I’d been attending mass for about three weeks. Before that I’d only set foot in a Catholic church as a tourist. I knew next to nothing about Catholic tradition. I’d recently mentioned in passing to an acquaintance that I’d started attending church. She was appalled. I didn’t understand at first why she’d reacted so strongly, but she wasted no time in telling me. Being far more apprised on ecclesial matters than I, she pointed out something of which I’d been unaware up to that point. That this church could not have women priests.
I’d never given the idea of female priests any thought. Encountering any kind of priest was completely strange and unfamiliar to me. I knew nothing of the debates surrounding priesthood itself. My response to the issue was knee-jerk. I assumed that considering the priesthood to be distinctly male was just some residual leftover from a bygone age now superseded, something that would inevitably change sooner or later. I assumed all human practices must modernize and adjust themselves to suit the morality of the present. Beneath these assumptions, was a confidence that the present age is the most secure vantage point. Even though I was ignorant of the background to this issue around women priests, I presumed to know myself what must be discarded from the past now humanity had made its way home to liberal modernity.
That Sunday, the mass reached its usual peak of liturgical intensity. Three priests were stood facing east at the high altar, dressed in ornate liturgical robes. The flames from six large candles were flickering and dancing in a line above their heads. The candles caused little shimmers of light to ricochet back and forth from the gold brocade on the richly colored vestments, to the bejeweled chalices and sacred accoutrements on the altar. Plumes of sweet-smelling incense soared upward, and hung in the air above the sanctuary, collecting in dreamy pools of mist around a crucifix hanging high on the east wall. Beams of sunlight from the narrow rooftop windows entered the sanctuary in warm, criss-crossing lines. The choir finished their plainsong, and the last lingering ‘amen’ tapered-out until one solitary soprano’s voice neatly dissolved into the pregnant silence, seeming to hang in the air like the clouds of fragrant smoke. The priest at the center of the scene raised up the sacred host. All those present fell to their knees in reverent devotion.
It was precisely then that I remembered the previous day’s conversation about the impossibility of Catholic priestesses. Looking at the epiphany before my eyes, I found myself cut adrift from the morality of the present, from the values in which I’d made my home. A key-tenet of the morality of the present-age had suddenly vanished. To my surprise it seemed perfectly right at that moment, to conclude that certain vocations are intrinsically gender-specific. It wouldn’t be the same, I thought to myself, if this scene was changed to suit a change in values.
When previously unquestioned presuppositions come up against ancient customs, the effect is like déjà vu. One innately recognizes the old ways as familiar, as ‘fitting,’ even though they are completely foreign and new. Déjà vu disorientates. Feeling intimidated by it dreamlike qualities, some immediately dismiss its peculiar impressions from their mind, to try to stay grounded in the here and now. I didn’t dismiss the disorientation, but nor did it throw me into free-fall. On the contrary, I entered into it. Then I disembarked onto solid ground. I was in a place at once completely foreign and new, yet intangibly familiar and almost eerily primordial. I was aligned with a custom to which I’d never been accustomed. I was at home, but in some strange and unrecognisable place.
Déjà vu can only be like coming home, for those who have lost their home and no longer recognize it. Homelessness is often treated as a benchmark of society’s ills. Spikes in rough sleeping are presented as a surefire indicator of some weakness on the part of the state to ensure baseline wellbeing for its citizens. But a homeless person is not homeless just because they have nowhere to stay. People sleeping in hostels or night shelters are still classed as homeless, because their place of stay lacks stability. Some of the more disturbing aspects of long-term homelessness are not just physical, but involve an ongoing disintegration of character that follows from the loss of an enduring, core stability. This stability comes from having a consistent space in which to belong; a centre of gravity, if you will, enabling one to be orientated properly in life.
The activities of the home – sleeping, eating, daily interaction with an inner circle – define the unseen coordinates of how people relate to the world. That relationship becomes unworkable when people have no home. This enduring, core stability is closely related to memory. The present is sedimented into the past through rest, through sleep, through extended interaction on events, and through reflecting about them. This is stuff people tend to do at home. We all know that severe trauma cannot be straightforwardly assimilated into memory, and that the trauma lives on, tormenting the present. It is no coincidence that long-term homelessness and serious psychological trauma often coincide. The victim of trauma cannot be ‘at home’ anywhere. The assimilative sedimentation of memory is then ever-fragmented, always disrupted, and becomes malformed. Homelessness is both inward and outward.
