Home Body

The private home is not an isolated unit, but a living system within a mass of systems, requiring the labor of many

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Sitting in the living room-dining-room-office, eyes closed, on one of any of these last 125 nameless days, I’ve started to gain an awareness of the electrical charge pulsing through the walls around me. It’s right there, just under the skin of the house. This feels like a newfound proprioception — running my fingers along the pockmarked door frame, I sense where the wires run through and up and around, feeling as though I could press anywhere and find a kind of life force. I trace the wire’s invisible pathway down and along until it pushes through the membrane of the wall and out into the room, where the socket’s plastic-lined slots open to the air. I extend the system, daisy chaining together power cords and bringing the power where I want it. I can plug in a toaster. I can worry the openings with a knife tip. I don’t, but I might. Snap, crackle, pop.

In this house, I’m a fetus, cradled, protected, fed and watered inside these nourishing walls. Four months marooned in the apartment and each day I feel more dependent on this animate carapace. It would be unheimlich if it weren’t so home-like. I pad around in truly hideous house shoes touching faucets and outlets and light fixtures, thanking them one by one, and they all spark joy. In J. G. Ballard’s High Rise, a character refers to the eponymous building as a brooding embodied presence, where the “elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart,” and “the residents moving along the corridors were cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartment the neurons of a brain.” It’s alive. For me, within my housebody, this description is still too metaphorical and possibly inside out. The high rise appears sinister, other, granted embodiment as an explanation for its evil will. But I’m not a blood cell within a sentient infrastructural body (the house is not a body, the city is not a body, and neither are sentient). Instead, the house to me is grand technology of protection and connectivity, holding and cloistering me even while it connects me to systems upon systems that bring me warmth, light, comfort.

In this house, I’m a fetus, cradled, protected, fed and watered inside these nourishing walls

“Beyond the boundaries of the home itself we find a vast interlinked system of networks, pipes and wires that enable the modern city to function,” writes Matthew Gandy in his essay “Cyborg Urbanism,” and beyond the city limits the tubal networks fan out in space and back through time, via pipes and ditches and dams, through shipping routes and into pit mines. This connection to — and dependence on — infrastructural networks that aid and supplement our daily lives produce what Paul Graham Raven, and later Deb Chachra, calls the “cyborg collective” (cyborgs abound in this cityscape). In this formation, all of us are bound together by the mass of pipes and wires, dependent on what we’ve built and mutually invested in the care and continuity of our systems.

Everyone deserves this kind of care, I think, but a glance out the window reminds me that not everyone has it. The pandemic persists, and my unhoused neighbors find shelter where they can, in tents and doorways, cut off from the nurturing systems I take for granted. This is on purpose. In a country where housing is contested, and certainly not treated as a human right, civic infrastructure takes on an ambiguous tenor. Theoretically, the pipes, wires, dams, turbines, and spillways that feed our cyborg homes are a socialized good, a collective investment in the collective wellbeing. As Chachra writes, technological systems are “one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale.” Practically, PG&E’s strategic disinvestment in the maintenance of their massive electrical infrastructure directly caused the death of 85 people in 2018’s Camp fire, and in 2019 they treated California to rolling blackouts on high fire danger days, a safety measure necessary only because of the preceding 30 years of negligence. Still, those of us with flick-of-a-switch access to power and water are massively advantaged in the reproductive labor stakes. I can shit and shower whenever I like, with no one yelling at me or threatening to call the cops. During a time of crisis or unrest, this safety and ease is doubly important, and worth fighting for.

In stories and films, animate houses are generally something to be avoided. When a life force inhabits the house, you can expect cupboards to slam unexpectedly and televisions to flicker on unprompted, or ghostly figures to appear in the corner of the room as you’re trying to sleep. That’s a haunting. The spirits that haunt tend to be the individual kind: dead orphans, murdered wives, and unhappy Victorians unable to rest.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s opening description animates the house with a brooding malevolence similar to Ballard’s high rise: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.” The house is alive, metaphorically at least, possessed by the auratic hangover of its traumatized past and ready to possess whoever dares venture inside. Often, it’s unclear whether the haunting is carried out by the individual ghosts of the dead, or if the house itself is scarred and imprinted by a horrifying past event, reverberating horrors into the present. In any case, the horrors are private. In films like The Amityville Horror and The Changeling, the house (which, as Carol Clover writes in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, is often coded as maternal or explicitly womb-like: “These intra-uterine settings consist of dark, narrow, winding passages leading to a central room, cellar or other symbolic place of birth”) is the space of the family, subject to and subjecting others to the traumas of the domestic unit and its various depravities. Removed from social systems and isolated in cul-de-sacs and on creepy hills, the haunted house is a full house, but it stands alone.

