Home Economics

Using the house to bridge the public/private divide

Out at the back corner of my house sit two old oak whiskey barrels attached by a series of hoses first to the downspouts and then out again to the garden. The barrels fill up quickly: sometimes a heavy rain shower fills them with enough water to handle our modest garden for a couple of dry weeks. Harvesting rainwater is surprisingly satisfying, an almost uncanny way to make a difference, given the complexities of the world, the simplicity of the process, and the meagerness of the scale (a few hundred gallons at a time). My relationship to these rain barrels and the fact that they are now part of my home has provoked a surprising feeling of hope in me, a feeling derived from harvesting something so innocuous, and one that has left me wondering what it means to be a homeowner in today's world and if there is something of epochal change at work in how people have begun to look at their homes and the idea of domestic life.

From the outset, I should admit that most of my life I have lived and owned homes in the suburbs of big cities, as have my friends and extended family. The ubiquity of homeowners in my life has not meant, however, that I have always fit in with them or had an easy relationship to their houses. As Jamaica Kincaid writes of her children in the New Yorker essay “Homemaking,” I, too, am an American “and Americans are unable to live adult lives in the places where they were born.”

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the idea of domesticity came under fire from writers and intellectuals critical of everything from white flight to the rise of the automobile, the strip mall, and the hope of “better living through chemicals” that seemed to be the wave of the future. Philosopher Richard Rorty, among others, decried the insular nature of suburbs, which had the effect of isolating different segments of society from each other. Marxists decried the house as the apotheosis of consumerism and bourgeois private property. Watching The Graduate, I identified with Dustin Hoffman's character, who felt uneasy about going into “plastics.” For me, buying a house seemed to mean joining the respectable yet profoundly dysfunctional “propertied” classes.

Nevertheless, like many people in my generation, I went ahead and signed a mortgage, and yet nothing magical happened—this newly acquired “private property” did not transform me, at least not in the way I feared. Somehow, a new way to think of oneself as a homeowner has emerged over time, one that has evolved away from the suburban mind-set of the twentieth century.

Rafael, when painting his idealized School of Athens, placed Plato and Aristotle front and center and contrasted their visions of the cosmos by depicting Plato looking to his student and pointing his index finger to the heavens (idealism), while his student Aristotle looked back and gestured his hand out, palm down to the earth (realism). Much of the rhetoric of twentieth-century domesticity seems fueled by a similar tension between idealism and realism and other equally eternal dualisms: public/private, capitalist/communist, male/female, gay/straight, white collar/blue collar, city/country.

Yet, as Jürgen Habermas argued in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, such distinctions did not exist along at least one of these axes—the public/private—in the Middle Ages; instead, the notion of a “public sphere” evolved alongside the growth of a middle class of urban property owners. These urban property owners dubbed themselves “citizens,” or Bürgers (Burg is the German word for town—as is bourg in French, whence the term bourgeois). Indeed, to be a citizen—and to vote—one had to own sufficient property within the city walls. As these city dwellers grew rich, first from trade and manufacturing, and eventually from banking and finance, they began to rival the aristocratic landowners in wealth, and they sought, increasingly, to assert their political prerogatives over and against the prince and his peers.

The emergence of this middle class was significant not only for its eagerness to define itself in opposition to the aristocracy, but also for its novel understanding of property. If the aristocracy equated landownership with political and legal authority, the middle class argued just the opposite: that property was essentially a personal matter. The citizens who were leaders had to assure one another that they would not use elected office for their own selfish interests but, rather, would govern in the name of the common good. The reverse also had to be true—that elected officials would not meddle in the affairs of their fellow citizens. Hence they evolved a notion of the private household on the one hand, and the public purse on the other: public and private spheres from the outset were defined as a way to protect property and to create an avenue for collective action.

As these city fathers sought to improve their own household finances, they founded academies to educate their sons so they could read and write contracts and learn arithmetic and accounting. Professors soon wrote books for heads of households about ways to manage one's household finances—which was the original sense of the term economics. The term first appears in the sixteenth century, as oeconomics, and derives from Greek words for managing one's household—oikos (also the root of the word ecology, or oecological, as it was spelled in the nineteenth century). Gradually, these literate city dwellers began to meet each other outside the home to read, debate, and converse in new public spaces such as coffeehouses and public houses or “pubs.”

