Making places in times of pandemic
The pandemic we are living through is a time for holding our breath, in hopes of a resumption of normality. But the collective global effort is so intense that it represses the critical questioning of normality. And yet, the response to the pandemic, by its need for intensification, makes the critique of normality more urgent. Whose modus is one of distillation of places in human existence. Breathing is suspended in this pandemic, but the breathing of thought cannot be suspended. Instead of the obstinate struggle for an old normal, the response to the pandemic should be a rediscovery of places, and of their existential, sociological, and political value, namely those primordially distinctive places we call home and world.
- The age of the rarefaction of places
Places are spaces visited by time. A place is a space that has become a habit, that has yielded memories, and to which one returns. That is the difference between a place and a location. A place is more than a location, more than the intersection of coordinates, latitude and longitude, on the curved surface of the planet. Place is the layer of meaning that is rooted, cultivated, and flourishes - for example, at that point of coordinates. Place emerges from a habit, a repetition (which necessarily occurs in time, in its course), and invokes repetition itself, like a comfortable inertia, an anchor of security, a ballast of meaning. Habits are inhabited as places and places are inhabited by habits.
There are also uninhabited places, which are more the memory of having been places and thus, even if only through that perspective, remain places. And there are also places that are the imagination of being places, like utopias, and that in this way also perpetuate the habit that makes places. And there are also places that are not physical, or virtual spaces, but that live in our living bodies, with their extension and their unity. The verse of the Portuguese poet Daniel Faria comes to mind - men who are like misplaced places. People are genuine places for other people, finding in them the habit, the memory, and the will to meet.
A similar reflection can be made about time. What are temporalities if not habits of using time that differ among those who share them and who, in this way, inhabit them? And if they are this, then temporalities are time made places inhabited by those who live them.
But all places being space that time has moulded, and all temporalities time that has become places, this linking of space and time in place-making is not, however, a necessity. It can and will be a work of meaning, a practice of cultivation and culture, which is done with the attention of care. Which is good. But it may also not happen, which is precisely the historical contingency of our time: these practices of making and inhabiting places are being lost.
Spaces lose their relationship with time, becoming only space, without a layer of meaning, so literally geometrical that not even physical space coincides with it, merely an abstraction, a passage for people, information, and capital. And, in the same way, temporalities cease to be places, becoming only countable time, without a layer of meaning, again so literally abstract and one-dimensional, that not even physical time coincides with it, lacking, for example, the direction that entropy would provide.
The result of this disconnection is a space and a time divorced from each other, transformed into imperturbable abstract axes of referencing and measurement. They lose the reality of being events and become spectral. This imperturbability, still being felt, has repercussions on the organisation of societies, their rhythms and the lives within them. And it demonstrates that, from the annihilation of temporalities, there survives a hegemonic, globalizing culture of desirably accelerated, passing flows, without geographical or chronological barriers.
- The response to the pandemic
More than the pandemic, the way we have responded to it has reiterated this rarefaction of places by concentrating time and space in a multi-purpose place. For example, working from home has reduced the difference between time for work, for leisure, and for domestic life to conventions that each one must know how to manage. It has become a Kafkaesque exercise of the will trying to reconcile time and space in order to fulfil the needs of children in online-schooling and of parents working from home in the same house and rooms. The meeting platforms and remote meetings have been replacing, with small adaptations, all physical spaces one by one: the office, or the dining room table, or the kitchen, depending on the housing possibilities of each household.
Lockdown, with what it brought of crisis, could have been an opportunity to question normality. On the contrary, it became an effort of adaptation seeking to reinforce the most basic aspects of normality. Therefore, the ambivalent 'new normal' turned out to be an apt expression, suggesting the idea that it is the same normal, presented in a new way.
This reiterative element is, in fact, in line with designations such as hypermodernité or surmodernité, proposed by the philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky and the anthropologist Marc Augé respectively, and which illustrate how the response to the pandemic is the expression of an epochal pattern, long preceding the situation we are facing today.
It is worth revisiting the important reflection that Marc Augé proposed a quarter of a century ago in Non-Lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (Seuil. 1992). There, Augé makes a very clear distinction between places and non-places. Places are defined as identitarian, relational, historical spaces and non-places as those spaces that cannot be defined as relational, historical, and identity related. Based on this distinction, Augé argues, as a hypothesis, that "overmodernity is a producer of non-places".
