job interviews and, as we have seen above, even legal case hearings have suddenly had to take place remotely, within the home. Videotelephony platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime & Skype have become the dominant forms of communication between the domestic interior and the world outside. This ‘intrusion’4 into the home of digital devices, such as PCs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, which support these videotelephony platforms have made the boundaries between inside / outside, exterior / interior, public / private & work / home more porous.

Voyeurism, Vanity & Videotelephony

With the increased use of videotelephony vividly observed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,5 many people have experienced a greater public intrusion into their private homes while working remotely. This has placed greater scrutiny on our domestic interiors, décor and the personal belongings displayed within. Since the start of the pandemic, emerging phenomena have highlighted a simultaneous interest from the spectator and a concern by the voyeur for the ‘public’ display of the ‘private’ interior. Suddenly, topics such as voyeurism and vanity have become highly relevant when discussing these ‘threshold conjunctures’ between the home and the world outside that have been heightened by successive lockdowns. Representative examples of this are the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’, both established during the first lockdown in April 2020, with the latter’s sub-title being, “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”6 As the name suggests, ‘Room Rater’ allows the public to scrutinise the lighting, composition and content of other peoples’ videocall backdrops and then assign them a score out of 10, while ‘Bookcase Credibility’s’ thread contains an extensive archive of screenshots from videocalls where bookcases have played a prominent role. The composition and contents of these bookcases are then meticulously studied and critiqued by an avid and loyal group of Twitter users. Since the start of the Covid-19 flu pandemic and the establishment of lockdowns globally, one could say that the bookshelf has emerged as the preferred backdrop by public figures for conveying a sense of intellectual authority.7

Acts of voyeurism and vanity on the boundaries of the home are far from novel subjects when discussing the domestic interior. The academic and art historian, Linda Stone-Ferrier reflects upon thresholds between the domestic interior and the surrounding neighbourhood in the text, ‘Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep’ (2020). By highlighting the importance of social interactions on the threshold between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood observed in paintings from the time, Stone-Ferrier challenges the presumption that there was a firm ‘borderline’ that distinguished the private from the public sphere in Dutch society. Of particular interest to Stone-Ferrier are the ‘voorhuis’, or front reception rooms that supported acts of commerce with the surrounding neighbourhood and that functioned as a stage for the private display of personal belongings intended for public scrutiny. Typical of the ‘voorhuis’ were distinctly designed windows and door openings, together with interior mirrored devices that were used to facilitate a reciprocal display / voyeurism between inside and outside. These open doors, windows and mirrored devices functioned as a ‘liminal’ intersection, occupying both sides of the threshold, which “served as the bridge, rather than boundary, between home and street.” (Stone-Ferrier, 2020, p. 29). Within the context of Stone-Ferrier’s study, these thresholds between the home and the neighbourhood are reinterpreted as a vital fluid discourse, rather than as finite boundaries, where the domestic interior was an essential part of its surrounding context. Stone-Ferrier’s reinterpretation of the ‘voorhuis’ and its various specular ‘threshold’ devices can provide us with useful insights on the contemporary phenomenon of remote working from home via videotelephony platforms.

Domestic Boundaries, Bridges & Frontiers

In his text, ‘A Topology of Thresholds’ (2005), the French architect and academic Georges Teyssot also explores ‘threshold conjunctures’, particularly within the domestic realm, through a historical analysis of mirrors, windows, frames and other specular devices. Themes such as voyeurism and vanity appear once again as Teyssot interprets the early 20th century writings of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the 19th century French poet and art-critic Charles Baudelaire. While Benjamin’s popular description of the 19th Century bourgeois apartment as a ‘velvet lined box’ for its inhabitants, such as that for a compass casing, places emphasis on the home as a means of protection it also simultaneously highlights that the interior, and its contents are on display. On this point, Benjamin goes as far as to describe a fictional section through the home as being a façade, “…no matter where you open it and cut a section through it, my house remains a facade” (Benjamin, 1982, p.4) While reflecting upon the effect of specular devices on the ‘modern’ home, and in particular window apertures and mirrors, Baudelaire arrives at an analogous conclusion to Benjamin, identifying a collapse in the threshold between interiority and exteriority, whereby the ‘modern’ domestic interior became a ‘private’ façade on ‘public’ display, while simultaneously the person on the street became a voyeur. Teyssot identifies specular devices, particularly mirrors and windows as being central to this collapse in the established threshold between the interior and the exterior. He writes, “Perhaps the modernist inhabitant is not so much to become exteriorized, or nomadic, as to find the home no longer neither simply an interior nor an exterior. ‘Living’ is somehow to now occupy the space between the two, inhabiting the threshold.” (Teyssot, 2005, p.106.) Teyssot’s interest in the ‘space between’ is indebted to the 20th century French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s reconceptualization of threshold ‘limits’ as frontiers that becomes voidal and interstitial, thus turning the boundary into a bridge, an ‘in-between’ or rather ‘a space between,’8 which provides the opportunity for exchanges, encounters and ultimately inhabitation. This understanding of boundary thresholds as bridges is strikingly similar to the observations drawn by Stone-Ferrier earlier.

