If we are focusing on the manner in which housing is used, we need to understand what type of approach might best lend itself to this form of analysis. I argue that as use is primarily subjective, in that it is contingent on the circumstances of the individual household, we should be amenable to a subjective approach. We cannot properly see how housing is used once the door is closed unless we are on the inside. We can only experience private dwelling when it is properly private. We can, therefore, only explore housing as private dwelling subjectively.
This is the first of the two main discourses on housing that are discussed in the essay. I argue that the dominant discourse focuses on housing as policy formation and implementation and as such is concerned with the production and consumption of housing in general. It is necessarily top-down and determined by aggregates and standards rather than the particular experiences of users. It is a form of study that stops at the front door of a dwelling and can say nothing of how it is used. Indeed, I suggest that the tools of policy thinking are independent of dwellings and households and could equally apply to any other substantive area of public policy. It is, therefore, not about housing as such.
In this section, I propose an alternative discourse that focuses on the subjective use of dwellings. This is based on notions of dwelling developed by Martin Heidegger and Christian Norberg-Schulz and emphasises that dwelling is as much an activity – something that we do – as well as an object. Private dwelling allows for protected intimacy which brings together security, comfort and privacy to create and maintain a bounded space that the household is able to control.
Dwelling as an activity is regular and predictable and dwelling as an object is something that we can trust. It acts as we expect it to and so operates as the background to our ordinary experiences. In this sense, we can say that dwelling behaves as we would expect and so allows us to act as we will.
An abiding image of the house is that of the machine. But it is more particularly a collection of machines, most of which operate in a predictable manner such that we can largely ignore them. It is only when one of these machines goes wrong that we start to realise the complexity of the dwelling and how much of we cannot understand ourselves. However, when the dwelling is operating as we would expect we tend to see it as a whole. Parts of the dwelling are expected to operate continuously and almost autonomously of those using it. As such as more amenable metaphor for dwelling might be the organism, which can be seen as a complex of different functions, some of which are conscious, while others operate without any conscious direction. The significance of the metaphor of the organism is that it contains within it the notion of animation, that there is something that gives motive force to the organism, just as the user gives meaning and purpose to the dwelling.
We can, however, extend the discussion on machines. Increasingly, there are machines that we use that do not assist dwelling but merely serve to display it, and which, in turn, display our anxieties. These emerging technologies, such as Echo and Ring, are concerned with publicising dwelling and so may be seen as more concerned with status than the protected intimacy of private dwelling. While ostensibly these technologies may be concerned with security and comfort, they are more likely to denote a sense of anxiety and focus on the material value of the dwelling as property. As a result, we are less able to be complacent, less able to take our dwelling for granted as something we use, but instead, we merely see it as something we have.
Dwelling provides us with a boundary that allows us to exclude unwanted others and so allows us to include those particular ones we care for. We are able to limit access to our dwelling by a fixed boundary. This is not an impermeable boundary, and we do let others in when we feel it to be necessary or desirable. However, the important issue here is that the boundedness of dwelling allows us to maintain the sense that we can control our immediate environment and can make decisions suited to ourselves rather than having them determined by others.
Yet, these boundaries remain permeable and the actions within one dwelling can impact on another. It suggests that we cannot absolutely isolate ourselves and so have to be aware of the needs and interests of others as we use our own dwelling. But there may be circumstances in which we cannot reconcile the differences between households and this is because households will inevitably place their subjective needs above others.
Dwelling is a place of care. It is where we care for those we love, those who are closest to us. This places a limit on others in terms of how they might relate to us. We have expectations of how our neighbours will respond to us and how we respond to them. We might characterise these relationships as being determined by benign indifference: it is not that we actively ignore or reject others, but that we focus on our lives and so do not see others, and it is this lack of seeing that allows them to pursue their ends unhindered by us. The dwelling places a boundary around us that maintains that indifference and this distance is important to us in that it properly limits our care to what is circumspect and socially expected. Indifference is, therefore, necessary to care.
Dwelling, however, is often a shared space, and so, we have to be aware of how inclusion and exclusion operates within the dwelling. We also need to be conscious of the fact that, while we share, we may not do so equally and there may be some asymmetry in the relations within dwelling. Allied to this is the issue of what secrets we keep: do we share everything and why might it be best if there are times when we do not.
Care within dwelling is limited to both the bounded space and those it contains. But care outside the dwelling is boundless and has no natural limits to it. Instead of care for it becomes cares of: it becomes a source of anxiety instead of a reservoir of love. This is why the boundary of dwelling is so significant in that it acts as a barrier to the cares of the world.
The world is never without suffering and there are those who see it as inevitable or as a constant. Dwelling may, therefore, be a place of suffering, and in this way, its bounded nature might allow suffering to be sustained and to remain hidden. Yet, dwelling is also a barrier against suffering, a place where we can forget the troubles of the world and focus on those we love and care for, and so ensure that they do not suffer.
The significance of dwelling is that, for us, it is always ordinary. There is a banality in the quotidian and repetitious nature of our use of dwelling. Very little of our dwelling might be bespoke or individually designed for us. It may look much like our neighbours’ and contain similar types of objects. Yet, to us, it is significant and this is precisely because it is ours and has been chosen by us. Our dwelling is predictable and we expect it to be. When we return to it, we wish it to be precisely as we left it.
The ordinariness of dwelling is expressed as complacency, in our acceptance of dwelling as it is and our sense that dwelling accepts us as we are. We feel that we fit within this bounded space and do not feel we have to explain any of our actions within the dwelling or our feelings towards it.
There can be a distinction between how we use dwelling and how we maintain it. We can use dwelling even as we are struggling to sustain it financially. I use as an example here the case of a household who maintained their rented property in an immaculate state but did not maintain their regular rent payments to their landlord. There was then the appearance of normality that hid an emerging crisis once the landlord decided to take action to obtain the arrears of rent. What this shows is that the habitual subjective nature of dwelling can be maintained, for a time at least, without regard for the means of sustaining the dwelling.
Our dwelling is something that we can be deeply attached to and what shows this attachment is precisely that we can take it for granted. We do not notice it as we go about our daily activities. We often do not know it works, and we think that we do not need to. When dwelling works, it is simply something that we do not have to think about, and to think about it is to start to use it differently. But, however, we use it, it has a significance for us and this is precisely because it is a bounded space that we can control.