Article: Where are we home? Revisited

by Katie Terezakis (Rochester Institute of Technology)

Left corner: György Márkus; Agnes Heller; Ferenc Fehér; standing: Maria Markus; with unidentified friends.

Home is a loaded idea. Call to mind the common sayings: home is where the heart is, you can never go home again, etc. The abundance of mottoes doesn’t dampen the sentiment; the idea of home remains charged with longing for a place we knew or hope to create. Then there are the dreamscape homes to which we return only in sleep or fantasy, though their character is veritable and intimate. Recall, too, the politics of home, or its ideological representation, from the alleged reality of the kitchen table conversation in which each batch of political candidates claims fluency; to the right, described more as a duty, to defend one’s home from intrusion; and to the specter of homeless migrants deserving protection or, on another ideological model, bound to make trouble. As we think the idea of home, we’re somewhere, temporarily in some place that more or less succeeds and fails to be the ideal. When Agnes Heller first raised the question “where are we at home?” she was, or so she has us imagine, on an airplane. Several airplanes actually, because it was 1995, and then as for the next 24 years, she was perpetually in transit between the countries where she taught, had family, accepted invitations to lecture, was awarded with prizes and punished with political harassment, and woke up every day to write before looking to her other tasks.

As Heller evoked it then, reflecting from several jets and locales, home has its roof in the universalistic, normative clouds (“everyone ought to have one”) and its earthen cellar in the relationships that modern institutions preserve, where we’re each first dealt our relatively better or worse hands. As moderns—which is a term she’ll both define in this essay and spend a career reexamining—we too are perpetually in transit between possible homes in time and place, yet our need to be at home has a decidedly political compass. It’s this way of reimaging the affective politics of belonging that most implores us to return to Heller’s 1995 essay.

Agnes Heller was 66 when Thesis Eleven published “Where are We at Home?” The forum is important: this is the journal that she and her husband Ferenc Fehér helped float 15 years earlier. Heller has seen Thesis Eleven itself become home to a distinctive critical social theory, often under the mentorship of Fehér, along with her dearest friends, György and Maria Markus. The Markuses were largely responsible for throwing Fehér and Heller the lifeline out of Hungary to Australia, but even before that, together they carried the fatefulness of György Lukács’s designation, decades earlier, of their mutual efforts as The Budapest School. Alongside personal heartbreaks, they’ve each continued to analyze philosophical and cultural exigencies with the originality for which Lukács lauded them, but by 1995, Heller alone is at the height of an international career. She’s left Melbourne for an endowed professorship in Manhattan, has published books and essays ceaselessly for years, and is traveling frequently, almost weekly, at the invitation of academic and activist audiences. In 1995 alone, Heller wins two prestigious national prizes, the Szechenyi National Prize in Hungary and the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Philosophy in Germany. She completes the book An Ethics of Personality, which she describes as a turn in her philosophy altogether: a re-baptized and re-committed work born from her skepticism over her own philosophical ideas and a resulting if temporary inability to work them through.

This is when we meet the author of “Where are We at Home?”: she’s just completed An Ethics of Personality, and dedicated it to the memory of Ferenc Fehér. Fehér, Heller’s partner of over thirty years, died unexpectedly in 1994. He was Heller’s editor, collaborator, and closest friend. As she often quipped after his death, he was otherwise in perfect health. Here, when she speaks of the airplanes she’s on and the people she talks to, she is describing her first lone travels since early adulthood.    

As such, one cannot help but wonder at her repeatedly bleak description of the woman who serves as a key reference point in the essay: a fellow traveler on the airplane, to whom Heller puts this question: where are you at home? Heller’s seatmate is a business woman, successful and well-traveled. Heller tells us that she speaks five languages and resides in several cities. Yet Heller also describes her as lonely, without husband or children, aging, and altogether existentially adrift. She irks Heller, because despite her globe-trotting, the woman’s location seems to make no difference to her. She moves through all places without allowing herself or her routine to be affected by them, eating the same tuna sandwiches and using the same brand of fax machines. She could have answered Heller’s question with “the whole world” or “my career” but appears never to have considered the matter at all. She finally tells Heller that she is at home where her cat is. Heller finds this infantile; she brushes off the woman’s “longing for the animal warmth of the herd” when this lonely paradox of a person could have affirmed the freedom or global span she’d won for herself but failed to claim.

Heller’s conversation partner of a few hours becomes such a perfect figure of modern cultural homelessness that one cannot help but wonder how much of Heller’s interpretation entails projection. Indeed, interpretation, and all the personal and cultural baggage with which it comes, is a pivotal theme of the essay. Heller defines modern culture as hermeneutical. In modern culture, our longing for home has led us to relentless “cultural blood transfusions,” whereby our culture continues to live only by absorbing past or present-but-alien worlds. This is nostalgic and eminently modern. We long to experience the same as different; we long for a familiarity rich with sensuous novelty. Like listening to a wonderful song one recognizes but cannot hear enough, we long to be lost in feeling so intense that we belong to it completely and it to us. Moderns look for the vessels of the promised feeling in any age and culture we like, but haven’t been especially good at analyzing the persistent feeling or at cultivating it into something more than indistinct longing, ever-available for ideological manipulation.  