Augé's non-places are places where one goes but not beyond an anonymous condition, and which remain so, however ephemeral or lengthy one’s passing through them. They are shopping centers, airport terminals and train stations, motorway service stations, hotel lobbies, the very means of transport – buses, trains, planes. Spaces of passage, but also of consumption, or simply of waiting for the right of passage, such as refugee camps. For the anthropologist, these non-places are increasingly common and are occupying our cities.
But one can also conceive of an opposite non-place, a "non-non-place", where none of the abstract space of functionalised relations is present, but where a concrete space remains. For example, the suburbs of cities, which, in the transition to the countryside, remain, between roads, as lost or forgotten, indeterminate spaces, where forgotten people or those who pretend to be forgotten reassume space and time, not as abstractions, but as concrete experience.
Without romanticising alternative lifestyles on the margins of society, these places can be thought of as the clearest opposites to the non-places Augé talks about. And there is something emancipatory about them. Inhabited spaces, despite being entirely outside the functionalisation and design of space and time, liberate the possibility of place and temporality. They become attractors for people and communities who yearn to live sovereignly in time and space.
On the eve of lockdown, a public exhibition by the Portuguese photographer Catarina Botelho, entitled “Something in Between” (https://galeriasmunicipais.pt/en/exposicoes/something-in-between/), which could be visited at the Pavilhão Branco next to the Museum of the City of Lisbon, drew attention to these places. It is a photographic series that goes towards peripheral spaces, the edge, the borders of the urbanised territory, which seems invaded by disorder and rule, when in fact it is order and complete regulation that invade space and functionalise it.
On the other hand, there is a possibility of place in a non-place. Not only in the sense that what is a place for some is a non-place for others, but in the sense that this condition of non-place can make it a place. It is in this gap, for example, that skaters create a place, occupying the public space, which they use beyond and despite its functionalisation. A place can always also be another place: the steps of a train station or of a big bank can also be the place where others gather convivially, with their time and space. The systematicity of how skaters do it cannot be interpreted inexpressively, as if it carried no meaning. It is to make heterotopias, as Foucault said.
- The city: threats and opportunities for meaning
The geometrisation of space and the metrification of time are conspicuous aspects of the organisation method of the modern city, with its urbanistic rationality, rationalising spaces, movements, services. In this sense, the city is not a stranger to the transformations of daily life that lockdown brought about. It is indeed quite the opposite: in at least three ways has the city been a victim of the response to the pandemic.
1. The city under lockdown tends towards a dormitory status. And if people work in the city but have their houses and flats in dormitory suburbs, then not even that, the confined city becomes merely deserted. The beginning of the pandemic showed cities invaded by wild animals, perhaps not without some over-interpretation. Yet this could express, with a certain ambivalence, the anguish of the empty city as well as its regeneration as a living place, albeit a different one. And which would have in the city of Chernobyl, for causes other than the pandemic, an exemplary case, as David Attenborough noted in a recent and unmissable documentary, A Life on Our Planet (2020).
2. On the other hand, the "back to basics" that the new normal imposes on daily life means sacrificing what the city provides beyond work and rest: cafés and cinemas, bookshops and theatres, concerts, reading sessions, shows, art exhibitions, but also sports, cultural events in general, all put in the basket of distractions, more or less important, but not vital to survival.
Because of its scale, more populated than rural areas, the bigger the city, the more it provides its population with a diversity of routes, of ways of life. These singularisations, if they become possible, bear witness to the successful way in which a city is a city, a place which invents and maintains very diverse places. The pandemic, on the contrary, asks, if not imposes, that the city ceases to be a city in this sense. And it expresses the tendency towards normality that preceded it, but in a more boneless way. Just as the planetary challenge of which Attenborough speaks is to reverse the annihilation of biodiversity, the challenge for cities is to reverse the rarefaction of places, of which they themselves are victims.
