Home and the ‘Californian cult of the self’

More reflections prompted by:

Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a mirror of self. Exploring the deeper meaning of home, Lake Worth, Nicolas Hays, 2006 [1995].

To add to my miscellany of definitions of home, Cooper Marcus (pp. 105-6) refers to a 1979 work by David Seamon with a strong Heideggerian theme, A geography of the lifeworld. Movement, rest and encounter. ‘David Seamon, who has written on the phenomenology of the home, suggests that a feeling of at-homeness for most of us seems to combine the qualities of rootedness, security, a sense of “ownership”, restoration, feeling at ease, and warmth’.

My initial enthusiasm for Cooper Marcus’s book has waned a little. My response, to quote Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars, is: ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’. The book was originally published in 1995 and uses field research collected over a period of twenty years in California from the mid 1970s. It also refers to the author’s own childhood and some of her adult experiences. Cooper Marcus grew up in Britain and her account of her childhood, evacuated to the countryside away from the blitz in London during World War II, shares the same sometimes bitter sweet utopian flavour of early and mid-century twentieth English children’s fiction, notably the novels of Edith Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The examples of other people’s relation to their built living spaces are redolent of a Californian culture of consciousness raising and alternative self culture, now faded into memory and whose remnants exist only in the margins of sub-culture. Much of her literary research refers to work published in the 1970s and 80s and earlier.

Foucault’s assessment of Californian cultures of the self very much applies here.

In the Californian cult of the self, one is supposed to discover one’s true self, to separate it from that which might obscure or alienate it, to decipher its truth thanks to psychological or psychoanalytic science, which is supposed to be able to tell you what your true self is. Therefore, not only do I not identify this ancient culture of the self with what you might call the Californian cult of the self, I think they are diametrically opposed.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 362

Reading the various stories of people and their relation to their houses, one is left curiously hanging, the psychological ‘truth’ of their relationship to their living space is exposed, but one wonders – what then? What detailed techniques can be used to go from there?

In the end, Cooper Marcus’s book is a great starting point for reflection but bound by a particular time, place and discipline (Jungian psychology) that I find all a little remote. The book serves to emphasise how much has changed since the mid 1990s and the exponential speed of that change. Next on my reading list for this topic is Alain de Botton’s more philosophical, contemporary and European focused book, The Architecture of Happiness.

Medieval illuminations

To extend on the theme of my earlier post on The Secret of Kells a little.

The increasing digitisation of library collections and rare books has drawn attention to the power of the art work in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Often this artwork appears as marginalia, sometimes bearing little relation to the written text. This artwork is variously lively, colourful and beautiful but also gruesome, bawdy and grotesque. Here’s a small collection of some of my favourite animal illustrations. The first of these is a musical Pangur Bán perhaps…

Cat with hurdy-gurdy, Book of hours, France, ca. 1485-1490. NY, Morgan, MS M.26, fol. 88r. Online source: Discarding images
Rats rowing (Ste-Geneviève, MS 143, 14th c.) Online source: It’s about time
Bartholomeus Anglicus, ‘Livre des propriétés des choses’ (‘De proprietatibus rerum’, French translation of Jean Corbechon), Paris 1447. Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 399, fol. 141vº. Online source: Bestiaire
Image from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery
revBestiary, England 13th century (Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 764, fol. 51r)
mouse
Image from from Faraḥ nāmah / Abū Bakr al-Muṭahhar ibn Abī al-Qāsim ibn Abī Saʻīd al-Jamālī maʻrūf bih Yazdī. Yazdī, al-Muṭahhar ibn Muḥammad, fl. 1184. [S.l : s.n., 16–?]. This is a natural history treatise that is illuminated with detailed multicolored illustrations of animals, birds, plants, stones and humans. Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light, edited by Veronica Strang, Tim Edensor, and Joanna Puckering

This sounds like a most interesting book. I have long been fascinated by lighthouses and their liminal location between land and sea, throwing light into the darkness, guiding benighted travellers across rough seas and away from hidden rocks. They also form a minor theme in science fiction – representing that border point between the unknown and the known and the possibility of the intrusion of the other worldly. Lighthouses appear in Doctor Who on at least a couple of occasions and also in the 1962 film version of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. They also make an appearance in horror and supernatural films such as the strange and atmospheric 1948 film Portrait of Jennie.

Progressive Geographies

9781472477354From the Lighthouse: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Light, edited by Veronica Strang, Tim Edensor, and Joanna Puckering – now out with Routledge.

What is a lighthouse? What does it mean? What does it do? This book shows how exchanging knowledge across disciplinary boundaries can transform our thinking. Adopting an unconventional structure, this book involves the reader in a multivocal conversation between scholars, poets and artists. Seen through their individual perspectives, lighthouses appear as signals of safety, beacons of enlightenment, phallic territorial markers, and memorials of historical relationships with the sea. However, the interdisciplinary conversation also reveals underlying and sometimes unexpected connections. It elucidates the human and non-human evolutionary adaptations that use light for signalling and warning; the visual languages created by regularity and synchronicity in pulses of light; how lighthouses have generated a whole ‘family’ of related material objects and technologies; and the way that light flows between social and…

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The Secret of Kells (2009)

The Secret of Kells is the most glorious animated film, combining rich elements of Irish history, mythology, culture and heritage.

