[Footnotes presents this guest post by authors Bikash Sarma and Shruti Sharma as part of a series addressing reconceptualizing space and social interaction during Covid19, as the Covid19 pandemic forces us to rethink our social lives and how we use and interact in various spaces. Bikash Sarma recently submitted his Doctoral Thesis from Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently teaching at Salesian College, Siliguri. Shruti Sharma is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.]
Home and the metaphor for existence
In the pandemonium unleashed by the outbreak of CoVid-19, when physical and social borders are epidemiologically fixated, human existential conditions are simultaneously witnessing polysemous reflections. Attempts to conquer and conquest the non-human mutant apparently have failed at all levels in some locations including India – medico-scientific, economic and political (local, national, international). As the subjection of the modern human by the non-human mutant has shaken the former’s claim over transcending the natural more than ever, the spatially constrained and temporally disoriented human has sought refuge by creating a space of rejuvenation within domesticity premised on (re)essentializing womanhood and femininity. With the temporary loss of the public space and routinized time, the hope of rejuvenating the modern, but now an anxious self, has been directed towards (re)conquering the loss and/in the familiar/private. This post reflects upon the reconfiguration of domesticity that has unfolded in the spatio-temporal domain of physical and social quarantine – home – in post lockdown India. The home that is of concern for us is that of a particular socio-economic group, the urban upper/middle class savarna. We look at this home through Hans Blumenberg’s metaphor of existence as a shipwreck and interrogate the quarantine at home through an experiential narrative of (de)gendered bodies which are scheduled in consonance with varied manifestations and meanings of time.
Home, as we search for one with the timely reminder of Blumenberg’s work Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, is metaphorical for a ship on a voyage drifting away from the firm footing of land. As we are losing the firm footing of land, or public sociality and routinized time, in fear and social/physical distancing, embarking on the ship as a metaphor for home becomes a world-historical moment. However, home of the viral times as the ship on voyage achieves a terrifying and temporal allegory of seafaring and shipwreck whereby on embarkation, “[w]e [evidently] have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us. Now little ship look out! …and there is no longer any ‘land.’” On one hand, the loss of the firm footing of land leads to unprecedented anxieties; while on the other hand, it creates conditions which have the potential to lead to a new epoch onboard the drifting metaphor of home, even when shipwrecked.
The sudden first lockdown imposed from midnight of 24 March 2020 in India brought initial respite to the urban upper/middle class savarna self as it calmed their apprehensions about becoming pathological – contracting the virus through public sociality and the fear of becoming contagious within domesticity. The sudden imposition of a complete nation-wide lockdown impacted various socio-economic groups and regions in India differently. For instance, the already marginalised urban poor’s (daily wage earners; who may or may not be migrant workers) conditions worsened due to the abrupt shutdown of workplaces, lack of transportation and ban on inter-state movement, and with little or no monetary savings and preserved/stored food to bank upon. Their condition can be starkly contrasted with the perceptive respite the lockdown brought to the urban upper/middle class savarna. This respite is evidence not just of the structural privilege that comes along with one’s socio-economic status, but also the privilege of certainty regarding matters of life and death – of not being jobless, unsafe, hungry and helpless – of which having a home to embark upon is central. At a time when all feel estranged from the world outside in one sense or another, the home of the upper/middle class savarna has been transformed into multiple spaces enmeshed together – officework from home, school from home – amidst the hope for the everyday fictive festival of belongingness.
At home and within domesticity, to secure the metaphor for existence the re-neologisms of ‘family time’ and ‘family bond’ have been placed as a bulwark against the ‘viral times’ and the loss of the public (and sociality/sociability). The festivity re-neologisms, to be managed and strengthened by the figure of the woman homemaker, are scheduled primarily around the gendered (non)availability of ‘spare time’ and of ‘time to spare’. Spare time either signifies the time in the modern temporal matrix outside of paid and prioritized (productive) work, or the time that one does not have something to do, or both. However, this temporal matrix is based on the devaluation of work itself – often equating unpaid work in the house with spare time or not doing something. Since cooking, cleaning and caring are not considered work, the time spent on doing those is considered spare time. What is ironic post-lockdown is that while working from home, men employed in jobs which are internet and phone call driven have a lot of spare time yet they do not have any time to spare for work for home. “There is nothing to do,” and “…it is so boring” are statements uttered every now and then.
