Not At Home: Resisting ‘home’ as a natural space of refuge


CC: “Please Believe These Days Will Pass – Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell


As the news of the pandemic confirmed the reality of the health crises pandemic, we all turned square, sitting in rectangles that frame our faces, as we work from home. ‘Shelter in Place’[1] became the rallying call, offering the home as a retreat, a refuge, a fortress of solitude where we defy the Covid-19 contagion and exercise our superpowers on video conferences and through exotic cooking. Social media became quickly populated with people complaining of Zoom fatigue and people fed up of other people’s baking pictures, as a large population explored and discovered domesticity and house-keeping. Home got constructed as that special space of intimacy, joy, and self-care that countered the pathology of touch and proximity – the new version of ‘ Stranger Danger’ – that the global health crisis threw up. As the public retreated indoors, home became presented as the ultimate ‘ happy object’ (Ahmed, 2010) where we might not find happiness, but will be demanded to be happy.

However, as Melissa Gregg (2010) reminds us in her theorizing on affect of spaces, these happy objects often offer an ‘affect without experience’. The forced domesticity and retreat into the house has shown the difference between mandatory isolation and agential solitude, and in this, it has brought into stark relief that home is not a welcome space for many. Across the solitude, even as the home was being celebrated as the safe space, there have been increased incidents of domestic violence, abuse, and threat as people were forced to live their crowded lives in close proximity. Gender based violence has suddenly seen a surge – women often bearing the brunt of heightened tension and anxiety. In a dramatic illustration of Arjun Appadurai’s ‘ ethnoscape’ (1996), the gendered space of domesticity has been severely reinforced, as men discovering ‘of survival practices’(Sassen, 2000)  in the ‘homework economy’(Haraway, 1985)  continue to deal with it either with self-congratulatory social-media heroism or with derision and mockery[2]. Even as we work from home, the work of keeping home remains secondary, undervalued, and something that falls upon the shoulders of women, even though the women might also be following similar work-from-home patterns.

It is important to realise that our homes have not only been requisitioned by our work but they also have to measure up to the demands of professional expectations, often undergoing temporary Cinderella-like transformations. Increasingly, the work-from-home-spaces where we sacrifice the last vestiges of our private lives as performative backdrops to videoconference calls, have edges of the normal that dissolves on closer scrutiny. The messiness of lived lives – partners and dependents intrude through the frame, the exhaustion and labour spills over as clutter, the potential threats of cohabiting in uncertain relationships lurks in the background[3].

As is often the case with digital objects on visual interface, the messiness, the loneliness, the claustrophobia, the threat of being at home has been systemically wiped out of the video-conferencing routines. The introduction of virtual backdrops on video-conference platforms like Zoom became popular as a fun way of hiding what lurks behind. However, these ‘Instagram filters for home’ backdrops have to be seen as a sinister gloss over the uncertainty, instability, and dangers of a life lived in forced confinement. It is important to focus on the work and precariousness of making ‘ professional and productive’  environments and backdrops as ‘the second shift’ (Hochschild & Machung, 1989) of labour that goes in hiding our lives and conditions that threaten our privacy, well-being, and safety. The presentation of everyday life (Goffman, 1956) in the home as a secure and happy space, embodied conditions of ‘ Cruel Optimism’ (Berlant, 2011 ), forcing a performance of happiness and normalcy, as we continued to create corners of our lives that fit into the vision field of our digital devices. We have to cut through the seduction of customization and realise that these backdrops and filters were not just fun apps but a deliberate attempt at erasing the labour of house-keeping and denying the fact that a significant portion of the population was not at home when being at home.

The forcing of young children in unstable households, removed from the checks and balances of schools and care workers, has had a direct correlation with a global rise in abuse of children who depend on external physical resources and emotional care-giving of institutions responsible for them[4]. Thus, in India, as in many other parts of the world, where school meal plans were introduced to address children hunger; where a large number of children in poorer families depend on schemes like mid-day meals and access to nutrition through their school programmes, suddenly got distanced from food sources, even as their parents struggle keeping their incomes going[5]. Similarly, first generation school- goers who have neither the infrastructure nor the family support to help with their ‘online learning regimes’  suffered heavily in able to keep up with the demands of the normal that were being performed in these times of major disruption (Bhaskar, 2020).

For queer and gender non-conforming persons, the home was always a place to ‘survive and leave’ (Trott, 2020) rather than ‘ Shelter in Place’. Queer communities have long since established emotional kin-making (Haraway, 2016) and performative networks of allies (Munoz, 2009) that are not identified through the heteronormative structures of families and homes. For many who live either in the closet or under threat from the families they are born in, the isolation of Covid-19 was a sudden severance from the communities that hold, nurture, and support them. The retreat indoors was also a retreat into their own heads, cut off from spaces of self-determination and self-actualization[6].

