How to even begin to define that which we call home? It seems to me that home comprises not only an environment in all its spatio-temporal complexity, but also an affective structure formed throughout the years, layered like the concentric circles of trees, muddled and confusing, sometimes visible to the reflecting mind, most often buried deep within the inaccessible realms of our psyches. This affective structure takes years, decades perhaps to unfurl and it leads one to look to be elsewhere, in the space beyond the intimate boundaries of one’s home, to extend and expand in unfamiliar spaces, spaces that might provide other types of reflective lenses. And still, one looks for home, whether looking over one’s shoulder or searching ahead, nostalgically or hopefully. What is the difference, then, between the home of one’s past and that of one’s future? Do they not rely upon the same structures of the imagination?
Through what kind of frameworks of thought do we identify and recognize the lived experience of being at home? Are there particular spectrums of emotions, assortments of rituals and behaviors, modes of employing and developing our bodies, modes of being-with and being-alongside, which define our sense of being at home? And indeed, throughout a multitude of varied and heterogeneous experiences of inhabiting a space which we invariantly call home, to what sort of conventional descriptions of homeness do we resort?
Home, for some, is expressed as something intimate, familiar, comfortable and welcoming, a refuge or a sanctuary, a space for the expansion of the self, for being alongside those who most permit the self to expand and flourish. For others, it is utterly and tragically inaccessible, except perhaps as a concept, as a desiring or a striving for. For yet others, home is a space of tension, of anxiety and aggression, of internalized abuse, of psychological and sometimes physical damage. For many of us, home is a mixture of sorts, not falling within concrete categories, not easily definable, nor easily forgotten, but experienced more like a deeply rooted structure within our beings. If you cannot distinguish yourself from home, how are you to reflect upon it?
To be deprived of home, refused entry, to be exiled, banished, blocked from accessing what has constituted your most intimate and formative memories, intensifies the feeling of home – what will become now an imagined construct more than a material environment, growing more and more abstract with distance. Like a phantom limb, the affective experiences of being at home and of having lost your home remain anchored within, lived in very concrete and material ways, through careful and caring bodily practices that reconstruct a home away from home. What is the turning point when a vivid and embodied sense of home has been forgotten and replaced by something else? Is there something irremediably lost when home has fallen out of reach?
Sometimes, we might not be aware that the space we have inhabited for a while, which we’ve filled with ourselves, with objects of attachment, remainders, small fragments of our being…we might not be aware that such a space has already, surreptitiously and without our consent, become home. Perhaps we can only experience it as such when we are threatened to be separated from it. Only then, does the space of our composite being become stunningly real to ourselves. The awareness of the small fragments of ourselves which we leave behind and which fill in already cluttered corners and recesses. To be separated from the space that has already secretly become home means a type of dissociation, a tearing and splitting of ourselves, a sense of becoming incomplete, deprived of some essential splinter of our being. How can we know before we have already lost ourselves like this?
And so it is with moving in between homes. Each revisiting of our older and newer homes contains infinite possibilities to retrieve some essential piece of mind, state of being, sense of belonging and of becoming, a desire for resolution and for moving on, a reflection on where we were and how we have changed. Sometimes, there is an illusive disappointment that nothing has truly changed, that there is a gap, which we have traversed between our homes, but that our homes remain fixed in time, solid points of contact for transitory selves. And yet, every new encounter with home involves a complex rearrangement of one’s senses and modes of being, re-familiarizing ourselves with the well-known fragrances and tastes, what I would call proprioceptive realignments. Have you not experienced the same kinds of dreams at home, in familiar beds?
And finally, what of those who inhabit our homes, themselves in movement, forever changing, leaving us and returning to us, waiting for us and coming towards us, turning away or receiving us like in the past? How do we change together, in opposition to one another, by extension of one another? Are our senses of self inextricably connected and shaped by them even when they are no more?
As I am writing, I am flying away from my family home, towards a temporary, adoptive home, still far away from my most recent American home. So it goes…
(August 20, 2017)
The Politics of Intimacy
I’ve been thinking these days about what a philosophy or a theory of intimacy might look like. The question seems to be dispersed from the very beginning by the sense that intimacy is a deeply personal, intersubjective and elusive experience. One might argue even that intimacy does not exist, in other words, that it is a substitute concept for a wide array of emotions, movements, gestures, connections, sensations of warm and cold, close and distant, inner and outer.
Intimacy, some might argue, develops more powerfully between those who know nothing of one another. More so, perhaps, than in familiar settings, when habits, practices and gestures have been heavily exercised, and thus, have become unnatural, tedious, burdensome. Perhaps there is a glimpse of awareness in the very discovery that illusive intimacy is sometimes easier, more engrossing, more overwhelming than practiced intimacy – the awareness relies perhaps on the deceptive structure of intimacy, its close connections to fantasies, delusions, and constructions of the self and other.
