Preface to the Volume

In: The Many Meanings of Home
Ewa Kowal
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Izabela Curyłło-Klag
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Our collection examines how selected aspects of housing and their related problems have been depicted in the Western culture of the (mainly recent) past and juxtaposes it with how they are represented in the current cultural moment. The volume concerns itself with not only different historical periods but also with both high and popular culture. Its scope encompasses a wide range of different media: from traditional to digital theatre, through varied literary genres, in both fiction and non-fiction, to the hybrid medium of the graphic narrative, to film and television, photography, interior design and street art. The essays included analyse connections between the material and immaterial dimensions of house and home – the domestic space as an economic good and a dream or even an object of desire, as a site of individual or collective identity, personal and/or intergenerational memory, as well as familial and other power relations. Of special interest are the ways in which the thinking about housing have evolved and reflected social change, for instance the growing need for greater empowerment and inclusivity: of women, the LGBTQ+ community, the economically disadvantaged, and more marginalised human groups, as well as non-humans. Finally, in accordance with the same spirit, the collection engages in a reflection on the experience of homelessness – considering street art visual representations of the non-existent home which stand for what is lost or unreachable, and, again, call for social change.

The collection falls within the scope of the rapidly growing interest in the multidisciplinary field of housing studies. The book can be seen as an introduction to the entire research area thanks to the opening chapter “Under Construction: A Brief Introduction to Housing Studies,” and many examples of the studies’ application in the following chapters. It is particularly worth emphasising that the essays have been authored by an international group of scholars representing several generations, from baby boomers to Gen Z, and utilise a wide range of methodological approaches. Some of the papers offer new readings of old texts (e.g. domesticity in Shakespeare) or examine so far largely unexplored aspects of the newer media (“property porn” in TV and film). Many of the papers address such highly relevant and topical subject matter as the ecological and climate crisis, the housing crisis, as well as the cultural representation and self-expression of the LGBTQ+ community. In its interdisciplinary approach, the volume contributes to filling in a thematic niche, answering a demand for analyses of the many meanings of the key concepts of house and home, which is only bound to grow in the future. It will especially increase in the context of much-needed post-pandemic and ecologically-minded debates on how we live, and how we could and should live better lives, for ourselves and for the whole planet. Housing and its cultural representations accompanying or challenging its evolving social formulations constitute a highly important aspect of this vital discussion.

The critical analyses in our volume are divided into four thematic sections. Part I, “The Theatrical Display of Domestic Spaces: Theatre, Photography and Life-writing,” combines three papers: on traditional theatre, digital audio theatre, and theatrical self-expression through décor and its documentation. In “Shakespearean Houses and Homes – Order and Escape, Limitation and Expansion,” Rowland Cotterill provides an analysis of William Shakespeare’s representation of housing. The houses and adjacent liminal places on the playwright’s stage are interpreted as sites of varied “dramas of domesticity,” as well as of hospitality, exposure to danger, and the workings of power relations. In “Sharing Space: Home and Its Boundaries in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Who Are You,” Aleksandra Kamińska analyses a 2021 audio play which can be seen as a (post-)pandemic response to the deteriorating climate crisis, one from which there is no refuge, even in the seeming safety of one’s own home. The author demonstrates how the parable-like or allegorical piece of digital theatre itself intrudes into the listeners’ homes forcing them to rethink the question of the ownership of space. This leads to reflection on Planet Earth as a shared home of all beings, both animate and inanimate. In turn, in “Interiorography in Words and Images: Cecil Beaton’s Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-year Lease,” Teresa Bruś analyses the famously versatile 20th-century artist’s beloved abode as an idealised – and entirely detached from the quotidian – realm of fantasy and creativity, where interior design functions as an expression of the designer’s interiority, additionally mirrored through his photography and his memoir.

Part II, “Alternative Homes in Literary Prose,” focuses on selected representations of housing in 20th- and 21st-century fiction and non-fiction, analysed across three papers. The history of English-language literature contains a plethora of houses, some of them famous to the point of being iconic. While the Northanger Abbeys, Wuthering Heights and Manderleys among them have often been examined, many others, more alternative abodes, have not been given much critical attention, despite the fact that they all convey unique meanings. On a small scale, the papers in this section begin to make up for this omission. Rod Mengham’s “Habitat Fragmentation in the Modernist Imagination: Benjamin, Berger, Beckett and Woolf” concentrates on home spaces in the fiction and non-fiction writings of the four authors understood not as physical places but rather as metaphorical “houses for writing.” The analysis demonstrates the mutual influence of such a house and its inhabitant, i.e. how the writer shapes the places of writing and how the places of writing reflect and resemble the writer. In “Shadows Haunting Shadows: Conceptualisation of a ‘Nocturnal Sanctum’ in Anna Kavan’s Sleep Has His House,” Krystian Piotrowski shows how domesticity is defamiliarised in Kavan’s experimental writing through its oneiric perspective on and from a home at night. The result is an enigmatic depiction of a mysterious space of the subconscious and memory that “oscillate[s] between a languorous daydream and a harrowing nightmare.” Finally, in this section, Izabela Curyłło-Klag and Ewa Kowal offer a contemporary variation on the old theme of a haunted house in their “Returning Home in Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones,” where a ghost in Ireland ponders domesticity and contemplates the material aspects of the world, from personal spaces to infrastructure, and our earthly home’s materiality, thus giving expression to ecological grief and a sense of a lost future.

Part III, “Inside Out: Windows and Homes in Experimental Poetry and Street Art,” consists of two papers which, although focused on very different media, share a street-level perception of housing. In “I Spy with My Little Eye: The Phenomenon of Window Watching in Urban Studies and Liberature,” Katarzyna Biela and Tom Brennecke combine a multidisciplinary reflection on the urban phenomenon of window watching with an analysis of windows as a theme in liberature, an experimental poetical genre best described as “the architecture of the word.” A contrasting view from the street that is not leisurely, but defined by precarity, is offered in “Graffiti Homes: Homelessness, Performativity, and Body Imagery in Contemporary Street Art.” In this paper, Eszter Ozsváth considers the interrelatedness of public and private spaces in the (mostly American and British) street art-protest scene.

Part IV, “Looking at Houses: Homes in Graphic Narratives, Film and Television,” concentrates on visual and televisual depictions of housing. In Ewa Kowal’s “Passionate Pursuits of Perfection: Interior Design of the Self and of ‘the Real’ in Posy Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” the two graphic narratives are compared to demonstrate how the interior design of a dream house serves as an attempt by the main characters to construct their own reality, and how it is key to their artistic identity. In “Connections on the Ballroom Floor: Representations of Houses in the American Ball Culture in Popular Films and TV Shows,” Corin Wardzich analyses the category of “houses” within the late-20th-century ball culture, as represented in American cinema and TV series. As a phenomenon specific to the LGBTQ+ community, such houses are discussed as an alternative and emancipating family model. Finally, in “Property Porn: The Commodification of Housing and Housing Desire in HGTV and the Fifty Shades Film Trilogy” Ewa Kowal offers an in-depth analysis of the phenomenon of “property porn,” exemplified by two mass-consumed contemporary texts of Western culture. It is argued that they popularise the increasingly widespread perception of housing as a financial asset, while also promoting the tenets of neoliberal philosophy which underpin an economic system that makes housing all the more desirable, having rendered it so inaccessible in the first place.

Reader, make yourself at home.

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The Many Meanings of Home

Cultural Representations of Housing across Media


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