Having nothing to do, the bored quarantined public self of men seeks natural compensation of his trivialized existence by imposing the responsibility of its alleviation upon the homemaker through the efficient utilization of her time – assumed to be spare or non-temporal. Further, with consumerism curtailed by the closure of the public, it has been reshaped in its primitive form by claiming ‘extraordinary something’ from the kitchen and continuous ‘sociality’ (read care) with the young, old and equal to keep them entertained in their spare time. The new quarantine melancholy also opened up a space to ‘get back to normal sexual (not necessarily consensual) life’ which led to an increase in demand (virtual and real) for physical and emotional intimacy from women in the lives of these men. Sexuality, mediated by the quarantined space of patriarchy, supplemented the one-sided imposition of these spatio-temporal demands. After all, as Federici satirically brought out in the “Wages Against Housework” pamphlet, “nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.”
The militarized semantics of regulation, segregation and physical distancing of the viral times has supplemented “a whole literary fiction of festivity” within the family time. However, the festivity of family time – as a fictional celebration of life – is always haunted by a specter of redundancy and non-work. The everyday in quarantine within the metaphor for existence cannot be defined unless we ‘unfamiliarize’ the ways in which the traditional symbolism of femininity has been revived under the regime of social distancing, wherein the social in social distancing seems more powerful than ever. The domesticity of the lockdown has, in its revelation of the unstable nature or the terrifying allegory of the metaphor, provided crucial insights into the reconditioned feminine condition. The inscription of traditional femininity connected to the notions of being chaste, passive and idle in doing non-work/household chores, has now been reconfigured by the anxious masculine, emasculated by the fear of worklessness in the public and no work to do in the private. This masculine anxiety of emasculation that metamorphosed into a re-romanticized self, with reinvigorated perception of intimate time at home supposedly displaced by the routinized time, has ironically brought back the symbolisms resonated by Esther S Neumeyer’s question, “What do women do with their leisure?” And entrapped in that symbolism suggested, “Some, not knowing what to do with it, find surplus time a bore.” Or, as expressed by William Huggins, “addicted to do nothing, and to help each other in doing nothing.”
This understanding of everydayness at home flows from the familiarity assigned to the every-day practices within domesticity as being boring, meaningless and as not-doing-something. Thus, not only are women presumed to have time to do housework, but are believed to have done that for time itself. Housework was “transformed into a natural attribute of female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.” The art of doing something including the ““fine art of cooking”, in which everyday skills turns nourishment into a language of the body and the body’s memories” too have been swept “under hems of femininity.” Taking the definition of spare time further, the passivity assigned to these everyday practices which is co-constitutive of the very discourse of spare time, signifies not just the time that one does not have ‘something to do’ but also something that one does for time itself.
Going back to Blumenberg’s metaphor of existence, it appears that the metaphor is caught up in a double dialectic: while the modern self retracts from the inhospitable disrupted reality and (re)configures for itself a bulwark against that inhospitability within the hospitable romanticized home, at the same time it creates ruptures, silences and erasures within the new ‘hospitable imaginary’. The hospitable manifests not just as a space to redeem the lostness from the public and routinized time but also a space for loneliness and paranoia of being locked up with others – such paranoia is an extension of the divide of the homemaker’s self from the world and from the other selves within the quarantined domesticity – without a choice.
A further peep into the quarantine’s ship reveals that it is certainly wrecked for the crew/family members on whom the unequal burden to sail through tumultuous waves rests. Yet, those for whom the ship is wrecked are not able to call it one because of the always already existing gendered consciousness that is mundanely performed which secures and is secured by the seemingly inviolable institution of family. It is also made to rest on the ship’s captain with the metaphor of ‘he’ who navigates ‘smoothly’ through a potential shipwreck by deploying the re-neologisms of family time and family bond. Due specifically to these re-neologisms and metaphors, the crew member’s/home maker’s estrangement is made out to be naturally endearing, as is the accountability for rejuvenation of the lost self of the captain – lost with no sight of land (the pre-CoVid-19 normal) and with the possibility of a shipwreck (the failure of the re-neologisms).
