Category: space and architecture

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.

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.

Ties to land and nature

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].

Cooper Marcus notes the importance of land and nature in notions of home. This might seem like an obvious and trivial point – but it is something that those who construct what I call ‘bunker houses’, fortress houses, with shuttered windows which occupy every inch of the block they are built on, seem to have forgotten. They are inward, rather than outward looking houses. Houses that close down social and environmental connections.

One can counter, of course, with the objection that ‘views’ are highly prized real estate assets – but distant views perhaps, which pass over the immediate surrounds. Penthouses or houses on top of a hill from where people outside look like ants and one has the impression of flying above it all in a plane. I could invoke here Borges’s mythical Chinese encyclopedia and develop a classification of houses and apartments from where exterior objects “a long way off look like flies”.

Apartment dwellers in Stockholm, Sweden, often consider home to be the second home, where they spend weekends and vacations on the coast or in the forest. Ties to the land and nature, and memories of extended family prove stronger than the mere number of days spent in a particular dwelling. (p.2)

I was struck by this passage. To some degree this remark would also apply to dwellers in other European cities. But, the problem with this of course, is that one would have to have the financial means to make this notion of home possible and most people don’t. Or more optimistically, we could extend this to the holiday rentals people return to periodically – even if it is a simple caravan or a tent.

The human and the relation to the non-human

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].

Cooper Marcus argues following Jung that:

“In the course of our lives, other people enter, and sometimes leave the field of our psychic awareness. […] What is less obvious is that the same thing happens with the objects and places in our lives. We selectively pay attention and invest them with emotion as it serves the deeper, largely unconscious process of individuation, or becoming who we truly are. […] In our own lives we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order – often unconsciously – to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us.” p. 8

Cooper Marcus over the course of the 20 year period of gestation of her book developed a fascinating technique which invited people to visually draw a representation of their home, then to speak to that representation of home as they would to a human person and then invite the home speak back to them. What interests me about this is the recognition of the non-human as a person in its own right and the idea that the human is not the only existent who acts in the world. The human, in fact, exists in relation to a very broad network of the human and non-human. This is of course Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (orginally derived from aspects of Foucault’s work).

But in Jungian fashion, Cooper reads this as the material things simply reflecting back to us our own preoccupations and projections, or alternately our manipulation of those material things. I would perhaps modify the statement I made in my last post and suggest that Jung’s thought was just as colonising as Freud’s in that it appropriates and colonises the other in the interests of the self. The New Age movement which has taken on many aspects of Jungian psychology tends to reduce the external world to the desires, wants and failings of the self. The external is simply a subservient instrument in the expansion and fortification of the self.

I always feel a sense of unease when encountering psychological and existential/phenomenological systems of thought and note my preference for an approach like Foucault’s. In psychology and the systems of Freud and Jung, the starting point is always the self which spreads to occupy every aspect of existence. Everything becomes a reflection or projection of the self and the hard boundaries of the other are eliminated, colonised and assimilated. Jung argues that what we see in the external are projections of our own unconscious. One becomes trapped in a claustrophobic system where there is no outside to the self. The unknown, the unconscious is a substrata of the self which either waits to be discovered or exposed to the light of day (Freud), or are unrecognised projections of the self, both individual and collective which are then open to manipulation (Jung).

Foucault however, begins with the premise that we are born already belonging to a historical, cultural, linguistic and material situation. The human self is born into this complex network and the measure of freedom of the self is the capacity to modify that belonging, even if it is only in the tiniest of ways. Those modifications are networked into the broader outside and we use and modify tools already available in human culture and history to effect changes to ourselves within this broad network. It is not about creating an ever expanding fortress of identity (Jung’s strange Bollingen Tower project might be an example of this), but of understanding our limits and intersections with the network of which we are a part.

The new school of Object Oriented Ontology or Speculative realism also argues for the position that non-human things are not simply screens onto which the human self is projected, but have their own autonomy. These ideas find predecessors in the structuralist movement, including Foucault’s own ideas.

I noted in my book in relation to structuralism:

In the place of research centred around an unchanging and introspective human subject, the structuralists advocated the exploration of the unconscious structures underlying culture, knowledge, society and language – in short the structures underlying all human endeavour. They examined structures of cultural production without linking them back to a central human agency or to individual psyches, to consciousness or to individual lived experiences of existence.
Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault, London: Sage, 2005

Going on to quote Foucault

It is humanism that is abstract! It is all these cries from the heart, all these claims concerning the human person and existence that are abstract: that is, cut off from the scientific and technical world which is actually our real world … Well, the current effort being made by people of our generation, is not to set up man against science and against technology, but precisely to show that our thought, our life, our way of being, right down to our most everyday way of being, are a part of the same systematic organization, and thus emerge from the same categories as the scientific and technical world. It is the ‘human heart’ which is abstract, and it is our research which seeks to link man to his science, to his discoveries, to his world, which is concrete.
Foucault, Entretien avec Madeleine Chapsal. In Dits et ecrits, vol I., (Paris: Gallimard), pp.517-18)

Freud vs Jung

Browsing a not terribly high end bookshop in Brisbane, somewhat surprisingly I came across this book:

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

I have long been fascinated by the relation between home and physical space. Interestingly, there appears to be only a paucity of philosophical reflection on this subject, although I have by no means done an exhaustive search in the area. One work I quite like on this subject is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. (Here is a short piece he has written on the subject of home.)

In any case, I have started reading Cooper Marcus’s book and am finding it fascinating. I am no great fan of Jung or psychology in general, but she mixes it with her strong background in architecture (she is a retired Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture from Berkeley) along with references to Bachelard and others, so I am prepared to listen.

As I read, I will post up reflections prompted by the book. As a starting place, I found her description of the difference between Freud and Jung’s approaches quite enlightening. Freud’s notion of the unconscious is a place of isolating and solitary darkness, threat and fear to be conquered, tamed and controlled. Jung’s notion is of a mysterious, collective and not unfriendly (but still dangerous) surrounding cosmos of inspiration allowing the self to expand its boundaries and links to the outside. Freud operated in the mode of colonising power erasing the other, Jung as an explorer and friend of the other. This binary characterisation is of course not entirely accurate, but for me it sparks a whole range of ideas and possible choices that could be made at a collective social and cultural level or choices that could have been made in the problematic twentieth century.

This is what Cooper Marcus says:

For Sigmund Freud, the unconscious was like some dangerous wilderness, and symbols manifested in dreams contained impulses or conflicts the conscious mind needed to conceal. Carl Jung had a very different perception of the unconscious. For him, it had both a personal and a collective component and was “like the night sky, an infinite unknown, studded with myriads of tiny sparks of light that can become the sources of illumination, insight, and creativity for the person in the process of individuation”. (Metzner, p.5), pp.7-8