Tag Archive | Domestic Space

Rethinking Colonialism: The Post-Bourgeoisie in Mars

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Almost three hundred years have passed by since Daniel Defoe represented the colonizer’s experience embodied in the enlightened bourgeois Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Remarkably, these three centuries have seen the process of decolonization and the birth of post-colonialism. Robinson Crusoe is widely considered the first bourgeois novel: the detailed reproduction of the domestic realm in an unknown, untamed space stands for the expression of the settlement of a new social class, and culture: the bourgeoisie. Robinson Crusoe not only strives to reproduce his domestic space with its rooms and functions, or collection of objects, but he also reproduces its domestic rituals around food and eating, time marking, and especially, the writing of the self in a diary.

Robinson Crusoe is no less formidable for being a representation of a process of domestication of foreign lands, strongly attached to an imperial era. Enlightenment, and its strong belief in education and reason, carries with itself the responsibility of knowing the world, and sharing with it the glories of the Age of Reason. The relationship between Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie is especially seen through the importance of free thinkers and the raise of liberal professionals. Colonization and  cultural imperialism are well understood in this context.

Surprisingly, a film such as The Martian (2015) finds a wide and massive reception in an era when post-colonialism have shown the shames of colonization for decades. The ‘complex’ of the white man being charged with a shameful responsibility, cannot however stop him of feeling admiration in front of a potentially new era of colonization: the conquest of space. The Martian presents a new Robinson Crusoe, a man lost in Mars, a hostile land, who strives to survive through the colonization of this new space. The lost astronaut indeed domesticates this land through his technological devices and knowledge, as well as Crusoe did until being saved by his compatriots. What this film puts into question is the still present culture of colonization and the ‘white man’.

Let us go a step further: what if in this new planet the ‘white man’ finds a new being? What if it happens to be a being pretty similar to himself? Would then be so difficult to imagine our discussions on this new man’s soul? His inferior, or superior culture? Would we strive to impose him our education system? Taking a new form, curiosity for the unknown and anxieties of conquest merged into a new direction, relegating decades of critique, and showing, perhaps, that little has changed in this born conqueror?

Mad, Criminal, and Ambitious

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In late nineteenth-century, literary representations of the new woman approached her autonomy in political, and sexual matters in terms of madness and criminality. Texts such as Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), a sensation novel based on the real case of Constance Kent, and published in a serialized form in the magazines Robin Goodfellow, and Sixpenny Magazine, illustrate Victorian domestic anxieties in the form of a bigamous woman who desserts her child and domestic duties. Zola’s Nana (1880) was another example of female dangerous sexuality embodied in a courtesan whose customers, strongly seduced, follow their own destruction. Lombroso’s psychiatric text Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman (1895) aims at a scientific classification of woman’s nature identifying the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse’ woman.

Women who wanted to divorce could also be considered as undergoing mental, or physical illness, as The Awakening (1899) illustrates through the relationship between Edna Pontellier and the family doctor who interprets her anxieties of independence from a medical perspective. Popular imagination had it that a woman who did not circumscribed herself to the domestic realm was socially dangerous. For the bourgeoisie and the Victorians, this danger took criminal forms which could involve sexual aggressiveness. The mad woman was another way to represent non-domestic women, and a well-know topic of Victorian literature during the whole of the nineteenth-century.

After sexual mores changed progressively during the twentieth-century, and the emergence of a post-bourgeois, middle-class society took place, the mad and criminal woman disappeared as a source of anxiety. However, popular representations of women today seem to point out to another type of ‘unsettling’ woman: the ambitious female professional. It is striking the number of TV shows – which can be seen as replacing nineteenth-century weekly fouilletons – which present a a young woman between 25-35 years old willing to dangerously do anything for her career. These characters are sexually attractive, and usually facing a choice between her partner and career. As with the mad and criminal woman, the ambitious woman is indeed a woman. These TV shows do not use to put into question men’s ambitions, for whom their profession and family life do not appear as contradictory. Instead, top men use to have a wife who responds to the popular needs of a post-bourgeois society.

The American show Damages (2007-2012) shows the life of a young female attorney, Ellen who, at all risks, decides to work for one of the most terrifying lawyers of New York, Patty Hewes – who also happens to be a woman whose adolescent son has paid for her 30 years of professional dedication. The paternalizing advice Hewes gives to Ellen, “most men don’t handle an ambitious woman. It will take you some trials, but make sure you find one”, aims at showing Hewes’ dark arts in trying to break Ellen’s actual relationship with her boyfriend.

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Damages follows a structure already found in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (2006), where a recent graduated in journalism starts working by Miranda Priestly, the most dreaded chief editor in the fashion world. Like Ellen, the young Andrea destroys her relationship with her boyfriend due to her ambitious career which is also mentored by the old Miranda, whose private life has been a records of defeats.

