Long read | President Higgins delivers speech on concept of ‘home’ at NUI Galway

Galway Daily news President Higgins continues to draw NUI Galway pension while in office

President Michael D. Higgins today delivered a speech at the launch of the ‘First Thought Talks’ strand of Galway International Arts Festival at NUI Galway, where he reflected on the concept of ‘home’.

President Higgins began by paying a special tribute to Catherine Corless. “She has demonstrated not only courage and perseverance but a remarkable commitment to uncovering the truth, to historical truth and to moral truth,” he said.

“All of us in this republic owe a debt of gratitude to Catherine for what was an extraordinary act of civic virtue.”

He then spoke about his time as a lecturer at NUI Galway when he introduced Michel Foucault and new sociological ideas on the role and nature of gender, incarceration and crime in modern societies to his students.

“I remember hearing from the chair of the Department of Political Science and Sociology, Professor Edmond Dougan, fellow sociologist, Head of Department, and a Franciscan, that our students had told him how, in introducing the concept of society, I had taken it all apart for them,” he said.

“Today, unlike my lectures all those years ago,” said President Higgins, “I do not wish to begin with Foucault but with a reference to the work of two very different philosophers that Foucault himself nonetheless considered as formative intellectual influences, even if his own thinking developed in radically different directions – Martin Heidegger, whose legacy continues to be haunted by his monstrous moral failings in the 1930s and 1940s, and Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher who transformed the philosophy of science in the 1950s.

“Though neither share much in terms of perspective or trajectory, they both offered meditations on the manifold meanings of ‘home’.

He continued: “In an essay entitled ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, published in the collection Poetry, Language, Thought, Heidegger asked two questions, ‘what is it to dwell?’, and ‘how does building belong to dwelling?’’.  He writes that, ‘[d]welling is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist’.

“Dwelling and the processes of building, making and shaping thus emerge almost as circular phenomena – even as people create a place, they forge a relationship between themselves and that place, such that they begin to dwell. In Heidegger’s words, ‘the relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, strictly thought and spoken’.

“As a student of migration, I am particularly struck by the implication of this last sentence, expressing as it does an underlying assumption in favour of the universality of a fixed relationship with a specific space, and indeed perhaps a specific time.

“It displays a disposition so intrinsic to much of modern social science – one that finds it difficult to encompass the experience of movement or of the interstices, the space between spaces.

“Migration and movement have always been a part of the human experience – indeed, for some historic peoples they constituted the very foundation of their social and economic lives.  An obvious example are nomadic peoples. The life of all migrants, seasonal and settled, cannot be handled by such formulation.

“That is not to say they did not dwell, nor that they did not form relationships between themselves and a particular space, such that it became a treasured place in which a home could be made, but they were never sedentary, nor bound to one place, or even one identity, often being people of split identities.

“‘Transience’ requires a near continuous re-definition of ‘home’. This is something caught in literature, as it is missed by a privileging of the sedentary in the social sciences.

“In 1958, a number of years after Heidegger first delivered the lecture that would become ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, Gaston Bachelard completed a short volume entitled The Poetics of Space.

“Though better known for his epistemological work, he turned his attention to what he termed the ‘phenomenology of the imagination’, the study of the poetic meaning of the house and of the intimacy imbued within everyday household places, such as the attic, the cellar or the drawers.

“In the Poetics of Space, he writes, ‘[the house] is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’, that it is ‘the topography of our intimate being’.  Think of the positioning of the chair near the fire in Arensberg and Kimball’s Study of Lough and Raymona in Clare in the 1930s.

The house, Bachelard reasoned, emerges as the home by becoming a site of intimacy and creativity, of memories and dreams.

“What is remarkable is the degree to which, in the work of Gaston Bachelard, concerned as it is on the face of it with the evocation of the architecture of spaces, home is presented not only as a physical space, but as an immaterial reality, not a defined place of retreat but a series of relationships and intimacies with places and between people, and indeed I would add that between people the estimation of the form of the house, the status it indicates takes on a role as an indicator of position in the class system, even of respectability, or assumed lack of it.