3. Finally, the concentrationist impetus of lockdown has deterred people from appearing in public space. In cities, public meetings and public demonstrations, involving many participants, are pressured not to take place and, if they insist otherwise, tend to become targets of open criticism. But it is then the very possibility of the formation and expression of civil consciences that is threatened.
The care of cities in times of pandemic must be for what cities themselves, more than any other place, can provide to humanity and to the continuation of its history.
But, on the other hand, and more optimistically, the way of life of lockdown also highlights how the place of the city can gain new configurations, especially in the times that follow the pandemic. Nothing is determined in advance, only conditioned, which is quite different. If working from home, for example, becomes an increasingly valid option in labour relations, cities will be freed from the constraints to their distension.
If the city can express its vocation to make places, it will coexist better with transitional places, also with the diversity of neighbourhoods, respecting their identities, avoiding, above all, the concentrationist logic of pendular movement between the centre and the periphery, particularly present in the most unequal cities, which confines a large part of the working population (and not infrequently their school-age children) to hours of traffic and to imposed overtime fatigue.
A post-pandemic easing of lockdown should foster an understanding of the city as a meta-place of diversity of places and place-making, the city and its neighbourhoods, its borders, but also those other places that are its movements, dissents, creations, lifestyles, marginalities, heterotopias. Cities are privileged places because they are especially prone to be the beginning of something and without this we can hardly escape the threat to a human way of existing.
- Houses that are a place
Of all the places that make up one's world, it is our homes, where we live, that have been the place where we struggle most against the pandemic. Not only because of the duty of lockdown that keeps us there, but also because of the emptying of other places, public, institutional, work, leisure, cultural, of the full experience of the world.
But what exactly is a house? To say generically that it is a building that can be inhabited is to say everything without saying anything. We tend to think that houses are those places where we feel especially safe, and that, with that security of refuge, they can be places of intimacy, of “inner” existence. And indeed each house is not just one, but a collection of places of intimacy, which relate to each other as places of varying exclusivity - that of the house facing the street, but within it, that of the bedroom, that of the bathroom, that of the office, that of the drawing room, and that of each one's place at the dining table, etc.
Different layers of intimacy, which are arranged in a complexity of their own, of the order of family relationships, or of a single person. Because, even alone, a person needs, for a meaningful relationship with herself, a reality beyond her body, where her habits dwell. That is what a home provides. There is a verse by a Portuguese poet Manuel António Pina that says: "Places are the geography of solitude". Returning home is a re-encounter with the ballast of meaning in one's life, and so it is essential to life that we can be at home, in our solitude, which must be a basic human right. When being at home becomes an impossibility, or a possibility that is too rare, we condemn ourselves to a condition of survival only.
To be at home is to be in a place of identity for two, or more, or alone. And so, we enter home as inside something, but more than in a built construction, 'inside' means transposing the border into a consciousness, a vision of life, complicities, even into an unconscious that is sedimented in habits. And 'border' can literally mean that of a country to which one returns, which is also like a home when one emigrates or leaves for some other reason.
Juhani Pallasmaa (2016), one of the great architectural theorists, tells of that common habit of, arriving in a hotel room, making it a little more like home by dropping personal possessions on the bed and other parts of the room. Reminiscent of home. Houses are much more memory of a biography than places. Or rather, they are places of memory, which accommodate and thus store and provide the memory, for example, of gestures and smells, things that one did or does and things that one felt or feels, at the house of one's grandparents, the beach, the time when one was a child, the present life and previous lives, with other geographies or affections. Returning to Manuel António Pina’s poetry, in this light the verse "a house is the ruins of a house” gains resonance.
- Houses that are condition
And yet, houses are not places, they are nowhere, they are more what we carry with us as the idea of home, a collection of memories concretized in an objectivity beyond our body. So, to bring our home with us is to bring with us precisely all that is essential to maintain the security that allows the intimate. We say "don't bring your house with you”, but that is precisely what we all bring with us, some more, some less, wherever we go. So, in a sense, home does not have a place. Home is a kind of shadow, which always accompanies us if we are not walking blindly.
The American writer James Baldwin said that "perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition" ("Giovanni's Room"). To say that it is a condition is to say that it is something that we cannot turn away from. But it is not exactly a shadow either. It has that characteristic of following us wherever we go, but, unlike shadows, houses are choices. To think of them as shadows, each shadow would be the one we draw and not the other way around.
