by Mara Lee

The fundament of home is the community and the feeling of belonging. The good home doesn’t know of any privileged or left out people, no pets, and no stepchildren. Here, nobody looks down on one another. Nobody tries to obtain advantages at somebody else’s expense. The strong neither oppresses nor plunders the weak. In the good home likeness prevails […].

Per Albin Hansson (Prime Minister of Sweden 1932-1936, and 1936-46)

The French writer Hélène Cixous once said, “language is my home country, and this goes for all writers”.[1] In other words, writing becomes a place to inhabit for those whose language does not automatically imply belonging. Once upon a time this made sense for me. But the more I write, the more uncertain I grow. Writing is not a home; at best it’s a negotiation of home.

A friend asked me: “But don’t you have a place to cherish, somewhere where you feel more at home than at any other place, perhaps where you grew up, in xxx?”

I answered. “Sure I do. I feel at home there, but nobody else feels that way about me there, so, I’ve got a problem.”

The friend tips her head down.

I come from a place in the southern part of Sweden, known for its fields of rape and its racism. That is home. In between yellow rape and persecution. A thin edge, a moving border, wherever I live. Quote: “The border makes up the homeland. It prohibits and gives passage in the same stroke”, says Hélène Cixous.[2]Gloria Anzaldúa might answer: “This is her home, this thin edge of barbwire”. When home is extending, stretching, there must be displacement, thus Trinh T. Minh-ha: “Displacement takes on many faces and is our very everyday dwelling”.[3] This should not only be seen as an expansion of the private sphere into the public. Inscribing displacement into “home” makes its borders move. Displacement as home could eventually make sense of why some of us shiver before the very word.

At home

7b444474e2b1cd372eb36d1b8ab6d4e2In the Swedish language, the displacement of home is so integrated into the notion of home that we don’t quite notice it. This may be the case in other languages as well, but Swedish comes across as one of the few languages where a person who has never had a home might still persist in having had a home, all through her life: barnhem [orphanage], fosterhem [foster home], daghem [daycare center], familjehem [“family home”, i.e. a family that takes care of another’s children], gästhem [guest-house], sjukhem [nursing home], vandrarhem [youth hostel], hotellhem [a transitory home for homeless people], avlastningshem [where relatives place elderly or sick people for temporary respite], behandlingshem [a place for diverse medical treatments], ålderdomshem [an old people’s home]; and so it goes, on and on.

The linguistic diaspora of the Swedish home is concealed by a presumptive intrinsic goodness that points directly into the heart of Swedishness: Folkhemmet [the people’s home]. In the use of the term Folkhem, we are always at home, no matter how homeless we are (my assumption that das Unheimlische never had any enormous impact on Swedish readers could be because the word home, in Swedish, is always already imbued with its opposite). In Swedish, a home is far from being always a home. Just as often it is a storage space for those who don’t have one.

I think about this peculiar way of language. Ideology. Its dangerous closeness to the observation of Victor Klemperer that the prefix “volk” was suddenly attached to everything and nothing in the Third Reich’s deployment of language: Volksfest, Volksgenosse, Volksgemeinschaft, volksnah, volksfremd, volksentstammt[4] All other comparisons left aside, though, I wonder: what is it that we so desperately want to cover up? What do we achieve by calling that which is exactly the opposite of a home – for instance, an orphanage – home?

Well, the Swedish language forces that which is foreign and distant to become a part of home. Through a linguistic neutralizing it compels what is Other to merge into the Same (a strategy that seems to be consistent with other aspects of Folkhemmet). This language use makes certain experiences of oppression and exclusion invisible, rendering them silenced and mute within the Swedish language.

I wonder, could this have anything to do with the formation and becoming of the person as a subject as it is described by Jacques Lacan? The short version: human subjectivity is born through méconnaissance, the misrecognition that the infant experiences when seeing itself in the mirror and mistaking the perfect reflection in the mirror for him or herself in an act of erring identification. To put it another way, the difference between the helpless infant body and the intact mirror image is set aside, and the infant assumes the image as him or herself. So for Lacan, misrecognition is not only fundamental to human identity, so is the erasure of otherness and difference. This might provide an explanation of why the repression of difference seems so inherent in at least some of us – though I am fully aware that it doesn’t explain anything particular about Sweden.

“But what do you mean, you always had a home?”

“Children’s home, foster home, nursing home, do you call that home?”

“Well, it’s also home, another kind of home, but still a home.”

When homelessness doesn’t have a proper place in language, it moves restlessly between vicarious homes and haunts them (in Swedish: hemsöker). Homelessness becomes a source of infection and destructiveness. It spoils the neatness of language use that was supposed to give everybody a home.

