Monthly Archives: August 2018

Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

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Exclusion and Embrace–Miroslav Volf

51CPp63bTcL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some years ago my wife, Shannon, occasionally wrote reviews of classic books for a publication for
gifted high school students. Although I don’t think there is an official genre know as the re-review, I think there probably ought to be. In a day and age when most people fail to read even one book a year, much less a relatively challenging and completely serious and comprehensive work of theology, perhaps we readers ought to take it as part of our role to reintroduce books from decades past to readers for whom they will be new, if not unheard of. It’s in that spirit that I take a few minutes to write out some thoughts on Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, a book first published in 1996. Still in print and available 22 years later from Abingdon Press, I felt Volf’s wrestling with questions of identity and the possibility of embrace spoke to our own period, if only because in the age of Trump we seem to be wrestling more starkly, and perhaps more helplessly, with the questions that drive Volf’s reflections. Can we all just get along, much less embrace, in the face of random police shootings in the name of civil order, family separations in the name of national security, lethal white unity rallies with good people on all sides on all sides, and the general belief that we are so hopelessly separated by our different identities that empathy is beside the point and, in the words of Roxane Gay, we should all just stay in our lanes?

I would like to think a work of theology could solve all this; indeed, Volf indicates that it is the real work of theologians to be about the business of helping to form subjects who could bring about the world of embrace that he imagines. There is a generosity of vision in Volf’s book that I find admirable, even compelling. His central concept of embrace is not a campfire Kumbaya version of hugging it out, but a compelling narrative of what it means, or at least ought to mean, to be a fully realized human being. For Volf, the notion of embrace is inherent in the mutual and overspilling love of the Trinity, as well as the fundamental character of God’s engagement with human beings; the incarnation is a metaphysical embrace of humanness, and the cross is an appeal to be embraced in return. Human beings are only fully realized as human beings when we actually seek to give up our separateness and embrace others as we find them. As he puts it:

the most basic thought that it [the metaphor of embrace] seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil”

It is unfortunate, of course, that we often experience our religion most fundamentally as an act of exclusion, whether in the practice of shunning, hellfire and brimstone preachers, or the simple and more mundane acts of making sure our church services and gatherings for fellowship feel comfortable for the already comfortable, and uncomfortable for the already discomfited or destitute. And so Volf’s work is surely a challenge to the good and the just and the true among us. He notes with approval Nietzsche’s reminder that the crucifixion was an act of the righteous:

Nietzsche underscored the connection between the self-perceived “goodness” of Jesus’ enemeies and their pursuit of his death; crucifixion was a deed of “the good and just,” not of the wicked, as we might have thought. “The good and just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good (61)

At the same time, Volf’s prescriptions sit only uncomfortably with current conceptions of justice and empowerment, not least because the proper goal of a world formed by the concept and practice of embrace is not freedom or self-realization, at least not as these terms have been typically thought of in both our modern and post-modern socialities. Volf’s work asks us to imagine the ideal of embrace not as the coming together of two fundamentally separate individuals “hugging it out” when it comes to their differences, but rather as a complex dance in which we realize that we cannot be what we ought to be until we learn to genuinely love those that we have despised, and even more that we find it in in ourselves to love those who have despised us. As he puts it:

At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the “sons and daughters of hell.” (85).

This kind of call sounds strange to our age of tribalism, though perhaps no stranger than any age where we find it easy to love those like us, less easy to love those unlike us, and not possible at all to love those who do not love us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so different from the famous proclamation from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Volf has a complicated, and I think useful, description of embrace as a fourfold process:

The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace, and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression and, paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement. (141)

This structure seems to me to both recognize and respect the integrity of others in their freedom. Embrace cannot be forced; nor is embrace limitless. Nevertheless, in Volf’s understanding, embrace is necessary to our full humanity, to forgiveness, and ultimately to justice and the task of creating the kind of society in which we might hope to live and flourish as human beings.

As I said at the outset, I think Volf’s book is worth reading since it is eerily contemporary in its impulses and in its wrestling. We can learn from him even where we disagree. I do think that if the book were written now, he might have to ask harder questions about the relationship between justice and love, between embrace and power. It’s very clear in Volf’s work that he subordinates justice to love, saying that embrace has to shape the definition of justice, that embrace is “about love shaping the very content of justice.” This is well and good, but it remains unclear that embrace is possible outside the possibility or at least the horizon of justice. From my own position situated within the matrices of power as a white male American middle class human being–all affording me pleasures and potentialities and possibilities that others do not possess in an unjust world–what does it mean for me to offer embrace in the absence of justice. Is it possible to expect embrace outside the quest or journey toward justice. Volf’s book reflects on repentance as a part of this process, but I think he could use even more thinking here in the particular ways that repentance is properly not simply a turn from the self and toward the other (ultimately God), but is also and must be a turning away from injustice–and my participation in it–toward justice, away from a life in which embrace might be colored with the expectation of inevitable betrayal and toward a life of mutuality that in some ways must accompany embrace. Although I think we would do well to wonder whether subordinating justice is any more appropriate as a Christian ethic than would be the subordinating of one person of the Trinity to another, I do think the Volf’s wrestling is worth our reckoning with. It is surely the case that 20 years later we are no closer to the beloved community that embrace would supposedly make possible than we were when Volf wrote this very good and important book. View all my reviews