With the advent of a more developed sense of private property, Habermas argues, its opposite also developed—the idea of public property, or the public good. The conversations that started in coffeehouses, newspapers, and sermons were carried over into public opinion. But setting up this distinction between one's private interests and the public good causes mischief, in that it takes the older, more expansive notion of “the commons” or the oikos (in which one's interrelationships and interdependencies were implicit), abstracts the concepts of “private” and “public,” and treats them as competing spheres needing a strong dividing line to prevent one from encroaching on the other.

That one can now publicly declare something to be “private” suggests that we have lost the original sense of the word. To declare what happens in one's home to be private implies that it is removed from, detached from, and unrelated to what goes on in public, or better yet that it is off-limits or out-of-bounds to the public. But, as I have become increasingly aware since moving to Portland four years ago, what one pours down the drain or sprays on the lawn affects others and does not remain private for long. More than anything, however, the word “private” lost its original, proximal sense when it became a rallying cry, especially as the notion of “private property” (so polarizing a term!) became incorporated into a conservative Cold War political ideology that tried to string together (among other things) biblical inerrancy, militant patriotism, masculinity, family values, and free enterprise.

The concept of the domus, or house, which we inherited from the Romans, also raises thorny issues—though the problem here is not that we have lost the idea's earlier connotations, but that those earlier connotations threaten to live on powerfully, if implicitly. In Latin, the connection between the word for “lord” or “master”—dominus—and the word for house—domus—is explicit. From this root come the words domination and dominion, as well as domestic. And so the concept of the household extends from the concept of rule—to own something meant to be able to dispose of it as one saw fit, including women and children and slaves and animals, as well as land, buildings, and any inanimate objects contained therein.

To ears accustomed to critical theory of various sorts ranging from postcolonialism to feminism, the older Latin word for “master,” dominus, resonates noisily in today's world. One would have to take the master out of the house before many of us would feel comfortable living there—in contrast to the Greek concept of oikos, which seems far more accommodating with its relatively inclusive ability to bridge home “economics” and “ecology.”

Historically, there has been little conceptual distinction between the world of work and the world of the home. In Rome, for example, much of the economy was founded on slave labor and plantation agriculture, and in medieval Europe, urban houses contained workshops, offices, boarders, servants, and extended families. Even in America, up until very recently being a homeowner of a certain class meant employing live-in domestic servants. The home was clearly a place of work, at least for some members of the household.

The twentieth-century division between work and home is more of an invention of nineteenth-century aristocracy and upper-middle-class families who wanted to live accordingly. For such families, a gentleman, by definition, was a man who by virtue of his wealth did not have to earn a wage. But if he didn't work, what did the gentleman do with his time? If he were not at work, where and how would he demonstrate his class status? For some it meant the club, but often it meant entertaining people in one's home or visiting others by making social calls. Hence the concept of the gentleman led to our relatively modern notion of leisure, something Thorstein Veblen aptly described in The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that as the ideal of leisure became a sure sign of one's class status, so, too, did a need for people uncertain about their class status to make a public display of their ability to have leisure time (even if they still had to work most of the time). Vacations were one way, but for many it meant more modest forms of recreation. Following on the heels of the need to make public displays of one's class status arose leisure's counterpart: conspicuous consumption.

In the twentieth century, both leisure and conspicuous consumption have reshaped the house and its contents. In the 1920s, having money to display meant being able to go out to music halls, amusement parks, movie theaters, nightclubs, dances, and fairs. But with the advent of radio and television, people's leisure time and their conspicuous consumption merged, transforming the house into an entertainment center that could rival many movie theaters, not to mention malls, libraries, and music stores. At some point the house began to lose its human domestics and instead became filled with electronic appliances and processed foods. Washing machines were sold in part on their promise of providing greater leisure time to homemakers, many of whom were women who expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers. The explicit promise of these labor-saving devices was that they would free up more time to entertain guests and help one's husband relax after a hard day's work. Implicitly they allowed people to live in suburbs away from servant labor pools, and with a kind of privacy that not having servants ensured. Indeed, leisure time became so pervasively identified with the nuclear family and located so thoroughly in the single family home that by 1963 Betty Friedan was moved to write The Feminine Mystique to combat the domestic ideal's corrosive influence on the lives of women who were expected to define themselves so totally in relation to their husbands and in opposition to any meaningful work outside the home. And, not surprisingly, many 1970s communes explicitly rejected the suburban model of the single-family home in favor of a more extended community in which people worked to produce their own sustenance.