And if we take our home with us whenever we go away, the home we left behind may no longer be found when we return. For James Baldwin this is even a condition: "you don't have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”
Even if we do not entirely follow this rather pessimistic thought, the underlying idea that, truly, being home is always an intimate movement we perform in things, of keeping in them a distance, which is never surpassed, and a closeness, which never leaves us, is an important one.
And if intimacy is a sharing of solitude, the home of each one also attracts the home of each other. We get to know each other when we finally visit each other, whether it's our physical homes or other kinds of homes, for example, our books, our walls on social networks, our tastes, the hidden corner of the café where we meet and talk, the cinema where we spend time in silence, etc.
To visit each other cyclically, friends and family, is to go on making intersubjectivity. Not as the construction of a building with walls, but rather as a flow of giving and receiving, with the pleasure of recognition, also of the discovery of difference and its enjoyment. To visit is to bring the comfort of the presence of the visited. Having guests is a central aspect of being home.
But there are houses that can't accommodate visitors, that seem designed on purpose to be uninviting, with cramped doors and windows. I wonder if it would cost so much for social building projects to rip out bigger windows. Or is it the result of a long-standing refusal to grant a better home experience to those who cannot afford it and which resulted, in the past, in property taxes on the number of windows. To look at social buildings in Portugal, which have windows as if they had been boarded up even before they were finished, is to look at a stigma of poverty: you will have somewhere to stay, but not a home.
- The pandemic and our houses
Fortunate are those who had or have several homes. Unfortunate are those who do not. But what is calamitous is not having a decent home in times of a pandemic. When we are detained, surely the most important thing is to have a word about the place that detains us. Still in the first lockdown (spring of 2020), Portuguese Design critic Mário Moura vented on his Facebook wall: "one of the things I miss the most is not so much leaving, but that feeling of finally returning home”. A sensation that is very much a result of the houses themselves, obviously. Or rather, that the place we inhabit is home enough to make us miss it.
In a context of pandemic and confinement, our homes come to have to accommodate, as far as they can, almost every other place in our life. They become production units, even if there is no office, with large windows, or two or three rooms; even if the children are organised into shared rooms, theirs and their parents’ needs for school or professional commitments, access to the Internet, computers, spare space, the company of solitude.
Inequality becomes a cruder reality when confined in our very unequal homes. Which justifies prompt attention to whether the conditions for working and studying at home that are being demanded are actually ensured. This kind of uberization of our homes, by contingency’s decree, is felt very unequally and requires a response of solidarity, materialised in emergency public policies. It is not only a question of size, but of the quality of construction in urban areas, for example, with very poor thermal insulation conditions, a well-known problem in Portugal.
The cold of last winter’s days should count as tremendous suffering imposed and, therefore, should be a reason not to charge the increases in energy consumption associated with the low temperatures. It is inconceivable that the cold kills. Internet access services, which have practically replaced the possibility of going out into the street, should also become free and universal. At least to the extent that its use has become professionally or educationally compulsory.
On the other hand, even those who are lucky enough to have good, comfortable, and splendid homes in which to work and study, still see their time at home competing with time spent in other places, which have virtually entered their homes to literally not disappear. Time at home must be protected when we stay all the time at home doing everything we would do if we left home.
Thinking beyond the emergency responses to the pandemic, the future of house design should also be an opportunity for reflection for architecture, urbanism, the city plans and even the community plans. In the future, we cannot neglect, as if it were a luxury, the need to guarantee working and study conditions in houses, which must be designed in a much more integrated way. But not to the point of it becoming an ever-illusory project of self-sufficiency. We will always need to go out onto the streets to meet the world.
The pleasurable and voluntary confinement, as in a bubble, may not be subjectively felt as an imprisonment, but it remains so objectively. It is like the paradox of that person who is objectively locked in a room, or in a cell, but feels free because he does not have the slightest desire to leave, to the point of not even checking whether, if he wanted to, he could do so. And if leaving cannot also mean staying in the bubble of the surrounding street and the local neighborhood, everything justifies rediscovering and revaluing the surrounding street, the neighborhoods that stops being just a dormitory, and becomes more of a community, less a stranger to the house of each of its residents.