The other personified pole of Heller’s essay is a café owner from Campo de’Fiori, a neighborhood in Rome. Heller opens her essay with this man; she tells us he was middle-aged when they met, thirty years earlier. Otherwise he receives far less text than the businesswoman. Heller remembers asking him for directions to Porta Pia (a nearby quarter). He can’t tell her, because he has never left his neighborhood. Heller imagines him aging at the trattoria, which by then he’s passed on to a son, otherwise changing nothing in his routine. As opposed to the business-woman, the trattoria owner is place-bound; Heller imagines that he could have easily answered the question, where are you at home? had she asked.  

It’s regressive, Heller says, to try to go back to pre-modern spatial belonging, as in the place-boundedness of the Roman café-owner, and in any case, it’s impossible. There’s something equally regressive in holding fast to a historical epoch for meaning, as if sharing an antiquated culture alone could provide a sense of belonging. The Roman and the lonely businesswoman live out, respectively, a monogamy and a promiscuity with places, but neither provide a livable example for the rest of us voicing Heller’s concern: where are we at home?

Beyond the two personified poles, Heller also identifies a third, temporal and spiritual alternative, which she sees evolving out of the high culture of nineteenth century Western Europe. This she calls the realm of absolute spirit. It’s a time of idealized, universal communication among its citizens, where they “recollect a past they cannot remember.” For example, one might quote Shakespeare or reference Hegel, provoking a chain of associations and even real, lived identities for all listeners. This sense of being at home in different times requires commonly shared texts, synchronized by shared histories and fashions. For a time, for lovers of Western Culture with the privilege to pursue their love, the realm of absolute spirit really did become home.

Heller reminds us that in our age of interpretation, shared texts, histories, and fashion are not guaranteed or even likely. So she asks: can democracy be a home? A maker of shared homes? I won’t try to do justice to Heller’s consideration of how her own question bears on North American culture, which is the culture she thinks most identifies with democracy. There is a profound critical theory of American culture in a nutshell in the final pages of this essay, to which readers should turn. But I will highlight Heller’s claim that when democracy provides a sense of belonging, it is not on account of its democratic nature, but because we identify with those institutions and experiences we call democratic. A common democratic language or religion or philosophy doesn’t exist. Incidentally this is, then as now, what white supremacy constitutes itself against: white supremacy is wounded longing for “a” lost common language and culture threatened by strangers.

For Heller, American democracy, like any democracy big or small, is divided into tiny camps and pressure groups, where regression to barbarism takes place almost as a matter of course. These regressive groups, too, long for a settled home all their own, but if we wish to be at home in democracy, we must share the experience of defending it from them. Plato was right about this, as was Nietzsche: democracy tends to harbor resentment and barbarism. Heller doesn’t shy from identifying liberalism as the responsibility to defend democracy from its intrinsic death-wish. But political liberalism is a principle, she says, not a home. It lacks affect and culture. Therefore, for those who still want to ask, where are we at home? this is the work: the where ought to be in question: it cannot be merely a place. And the we, too, must be reexamined, because we are no longer in the position to maintain a culture of absolute spirit, as distant and casually exclusionary as a high society of nineteenth century bourgeoisie. We, Heller writes, will be those who are willing to share in the experience of safeguarding democracy from its internal maladies.    

I began by emphasizing the year of Heller’s essay, 1995. What more do we now know about liberal democracy or about a persistent human desire for belonging? In the essay, Heller says that while “a lot has happened, nothing has changed” since Tocqueville first analyzed American democracy in the 1830’s. She says that the course of everyday political events in the United States is more like the pre-modern Roman republic than like contemporary Western Europe or Asia, which still live in “history.” The United States, she writes, is already post-historical, and only dabbled in history when it joined Europe and Asia in world wars. By this, she seems to mean that history is not necessarily or usually identity-forming for American citizens (she might have said Americans prefer to disavow history). Whereas France, as a typical European nation-state, still requires and provides a dominating national culture and language for citizens’ home-experience, North Americans identify as American via the US Constitution, insofar as it upholds the democratic institutions with which they personally connect. Witness the passion of Americans (available for manipulation, naturally, but passion all the while) for free speech and assembly, the bearing of arms, and other expressions of a liberty that the division of political powers is supposed to safeguard.