Inward homelessness was perceptible in during an explosion of squatting among the young, political malcontents of 1990s London. Squatting was thought to be an exemplary example of standing outside the system. This came through abstaining from monetary exchange for property, of course, and this was based on the idea that everything is ‘a common treasury for all’ in any case, not just for those who could afford it. Homes previously occupied by others would be broken open by those seeking to make their home there, and the debris of that home’s past quickly cleared away. The buildings were sometimes places that nature had reclaimed and made its own home in. Branches from trees and shrubs grew through half-rotten window frames which looked out onto wildly overgrown gardens. Mice or rats were common, but these were easy to deal with, unlike pigeons, who left their crusted feces on the floor and severely damaged the plasterwork of the ceilings and the timber in the roofs.
The first job of an incoming squatter was to clear away the deposits of the past. Sometimes, deposits of a human past were left in dusty old cupboards or forgotten rooms. These were usually items of no value today, like a broken old pedal action sewing machine, or a box of VHS videos. In one house, there were little spyholes so one could see inside some of the bedrooms from the hallway. After much deliberation, it was concluded this had once been a brothel, and these spyholes were a primitive means of surveillance for the madam or the pimps. Strange findings like these left an impression that lingered on in the place, surreptitiously affecting the atmosphere. They continued to characterize life in the building, although the new inhabitants had not experienced that past. It is as if the building had its own trauma, perpetually tormenting its present, still misshaping the lives of those who lived in it.
The second job of an incoming squatter was to change the locks. Then, a ‘Section 6’ notice would be pasted to the front door. This was supposed to notify any unwelcome neighbor or landlord of the squatter’s rights then enshrined in British law. After quoting the relevant sections and subsections of various legal documents, it said: ‘This is our home and we intend to stay here’. But it wouldn’t be a home for all sorts of reasons, not least because you might have to leave at very short notice, at any time. Squats couldn’t function as a genuine inward center of gravity, because they were entirely provisional and temporary. Sometimes an unwelcome knock on the door would come quickly, and some murky looking characters would just disregard the Section 6 notice and remove the inhabitants on threat of violence. More commonly, a landlord would have his own legal paperwork delivered, which trumped the Section 6 and gave a date for the inevitable eviction.
The best scenario was when a landlord appeared after a few months and offered a cash sum for everyone to leave there and then. He thus saved on his lawyer’s and bailiff’s fees, and the squatters got a few quid to move on and attempt to construct another makeshift home somewhere else. But whatever the circumstances, the tenuous nature of these dwellings contributed to an inward homelessness that hung on those houses like a melancholy marshland mist haunting reclaimed land. No protestations of ‘this is our home and we intend to stay here’ could counter the fracturing of character that went on inside. It was as if the inner life of individual inhabitants was also under threat of being moved on by bailiffs knocking at the door, the present was no longer a product of the past, and so the past lingered on menacingly in the background like a disowned, vengeful sibling always peering through the windows.
After EU migration exploded in the UK from 2005, the squatter-friendly laws were pushed to the limit. The press was full of stories of Eastern Europeans taking over honest citizens’ homes while they were away on holiday, and then wielding Section 6 legislation while refusing to leave. The laws changed and squatting is now far more difficult. This is ironic given how many squatters supported free movement. Many of the original political malcontents left the old lifestyle and became rent payers, entering normal work and moving into a reliable home. For some, however, the inward homelessness persisted, following them into normal living. In a few cases, regular life even seemed to lead them deeper into that pervasive sense of homelessness and inner disquietude that had long-since haunted the old squats. Having stood outside the system, the nascent presuppositions of today’s social structures couldn’t convincingly hold things together in the way it did for others. Mainstream culture seemed painfully hollow and vacuous, and a social circle of co-workers left them aching for genuine community.
Considering the psychological pathologies wreaking havoc in the West, one needn’t think too hard to conclude that inward homelessness affects modern life more generally. In recent decades, previously immovable facets of human existence have been rent apart and begun to disappear. One of the most fundamental of these facets is the human relationship with place. Peoples have nearly always been formed by the place they inhabit. Identity and culture have been inextricable from topography. They have been products of geography, climate, landscape, and history. Now social, economic, and cultural forces strike forcefully at the roots of any sense of spatial belonging. The interconnection between human brain-mapping and spatial orientation is so mutually extensive that this loss is a significant trauma. In not being addressed, this trauma perpetuates itself yet deeper and menacingly torments the present.