Today, no matter how much people want to find leisure at home, technology makes it even easier to conflate public and private. The home is no longer clearly defined as either a place of work, a place of leisure, the sphere of women and children, or the domain of the paterfamilias. Similarly, the familiar, well-defined domestic opposition that accompanied the landscape of twentieth-century domestic life—the reified roles of husband and wife—no longer offers much guidance to couples facing the challenge of setting up a life together.

For many couples, living together involves invention and improvisation. The old, gendered, complementary model of coupledom, in which each person served a specific function according to set rules and expectations, has given way to a more relational, friendship-based, egalitarian model of relationships. Relationships often reflect a common level of education or professional status: doctors marry lawyers, stockbrokers commit to lawyers, teachers find teachers, and so on. While in the past older men often married younger women, or a secretary might marry her boss, or a nurse marry a doctor, after which they could set up house together, now many adults expect to be independent before finding a mate, which means that both people have learned to traverse the worlds of work and household alone before getting married. Relationships have come to reflect the traits and interests of the individuals rather than any well-defined, external models. Similarly, homes often reflect couples' attempts to remake their homes in their own images, on their own terms (as the increasing array of home design periodicals, home furnishing stores, and do-it-yourself television programs attest).

The popularity of building green homes and going off the grid, eating locally produced food and buying biodiesel, is perhaps a response to the frustration of having had to face a false dichotomy between individual liberty and the common interest, a frustration that draws on an older American archetype: the pioneer who heads out into new territory, Jefferson's virtuous yeoman farmer, and Emerson's self-reliant thinker. It is a powerful antidote to the two kinds of collectivism that prevailed despite the rhetorical firestorms of the Cold War: mass-marketed corporate consumer culture on the one hand, and big government bureaucracy on the other. If the State and Business were ever truly opposing forces, clearly neither has triumphed over the other; if anything, they have grown in tandem to overshadow ever-greater portions of the domestic landscape. The idea of setting up a solar panel on one's roof is a symbolic cry for something smaller in scale, more individualized, better adapted, more self-sufficient—something that can be said to reflect one's terrior. Thus, local and individual—even bourgeois—sensibilities need not come at the expense of the earth but might begin, instead, to contribute to a more sustainable global ecosystem.

If the house is becoming a new kind of seat of production, it does so without needing employees, without a sense of domination over others, but as a move away from feeling helpless in the face of larger corporate forces, whether governmental, economic, or environmental. One has to have a clear identity to think for oneself. With the big-box chains and cookie-cutter houses, how is anyone to be an individual? I wonder if the move toward reclaiming older styles, recycling older building supplies, and adding green upgrades to one's house doesn't reflect the desire to assert something tailored to one's own values.

As a child, I remember leafing through the Whole Earth Catalog. The life I imagined while reading its pages was a life far removed from the modern world—it was a world of whole-grain bread made from hand-sown wheat, baked in a wood-burning stove, eaten by grubby, half-naked, wild-haired waifs sitting around a campfire singing folk songs—a world as far removed from me as the photo of the earth that appeared on the cover. The images within the catalog showed people living communally, free from the oppression of cars, clothing, packaging, gasoline, plastic—all the trappings of modern, mass-media culture. It was idyllic and yet illicit, improper—unpatriotic, even; something about it suggested a retreat from the duties of life, a utopian escape from the worries and challenges of the real world.

My understanding of those images reflected my inability to reconcile the ecological with the economic, polite society with alternative culture, capitalism with communism, modern with traditional. Indeed, looking back, the seventies are the time in my consciousness most riven with the deep ideological fissures that set people of different mind-sets out of reach and almost out of sight of one another. Today things have become much more blurry, ideas stirred up like different kinds of cake batter swirled together in one bowl. The Cold War is over (as, I suspect, are the Culture Wars given the new concern for renewable energy across both Blue and Red states). Today, old hippies run large companies; the wealthy congregate in sleekly designed gourmet restaurants to feast on local organic free-range game hens; movie stars drive hybrid cars; corporations speak about sustainable industry (even if one waits to see what will really materialize); oil companies are investing in biofuels and solar energy (albeit not enough); and anybody, it seems, can ride a Harley or have piercings and tattoos.

