This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Timothy Andrews (Melbourne)
In Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf’s pageant takes place on the cusp of World War II. The moment marks the end of an era, the final resting place of the telos of an empire. Throughout the play, the audience looks on the repertoire of Britain throughout the ages with a mixed sense of familiarity and disconnection; they relate to the sentiment of the story, but the parts don’t make up the whole in their experience of the present. Faced with a mirror, the audience does not recognise who they have become. Times are changing, a new era will soon be born.
The brilliance of Woolf’s final novel resides in her ability to sketch the undulations of history, of culture and nation through the vernacular of everyday life. The cast of Between the Acts meander through their day as caricatures of a grand historical narrative that has come unstuck, fragmented and lost for purpose. The savvy director of the play, Miss La Trobe, brings this point home: holding up a mirror in the finale of the performance, the audience discover in their reflection the final product of an Empire now its twilight. In the current pandemic, we find ourselves in a similar situation to that of Woolf’s unsuspecting audience. Forced into our homes as a result of lockdown measures, a mirror is held up to us so that we can see the intimacy of our lives under the stark light of history unfolding in the present. Like Woolf’s audience, we too are on the cusp of a new era.
Agnes Heller died a little over a year ago swimming in Lake Balaton. She was 90 years old. 75 years prior, as an adolescent in Hungary, she had experienced the darkest of European modernity. Agnes and her mother survived the brutal violence of Hungary under the Arrow Cross Party. Her harrowing account (1999) describes narrowly evading execution and deportation in several repeated instances. Not so lucky, and as with many of her friends and family, her father was deported and never returned from Auschwitz. This, and in the context of a country that lost seventy percent – over half a million – of its Jewry in Nazi death and labour camps, and suffered mass executions, forced starvation and exhaustion, forged the question in Agnes’ psyche: ‘how could this have happened?’. This question formed the basis of her intellectual contribution throughout her life and culminated in her theory of modernity.
Heller’s philosophy and her theory of modernity reflect on overarching historical movements and provide a guide, or a warning, to the looming dangers that reside within modernity. She chose modernity, because therein resides the possibilities of liberalism, pluralism and democracy along with the potential for a kind of freedom that could incorporate a shared vision of ‘being-together-in-the-world’. However, her advocacy was not blind to the dangers that resided within the modern era. In her account, modernity could take on many different guises. Auschwitz and the Gulags are the products of modernity just as much as social and liberal democracy is.
The approach to the fin de siècle and the years leading up to World War II saw the flourishing of various modern social and political experiments. The war set the crossroads for what would become of the remainder of the century. Weakened by the previous war, Britain had finally come to terms with its withered global influence. New global powers with fresh approaches were on the horizon and ready to vie for global dominance. With hindsight, historians point to the inevitable might of the United States – its creativity, manufacturing power and social dynamism – but from the perspective of 1938 this was only immanently apparent.
But these are the transactions of governments and armies, of nations and empire, and speak little to the lived experiences of the people. Between the Acts seeks out the everyday atmospheres that this history creates: the cynicism, loss and sweet memories of old age; the dry dusty light of late summer; the confidence, romance and the gravity of choices for those in their prime; the trivial, banal and serendipity of everyday life; and the growing burden of contingency. All this comes together to create a mood of transition, ‘a time out of joint’. Miss La Trobe’s innovative theatre brings the archetypes of British history to life and highlights their disjointed expression in the quotidian reflexes of her audience. With her attention to the overlap between history and the present, Woolf captures the ahistorical unfolding of history.
Locked down in our homes and waiting for the pandemic to abate, we read the news and wait. A new world lies ahead, but for now we wait. In this context, our awareness of contingency sharpens. We mourn our past and try to reconcile the future that has become our present.
In her essay ‘Where are we at home?’ Heller describes several experiences of being at home in the modern era. The sense of being-at-home revolves around feelings of familiarity. To feel at home ‘is not simply a feeling but an emotional disposition. A framework that accounts for the presence of many particular kinds of emotions like joy, sorrow, nostalgia, intimacy, consolation, pride and absence of others’.