Place is the enduring core of human integrity and character. One’s ‘orientation’ is at once both a moral and spatial term. Proper decision-making is described in spatial terms (having a moral compass), as indeed is consistency of character (knowing where one stands on things). The nomadism of a globalized world thus profoundly decenters and bewilders the human constitution. Brad Gregory claims that in the hyper-plurality of “Walmart capitalism and consumerism,” all “Westerners live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” We can just as easily think here in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Wherever’. This wherever is the non-place alluded to Éric Zemmour, who observes that images on the coins and notes of the EU lack any historical or geographic references. As put by Mark Lilla, on this currency you see “only bridges that connect nowhere with nowhere, and architectural elements that float in vacant space.” Today’s people are now able to locate themselves instantly anywhere with handheld satellite technology, but have completely lost sight of where they are. A generation that only travels by sat nav will never find its way home. If you bypass spatial orientation, you get washed up wherever you end up.
That we drift from nowhere to nowhere today, was recognized by Susan Sontag. She speaks of a neuralgic sense of what she, too, calls homelessness. She draws attention to today’s ‘inhuman acceleration of historical change,’ which she claims ‘has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea’. In seeking to define what exactly this nausea is, the obvious answer would be that it is some kind of homesickness. This would be a yearning for the cessation of inner homelessness, a longing for a home that’s been lost But the deeper into the Kingdom of Wherever we travel, and the more we ricochet from nowhere to nowhere and fall further into vacant space, the more it becomes apparent that today’s homesickness is a yearning for a home that people have never encountered. We are therefore dealing with a very strange type of homesickness today; a longing for a home-not-known.
Homesickness is a longing to return in the future to the place where you were before. Pining for a home-not-known is much more peculiar. It is to float in freefall, to be sucked into an unending spiral – it is an asymptotic homesickness, never making contact with the firm boundaries that give the defining contours which cause people be fully formed. This freefall happens on the other side of that precipice of malfunctioning hardware that can no longer do a system restore. It is asymptotic because there are no default settings, no base orientation. And when the home screen can no longer be accessed, the only possible route of recovery is to tamper with things in BIOS mode. Today’s public discourse is BIOS communication: strange memetic signifiers with massively condensed power skip across the screen in hyperspeed, and only the initiated can decode them and harness their force to manipulate outcomes. Base instincts are wrenched from unspoken dimensions and writ large in the public sphere, shouting in block capitals and feeling uncannily like a 1980s futuristic dystopia, with the screen filling-up with an incontinent gushing stream of meaningless characters.
Asymptotic homesickness takes many different forms. Two are perhaps most prevalent today. The first of these is a wrongheaded grasping for some kind of home, and the second, a grasping for what home provides, namely identity. In the first place, a wrongheaded grasping for home can be seen with the perversions of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism. But more subtly, it is behind a sudden prevalence of ambiguous, half-formed value systems. Hasty, impetuously formed and rapidly all-encompassing worldviews are a sure indication of a grasping for a home-not-known, for a pseudo-home that is only a place to stay.
Much of today’s unquestioned opining on collective morality would have meant nothing only 10-years ago. Long-standing worldviews have been treated like makeshift shelters that can be pulled down at a moment’s notice, the bailiffs of acceptable opinion swarming menacingly at the gates, or the brokers of global capital paying people off for a quick eviction. But genuinely worthy convictions take root and form human beings over many years. They need to be tried and tested in the unbudging reality of lived experience. The result of this testing is tradition. Tradition is the sedimented wisdom of ages: a deposit left behind by generations hammering out their ideas in blacksmith’s furnace of embodied life. Tradition is wisdom which has been banked as the reserved collateral of enduring peoples. It was on this basis that Alain Badiou could rationalize the extreme violence of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was a consequence of what Sontag called “the inhuman acceleration of historical change,” or, in Badiou’s words, the result of losing “a residue of the old world.” For this residue orientates morality, and when it has gone, malformed spectres take its place.