Presuming to develop a theory of intimacy comes with its own traps, risks, failures: making the particular universal, eliding the specifics of varied socio-political and historical contexts, depoliticizing the political. And yet, one might as well argue that intimate relationships are deeply, highly, indeed, crucially politicized. It appears to me that they emerge, crystallize, progress, develop, and break down at the intersection of so many different forms of politicized discourses which often produce conflicting interests, fantasies or attachments working against yourself or the other person, misreadings, misunderstandings, and a grapple with the distinction between reality and imagination which can never be fully outlined or delimited. These political dimensions of intimacy are geographically expansive and historically deep, and, in cosmopolitan settings, often involve conflicting discourses about gender, race and imperialism, clashing and breaking down into waves of confusion.
Perhaps the highly politicized nature of intimacy is a thought that no longer surprises, nor elicits confusion, and yet, intimacy is often conceived, in everyday language as well as in theoretical models, as a type of merging (of minds, of sympathies, of desire and principles, of self and other) towards eliding some differences and bridging some gaps, thus also covering up, in the process, the political infrastructure on which it rests. I am thinking here in particular about theories of cosmopolitanism, which presume to reconcile difference with difference, focusing on connections, relations and networks instead of on dichotomies or one to one relationships, veering occasionally towards empty celebrations of togetherness, a type of forced and uncomfortable global intimacy. Relations of power, differential affects, discursive constructions become temporarily suspended in this ethereal version of intimacy, beyond boundaries and hierarchies. And of course, the dream of intimacy does not last. For some, it is a nightmare. Think of forced intimacy which depletes and consumes the subject, transforms the subject beyond recognition, indeed envelops the subject within the folds of larger structures like capitalism or Eurocentric humanism. Even when working with fluid and malleable definitions of subjectivity, one must take into account the differential of sheer force.
I would argue that it is worth remaining for a while within the realm of uncomfortable intimacies to distinguish, if at all possible, between dream and concrete materiality, to draw the boundaries of the self and other and extinguish them and draw them again and extinguish them, live within reach of coming close and letting go, refusing to ingest the other or to presume that one might dissolve themselves completely in another. Indeed, there are so many abysses which lie beyond the deceptive warm appearance of intimacy, for theory, thoughts, and for our own precarious bodies.
(August 12, 2016)
The Problem of Equivalence: Language and Political Speech
All lives matter seems to be the repetitive drone of anguished conservative critics. Of course all lives matter, but we know that some lives matter more than others in the eyes of power. So how is this anguish produced if not through abstract indignation? Because anti-racist work often relies upon a rejection of hierarchical power structures rooted in the different embodied and lived experiences of racism, it sometimes becomes represented, in conservative contexts, as yet another form of racism (through its occasional rejection of white identity markers, the European tradition, etc.). The assumption seems to be that, if anti-racist work is attacked on its own terms – that is, by leveling against it the very language it employs to define inequality – then its supposed double standards will be revealed and its efficiency will be neutralized.
This is where the problem of equivalence arises. Or rather, this is how equivalence becomes instrumentalized. The rhetorical device of gaining a political argument through the use of equivalence relies upon the erasure of structural differences in the process. In other words, the accusation of racism leveled against anti-racist activists decontextualizes the meaning of racism. It relies upon an ahistorical definition of racism simply as opposition to an identity group. It erases the ways in which racism is not simply manifested in the individual, as rational act, but functions as an embedded system of social oppression with complex histories and specific institutional manifestations. Equivalence, as it is used in this context, is mobilized as a type of abstract, universal or, even, moral law according to which language (and implicitly, political action) should be deployed in ways that are consistent, logical and equilateral. And this begs the question of what is, indeed, a logical argument? Who establishes the rules and laws according to which an argument can be said to “make sense,” be coherent, be rational, and therefore, not contradictory? The ways in which we use language for the sake of political argumentation are never, as we know, transparent, objective or impartial.
As postcolonial and Black feminist work has shown at length, a more interesting critical question has to do with the positionality of the speaker, the way in which they are implicated in institutional, material or discursive structures of power, rather than the direct content of their language. Language matters, but the ways in which it is anchored within structures of power and hegemonic systems of meaning matters more. The words employed may have distinct meanings in different context, their charge might shift as they travel across different geopolitical spheres, their use might as well be contradictory depending on who is doing the using and for what political purposes. And all language is political, including the supposedly apolitical aesthetic language or the language of poetry. This is not to reduce language to identity, but to claim that both universal language and unified identity are false discreet categories that are produced through the erasure of the multiplicity of forces at their basis.
Equivalence assumes this direct relationship between language and the interaction of fixed identities upon a level playing field. It assumes that everyone has the same unmediated and unhindered access to the means of production and the means of representation in society. It assumes that everyone can and will use language in the same way. It assumes that language is founded upon unchangeable and transcendental meanings. It assumes that having the right to language is interconnected with higher abstract principles that also determine what it means to be human, a citizen and a member of one’s society. The right to language is said to be a human right, which everyone has supposedly already been invested with equally (the right to freedom of speech). As if the proposal of human rights is the same as its concretization.
Whose language do we use when we talk about language? What if you talk in a borrowed language, a language that was learned through great efforts in order to gain access to the space where you “have” a voice? Is there any space for political movement for the minor inside of the language of the dominant? And can we use the language of empire to describe the functioning of empire?