This is not my experience. The energies animating my housebody — which feels very much alive — aren’t the spirits of the dead. Failures of infrastructure can cause all number of horrors, but these are material rather than supernatural: If I turn on the tap and red liquid flows from the faucet, I’ll assume that the water pipes have rusted, or an animal has died in a nearby storage tank. In Hideo Nakata’s 2002 horror Dark Water, infrastructural failure (in the form of a worsening leak coming through the apartment ceiling) is both physical and haunted, with a dead girl in a water tank leading to overflowing plumbing systems and ghostly apparitions. Infrastructure itself becomes horrible through neglect and death, leaking and seeping and driving the living to distraction.

Those of us with flick-of-a-switch access to power and water are massively advantaged: I can shit and shower whenever I like, with no one yelling at me or threatening to call the cops

In the real world of the cyborg collective and its composite parts, the horrors of the house are entirely non-metaphoric. Turn a tap in some parts of Flint, Michigan, and poisoned water still flows out, years after the city’s water crisis became a national disgrace. Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes: black lung, denuded environments, death. Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it.

I love haunted house stories. Their capaciousness holds whole histories of private trauma and Freudian neurosis, and reflects myriad social concerns about the function of the nuclear family and the horrors at its heart. But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private. It may be purchased, and thus legally private property, but it doesn’t stand alone. Through its extending wires, pipes, inputs and outputs, the house (with few off-grid exceptions) is tied up in the cyborg systems of the city and the supply chains and logistical inputs that extend around the globe. Inside the house, the comfort and nurturing care I feel is a product of the infrastructural and sociotechnical systems that rely on the work of many others.

How do we reconnect our own home-bound wellbeing with the massive systems that animate our houses? Clearly, the infrastructures at play can’t be understood on the level of the household unit, but as soon as the tubes branch beyond the boundary of my walls they become harder to see except in the abstract. The edifices and networks of infrastructure have been popular objects of study in recent years, with theorists and enthusiasts alike mapping the networks that bring resources into the private residence and exploring the monuments built in their service.

Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote rich descriptions of the tunnels and catacombs of Paris (eventually published in Convolute C of the Arcades Project): “Paris is built over a system of caverns,” he writes, “And this great technological system of tunnels and thorough­fares interconnects with the ancient vaults, the limestone quarries, the grottoes and catacombs which, since the early Middle Ages, have time and again been reentered and traversed.” Almost a century later, Tim Hwang founded The Infrastructure Observatory, a community that organizes adult field trips to the kind of urban infrastructures usually shielded from view of us plebes, like nuclear power plants and the hidden guts of urban subways. “It’s a way of exploring things that people don’t really think about and are sometimes actively hidden,” he told California Sunday. In “Infrastructural Tourism,” Shannon Mattern tracks the contributions of some of the concatenation of writers and artists who have hunted down and charted out infrastructural systems, from Andrew Blum’s Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet to Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. The compulsion for describing and making infrastructure “visible” makes for a vast and rich domain; still, as Mattern notes, “the ambitious intentions to “make visible the invisible” and raise awareness of imperceptible systems, much like Situationist-style dérives or interventions, can too often become ends in themselves.” Sometimes that end is good enough. A dérive can re-charge a familiar neighborhood, and tools for urban exploration help open up the unseen city to its inhabitants. The risk, as I see it, is that infrastructural tourism results in a remystification of infrastructure, either by documenting and reifying its seemingly-inhuman monumentality, or fetishizing complexity for its own sake, disregarding the power structures that undergird it, and the suffering they cause.

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” But I get it. And I’ve felt it: the uncanny mystique of larger-than-life steel and concrete power plants, or the gut-drop of standing on the edge of a dam spillway, imagining yourself slipping over and sluicing into the deep canyon of water below. In part, these fantasies of the sublime are a symptom of our alienation from infrastructural systems and the powers that animate them. If it’s not clear whose interests infrastructure serves, and how our own lives and housebodies are enmeshed in the macro systems, the only thing left to do is spectacularize, fetishize, or destroy.

2020 is a year for destruction. On one hand, the ravages of Covid-19, and the negligent erosion and purposeful dismantling of some of the remaining civil institutions. On the other, the burning of Minneapolis’s third precinct police station in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis cops, which kicked off an ongoing season of righteous damage to infrastructure by the people most alienated from its power structures or most harmed by its corporate ownership. Looting followed in many cities around the nation, often targeting prosperous retail neighborhoods populated by high end stores, but also spontaneous and opportunistic. In response to the rebellion and attendant property damage, the respectability hall-monitors and concern-trolling newscasters ask the expected question — “how could they destroy their own neighborhood?” — as though the far-flung outposts of global corporate entities like Target and Wendy’s constitute any kind of community. In response, a protest banner in Chicago last week reads “Our future has been looted from us… Loot back.” Black Lives Matter Chicago elaborated on this undeniably logical position, saying “When protesters attack high-end retail stores that are owned by the wealthy and service the wealthy, that is not ‘our’ city and has never been meant for us.”