Like Woolf, Heller’s objective is to discover the ways in which we encounter the broader movements of history through the textures and intimacies of everyday lived experience. In Heller’s case it is the ongoing evolution of modernity which is of concern. She accounts for a growing distance between postmoderns (for Heller, the postmodern is an expression of modernity itself rather than a new era) and the traditional spatial home, the home that you can touch and smell. Postmoderns, she suggests, are at home in time not space. This is the home that bonds us across national borders and transcends local cultures. It is a kind of cosmopolitanism, a home as discourse rather than place. This home thrives in the temporal landscape of the internet and puts us at ease with strangers in foreign lands. As postmoderns, we dwell, to varying degrees, in both spatial and temporal homes. The greater shift, throughout the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty First, has been towards the temporal home.
Lockdown strategies for controlling the spread of COVID-19 physically restrict us to our spatial homes. Under these conditions we are confronted by a mixed sense of the familiar and unfamiliar. On the one hand, the novelty of being stuck at home is surreal and extraordinary, while on the other, it reconnects our emotional disposition with a tactile, sensory and embodied experience of the spatial home. Here in Melbourne lockdown measures are particularly restrictive. A strict 5km limit binds us to the local. Our one hour of exercise beyond the household boundary provides opportunities to explore our neighbourhoods and forge new connections with our surroundings, mostly overlooked in the mobility of more normal times.
But perhaps more poignantly, for many of us, the lockdown pushes us further into the postmodern temporal home. An acceleration of the cultural acceptance of technological connectivity normalises the digital workplace and transforms the ways in which we relate to our friends and families. With many cities under lockdown, the physical spaces that foster and cultivate a public sphere are shut down, opportunities for public discourse are, for better or worse, forced into the noisy, commercialised spaces of social media. Under these conditions, our spatial homes have become portals to enhanced temporal homes, furnished with all the bells and whistles of the latest virtual technologies.
In her essay, Heller describes yet two more homes for moderns: the metaphorical home of absolute spirit or high culture, and the home that can be found in a democracy. Under the conditions of the pandemic, the democratic home is under particular pressure. Democracies such as Australia and New Zealand have thus far faired well. The strong institutions that furnish our democracies have helped to cultivate a solidarity of sorts. In the United States, the pandemic has exposed weakened institutions and ruptured existing fault lines. For Heller, this is nothing new for American democracy. ‘Negation is built into the system’ she argues, the pendulum of modernity is pushed in one direction ‘almost to the point of destruction’. Only to swing back again to restore the balance. Even a broken home is still a home.
The homes of us moderns are dynamic places. They do not stay the same, nor are they always peaceful. They can be refuges but they can also be places of conflict and violence. The upheaval caused by the pandemic shakes up home life, and our emotional investment that makes possible the feeling of being-at-home leaves us vulnerable.
Thinking about our relationship with home, the different homes that we inhabit, and our ways of being at home can reveal much about who we are and who we are becoming at this historical crossroad. Our emotional disposition and the ambience of our daily life embody the movements of the social-historical. The pandemic and the exacerbation of existing fault lines have disrupted our familiarity of being at home. Daily life has become steeped in historical contingency. The rapid cultural reconfiguration of our working lives and the accelerated integration of virtual technologies into our social and public lives make daily life increasingly uncanny. Uncertainty frames our experience from the outside: the waning of US global dominance, the rise of China, a resurgence of populism and authoritarianism along with a global recession and the resulting inequalities all contribute to a sense of unease. It remains to be seen if we face now, at a global level, the kind of violent historical crossroads that the world arrived at in 1939. War or not, other dangers lurk within the shadows of modernity. At a moment such as this the sober warnings so central to Heller’s philosophical contribution are pressing.
For now, we begin to accept that the atmosphere has changed, just like it had by 1938. The oxymoronic rhetoric of ‘the new normal’ captures the sentiment: a new normal is here, or just around the corner, but for now it remains unknown and extraordinary. Like Woolf’s cast we are on the threshold of a new era. We too find ourselves, so to speak, ‘between the acts’.
Timothy Andrews is a commissioning editor and media project officer at Thesis Eleven Journal. He regularly lectures and tutors in sociology at both La Trobe and Monash Universities. His doctoral research focused on the interplay between everyday life and freedom in modernity with particular attention to the contributions of Henri Lefebvre, Cornelius Castoriadis and Agnes Heller. The author gives special thanks to Debra Watkins for the inspiration for this piece. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @subpavemt
Feature image: Dora Carrington (1921) Farm At Watendlath. Tate Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0
Heller, A. (1999). Der Affe auf dem Fahrrad: eine Lebensgeschichte bearbeitet von János Kʺobányai. Berlin, Philo.