“Is this definition of ‘home’ then to be a function of residence, simply occupying space with security, a space from which one moves to participate, circulate and how and when does a condition of ownership arise? Is it as a guarantee of security, occupation being an insufficient criterion of what is ‘home’?

“Going beyond the theme of ‘home’ as a set of balances, perhaps between security and freedom it may be useful to consider briefly the evolution of our planetary ‘home’ from earliest times through to the ‘Anthropocene’. Time restricts a deep consideration of ‘home’ in terms of our shared planet, our loss of symmetry between nature and habitation.

“Yet, I believe that this is a perspective that we must seek to recover and uncover anew as we try to wrestle with the consequences of the changes that humanity has wrought upon our shared and vulnerable planet, a planet home now to over 7.6 billion human beings and innumerable other animals and plants.

These changes that we live with, suffer from today’s world, are themselves a product of a very particular type of human civilisation, one formed by two great revolutions in economic and social organisation, the Neolithic and the Industrial Revolutions, both of which produced and reproduced very particular ideas and ideals of ‘home’, ones which in their assumptions are our contemporary legacy but are not open to critique and evaluation as they should be in responsible scholarship and citizens’ debate, and perhaps this constrains our capacity to re-imagine our collective future today.

“The Industrial revolution, usually timed as in the second half of the eighteenth century, is now understood to have inaugurated what the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, has categorised as the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in world history marked by the influence of a single species – our own – on the global environment.

“The term Anthropocene has its own distinguished genealogy – it was first used by the Italian geologist Father Antonio Stoppani, in 1873, who was in turn influenced by the American diplomat George Perkins Marsh, whose 1863 book Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, was foundational for the environmental movement in the United States.

“At the core of Perkins’ work lay an imaginative analysis of the acute crises of the sedentary civilisations the ancient Mediterranean world brought about by soil degradation occasioned by the intensive farming techniques of the Neolithic Revolution, an early example of surplus seeking affluence provoking an environmental crisis.

“We can discern in the rise and fall of these ancient cultures a presaging of the Anthropocene. Though not yet cursed with the capacity to radically transform the carbon or nitrogen cycle, these older peoples were still yet able to degrade the environment enough to doom themselves, to lose their ‘home’ in nature.

“Theirs was a radically different culture than that which had gone before.  It was based not on migration, hunting and foraging, but upon the cultivation of the soil and the domestication of animals, upon settlement, whether in isolated homesteads, clusters of dwellings, or densely populated cities, and, above all, upon the capacity to transform the muscle and sinew of humans into energy.

“For the first time since our ancestors, the Homo habilis, emerged 2 million years ago, human beings created cultures focused on a single, sedentary space in which buildings, such as the temple, rather than nature, became the locus of spirituality, and hierarchical social relations emerged to co-ordinate production in Neolithic societies, overseen as they were by a new administrative/managerial class, often claiming divine sanction, driven by a new, highly gendered division of labour.

“It is not a co-incidence that slavery, the most abhorrent of human institutions, arose in those years – in a recent work, the anthropologist James C Scott made the chilling observation that the walls erected around settlements in the slave societies may have been built not to exclude those without, but to imprison those within.

“I do not necessarily subscribe to the thesis hinted at by such speculations, namely that the foundation of a state, whether historical or in the present day, has and can only rest on violence. After all, the city-states of the ancient world would create, over time, protean republics, albeit ones marred by systemic and profound injustices.

“We find, in ancient Rome, even in the works of conservative member of the senatorial class such as Cicero, a commitment to the ideal of political community founded upon solidarity, with a shared commitment to an ideal of justice, however hypocritical the exclusion of slaves, women and even other Italian men from citizenship would later appear. This ideal also suffused the civic life of Athens, finding its expression in the Politics of Aristotle and the orations of Demosthenes.

“It provided a basis for an ideal of ‘home’ as a set of relationships and shared commitments, rather than a settled place – as important as place was.

“This is represented above all by the success of the Athenian statesman Themistocles who persuaded his fellow citizens to evacuate their beloved city to facilitate a unified Greek response to the invading Persian empire. Even though Athens was burnt to the ground, the Athenian city-state continued anew in a neighbouring fishing village.

Read the full speech here.