The pandemic has brought inequality into our homes, which requires us to collectively know how to respond in solidarity. Confining ourselves cannot mean encapsulating ourselves. And this sudden increased importance of the houses we inhabit should also be an opportunity to claim a right to housing that is more genuinely a basic right to a home. In the sense of a place of vulnerability that we allow ourselves and that allows intimacy, but also of a relationship with the outside, which opens the door, to go out or to invite in, which goes to the window, to look in or to watch. If genuine, homes confine on behalf of conviviality and a good life.
- The idea of world
We live in a time where place-making becomes only resistance against the general tendency to rarefy existing places and hinder the emergence of new ones. And yet place-making should be a basic activity of a meaningful life.
Indicators of this rarefaction are precariousness, which, far beyond the end of job stability, designates an existential regime of uncertainty and restlessness; social acceleration, which compels us to perpetual movement, depreciating the value of staying in places; the undifferentiation of places, which are less and less singular, just stations that become equivalent to others, wherever tourism takes us; and the virtualization of places, with less thickness, and replacing the places capable of receiving the thickness of our bodies.
But if this hypothesis of a rarefaction of places can be debated, it is important to think about two types of place, primordial in our history, at least the Western one. The house and the world. We have already spoken of places and their rarefaction, and of houses. What remains is the place we call the world.
The word ‘world’ opens up a world of meanings. It can mean everything and include everything without looking at the differences, as well as it can mean a singularity that is cut out from everything else. We can say "the whole world" or "each person is a world".
It may be the universe, it may be the planet, it may be one's home, it may be the world one discovers when one opens the door and goes out. It may be what is common and unites us and, then, we speak of the world of business, of politicians, but also of poets, artists, affections, economic rationality. And it can be what makes us unique - and then we speak of an imaginative creator in his or her particular world, of a singular mind and, again, each in his or her own world. There is no way to lead a meaningful life without a world of your own.
The whole world is one, but it is also the multitude of singularities of which we are subjects, communicating, sometimes merging, becoming shared worlds. My world and the other's world, so different or similar, attracting each other or not, being part of each other or not. One is not without a world and, hardly ever, without being part of the world of another. To be alone is also said to be far from the world and in Brazil "all the world" means “everyone”.
The world is the integral collection of all places and each of its places can also be a world. Therefore, world and place may coincide, but they do not mean the same thing. Indeed, worlds are places, if we understand them as including everything that is meaningful to a subject - whether that subject is one, many, or all people. We smile when we see the child lost in her own world because she is making a place of what matters to her. She is lost within her world, but far from being lost.
What defines world is this perspective on places filled from within. To have a world is to lead one's existence and to be able to be the subject of meaning. And so, when someone dies, it is not only that the world loses someone, but, as Derrida said, in a certain sense there is an end of the world, of the singular world of that person. Whenever someone dies, a world dies for us. And every time someone is born to us, a new world is born.
But the world also must be thought of as the outside beyond our own bodies and houses, the outside world. The world begins when we go out into the street and encounter what is not one's own, but common. In a way, nice as it is, the expression 'Common House' is not a good one. Because houses are the place of the private, of intimacy, as we have seen, and the world is the place of the public. And so, they are primordially different places, perhaps the most primordial in human history, at least in Western history: they draw the difference between the private and the public.
One perceives and follows the ecological intention of the second encyclical of Pope Francis Laudato Si – On care for our common home, bringing the planet into our common care and thinking of ourselves as one planetary community. Despite all these good reasons, it is important to think of the planet more as world than as home. It is necessary to reconcile communitarianisms not to a big house, but to the cosmopolitan ideal in which all give onto a big and open street. Being a citizen of the world (that is the meaning of the Greek kosmopolitēs) cannot mean being confined to a house. And it makes no sense to look at ourselves as citizens of our houses. It is by going out into the street and meeting people there that we become citizens.
The world holds a sense of inside, but in which we are with more than ourselves. The world is like a dance with things and with others that brings them inside. The outer world is the first inclusive reality, separating cosmos from chaos. Coming into the world is the first inclusive event. We always have one foot outside and the other inside, as if we were dancing with the world, each one of us in our own way.