Shared history and a shared past function like a home. They are the places where experience is assimilated, and they give form to character. They are storehouses of memory, silently conditioning the present. Without this historical process, ideas and worldviews cannot function as homes. They cannot become proper structures of an inner sanctum, nor effective means of orientation. Without history, these makeshift shelters lack foundations, and no amount of placards erected to defend such dwellings (‘This is our home and we intend to stay here’) can circumvent their provisionality. Impetuously formed systems of morality invariably try to compensate for their rootlessness with ever-louder and less-compromising protestations of their rectitude, and ever harsher treatment of those who cannot subscribe to them. But sheer protestation can never remove the need for the steady weight of tradition, nor undo the nauseous homesickness that results from tradition being uprooted and decapitated. We live today in the midst of amnesia. It is prescient that the word nostalgia actually means, literally, homesickness. For home is where the past is.
A second example of today’s homesickness is the grasping for what a genuine home provides: identity. The word identity originally meant the quality of things being the same, i.e. being identical. Only recently did it develop broader means, via the psychology of Erik Erikson, who coined the term ‘identity crisis’ in 1954. The ego suffering such a crisis, Erikson writes, has not been able to develop properly, and so has no real sense of who he is or where he belongs. Even here, the word identity was meant to point to sameness, to the recognition of all the facets of one’s life as belonging to one’s own self, belonging in the identity of one subject.
Erikson’s coining of the word identity points to how concepts become current and receive attention when they become problematic. People only started trying to define authentically British values after society had fragmented to the point of producing homegrown jihadis. Similarly, Erikson’s personal identity becomes a thing when people seem incapable of developing it. There was no need for a word to describe ‘identity’ as something separate from ‘place’ before then. The two were broadly the same thing, one’s identity could be named as the place which was home. To speak of a man’s character, it was once enough to call him a Southerner, a Parisian, or a Cockney.
But bringing out unarticulated dimensions of self-understanding can intensify the problems yet further. When something is abruptly redefined, it develops a shallow, artificial quality. Articulation kills. Identity was once simply ‘there’. It was latent and sleeping, people’s characters and qualities grew out from it unknowingly. It slept peacefully in an inner sanctum, and was slowly matured through the ages. Now, people append seemingly arbitrary notions to the word, and it is one of the most contentious concepts of our age.
Identity has become a register, not of sameness, but of difference: this is how I’m different to others. But when that difference is shared with others, further differences are needed to find oneself. Then the terms are refracted further through intersecting them with other registers of difference, and so on, perpetuating the freefall into empty space. The result is an endlessly splintered self, because rather than finding identity with others, it arrives only at more differences. People end-up cut through by this ever-more complexly ruptured reaching for some kind of belonging. It is as if, eventually, people hope they’ll glimpse themselves with all the clarity, symmetry, and order of an assault rifle’s crosshairs.
But instead, these endless intersections cause people to become woke. Let’s interpret this term literally. To be woke is to have lost the place of inward slumber. One is not ‘awake,’ because the present needs to grow from the past to be truly present. Instead, the alienated past lingers on and torments the present – and so the word has slipped into the past-tense. Being woke means to be deprived of a past, to be living in a tortuously enduring state of having always just-this-second awoken. It is to live in those dread infinitesimal first milliseconds of the morning, before you can remember the day before or what lies in store for the day ahead. It is to be disorientated, unkempt, and squinting under the merciless strip lights of a world which aborts itself in every moment. It is no coincidence that the Jacobins declared Year 1 after the French Revolution, or that the agitators at the barricades in 1851 dated all their correspondence with the date of those disturbances for the rest of their lives. To call something ‘progressive’ is to secure a vantage for the present which rudely cuts out the past. But the past will never go quietly.
Religious conversions are notoriously difficult phenomena to understand. But what happens when something ‘wholly other’ assails one’s existence and ushers in some permanent transformation is not of concern here. Given the complexities of the 21st Century West, having one’s existence assailed by a transcendent power is actually the easy bit. Today, what can be far harder to cope with is what happens when something perennial clashes with contemporary social norms. This can just as likely happen through things like literature or philosophy than with religion. It happens when the structures on which society is built are suddenly exposed as not being structures at all. When this happens, people can find they are innately accustomed to practices which have long-since ceased to be customs. They find themselves in a place with an acutely personal significance, but with no memory to connect it to, no framework to give it meaning. But then, this disruption can function like someone with chronic amnesia entering their childhood home, and sensing some inarticulable intimation of its primordial familiarity for the very first time. Wherever becomes somewhere, and then their amnesiac nostalgia can taper-out into purposeful silence.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.