The socio-spatio-temporal matrix that the homemaker finds herself in, in the subjected circumstance of quarantine is doubly estranging due to systemic physical, materially and ideological oppression of the heteropatriarchal gender order that is ever present with or without the circumstance. The endearment of this double estranging condition has left the homemaker out of breath and without any access to the experience and expression of her self. Hence, it becomes pertinent to reflect upon whether the suspension of the social or distancing from it (physically and metaphorically) is possible for the figure of the homemaker?
One could argue that the land destroyed and bridges burnt signify something starkly different for them. It becomes symbolic of the time outside of the engagement with the social of the family that a homemaker was able to routinely carve for herself – her self – prior to the viral nature of times. However, any attempt at doing so in quarantine would be held up as ‘wrong-headed’ and in derision, leading to the questioning of femininity and womanhood itself. It would also produce stigmatized and morbid bodies in the space delineated for ‘staying safe (and healthy)’ from the pandemic.
Experiential narrative of (de)gendered bodies from post lockdown India
Every night since the lockdown began, Subarna Ghosh would go up to her apartment’s terrace at about 10.30 pm, which was when she usually wound up all the domestic and professional chores for the day, so she could relax. Soon enough, she noticed a similar pattern among other women in the neighbourhood, who also came up to the terrace — around the same time — to relax after a full day’s work.
Locked up with family, the new norm of distancing from the social for the women of the house is a mockery of their lived reality wherein the social is closer and stronger than ever. The social here is an immediate reference to the institution of family which finds its structure in the heteropatriarchal gender order. To say that there has been an increase in the intensity of the social – gender order, gender norms/roles – for the woman due to the subjected circumstance of quarantine does not by any means indicate that prior to the occurrence of the circumstance, women were not constrained by it. However, what it does indicate is that in the viral nature of times that induced the norm of ‘stay at home’ – work from home, school from home – the possibility of temporarily escaping from the patriarchal constraints and scrutiny for a breather has been minimized, to the extent of not being there at all. The escape/breather is a reference to the pre-CoVid socio-spatio-temporality– professionally, at work outside home; domestically, at home without the men and children who have gone to out earn and learn; socially, outside and inside home with people of their choice and liking (on the phone or face to face).
Certainly, it is not just the unequal burden of doing household chores during quarantine – cooking extraordinary something, cleaning the house in the absence of a hired women domestic help, looking after the young’s education, entertainment and emotional needs/demands, providing care to the elderly and catering to a spectrum of demands of the equal in age – man/husband – that have gotten to women. For women who are also working from home, the difficulty of managing their profession along with the gendered expectations from people in/and the household could be far worse.
Through Subarna’s lock down experience quoted at the outset of this section, we can gather her desire to create a space and time, away from the chores – professional and domestic – and her family she is locked down with, to be able to be with no one else but her self. The time that she is able to take out to relax is not a time that she has carved out for herself from the busy schedule – paid and unpaid labour – she has until 10.30 pm. Instead, it is the time when she has nothing else lined up to do – domestically or professionally. Further, with most family members retiring to bed and the work calls/emails answered for the day, this time post 10.30 pm can neither be called her ‘spare time’ or ‘time to spare’. It is neither time for leisure nor is it a time that can be characterized boredom. What is certain is that it is a momentary experience of physically quarantining oneself from quarantine – to the most intimate part of one, their self.
Our attempt to characterize the meaning that the spatio-temporality of the terrace has for Subarna as well as to understand what it is if it is not just the unequal burden of household chores that has gotten to women, takes us back to a passage from Rousseau’s Confessions in the context of the eighteenth century plague in Europe:
It was at the time of the plague at Messina, and the English fleet had anchored there, and visited the Felucca, on board of which I was, and this circumstance subjected us, on our arrival, after a long and difficult voyage, to a quarantine of one-and-twenty days.
The passengers had the choice of performing it on board or in the Lazaretto, which we were told was not yet furnished. They all chose the Felucca. The insupportable heat, the closeness of the vessel, the impossibility of walking in it, and the vermin with which it swarmed, made me at all risks prefer the Lazaretto. I was therefore conducted to a large building of two stories, quite empty, in which I found neither window, bed, table, nor chair, not so much as even a joint-stool or bundle of straw. My night sack and my two trunks being brought me, I was shut in by great doors with huge locks, and remained at full liberty to walk at my ease from chamber to chamber and story to story, everywhere finding the same solitude and nakedness.