Its exquisite and non-realist artwork takes inspiration from the famous 9th century illuminated manuscript Book of Kells. Although the tone of the film is magical and firmly positive (for its young audience and for those of us weary of being endlessly confronted by the indulgence of less than edifying aspects of human existence) it is not afraid to shy away from the darker elements of ancient evils, dangerous wolves and bloody and destructive Viking raids, human mortality while at the same time containing all these elements within strict boundaries.

A central (non-speaking) character is a white cat, Pangur Bán, from the famous Irish poem, “Pangur Bán” penned by an anonymous monk in the 9th century, comparing his scholarly activities to those of his white cat. There are several translations of this poem, notably by Robin Flower – my favourite version because of its simplicity and also by poet Seamus Heaney. The poem paraphrased into modern Irish is read out over the end credits, without fanfare or signposting by Irish actor, Mick Lally.

The music also contributes to the wonderful atmosphere of this film, particularly a magical sequence where the fairy Aisling transforms Pangur Bán

Tomm Moore, who co-directed the film with Nora Twomey, describes in a comprehensive interview how the film was conceived and put together. This passage draws attention to the sheer scope and variety of the international collaboration on the film:

Walking the Dog studio in Belgium did about 20 minutes of 2D and a lot of the 3D animation and compositing. Digital Graphics did ink and paint, compositing and some 3D. Blue Spirit in Angouleme, France did additional backgrounds and Flash animation (for background characters only) as well as a majority of the compositing. We did 40 minutes of 2D animation in the legendary Kecskemet film studios in Hungary, where the Hungarian folktales that had inspired me to try for a folk-art style had been made. We also had Lightstar Studios in Brazil handle our clean up and inbetweens from the Irish and Belgian studios. The editing and sound design was done in Paris in Piste Rouge and the music was written by Bruno Coulais in Paris, but arranged and recorded by Kila in Ireland.

It was an epic adventure to co-ordinate between all those studios and I owe a lot to our great production team and supervisors for keeping it together. The challenges of streamlining the work from the various studios were sometimes daunting. We had a great asset management solution in Hobsoft, which was developed by two Danish guys to manage European co-productions. I also enjoyed engaging with so many new cultures.

I am now looking forward to catching up with the rest of Tomm Moore and his associates’ work.

Thinking Outside the Box: Walter Benjamin’s Critique of ‘Dwelling’

Reflections on Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger’s notions of home and living space (dwelling).

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This post takes off from reflections on two notebook entries in Walter Benjamin’s long, uncompleted research into the space and culture of 19th-century Paris, The Arcades Project or Passagenwerk, notes that he dedicated to the problem of dwelling (Wohnen).   I’ll come back to these soon. But first a few preliminaries to set up the broader context for where I’ll be heading, which is Benjamin’s rich meditations and criticism about “interiors,” which embraces in his writings a complex set of topics and interconnections between them, including modern cities and their reconfigurations of inside and outsides through enclosures and the use of glass in architecture, the culture of the bourgeois household of the 19th century and of Benjamin’s own childhood, and the psychological interiority so intensively elaborated by modern culture from lyric poetry, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and modern art to psychoanalysis and new-age spirituality.

Dwelling was a problem…

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Living space and self expression

Design Psychology, ‘the practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principal design tool’ (Toby Israel) is a growing new field, forming part of the discipline of psychology’s ever expanding and dubious endeavour to encompass and explain all human experience. Clare Cooper Marcus’s work could also be situated within this movement. Martha Beck remarks:

You may have no idea you’ve produced an extensive memoir, but you have. In fact, you’re living in it. According to psychologists who analyze the relationship between our homes and our psyches, we often—consciously or not—choose and arrange out living spaces to reflect our life histories. To Toby Israel, author of Some Place like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, a home is an “environmental autobiography.”

When visitors walk into your home, what story do they “read”?

Selgascano Studio. Architects: José Selgas and Lucía Cano, Madrid (Spain) 2007.

But perhaps we could take a different approach to living space. Rather than viewing living space simply as an extension of the self and identity, manipulating and colonising space and material objects, imposing a power relationship upon them, forcing them into expressing a self which is not their own, we might envisage instead, entering into a free relationship, a relationship of mutual respect, support and harmony. This idea is slowly gaining more mainstream traction in relation to natural environments, and can also be seen in innovative initiatives in the built environment which see environmental architecture working in the area of harmonious relations with nature. But it is not just ‘nature’ and the outside that need to be recognised here, but the very form of the materials and objects that make up the building and its interior.

Again, this is about recognising the boundaries of the human and non-human and entering into a relation, a network where difference is recognised, rather than the human occupying the whole territory.

Home vs living space

Often the notion of home and living space are conflated, but they are by no means the same thing. ‘Home’ is paradoxically an utterly ambiguous and floating notion. Is it one’s designated ‘place of residence’, the parents’ home or place of origin, the nation state where one currently lives or was located in the past? Is it a specific and very local geographical area, a local community, a workplace (for example a university office), or can one’s most intimate sense of home be found in a heterotopia?

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

I find the notion of heterotopic space as home in opposition to what is usually thought of as ‘home’ to be of particular interest: something that would bear further thought and reflection. Alain de Botton talks about this feeling of home in what are effectively heterotopic spaces:

Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a hotel. […]

There is no necessary connection between the concepts of home and of prettiness. One can feel at home in a place which is very unhomely – such as a diner or a motorway café with others similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within a person that they are alone in being alone. The very lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture can be a relief from what may be the false comforts of a so-called home. What we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.