But an outside of everything is not a place. It is like leaving the world. Like the imagination of a lone survivor on a ship lost in intergalactic space and time, immeasurably far from everything, with no answer to the question "is there anybody out there?" There the very idea of place becomes a countersense. It is like dying in life.
- Amor mundi
Surprisingly, all this rambling of the world has a lot to do with politics. In her set of essays Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt wrote "in politics not life but the world is at stake". To make this separation between life and the world and to realise the leap of detachment and courage it involves is to meet what we should expect from politics. But to think and act politically becomes rare when self-reference to life, self-interest, individualism, the life of each one as the only end, and that of all others as means, prevails disproportionately.
Nor is it a question of moving love from life to the world, in the sense of a union that fuses in a passion without distances the part that loves with the part that is loved. It is not a question of loving the world in that sense. In another remarkable essay, The Human Condition, Arendt explains: "respect, not unlike the Aristotelian philia politiké, is a kind of 'friendship' without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us" (Arendt, H (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago University Press: p. 243).
We lack that distance over ourselves and the world is that place of non-coincidence, that space that we inhabit with hope and meaning without it being ours, whether it be the street, the assembly (physical or virtual), the public garden, the sea all before us, or the space beyond the Earth. But it is still a kind of love for not asking for a reciprocal gesture.
Very recently, but even before the pandemic, Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill (2017) wrote: "Amor Mundi - love of the world - is not love in any sense we’re commonly used to (...). Arendt’s conception of Amor Mundi has more to do with understanding and critical thinking than with sentiment or affect." The politics of friends is a huge, but frequent, skew of political friendship, which many of us have felt bitterly throughout our civic lives.
- Making the world
When Yuri Gagarin accomplished the first orbit around the Earth aboard Vostok 1 60 years ago, it was the first-time that human eyes saw the Earth. "Through the window, I see the Earth. The ground is clearly discernible" we hear him say in an audio recording. And so, he remained in this new moving place, orbiting, 108 minutes, before returning. One phrase of Gagarin's has gone down in history - "Circling the Earth in my orbital spacecraft, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and cherish this beauty - let us not destroy it!"
The rarefaction of the world perhaps began right away when the planet was confined to the idea of a globe, a geometrical structure enclosing it, as if to say: the world must be mastered. It's worth remembering that "Misanthrope" by Brueghel the Elder, who painted a disguised scrooge inside a globe robbing a circumspect man, a painting that bears the inscription "Because the world is perfidious, I mourn". The French language is more apt when it speaks of 'mondialisation' rather than 'globalisation'. A globe is a closed totality, with a perimeter; a world is an open totality, a cosmos. Much more than home, and certainly more than the cramped room that is a globe, planet Earth needs to be experienced as world.
But it is not only the planet that lacks world. In our contemporary societies, the experience of world needs to be articulated anew. In all its polysemy, the all-inclusive world and the singular world of each one, visions of the world, hopes for meaning that are inhabited, but with one foot inside and the other outside, the world as a space of civic friendship, plural, of thought and critical discussion.
Conceptual accusations eager to entrench themselves (even without the patience of conceptual work done), need more world. Just as fundamentalisms and uncompromising relativisms, which are in fact equally unwilling to discuss the relativity of one's own position, or closed communitarianism and individualism with no sense of community (another closure), nationalisms which claim "this is my land" as "my home" instead of the street which is also mine precisely because it is not mine, need more world.
Thinking and acting in favor of more capacity to make places, places of the world and places of home, is a good way to synthesize the program of a cosmopolitanism of proximity, for the planet and for us who inhabit it. The transformation of daily life and conviviality brought about by the pandemic should be an opportunity to move in this direction.
- Arendt, H (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago University Press.
- Augé, M (1992) Non-Lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Seuil.
- Hill, S R (2017) What does it mean to love the world? Hannah Arendt and Amor Mundi. Open Democracy (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/what-does-it-mean-to-love-world-hannah-arendt-and-amor-mundi/)
- Pallasmaa, J (2016) Habitar, Editorial Gustavo Gili.
Escrito por André Barata na Quarta Junho 16, 2021
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