Andrea’s last move, her final renounce to become Miranda, is nothing but a social negotiation between the values of the post-bourgeois society, and the ways in which this is menaced, mostly, the professional top-woman. If it is true that Andrea changes her life before it is too late, she has already ruined her private life, and achieved what she wanted: a reference from Miranda which put her into a top newspaper. In both cases, however, Patty Hewes and Miranda Priestly embody a dangerous woman everybody is scare of, while their younger doubles represent the social negotiation between the acceptable and the non-acceptable, reminding us that the best choice for a young woman is still family.

These representations of contemporary women are, as they were in the nineteenth-century, structured around a male gaze, which constantly avoids the real solution to the family-work polemic: compatibility. The representation of the ambitious woman as monster in the twenty-first century does not help at all to understand that women do aspire to high positions as well as to build a family. Instead they send the message, ‘a woman who wants to dedicate her life to her career is a bad woman’. The mad, criminal, and ambitious woman is nothing but the a serial of different forms the same old tale takes. Now, indeed, it is ok that a housewife works but not that much.

Towards a Democracy of Space

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Contemporary theories on space make an emphasis on its lack of stability and perpetual becoming opposing classical theories of space such as those of Heidegger and Bachelard. Human Geography is a postmodern school on space which generally includes feminist, psychoanalytic, ecological, marxist or postcolonial approaches, among others. Besides their theoretical differences, there is an overall share idea based on new fluent and unstable spaces which do not guarantee a refugee from a speedy world. In opposition to the classical dichotomy time/space, postmodernism totally intertwines one with the other annulling binary oppositions such as: space-time  still/movement  emotion/reason  female/masculine  being/becoming, etc. Feminist geography especially criticizes these dichotomies claiming that woman is aligned to space, and so to domestic space, and argues that spaces have been traditionally defined by the white bourgeois male in opposition to an Other (female, black, low-class, etc.).

These new approaches to space argue that space is not one but multiple, and they are not defined by fixed characteristics but by a multiplicity of interrelationships which configure space: the strong mix of ethnical groups in big cities is an example of the total presence of the other which is not other anymore. Ethnical, national, and gender boundaries tend to disappear, at least in space – even if, I think, invisible boundaries do exist in these same multiple spaces. However, it is true that the strong delimited boundaries of the 18th and 19th centuries are totally put into question: the other is host at home; nevertheless, we cannot deny that home has become uncanny (terrorism by Muslim British citizens is an example of invisible boundary and the existence of the other for both sides).

Feminism also relates boundless space with a new configuration of the family however it does not specify. Body and space are totally interrelated: the body is our first place and the most basic tool to establish relations of measure. If domestic space is meant to change in terms of boundaries, then the body will be conformed to another sexual morality than the classical one: bourgeois domestic space – which is still our predominant – belonged to an idea of space; the question is to know until what extend a new concept of space will – or is – conform a new concept of family.

The question of free spaces  is not resolved at all: feminism insists on defining female spaces: who owns the public and the private space in Western societies? This issue is related to the body: if men are predominant in the work space, for example, will they adjust policies to maternity? Will the space of capitalism leave room for the female body? Or rather this one should adapt itself to the market demands? The same might be said of class, race and religion. The configuration of spaces is then of high importance because it reflects the intentions of the powerful: the ones who build the space configure a particular society in terms of inclusion and exclusion. It is important to fight for a democracy of space build among all different groups inhabiting a town, or a city, even a company or a house. The space should be based, not in ‘powerful interests’ such as capitalist, neither the one white middle-class man -even if that is disappearing in favor of the bank world – but for all those involved in a particular space. Spaces should be adapted to the body and to emotional needs, and reflect a human and popular appropriation of that space.

Faire l’amour, ou la cuisine

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Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) in his two volumes work L’invention du Quotidien (1980) widely explores a range of topics such as the relationship between space and discourse, psychoanalysis, semantics, the body, etc. Indeed, the first volume does look like a miscellaneous where order is difficult to follow from chapter to chapter. The second volume however is far more focused on the activities of inhabiting and cooking as the two most characteristic human activities, belonging to everyday life.

Certeau dedicates extensive pages to the activity of cooking stressing its importance configuring domestic space, a sense of belonging to a particular family, and to tradition. He acknowledges the importance of this repetitive but creative activity which has traditionally belonged to women and has been disregarded, in a similar way Bachelard talks on the ‘wax civilization’ referring to housekeeping work, and its importance on keeping alive memories and an habitable space. Certeau’s poetic text on cooking is worthwhile to consider:

‘Pourquoi être si désireuse et si inquiète d’inscrire dans les gestes et dans les mots une même fidélité aux femmes de mon linage ? […] Peut-être est-ce cela même que je cherche dans mes bonheurs culinaires : la restitution, au travers des gestes, des saveurs et des compositions, d’une légende muette, comme si, à force de l’habiter avec mon corps et mes mains, je devais parvenir à en restaurer l’alchimie, à en mériter le secret de la langue, comme si, de ce piétinement obstiné sur cette terre mère, devait un jour me revenir la vérité de la parole’ (1994: 217).

