Monday, 2 April 2012

The Agoraphobic Homeworld

Ile St.-Louis, Paris. By DT.

“The real dwelling plight,” so Heidegger famously writes in Building Dwelling Thinking, “lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell.” To learn to dwell means, for Heidegger, to give thought to homelessness. Thinking, for him, redeems us from the “misery” of homelessness, given that thought carries with it a temporality rooted in the past. To think is to re-remember, to retrieve the origins of homelessness. Here, Heidegger relegates the materiality of the home to a contingent factor in dwelling: “Do the houses in themselves hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?” That Heidegger responds to this question in the negative testifies to the complexity of dwelling. To dwell—that is, to be at home—means more than occupying space: it means not only being at home in the locality of the house, but being at home in the world more broadly.

How can the world become a home—how can we be at home in the world? Once again, I am asking this question through the lens of agoraphobia. An agoraphobic subject finds himself in the world. Confronted with the nauseating contingency of his own existence, and thus the parallel horror of the outside world, he will find solace in the illusion of the home. For him, it will become a centre in several ways.

The first and most fundamental of these centres is the home as a site of reality; that is to say, an ontological centre. I take this centre from Bachelard, whose incipient agoraphobia sets in a place a boundary line marking the reality of the inside from the unreality of the outside — recall: “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home.” How does the home become a centre of reality? The question has negative form: it becomes a centre of reality through the structurally positive role of the outside as an unreality. Like the structure of Schopenhauer’s account of happiness, the agoraphobic home as a centre of reality has no value in and of itself, but instead adopts that value from the condition of the outside. What is the condition of the outside world? For the agoraphobic, the border to the outside marks a transformation in his concept of self-identity. It is a place of self-fragmentation, self-estrangement, and self-doubt. He cannot trust his body in the outside world, and so his relation to others dissolves, in turn conferring a sense of unreality upon the world. Denying both the validity of his body and his relations with others, the outside world assumes the form of a mirage—a simulacrum of reality deprived of the bodily intersubjectivity.

The second centre privileged to the home is a world centre. For the agoraphobic, the home is a definite, localised place, set in the materiality of the world. He does not carry the home with him, secured in his bodily being, but instead leaves it behind every time he faces the outside world. The home is a centre of the world, insofar as it orientates him at all times. For this reason, being between places—travelling—is at the heart of agoraphobic anxiety. If getting from home to work entails venturing into the interstitial area between these two realms, then that binary experience of space is destined to be repeated as a leitmotif in the structure of the world more broadly. When we hear classical accounts of agoraphobia as involving an anxiety over crossing plazas and squares, then what is at stake is not the materiality of the square nor even the public gaze present in the square: but the structural configuration of being between places. A hallway, square, bridge, or large room sets in place a clearly delineated zone, in which the agoraphobic person has to commit to crossing, lest they succumb to the urge to flee. Here, one can begin to “place” agoraphobic symptoms such as imbalance, disorientation, sensitivity to light, and jittering legs as being tied up with up with both a lack of trust in the world and his own body. Lacking the resources to trust his body—for his body is that which betrays him on the outside—he instead places his trust in the materiality of the home as his source of navigation in an unfamiliar world. This mention of unfamiliarity is vital. No matter how much he “desensitises” himself to the outside world (to use a word borrowed from behavioural therapy), becoming familiar with the world will forever elude him so long as he regards the physical site of his house as the constricted centre of his being. The unfamiliarity of the world is thus not a problem of becoming acquainted to the world or of remembering the details of a particular route, etc. The world is unfamiliar in that it is resistant to being dwelt in, and thus constitutionally unfamiliar.

The final centre the home establishes is an affective one. Here, the centre is defined in terms of the agoraphobe’s mood. If the idea of a home is characterised in general as the centre of repose and well-being, then for the agoraphobe, the prevailing mood of the home is less carefree repose and more subdued anxiety. After all, given that he is fundamentally ill-at-home not only in the physical home, but also in the world, then the mood of the home is forever marked by anxiety and uncanniness. True, it is a place that the agoraphobe can find sanctuary in. Like Bachelard, he will protect himself from the unreality of the world, and thus attain some degree of ontological orientation. At the same time, however, the home is also a tomb for the agoraphobe. It encases and shields him from the world, sealing off possibilities that would otherwise be accessible were the home less rigidly defined. Thematically ambiguous, the agoraphobic home soon shifts into the terrain of the uncanny—or as Bachelard will have it, the “dark entity.”

Here, we return to Heidegger’s question: “Do the houses in themselves hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?” Agoraphobia presents us with a home that has been elevated to the centre of the world in three ways: ontologically, worldly, and affectively. Yet despite this privileging of the home, a fundamental discord intrudes upon that space. The home eludes the agoraphobe, becoming a tomb to protect him against the world. Central to this pathologised homeworld is the maladjustment of the body. That the agoraphobic subject is unable to develop a sense of being at home in the world is not because he has resisted “giving thought to homelessness,” as Heidegger would have it. Quite the contrary: giving thought to homelessness is the idée fixe of the agoraphobe. But this thought is only taken up in formal, cognitive terms. Critically, at no point is the thought experienced through the body. Instead, the body is experienced as a passive agent constantly anchored by the tripart centrality of the home, in each of its ontological, worldly, and affective dimensions. Heidegger again: “What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight?” The question points directly to the problematic structure of the agoraphobe’s relation to home. Instead of trusting that his body will endure the uncertainty of the “real dwelling plight,” the agoraphobe withdraws from this question, and in the process confuses the centrality of the home with the answer to the problem of not being at home.