Home: An Impossible Pursuit?

Mural by Christopher Statton and Megan Wilson, 2015. Source: Creative Commons
Anna Viola Sborgi's introduction to the second round explores intersectionality and social mobility as it relates to home.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the original introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

One recurring theme that brings together the geographically and temporally diverse cases discussed in round one is that homemaking is a hard pursuit both materially and conceptually. It is aspired to (though also consciously rejected in some cases) and works as a “structuring absence” in Pamela Wojcik’s post. Caterina Sartori’s interview with a resident of the Aylesbury Estate reflects all the frustration and anxiety surrounding much-longed-for but still insecure property ownership. Isabelle McNeill points us to a nostalgia towards different homes in the city in a dialogue between mother and daughter, where the impossibility of home also connects to wider questions of national belonging. Adam Ochonicky depicts the Midwest as “America’s collective ‘hometown,’” “suitable for visiting but not inhabiting.” While desire, nostalgia, and fantasy are different concepts, they are all connected by a sense of longing for something that is absent or hard to reach at best. In this second round, I would like contributors to address two main questions. Is the pursuit of a home, especially a stable one, possible at all when inhabiting precarious times and spaces? What are the factors that intervene to complicate home-making practices and their security?

Although housing and access to homeownership are affected by class, and film and media have often emphasised that (for instance, in the long tradition of British social realism), the four posts of the first round all prompt us to engage with gender and race as intertwined factors affecting one’s chances to secure a home, an indication that housing precarity and its mediations are better understood intersectionally. Building on the spatial bearings of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theorisation of intersectionality,1Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139-67.in their recent edited collection on intersectional screen spaces Massood, Matos, and Wojcik argue: “all spaces are intersectional. Insofar as people inhabit and use spaces, those spaces are available to be inhabited by intersectional identities; to show intersections among and between people; and to address issues of privilege, oppressions, and resistance.”2Paula J. Massood, Angel Daniel Matos, and Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Media Crossroads: Intersections of Space and Identity in Screen Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 7.

Moreover, while an intersectional approach can certainly be applied to the spaces themselves, a further question for round two is: how do gender and race affect movement and mobility between spaces? Movement can take place within the city for instance, in the surroundings of large housing developments or in the wider areas that the characters traverse in search of a home. In Divines, analysed by Isabelle McNeill, gang leader Rebecca enjoys relative freedom of movement compared to the other racialised characters in the film.

Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), and Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) walk together across the housing development in Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016). Credits: Easy Tiger/France 2

However, her figure reiterates a quite common stereotype in urban realist features which places black mobile characters only within a criminal underworld.3Clive James Nwonka and Sarita Malik, “Top Boy: Cultural Verisimilitude and the Allure of Black Criminality for UK Public Service Broadcasting Drama,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 14, no. 4 (2017): 423-44. In Adam Ochonicky’s essay, Robocop moves around the blighted city: he is a cyborg, but he is gendered male. Some individuals, such as the tramps discussed by Pamela Wojcik, have a certain freedom of movement around public space despite being marginalised. The tramp, Wojcik notes, is often a white “super-mobile” masculine figure and this aspect reflects “more general associations between public space, mobility, and masculinity, as well as freedom and authenticity.” Moreover, beyond homelessness, which is a particular type of movement within the urban environment as it is most often involuntary,4It must be clarified that the distinction between “intentional” homelessness as opposed to “unintentional” is a crucial and sensitive point in housing assistance. In most countries, accommodation can be denied if ascertained by housing services that the individuals requiring shelter have made themselves “intentionally” homeless, although such an evaluation is often extremely complex. In contemporary film and TV programmes about housing this step of the emergency accommodation search often provides a dramatic impasse for the characters.discourses of mobility such as flânerie have often been framed around masculinity but also criticised from a feminist perspective.5Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (London: Verso, 2002); Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (London: Penguin, 2017).Contemporary practices like urban exploration and parkour are also frequently associated with (often white) masculinity.6For instance, in his analysis of urban exploration in London, researcher Bradley Lannes Garrett reports that although there are many well-respected female explorers in the community and the composition is more varied than how it appears from public forums, only “approximately 10%-15% of London explorers are female.” He also noted that the community was overwhelmingly Caucasian “likely because of fear of police overreaction”. See Bradley Lannes Garrett, “Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration” (PhD diss., Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012), 20-21.The association between masculinity and exterior public space is counterpointed by the complex, nuanced but also contested relationship between women and the domestic interior, as Isabelle’s discussion of Swagger shows. What does this persistent association between white masculinity and mobility mean for our way of conceptualising homelessness and, more generally, housing problems? What kind of mobility is afforded to women? Are racialised women also depicted as mobile or are there any blind spots in representation?