There has been attention focused on the populations who do not become the faces of our ‘Zoomed’ calls and TikTok videos. We have already recognized the fact that many front-line workers had to continue risking their own life, and even more taxingly, the lives and well-being of their families who they might contaminate and infect (Nguyen et al, 2020). These front-line workers were not just medical health-care practitioners but an entire gamut of people who were keeping basic essentials and services running, stocking our homes, nourishing our bodies, and offering help and support whenever our lives were teetering on the verge of different kinds of collapses. Many of them were heralded as heroes[7] and then in their heroism were left to fend for themselves, as state infrastructure and private capital continued to put economy before ecology.

Sobering as these observations are, it is also important to highlight that this precariousness is still ameliorated by conditions of privilege – the privilege of accessing home, of being able to return to home, of having the capacity and capital to continue being, living, and shaping the home to suit the demands of this pandemic. The viral focus on property-owning middle-classes who occupied the largest attentional real estate gives us many insights into the dangers of being metaphorically ‘ not at home’  in the houses that we are retreating in.

As the pandemic unfolded and continues to create uncertain futures, we also need to pay attention to the plight of those who do not have the privilege of claiming a space to call home. In India, the terrifying images of migrant workers, dismissed from informal economies, facing starvation and eviction from their rented houses have become commonplace (Pandey & Verma, 2020). The exodus of these 100 million migrant workers, who otherwise make up about 10% of the national GDP, trying to make their way back to an ‘imaginary home’ that they once left behind (Pandey, 2020), was met with governmental apathy, police brutality, and forced confinement that severed them from their networks of refuge and survival (Kumar, 2020). It is profoundly ironic that the governments around the world spent more time and logistics in providing air-bubbles and repatriating stranded citizens in foreign countries (Haan, 2020), when half of the resources might have resolved the crises of these workers walking their long way home, making a choice between dying either of hunger or tiredness. As one labourer in a news video announced, ‘We will die if we stay, and die if we try to leave, but at least I will die on my way home’ (NDTV, 2020).

The aftermaths of this pandemic are going to be felt long. Once the logistics and resources have been managed through the emergency and crises committees, we will have to acknowledge that the scars that last are going to be emotional. As we continue to find safety in our homes, let us be aware that there are people who put themselves at risk to keep us alive and our homes together, that there are people dying to reach homes that might save them, and there are people who are being forced into homes that are not safe. As we move towards a new normal and a projected restoration of a pre-pandemic state in a post-vaccine world, it is important to dismantle this glorified home that we have naturalized as a safe space. The Disneyfication of home as a space to be in has to be resisted, critiqued, and pushed against, and we need to remind ourselves being at home is a privilege, and not being at home is ok.

By Dr Nishant Shah,  a feminist, humanist, and technologist working in digital cultures, and the Director of Research at ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands.


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Munoz, Jose, Esteban. 2009. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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[1] This more Americanized mantra found many different forms around the world, like  ‘intelligent lockdowns’ (Haas et al, 2020)  in the Netherlands, ‘janata curfew’ (Chandna & Basu, 2020)  in India, and ‘strict lockdowns’ (Burki, 2020) in China.

[2] A Tiktok video by Bollywood actor Kartik Aaryan that lightheartedly performs him grabbing his adult sister by her hair, whirling her around the room and throwing her off the balcony of a high-rise building because she failed to make perfect chapatis (bread) during the lockdown more or less sums up the general mood and tone of the discovery and entitlements of home-labour. The video has now been deleted from the original account (Quint Entertainment, 2020) but continues to circulate in social media.

[3] A collection of ‘funny’ mishaps and goofups (Wilson, 2020), of how the real breaks into our zoomed-out work calls has emerged as a genre on the web.

[4] The DeutscheWerld news portal provides a brief glimpse into the economic hardships and the extreme danger that underprivileged children are forced into during the pandemic How coronavirus is affecting underprivileged children in India | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 10.07.2020

[5] As Jon Schwarz (2020) points out in his analysis, similar situations have also been observed in so-called wealthy countries like USA, where pandemic poverty and hunger are starkly real.

[6] It is worth emphasising that the plight experienced by queer and trans persons exemplifies the double bind of home-based retreats that many other marginalised and at-risk communities also experience during these demands for shut-down and glorification of home as necessarily a safe space.

[7] In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the population to come to their balconies and bang plates and make noise to celebrate the heroism of the health-care workers in the country. Millions participated, often breaking social distancing rules, but not unable to drown the ‘government’s failure to protecting health workers’(Panwar, 2020).

This was written exclusively for Digital Asia Hub as part of an on-going series ‘When The Music’s Over’ where we parse and reimagine the evolving post-COVID19 landscape. The series is in partnership with the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Nishant Shah
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