Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Ordinary Life
·Odd Moments
·The Public
·A Still
·Still Life
·Home Alone
·The Perfectly Ordinary Life
·Still Watching
·Works Cited

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Kathleen Stewart, "The Perfectly Ordinary Life" (page 9 of 11)

Home Alone

Affect swelled and flexed its muscles in longings for optimism and interiority. The dream of an unhaunted home was laid out on the carpet like a beautiful fetish it was OK to love.

Home is where the heart is. You could get inside and slam the door. Home could harbor secrets. Ordinary things collected on a dresser top in the course of passing days could become the place holders of a normal life: loose change, pens, receipts, books, scattered jewelry, knickknacks, a kid's drawing, a long-discarded list of urgent things to do.

A quiet corner with a small wooden table by a window could resonate with the dream of a profoundly secluded interior set apart from the degrading fray of things and laid to rest in a queenly retreat.

Home is where the heart is. But take one foot out of the frame and things got sketchy fast. We were in the habit of watching for shock while looking for recluse. At the unwanted knock on the door, or the sudden ring of the phone at night, you could feel the uncanny resemblance between the dazed state of trauma and the cocooning we now called home.

There was the shock that came when something happened; some people lived in a mode of constant crisis. (A lot of people, truth be told.) Or there were the shocks inscribed in the very regimes designed to guard against them: surveillance, cocooning, self-help, insurance. The fear of burst bubbles bred disciplines (the healthy diet, the tended lawn, the daily lottery ticket) and compulsions (the scanning for news, the need for the new and improved, fetishisms of all kinds).

Having a (private) life was a serious game. If you wanted to stay in the game, you had three choices: you could go on anxiously peering out the window and peeking at the news for the latest health tips and horror shows, you could get busy shoveling force into matter (body building, home remodeling, joining groups), or you could do a disappearing act. Or you could try to follow all three trajectories at once. Or follow one to a point of exhaustion and then veer off onto one of the others. That's what most people ended up doing.

That's if you were in the game to begin with.

Being in the game meant being a consumer perched on the hinge where private intensities appeared as images on public stages and the public representations we used to lay claim to the things we called self, family, lifestyle, happiness, country, speed, and escape were made sensate with intimate force. If you were in the game, you didn't have to think about it. It was just a matter of keeping busy, staying afloat, being able to get your hands on things and to get your head into them. It was a sink and swim thing. There was the sinking feeling of numbness, addiction, deflation, exhaustion, confusion. And the swimming sensation of keeping busy, keeping moving, being in the middle of something happening. The sinking and the swimming cohabited and colluded, drawn to each other like magnets. They rubbed elbows and bred in the intimate nook we called home and then drew us out on the net, weaving themselves into a system of social needs.

We were aware of this doubling in things, this sense that emerging things could go either way. But we talked, at least in public, as if the still of a middle ground would hold, would make us safe and real. Here, the little tasks and pleasures would be firmly hooked to the big picture - the enabling circuitry of circulation itself. There were big projects like remodeling. Or daily projects like shopping, or making lists, keeping a diary, or taking pictures. The quick jumps from the ideal to the material and back were both automatic, it seemed, and a desperate goal - all that mattered.

The home held the charge of the cocoon, fusing the actual to the possible and setting the two realms in motion. It lived in a vital state - open, emergent, vulnerable. It grew paranoid and perfectionist; it was about potential and readiness. Martha Stewart had beautifully prepared hors d'oeuvres ready in her freezer should anyone stop by to visit. Her fans had Martha: a daily hit of her competent and successful company and an artsy but practical tip to imagine putting into practice. Cooking shows had become wildly popular; they were concrete, calm, comforting, funny; they were always on and watching them was like doing something beautiful and useful, or at least learning how.

Today Martha's making real Mexican salsa. She says if you chop the vegetables in a blender you're not making real Mexican salsa. She has a chef with her and he's chopping the tomatoes and onions expertly, professionally, as you and I never could. Except in the dreamy little resolutions that watching the show could incite.

The American dream hitched its wagon to the forces of privatization, sensible accumulation, family values, the utopia of colorful decor, the latest styles in circulation, the constant stimulation of the senses through synaesthetic images, sounds, touches and smells, and the consumption of the big, beautiful, basic, intensely sensate commodity-to-live-in like the country farmhouse get-away or the picture-perfect bathroom done in the textures of old stone and precious metals.

It took the form of a still life. The little family stood beside their SUV in the driveway, looking up. Stock portfolios in hand, everything insured, payments up to date, yards kept trim and tended, fat free diet under their belts, Community Watch systems in place. Martha Stewart offered advice on the finishing touches. For a minute, it was like a snapshot hung suspended in the air while we watched, wide-eyed. But then someone would chortle loudly. The crowd, snapping back to their senses, would show that they were wide awake by laughing and sneering, throwing rocks at clouds. Or they would take offense at the crowd reaction and start defending the beautiful snapshot in all its paper-thin fragility.

But even if left to its own devices, the dream of a private life at rest could grow haunted by its own excesses. The OK middle ground had to be constantly enacted in the manicured lawn, the picket fences and the self-governing, responsible subject in tune with the times. It could implode under the weight of its own literal embodiment as it played itself out. The picture-perfect living room could take on the anxious charge of an overdone style, like it was trying too hard. The desire for security became, for some, an addiction or a game of aggression or trickery. Some built their gates bigger and sturdier and whole housing developments ended up with tiny little simulacra of fences, like a joke. Lawn signs announced home security systems whether or not there were actual systems in place while stickers appeared on the windows of little ranch houses and trailers that said things like "This Place Protected by a Smith and Wesson Three Nights a Week. Guess Which Nights." In the gated community, the rules of community order soon reached a tottering point open to parody and endless legal contestation: garage doors had to be kept shut at all times, drapes in neutral colors only, no digging in the yard without permission, no clotheslines in the yard, no pick up trucks in the driveway, no planting without permission, no grandchildren visiting in a senior compound. No exceptions.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.