Certeau, in a certain Barthesian way, establishes the semantics of space, gestures, and the body, also of cooking: ‘légende muette’ where the whole ritual of choosing, buying, preparing and configuring the ailments in a particular way was impregnated by narrativity. The kitchen is the place where this ritual takes place; it is a feminine place on which the whole of the home is sustained: the old hearth of the house was the fire which both cooked and warmth up, all the space (which at the beginning used to be conformed by one single room) was articulated around the fire.

Fire is what might bring together cooking and love – explored in some way also by Bachelard in La psychanalyse du feu (1937). Certeau notes the function of the mouth and the hands in eating and sexuality: ‘Nous mangeons avec notre bouche, orifice corporel dont les parties (lèvres, langue, dents, muqueuses intérieurs) et les fonctions (gouter, toucher, lécher, caresser, effleurer, saliver, mâcher, avaler) interviennent au premier chef dans la relation amoureuse’ (1994: 276). Moreover cooking has always been a tool of seduction, a good dinner – with wine included – is a kind of activation of the unconscious analogies eat and sex have in common, as well as the table and the bed:

‘La nappe est aussi, déjà, le drap du lit ; ses taches de vin, de fuit font penser à d’autres marques. L’odeur accentuée de la nourriture chaude, la proximité du corps de votre invité(e), son parfum éveillent l’odorat, stimulent ses perceptions et ses associations, vous font imaginer d’autres odeurs séductrices, parfums secrets du corps dénudé, devenant enfin tout proche. L’invité rêve, il songe, il espère déjà’ (1994: 279).

Erotic and love language is full of culinary metaphors: ‘L’échange amoureux transforme par instants le partenaire en comestible délectable […] le « dévore du regard, de caresses », le « mage de baisers ». L’aveu des amants séparés reste dans le même registre : « Tu me manques, j’ai faim de toi, je voudrais te manger »’ (1994: 277). Naturally, Certeau reminds of Manet’s painting where this relationship is strongly insinuated:

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The naked bodies and the food in a picnic evokes the image of the bed – also the semi-reclined position of one of the men relates to a laying down with a naked woman in front of him. The depiction of the food suggests they just have eaten, the food is slightly untidy suggesting relax, as well as relax of the body. The viewer is left to end the narrative.

Narratives of Domesticity

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It is commonly forgotten that the bourgeoisie was not born in France, neither in England, but in the Netherlands; it was not born in the 19th C. but as early as the 17th C., but as usual small countries and ‘rare’ languages fall in oblivion. Witold Rybczynski, a Scottish architect living currently in Canada, has a wonderful book which just fall in my hands some days ago: Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986). This book is a little jewel written by a humanist architect, what can be called a mini version of Philippe Ariès huge work.

Rybczynski approaches the idea of home historically, since its birth until nowadays. The concept of home different from that of house was born in the bourgeoisie, as such, it conforms the values of the former which, clearly, remain until today. The author has a wide knowledge on history and the arts, and he continuously provides artistic and literary examples of his statements. The one I wish to focus on in here is his comparison between 17th C Dutch paintings and Jane Austen narratives.

Rybcznski shows the first representations of domestic space in Dutch paintings to exemplify the first idea of domesticity and privacy, arguing how ‘there was one place, however, where the seventeenth-century domestic interior evolved in a way that was arguably unique, and that can be described as having been, at the very last, exemplary […] In short, at a time when the other states of Europe remained primarily rural […] the Netherlands was rapidly becoming a nation of townspeople. Burghers by historical tradition, the Dutch were bourgeois by inclination’. However, the Dutch 17th C has not left bourgeois literature as has done the 19th C in other European countries, instead it left pictorial representations of domestic space:

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The above painting by de Witte in 1660 is not only a domestic painting but it also contains the bourgeois topic per excellence: adultery. One can carefully see a man hidden in the bed of whom Rybcznski introduces an explanation, hence a narrative, and a domestic narrative. This painting is thought of as domestic space, wanting to englobe the whole of the home in the depiction of several rooms. The woman playing the piano with half-open curtains, the daylight suggesting a non-orthodox hour for intimacies as the owner of the house might be working, the clothes untidily left on the chair: all that narrates a story. Like him, and other contemporary painters, Jane Austen, a century later, ‘single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing, the literary equivalent to the seventeenth-century Dutch school of interior painting’. This comparison between painting and writing is very interesting, and they show the same social and class frames in two different moments and times. This historical difference confirms domesticity as bourgeois topic: Austen belonged to the late 18th C. new English bourgeoisie, the concept of home landed to Enlgand, which was also heir of Dutch tastes in interior design.

Austen scenes are typically feminine; women present the whole narrative perspective, it is a world conformed indoors and managed by women and their topics. Love and marriage, as well as real estate, are favorite talks in the drawing or tea room (and it might be reminded that the so tea British tradition came from the Netherlands in the 17th C.). As Rybcznski says, Austen’s plots are simple, no big tragedies or dramas are told, but she has become a national figure, why? Apart from Austen’s deep insights in the human heart, it is indeed a sense of domesticity what her texts bring out: home sweet home, the British nostalgia for quiet familiar and well-being scenes.