While the racialised and gendered quality of mobility can be analysed in terms of movement through space, another wide area of discussion for round two regards social mobility. As we have seen throughout the essays, racialised citizens face the largest struggles in both securing a home and permanent ownership (the black and brown population in both France and Britain, but also the African American community in the US). Moreover, to fully belong in the “nation of homeowners” seems to grant higher chances of belonging to society and the nation as a whole, and this of course is imbricated with post-colonial legacies, as in the assimilation tensions referred to by Isabelle McNeill and in the struggle for homeownership of black and brown Londoners Caterina Sartori describes in her post. Writing on the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in West London in 2017, Nadine El-Enany argued that the sub-standard and dangerous housing conditions experienced by the racialised residents of Grenfell, many of whom had “geographical or ancestral histories of colonisation,” has exposed that “Britain’s geography is marked by spaces of colonial control and exclusion in which resources are withheld from people living in conditions of spatial and temporal precarity.”7Nadine El-Enany, “Before Grenfell: British Immigration Law and the Production of Colonial Spaces,” in After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance, ed. Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins and Nadine El-Enany (London: Pluto Press, 2019, 58.

The interconnection of the right to housing, to the city, and ultimately, to citizenship leads us to interrogate more deeply the intersections between the way housing is organised and represented at wider levels in the different places and temporalities this round table examines. After all, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse put it, “the built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organisation of society.”8David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (London, New York: Verso, 2016), Kindle edition. As much as the shape of housing as bricks and mortar is the tangible reflection of society, its mediations also refract the ideas that society maintains about housing and the home at different historical moments and in a range of social and geographical contexts.

Across the texts of round one, two types of housing recur: the American private single-family home as a symbol of autonomy and independence and the large post-war public housing block in Britain and France, standing for post-war ideas of collective living. Isabelle McNeill outlines the history of HLM (habitations à loyer modéré), buildings that were originally designed to solve the problem of precarious housing. In the context of Caterina Sartori’s post, British social housing originally reflected values of working-class communality and connectedness, which, at least in its inception, corresponded to a strong belief in the state mass provision of housing and the principles of the welfare state more generally. Gradually but inexorably, this concept of the home started to decline from the 1980s, when the asset of public housing radically changed. In part due to the introduction of Right to Buy policies, council housing increasingly became residual, shifting “from ‘general needs’ housing catering for a broad mass of the working class to a residual tenure for the poorer working class with the direst housing needs.”9Stuart Hodkinson, Paul Watt, and Gerry Mooney, “Introduction: Neoliberal Housing Policy –Time for a Critical Re-appraisal,” in “Social Housing, Privatisation and Neoliberalism,” ed. Stuart Hodkinson, Paul Watt, and Gerry Mooney, special issue, Critical Social Policy 33, no. 1 (2013): 2). Though the opposition between these two recurring housing types in North America and Europe is meaningful and the focus of the essays show that, I do not mean to over-simplify the role of large state-subsidized housing in the United States and of the detached and semi-detached house in Britain and their mediations. As we are traversing a long historical arc, it is also worth keeping in mind how certain types of home might be more prominent at different moments in time in the two different geographical contexts. At the same time, ideas of property are converging transnationally alongside the increasing financialization of the housing market, which is characterised by significant globalised patterns and interconnections, and an erosion of state-subsidised housing. As housing is configured as real estate rather than “home,” homemaking practices and their representations become an increasingly insecure pursuit. What do these representations of home tell us about the way we conceive society as a whole? What are the spaces of resistance, beyond individual resilience, if there are any at all?

Notes[+]

Sborgi, Anna Viola. "Home: An Impossible Pursuit?" Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 5 (December 2021)
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