Heller was always analyzing political movements, and she spent a great deal of time in the last years of her life criticizing the new nationalisms and anti-democracies of Europe and the US. But alongside all that was happening, I think she’d agree that formally, still nothing had changed in the structure of our institutions or our affectual relationships to them.

Heller identifies the courtroom drama as best portraying the North American sense of democratic belonging: picture the high stakes, lives on the line, effectively good and evil actors brought to account. Here we have the jury, perhaps hard won, but ultimately willing to listen to reason. Initially individuals, they come to embody the Aristotelean ethos that maintains an “argument-susceptible state” and is convinced by the right reasons. Likewise, we have the heroic lawyer, unbowed in the face of injustice, and we have the testimonials, perhaps conflicting, which may be analyzed and interpreted to ascertain the truth. Heller doesn’t say that courts actually look this way, she says that this is the collective fantasy, rich with affect, with which Americans most identify, and would see as democratic institutional action as work.

Fantastic and open to further critique as all this is, here I want only to convey the rightness of Heller’s identification of democratic affect and its relatively immature state in our present world. We’ve got new repressive political regimes, different refuge crises, economic and racial disparities freshly exacerbated by a global pandemic, and a more polluted, more rapidly warming planet. A lot is happening, but formally nothing has changed. Two of Heller’s points seem especially worth reconsidering: first, the longing for a place of true belonging is existential. Our yearning for home will likely remain a permanent feature of human psychology. Like the Kantian reason that can’t stop asking the questions it can’t answer, our homesickness must be sublimated. Whereas religions and other arts have stood in to help provide past tools for this psychic work, for largescale pluralistic polities they are insufficient. We need ways to plough our most persistent feelings into living endeavors.

Next, Heller argues that whereas the idea of home is a creation of retrospective memory for a nowhere-ever, home is also the place-time that a community, self-constituted in the action, has labored together. She makes the case that for us moderns, creating democratic associations within wider, ever-threated (by definition) democracies is the right kind of work to engage our longing. For a local example of democratic participation, picture this journal, Thesis Eleven, housing Heller’s essay then as now, still providing a kind of community experience 40+ years after Heller helped found it. Engaging with an academic journal doesn’t fix our existential homelessness or social contingency; it doesn’t look like a street battle against fascists or a court battle against social and economic precariousness. But it can mean experiencing some of the affectual community that remembers the vivacity of Heller’s commitments, or that thinks of Marx, critiquing Feuerbach, critiquing Christianity (and so on). This isn’t enough, but it’s something.

Harry Harlow (1953) Public Domain

Heller’s identification of the principle of liberalism, as one which both corrects for the implicit dangers of democracy to itself, and which alone is too formal to invite passionate identification, reminds me of an image common to a generation of psychology textbooks. In order to examine the operation of mother-child bonding, psychologist Harry Harlow separated newborn rhesus monkeys from their mothers, caging them in isolation (1958, 1965). Those raised in total isolation exhibited severe “disturbances.” Others had in their cages either bare wire or terrycloth mannequins. As many of us have seared into memory, the infant monkeys demonstrably preferred the terrycloth surrogates to those made of wire, even when the wire surrogates provided food and the terrycloth surrogates did not. Once taken out of isolation and allowed to live in groups, the monkeys given terrycloth surrogates went on to be better able to bond with other monkeys, to mate and parent, and to circumvent bullying and other isolating behavior. The most famous image is a baby rhesus clinging to its cloth surrogate, apparent proof that rhesus babies and probably all primates have an innate need for “tactile comfort.”  

On the extended analogy, to say that liberalism is a principle but not an object of affectual relating is like seeing political liberalism as a structure, a bare wire surrogate. It’s not enough, but it’s something. According to Heller, it provides the staples we need. On this analogy, of course we are the sad monkeys. But I don’t think we should be dressing up the coldness of modern liberalism with terrycloth. In fact, to stretch this image, the terrycloth is our consumer culture, booming from commodity fetishism and distracting our attachments. Neoliberal social dynamics have us barely getting by on various surrogates for community or home, all ultimately depressing. I think that what Heller was getting at in pressing her title question was the idea that what we do with our biological inheritance—our persistent longing for real, felt belonging—is up to us. We can and often do disavow the feeling, leaving it ripe for political manipulation. We can also cultivate it, in the communal democratic work of our precarious times.  

Katie Terezakis is Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on eighteenth and nineteenth century German philosophy, and on critical social theory from the nineteenth century to the current moment. She is the author of many articles in these fields; the editor of Engaging Agnes Heller: A Critical Companion (Lexington 2009); the co-editor of Lukács’ Soul and Form (Columbia University Press, 2010); and the author of The Immanent Word: The Turn to Language in German Philosophy 1759-1801 (Routledge 2007). She is currently completing a book on The Reinvention of Idealism in American Philosophy and is serving as the Director of the John William Miller Society at Williams College.

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