This domineering standing of home in our language is symptomatic. It cannot be pure chance that the Swedish language happens to excel in appropriating otherness and that with uncanny exactitude it manages to bring home every shifting nuance of un-home.

Why?

Hélène Cixous again: “This is our emotional, our personal and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion”.[5] And even though she claims she talks about people in general and their fear of descending into “les domains inférieures”, I know that deep inside, she speaks about Sweden: “…we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated”, she says.

Cixous describes the Folkhem without knowing that she does, the beautiful vision that wanted to include everybody, even in language. She points directly to its very core, that no one be left aside, with no exceptions, and that no one should have to be excluded, but only under certain conditions of course: submission, homogenization, adaption.

Beautiful thoughts, but being situated in that language, incorporating an experience that won’t be pronounced or articulated, is dwelling next to madness. The situation strikes you as even worse when trying to address a critique against a political language system whose explicit intention is to do good and nothing else. Here a Henry Louis Gates quote might suffice: “If you win, you lose”.

The idea of a country where everybody is supposed to feel at home all the time and everywhere and where every sign of exclusion is expelled, is at the same time beautiful and doomed to failure. Because there is one thing worse than exclusion, and that is exclusion that will be refused recognition.

And there is one thing worse than oppression, and that is oppression that will be refused recognition.

And there is at least one thing worse than difference, and that is difference that will be refused recognition.

Maybe that is the reason why our contemporary culture literally excels in the production of artificial Others. When Otherness cannot be recognized, but instead is constantly renounced in the name of sameness: “we’re all alike”. Otherness will then be displaced and expressed in and through bodies whose otherness can be supervised. A field that excels in the administration and domestication of Otherness is popular culture; a domain where Otherness is subjected to supervision through a logic of consumption that disarms its subversive potential in order to let us consume it at a comfortable distance and through forms that we immediately recognize. And so the existence of constructed Others. How else is it possible that a secular culture like ours can manifest such an abundance of monsters, vampires, werewolves and the living dead?

Trinh T. Minh-ha often says: We cannot content ourselves with asking for the “What”. We must always ask ourselves “How”, before a word, a sentence, a question.[6] How we enter a language, where we end up, and how meaning is embodied with and through us, is not a matter of choice. However, we can choose to listen or not to listen. We can choose to act on the fact that words and bodies are always situated in relation to other words and bodies, in various relations of power. We can choose to close our eyes or nod before that fact that the production of meaning is a process, never stable, always on the move – a word that seems innocent in my eyes constitutes a deadly weapon for another. And the least thing you can do before this fact is to cease weeping about it.

The optician: “But please you cannot wear those glasses, they cover up half your face!”

She: “That’s the point. If you happen to have this face, in this country, you don’t want to be seen.”

She points to her face.

The optician: “Oh my God, that’s so horrible, please, don’t say that, it’ll make me cry.”

Tears come pouring out of the optician’s eyes.

She comforts the optician.

[1] Ebba Witt-Brattström, ”En kvinna tar till orda – Intervju med Hélène Cixous”, Kvinnovetenskaplig tidskrift, no 4, 1987 p. 14, my translation.

[2] Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, transl. Cornell & Sellers (Columbia UP, 1993), p. 130.

[3] Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Elsewhere, within here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (Routledge, 2010), p. 12.

[4] Victor Klemperer, LTI. Tredje rikets språk. En filologs anteckningsbok, preface: Charlotta Brylla & Otto Fischer, transl. Tommy Andersson (Glänta produktion, 2006), s.58f.

[5] Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, p. 118.

[6] My own notes from the Ph.D seminar Postcoloniality and its Critical Tools, Trinh T. Minh-ha, UC Berkeley, fall 2012.

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Mara mara-lee_02Lee is an award-winning Swedish novelist, poet and scholar, and a former student of Trinh T. Minh-ha (UC Berkeley). Lee’s work, including her most recent novel Future perfect and her Ph.D dissertation in artistic research The writing of Others: Writing conceived as resistance, responsibility and time, revolves around issues of power, otherness, femininity and desire. Throughout her writing, Lee approaches the mechanisms of othering, and of writing/living as Other. Another main focus is temporality, and how an investigation of the temporality of the writing of Others might disclose alternative methods of resistance – counter inscriptions.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.


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One thought on “Home truths, or Swedish for beginners

  1. Thank you for an interesting article. I wonder what language is home to the people of Skåne now only referred to as “Southern Sweden”, their language as Swedish after a few centuries of prohibitions against their native tongues, and forced Swedish language education from 1828, prohibition of books in Danish and the speaking of Scanian in public offices. This home of something other than Swedish for hundreds of years seems to have been swallowed completely by Swedishness, an invisible people in an homeland no longer existing; the Swedish home leaving out non-Swedishness has clearly succeeded in every way…

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