Paolo Boccagni: #StayHome, forced domesticity, the kids playing in my condominium garden, and some unsettling parallels between insiders and outsiders
1. When the #StayHome appeals started to gain grounds in the past few weeks, they still had something of a romantic tone. More home, that is, more time for oneself, for one’s private life, for intimacy – the good old habits, the luxury of “having time”. It did not last long. The more public health conditions revealed the critical importance of social distancing, the more #StayHome, by then a legal obligation, was reframed as a civic duty – the right thing to do. Staying locked in one’s place, with no proximate social contacts, is no more a right for those who want and can afford it. Quite the opposite: #StayHome is a duty towards one’s fellow citizens and the state. Even a matter of social justice: the more one withdraws into the private, the more this goes to the benefit of the public. The boundaries between the former and latter, home and non-home, are now expected to be as hard as the bricks and mortar of the house itself. As a result, however, the public relegates the private into its own (invisible) problems and concerns. Not a major question, probably, under the urgency of a global pandemics. Quite a significant and discomforting one in the long term, though.
2. Under the current world health situation, the usually sceptical question What’s the point of studying home? is bound to find new and positive answers. Unprecedented shares of the population are simply forced to stay home, in Italy and, increasingly, elsewhere. Forced domesticity used to be a prerogative of vulnerable minorities in poor health conditions – disabled people, frail elderly, and the like. Now it is being experienced by the mainstream. While the all-in-the-same-boat rhetoric does create some consensus about it, for now at least, it conceals an obvious and fundamental fact: not all boats-as-homes are the same, not even between households in a similar social position. Tensions and conflicts inside the household likely find less room for accommodation, once people are almost forbidden to go out. Aspects of housing quality such as size, luminosity, access to some (private) green space are more critical than they used to be. And for sure, housing quality is but a euphemism for the homeless and those in precarious housing. All the more so, as #StayHome means a prohibition to stay in the public space – the only one in which people’s presence should not be conditional on wealth or social status.
3. Working from home, renegotiating gender and generational routines within the household, limiting incursions into the public to the minimum are all part and parcel of the everyday, for the time being. It may well be that, after the crisis, the very notion of home – let alone the personal experience of it – does not mean any more what it used to. Not the most remarkable effect of the revolution under way right now, but still an effect. It is hard to predict if, at that point, home is bound to mean more of a bulwark against the virus, or just more of a suffocating place. Or worse, one in which old-days inequalities, violence and abuse have taken new power and legitimacy. While #StayHome is the right thing to do, it only exposes further the vulnerable members of a household to the darker side of domesticity. In fact, it is informed by the assumption that people are more protected by staying home. This is likely the case in health terms, but not necessarily in social ones.
4. As I was starting to write this post, from the comfortable inside position of an Italian middle-class apartment, I was looking at my condominium garden. All public gardens are under lockdown in Italy by now. As for the private ones, common sense and housing rules should lead to the same result. Yet, the rule of law may not be as pervasive within these semi-private spaces. Despite some complaints, some families still happily have picnics there, and small children play or run after each other in ways that would not be allowed anywhere else, these days. They effectively display the resilience of the private to the top-down colonization of public authorities, although at the price of allowing behaviours that go against public security. As long as that green (in fact: grey) space can be claimed as their home, they are allowed to stay there – or so they presumably think. Again, an issue of private rights vs public duties, with the home lying at the very core of it.
5. Under conditions of forced domesticity, most people are simply expected to stay inside their place. Nothing more natural than that, unless for the fact that the impact of #StayHome varies with housing quality and with the very existence of a place suitable as home. There is something grotesque, and a question of further marginalization, in #StayHome for the homeless, or for residents in slums or reception centres. However, there is also some unanticipated parallel with the experience of the mainstream, all differences in power, rights or opportunities notwithstanding. Something of my own forced domesticity, I realized, is not so dissimilar from what we as “homingers” observed with our immigrant or refugee counterparts over the last few years. It might even pave the way for a better and more empathic understanding of their life predicament.
6. On the one hand, the pandemic has turned waiting and unprecedented uncertainty into a pervasive, ordinary and weird state of things. Something to which asylum seekers are over-exposed by definition, on which they have a unique experiential knowledge, now affects the rank and file of native citizens. Waiting for the end of it and for return to “normality”, only to find out that it’s unclear when this will actually occur, bears a discomforting resemblance with the view of the future from inside any asylum centre. While people may have different resources and opportunities to fill the void created by waiting, or may even see no void at all, they still depend on a radically heteronomous form of time. This is all the more unsettling because no public authority is fully in control of that time, or accountable for it.
7. On the other hand, forced immobility and a limited access to the public space are a weirdly novel experience for the native, but not for an immigrant or an asylum seeker. Having to justify one’s presence in the public space – to give a legally acceptable answer to the question Why are you here?, i.e. out of home? – is something unprecedented for national citizens in a democratic country. Far from so for immigrants, who are typically in a position to have to explain why they’re there – in the “home” of the native, i.e. out of their (supposed) place – whatever their legal status. Yet, home, someone says, is precisely the place in which no justification is needed. If you are at home, you don’t have to explain why you’re there. This means that the crisis has been making public space equally unhomely for those who are most accustomed to it. Again, a social cost that, while being clearly outweighed by the current health emergency, may well survive and keep infecting the social fabric, after it. But also, for social researchers, some (unwelcome) opportunity to have a sense of what living like an immigrant feels like.
8. For the time being, people are urged or forced to withdraw into their homes as the last bulwark of security and sovereignty, at least for those in power within a household. And at least as long as a home to withdraw in does exist in the first place. So that public inequality is scaled back, and made less visible, into the private inequalities related to the ways of having, using and experiencing home.