Let us now return to the question posed at the start of this blog post, ‘What has living, and working through successive lockdowns taught us about the boundaries, or perhaps more precisely, the frontiers between the domestic interior and the world outside?’ The increased use of digital specular devices within the home has undoubtedly led to a greater porosity in the threshold between the domestic interior and the world outside, contesting and condensing traditional spatial limits between private and public domains. In these threshold conjunctures, temporal liminal places are created by these videotelephony interfaces that foster acts of voyeurism and vanity, perhaps represented most vividly by the Twitter accounts, ‘Room Rater’ and ‘Bookcase Credibility’. Through the writings of Stone-Ferrier and Teyssot, we have seen that this greater porosity in the boundary between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood is neither unprecedented, nor necessarily detrimental. In current times, analogue specular devices such as mirrors and windows have been supplemented, and in some cases replaced by digital screens and videotelephony interfaces, whereby we have become accustomed to seeing virtual mirror images of ourselves. Perhaps it is the 17th century Dutch ‘voorhuis’ that provides us with the best analogy for the domestic interior during the pandemic, performing as both a bridge between private and public domains through the facilitation of important social exchanges between the home and its surrounding neighbourhood, as well as a place of commerce.

Concluding Remarks

Over the course of successive lockdowns, many have experienced established boundaries relating to privacy breached, whether it be through the unintended attendance of a talking kitten at a legal case hearing or an impromptu work meeting from the bed. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus has tragically affected so many people globally, perhaps its associated social restrictions can provide an important catalyst for rethinking established boundaries between the domestic interior and the world outside. In the days following his viral kitten filter incident, even Rod Ponton acknowledged the much-needed entertainment that the video clip had given many people struggling with the then ‘new normal’ of remote working. The architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has even identified the bed, once a ‘symbol of intimacy’, as having the potential to become the new multi-purpose place within the home, through a metamorphosis into ‘a piece of public furniture’ (Colomina, 2020, p.29) by accommodating remote working, teaching, shopping and even socializing. Perhaps the domestic interior has once again become an essential part of its surrounding neighbourhood and it is on this ‘frontier,’ or rather, within this ‘in-between realm’ that we must now establish home.

Beatriz Colomina is one of four keynote speakers, who will speak at our conference ‘STAY HOME: New perspectives on the home’ November 10-11 2022 at The Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. Read more about the conference and our call for papers here.

Notes

  1. See https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-56005428 (Accessed 25th March 2022).
  2. Statistics quoted in the post are taken from Danmarks Statistik. See https://www.dst.dk/da/Statistik/nyheder-analyser-publ/bagtal/2020/2020-09-22-40-pct-arbejde-hjemme-under-nedlukningen (Accessed 25th March 2022).
  3. ‘Frontiers’ here refers to Michel de Certeau’s interpretation of the frontier as an ‘in-between’ or a ‘space between’, whereby the simple act of delimiting a boundary allows for the potential of a passage, a crossing or a bridge to be established. See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. The French philosopher and prominent cultural critic of the post-war period, Jean Baudrillard has written extensively on the ‘intrusion’ into the home of specular devices and their effect on the ‘virtual’ relations between the ‘outside’ and the allegedly closed sphere of the domestic interior. It should be noted that this ‘intrusion’ has been taking place over many decades, although arguably advanced and expediated greatly by the Covid-19 pandemic. See Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press. & Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.
  5. Zoom’s sales in the last three months of 2020 were up 370% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. Over the same period its meeting participants jumped from 10 million to 350 million per day. See https://www.vox.com/recode/21726260/zoom-microsoft-teams-video-conferencing-post-pandemic-coronavirus (Accessed 25th March 2022).
  6. See https://twitter.com/bcredibility (Accessed 25th March 2022).
  7. See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/01/arts/quarantine-bookcase-coronavirus.html (Accessed 25th March 2022).
  8. See Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. Chapter IX: Spatial Stories. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1. (pp. 115-130). Berkeley: University of California Press.

References

Baudelaire, C. (1947) 1970. “The Mirror”. In Baudelaire, C. Paris Spleen. Translated by Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions.

Baudrillard, J. (1981) 2020. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Abor: Michigan University Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1968) 2020. The System of Objects. London: Verso.

Benjamin, W. 1982. Das Passagen-Werk, Volume 1. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Benjamin, W. (1982) 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (based on the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. “Chapter IX: Spatial Stories”. In Certeau, M. (1984) 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1., 115-130. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Colomina. B. 2020. “The Bed in the Age of COVID-19: Uncovering a New Workplace”. In Fehlbaum. N. (Ed.), Vitra: New Dynamics in the Home: 28-29. E-Paper, Birsfelden, Vitra International AG.

Stone-Ferrier, L. (2020). “Glimpses, Glances, and Gossip: Seventeenth-century Dutch Paintings of Domestic Interiors on Their Neighbourhood’s Doorstep”. RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 45, no. 2: 25–46. Montreal: RACAR.

Teyssot, G. 2005. “A Topology of Thresholds”. Home Cultures, 2, no. 1: 89-116. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

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