But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private

This antagonistic approach to infrastructure is tactical and instructive. In her (once again timely) 2014 piece “In Defense of Looting,” Vicky Osterweil writes, “when rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.” When infrastructure fails you, and the people that build it conspire to prevent you from caring for yourself and flourishing in your community, it’s time to tear it all down. All the mapping and “making visible” in the world can’t right what’s wrong, and even the most good-faith attempts at rigorous transparency can’t avoid glossing over or eliding the horrors buried in global supply chains and local power structures. Instead, we can repurpose the city that was built against us, and redistribute its spoils.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), we can’t take care of ourselves alone. Within the city, especially, our ability to live comfortably and maintain our bodies and communities depends on the branching networks of pipes and tubes and the labor that feeds into them. We’re enmeshed in the infrastructures of the collective cyborg even when it’s clearly failing us, undermined by rot and capital. I want the intimate care I feel in my household nest to be extended across the entire system, but instead I walk through the neighborhood and spot only the ruptures. People locked out of obscene housing markets, clothing stores peddling jeans for which rivers were dyed blue and made deadly, and public toilets that always seem to be locked. I want to see it torn down, but I also want to see it repaired, so it can repair us.

In the meantime, neighbors and friends and enemies of the state work as individuals or in small groups to take care of ourselves, and each other. The otherwise-miserable coronavirus months have seen a heartening array of mutual aid initiatives spring up, by and for the people and communities abandoned by the failing infrastructures of the city and state. With schools closed and parents needed to work in essential roles, Philly activists and technologists slapped together a childcare scheduling tool to help parents coordinate vital childcare where the state failed to assist. Friends and neighbors with resources to offer or time on their hands due to layoffs started ad-hoc mutual aid groups to distribute groceries and other essentials to poor and house-bound community members. In the early days of the lockdown, I found solace in crisscrossing the blocks closest to me to drop off books and pick up gnarly kombucha scobies from the friends that live near, knotting us more securely to each other as we commiserate, and cry, and scheme. Later, I stood on the street with my neighbors and their extended families as cousins and uncles let off firework after firework, everyone whooping joyously and sloshing beers in the multicolor glow. When the infrastructures you thought were there to serve you show their true colors, it’s an opportunity to reconvene and to reimagine the city through fire and care and collective work.

To take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined

Still, I want more for us than to spend every precious moment scrambling to arrange childcare or make sure our friends don’t get evicted. Collective care without the collective assemblage of infrastructure is near impossible, so we need to figure out how to maintain the systems that still function, and how to fix the ones that are broken or working against us.

In some cases, pieces of the existing collective cyborg will need to be dismantled. The pipelines that cut across Native land and spill oil onto the prairie: those can go. The highways that slice through neighborhoods, benefiting those on one side of the divide while immiserating those on the other: those can go too, ripped up for barricades and projectiles, “the use of the city against the city, in the name of the city.” Other parts can stay but must be redistributed, brought into collective ownership so the waters and warmth and phone lines are shared equitably and wrested away from the profit motive. Infrastructure is a massive investment, and much of that investment has already been made. To maintain it, to take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day, is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined.

Far from the spirit world of the haunted family house, the housebody and its appendages are earthed and rooted in material space. If the house must be imagined as a womb, perhaps that’s OK: the parent/fetus relationship was never a private relationship either. The parent eats, drinks, connects to the appendages of the collective cyborg, in order to nourish and nurture the creature within.

And so, as I spend my days moving from bed to desk to couch like a frustrated pinball, I try to remember that I’m not alone in the house. Firing up the gas burner, I make note of the denuded gas fields of Alberta that feed the gigantic stove my landlord provided, big enough to cook for a small commune or at least for a medium-sized Food Not Bombs operation. Flick on a lightswitch and I wince briefly, picturing the dry August hills crackling beneath the PG&E pylons, ready for an errant spark. I turn on the shower and prompt a ripple all the way up to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir (ancestral home of the Miwok and Paiute people, evicted from their land by the U.S. government). Zoom and FaceTime bring colleagues and friends alike into the domestic space, where they observe the messy living room from their perches inside the laptop screen. Fine. This is part one of the work; to develop an extended proprioception that includes an awareness of the animate energies of the housebody, but also extends out through wires, pipes, and cables and towards all the other things and people the system touches, cares for, harms, and fails. Because the infrastructures of the home mean that we’re inexorably intermingled, codependent, and beholden, even as we might feel more disconnected than ever. To survive, we need to build the strategies and solidarities that allow us to maintain the infrastructural systems that serve us — an act of self-care beyond the boundaries of the self.

Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.