For Subarna, the Felucca that Rousseau chose not to stay in is symbolic of the home of the viral times. Although Rousseau describes his preference for the Lazaretto in terms of physical discomforts of living in the Felucca, many readers familiar with his hermit existence – in normal and exceptional circumstances – would have easily guessed his choice for the Lazaretto. His quarantine comes with a preferred choice to withdraw from the companionship of other members on-board who decided to confine themselves in the Felucca. Isolating himself from the collective isolation in the Felucca, Rousseau further withdraws into himself. Within the physical structure of the Lazaretto, he is left with no one but his self in alterity, in solitude. Subarna, tied not just to the subjected circumstance of the lockdown but also to heteropatriarchal gender order, secures for herself a few minutes in the Lazaretto after undertaking paid and unpaid work the entire day. The redundant unpaid work is what makes the Felucca stay afloat. Her temporary escapes to the Lazaretto every night is a result of the insupportable closeness of the social and the subsequent impossibility to relax in the Felucca. However, we must remember that for Subarna, the question of choice – to go to the Lazaretto as and when desired – does not exist. It is only after all work/non-work is accomplished that Subarna earns the few moments of being alone (but not lonely) in the Lazaretto. We see how the universal romanticizing of the circumstantial subjection of quarantine through the re-neologism of ‘family time’ and ‘family bond’ are based on ruptures, silences, and erasures of the experiences and expressions of those subjectivities who face the societal burden of keeping the ship afloat – with love.
Nevertheless, the epidemiological rationale of quarantine and the socially pathological family structure has also given rise to certain social alternatives. For, it is not just the woman who does not have an option to escape from home but also the man who is tied to home because of the fear of the chaotic outside. This dual impossibility of escape from the shipwreck provides immense possibilities to reconstitute domesticity, based on gender neutral roles and the principles of gender equality.
If household isolation is assumed as a collective response to the mutant, the domestic becomes the primary space for politics by the oppressed. The time can never be more ripe than now for women to bring their struggles that have been isolated in their bedrooms and kitchens to the streets (figuratively), to break with the oppressive social and reclaim their domestic with or without men in it, in more than a single way. Covid-19 in its uncanniness has provided the opportunity to introspect the genealogy of patriarchal ruses, and the need to unfamiliarize the recognizable masks within the same old home metaphor, re-romanticized in the guise of current existence.
Blumenberg, Hans. 1997. Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, Translated by S. Rendell. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Certeau, Michel de. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life, Translated by S. Rendall. Berkley: University of California Press.
Currell, S. 2005. The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Federici, Silvia. 1975. “Wages Against Housework”. Bristol: Power of Women Collective and The Falling Wall Press (Joint publication).
Foucault, Michel. 1978. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Translated by A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
Huggins, William. 1824. Sketches in India, treating on Subjects connected with the Government; Civil and Military Establishments; Characters of the European; and Customs of the Native Inhabitants. London: John Letts.
Lefebvre, Henri. 2002. Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, Vol. II, Translated by J. Moore. London: Verso.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1995. The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Vol. V, Translated by C. Kelly. Hanover: University Press of New Zealand.
Savarna is the term used to denote those persons who are born in one of the three privileged castes – Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya – in the hierarchical and discriminatory system of caste in the Hindu social order. As an idea it denotes Brahminical patriarchy.
Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator, 19.
The very possibility of getting onboard the metaphor exists only for those privileged for whom home exists both in its materiality and psychologically. The figure of the migrant worker who is bereft of the lockdown privilege, dwelling in cramped city spaces and being in spaces of constant movement in their long walk home (for some from life to death), is a constant reminder of how exclusive the association with the home metaphor is.
Federici, “Wages Against Housework”, 1.
Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 197-98.
Currell, The March of Spare Time, 32.
Cited in Currell, 107.
Huggins, Sketches in India, 92.
Federici, “Wages Against Housework”, 2.
Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, ix.
 Cynthia Enloe, “Who is Skilled and Who is Unskilled in this pandemic Moment”, Women International League for Peace and Freedom, https://www.wilpf.org/covid-19-who-is-skilled-and-who-is-unskilled-in-this-pandemic-moment/.
D Shreya Veronica, “The chore wars: Men, women and housework”, Deccan Chronicle, https://www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/culture-and-society/170620/the-chore-wars-men-women-and-housework.html.
Rousseau, Confessions, p. 248-49.