But what I appreciate today is the Whole Earth Catalog's statement of purpose, which, more than thirty years ago, contrasted the limits of what could be achieved by big business, government, and the church with what individuals could accomplish on their own. It spoke of an “intimate, personal power … of the individual to conduct his [sic] own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever [sic] is interested.”

An entry from the fall 1970 issue explained that the catalog's editors owed their chief inspiration and intellectual debt to Buckminster Fuller, the designer of the geodesic dome, an early computer enthusiast, and the inventor of a computer game/simulation called the World Game that was designed to help people imagine solutions to world problems that benefited everybody—“you and me” versus “you or me.” The editors singled out Fuller's Utopia or Oblivion, in which he proposed “to make every man able to become a world citizen and able to enjoy the whole earth, going wherever he wants at any time, able to take care of all the needs of all his forward days without any interference.”

I find myself increasingly surrounded by homeowners who, rather than decrying or relinquishing private property, are hoping instead to wield it as a force for progressive change—people who have begun to see their houses and their domestic spending, even their investing practices, as outlets for public-mindedness. The home is becoming a way to set an example—to follow the lead of the old bumper sticker, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

No longer the apogee of retreat, the house itself has the potential to become a seat of activism that can be adapted and transformed independently of what is happening in Salem or Washington. One can drive a hybrid, install solar panels, compost, recycle, buy local and organic, walk or ride a bike, eco-build, micro-lend, green-invest, and opt for renewable energy. I suppose that is why the rain barrels and the water we harvest in them has come to mean so much to me—it represents a wish to bridge the gulf between myself and the world, between my concerns and my labor, my private life and my public yearnings—to participate in a larger movement directly and individually with the hope that through small actions taken together, “you and me” can change the world.

I have lived long enough to experience one of Thomas Kuhn's famous paradigm shifts—I can now imagine a mode of thinking beyond the solipsistic view of private property, one that offers a more cohesive understanding of how things enter into our lives, where goods come from, how much energy they consume to make and to employ, and how one can then dispose of them properly. The notion of governance as something detached from or even at odds with the private life of the citizen is becoming less and less tenable. The promise of thousands of citizen policy makers represents a departure from the model of the citizen consumer—it's a repudiation of Bernard Mandeville's idea in The Fable of the Bees that private vice leads to public benefit. If anything, public-minded partnerships (domestic or otherwise) must compensate for national governments' unwillingness or inability to act.

Strangely, by imagining how we might harvest rainwater or solar energy, conserve and reduce and recycle, invest through microfinance organizations in small businesses, I feel like a citizen of a larger community and a participant in something more international than what one typically imagines as domestic life. The house no longer represents to me a place of retreat as much as a stepping-off point, a portal, a tool for cooperation—a way to participate in a distributed public utility of sorts. For the issue is rapidly becoming not whether, but how best to harness new forms of domestic energy, finances, initiative, and consciousness—and the gulf between public and private is rapidly being rendered moot by both global warming and globalization.

We are all becoming homeowners by default, in the sense that the world has increasingly become our four walls—there is no way to imagine a property line strong enough to protect our things and ourselves from the forces of nature or, for that matter, to protect nature from the effects of human habitation. If the world is to become our house again, in a very real sense, then it is incumbent upon every person to become a property owner—responsible for the upkeep and expenses, for being a good host, a good neighbor, and a good steward. It also means that we need to look for tools in unlikely places: on roofs, in backyards, in light sockets. We need to refurbish old concepts such as public and private, global and local, economy and ecology, and strip them of their layers of flaking ideology to reveal their older, yet still solid, ability to help us think about how best to live together in this world we have inherited.

A photograph of the earth taken from space bedecked the cover of the old Whole Earth Catalog; and as that image attests, the boundaries of our home have always extended beyond the house—how did we ever learn to think otherwise?

From the Fall/Winter 2007 Domesticity issue

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Firing a Friend

My Brother, the Keeper

Immobile Dreams

Home Economics