On Being At-Home

In the fifth chapter of Echographies of Television, a section entitled, “The ‘Cultural Exception’:The States of the State, the Exception”, Jacques Derrida talks about the desire to be “at-home” in ways that are intriguing to me because of my own preoccupations with what it means to be at home.

Derrida argues that the desire to be at-home is being intensified by the increase of teletechnologies. These technologies increasingly open us to images and discourses from beyond the boundaries of our nation and city and neighbourhood and family and home, and the effect is that our sense of “anchordness, rootedness, and the at-home becomes radically contested.” Because these technologies open us to a sense of dislocation and dissociation, our reaction becomes, “I want to be at home; I want finally to be at home, close to my friends and family.”

This desire for the at-home, according to Derrida, is not confined to the literal houses in which we live, but is extended more broadly to the various places where we feel a sense of identity. The desire to be at home is therefore also the desire to be part of a nation, of a neighbourhood, of a religion, of a party, or of a society. The problem for Derrida is that the desire for the at-home, contrary to the ways that I have been constructing it, can “project an image of closedness, of selfish and impoverishing and even lethal isolation.” Being at-home in this sense involves closing the borders to foreigners, gating the community to outsiders, restricting the membership in the party or the society or even the family to eliminate those who are not like us. It is the desire to make myself at home by eliminating from the home all those who might introduce something that is unlike myself.

Even though it bears this danger, Derrida affirms the desire to be at-home, saying that there would be no possibility of hospitality without out it. This desire, in his own words, “is the condition of openness, of hospitality, and of the door,” because it will always be impossible to welcome an other, to offer hospitality to an other, without a place in which to offer the other welcome and hospitality, even if this place be only a park bench. In order for me to host the other, I must first make myself at-home somewhere.

The desire to be at-home, therefore, is one that must be continually both affirmed for its openness and distrusted for its closedness. I must always be both finding ways to make myself at-home and ensuring that these ways do not exclude the other from the home. In a formulation that Derrida does not use but that I hope he would not reject, I must find ways to be at-home that also make others at-home, or, perhaps better, I must find ways to be at home precisely through making others at-home, whether as a member of a nation, a church, or profession, a neighbourhood, or a family.

  1. TC said:

    I appreciate your blog..thanks.
    This post reminds me of something I have been thinking about for a few years: that many chronically homeless people have never had the experience of attachment to ‘home’. There are some recent findings that an extremely large percentage of homeless young people in Australia were previously wards of the state.
    With this idea you write of: of having a home, an open home, an open door, through which to offer hospitality to the other, I think of people who are in a position whereby they cannot make others at home because they have never had the opportunity to experience (and so recreate) this sense of home that we speak of when we use the word.
    What is that we need to make a space into a place we can inhabit, and share?
    Something represents ‘home’ to us early on, and I think we keep with it. You write of your library and friends – the place you vacate (in your vacation).
    I think of the smells of slow cooking that permeate the whole house invisibly and pull it together somehow and say that someone is thinking ahead and preparing something lovely, for later!
    (That reminds me to do a bit more slow cooking).
    But for others I have worked with ‘home’ is represented by fear, holes in the walls, wanting to get out on your bike, or trying to disappear..

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