Sam Stoeltje

Central Air


I moved to a new place recently. One of the big differences this has made in my life is that I am no longer hot all the time. My old apartment didn’t have central air, so when the heat became unbearable I would turn on the window unit in my bedroom. I live in Houston, Texas, where summer temperatures spend weeks above 95 and the humidity can be fairly described as “punishing.” The window unit came with the apartment; it’s an old unsightly piece of junk and I hated using it, looking at it, and just having to think about it.

Something about window units has always suggested to me an ironic, or tragic, perversity of anthropocene life. Scattered across this great nation, tens of millions of window units are humming away, pumping out artificially cooled air in a vast chorus. Time and time again, as I am trying to sleep on a hot summer night, sweat collecting behind my knees, I have tried to talk myself out of turning on the window unit. I tell myself, the world is hot and getting hotter, and you should learn to live with it. To consider turning on the window unit, to hit the power button, is to resign myself to becoming another consumer (the consumer I have always already been) sealed away in my cool, hermetic pod. And as we must remember, to consume is to produce, namely, carbon, and therefore to make the world yet hotter still, however infinitesimally. Here is the tragic irony: the effect of the window unit, of the tens of millions of window units, is to increase our dependency upon them; it is yet another positive feedback loop in the story of our exceptional species.

The world is hot, but the home must be cool.

* * *

The divide between world and home threatens to produce a certain feeling, one of those specific and specifically synchronic feelings for which new words must be found. So I am grateful to literary theorist Homi Bhabha, who has already done the work in his essay “The World and the Home” of theorizing a feeling of “the unhomely”:

You must permit me this awkward word — the unhomely — because it captures something of the estranging sense of the relocation of the home and the world in an unhallowed place. To be unhomed is not to be homeless, nor can the ‘unhomely’ be easily accommodated in that familiar division of social life into private and the public spheres. [… ] In a feverish stillness, the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history's most intricate invasions. In that displacement the border between home and world becomes confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.

And later: “The unhomely is the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home, the home-in-the-world.”

Bhabha is here appropriating the Freudian/German concept of “unheimlich” or (literally) “unhomeliness” to describe a particular experience of being, or becoming, “un-homed.” If feeling unheimlich signifies the uncanny blurring of the distinction between world and home, then it is an experience to which colonized and diasporic peoples must have a kind of privileged access. Consider Bhabha, a young Indian man with a brilliant mind for literary theory and a mastery of the master’s tongue, attempting to crash the party of the hallowed English canon from within an institution as thoroughly colonial as Oxford. He describes the unhomely as a “paradigmatic post-colonial experience,” one which he first encountered in fiction, and while Bhabha refrains from directly theorizing the unhomely as it has manifested in his own life, one might perceive how the margins of his writing are suffused with its uncanny glow.

He goes on to write that “the unhomely is the shock of recognition of the world-in-the home, the home-in-the-world.” This recognition of which he speaks, the recognition of an asymmetric blurring into some monstrous unity, is also an unrecognition of the constituent parts: there is no longer any home as such, and there is no longer any world to define it against. His usage of “unhomely” is an experience of a bifurcated subject, that is, the experience of uncannily being both a private and a public (or historical) subject, and it is drawn from the experience of marginalized and subaltern peoples as they are represented in fiction; he is, after all, a literary theorist. And like most literary theorists, he takes it for granted that novels like Beloved or A House for Mister Biswas have something to tell us, as readers, some knowledge to impart that can help us figure out our lives, or at least, understand them better.

For Bhabha, the literary (and the theorization of the literary) serves to illuminate the private and personal, the public and political, the biographical and the historical. Which is to say (and a quick search reveals, plenty of others have said) that “the personal is theoretical,” which is, I suppose, why we are devoting more and more attention to people like bell hooks, Maggie Nelson and Gloria Anzaldúa. I never would have foreseen, however, that Bhabha’s (to me) obscure, esoteric concept of “unhomely” would intersect with my own life. Or rather: his concepts were out of reach for me, not because (or not entirely because) I did not have the knowledge or intellect to grasp them, but because I did not have the phenomenal experience. This should really come as no surprise, given the contours of my own privileged life. When reason fails, and in the absence of phenomenal experience, all we have to rely on is radical empathy; on feeling. Feeling in the dark, blindly, without the oculus of the intellect.

Bhabha: “The unhomely moment relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence.”

Reading Bhabha’s essay again, I feel more and more a sense of familiarity, or rather, of familiar unfamiliarity, testing the concept against my memory of November 9th, 2016. That familiar unfamiliarity brings us back to Bhabha’s source material, the Freudian uncanny, which (some would have it) serves as a primary ingredient in the experience of being horrified. Which I remember, that miserable night, thoroughly being.

Freud, in “The Uncanny”: “The subject of the ‘uncanny’ […] undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread.”

Watching the results come, as our party snacks and libations came to seem more and more erroneous in the glow of CNN, we nervously checked each other’s eyes and faces: horror, horror, horror. Now, after much contemplation and privilege-checking, I come to see the meaning of the feeling, of being horrified, which is that I was re-cognizing my home, my world, Bhabha’s “world-in-the-home.” My idea of home, and in turn, of world, had been distorted. The calls were coming from inside the house.

Was this, in fact, an experience of the unhomely? Who can authorize my describing it in that way? The subaltern or oppressed person, in Bhabha’s analysis, encounters the unhomely in the domestic and banal, where forces of, for example, colonization, apartheid, or enslavement insinuate themselves, haunting the everyday. Yet he also suggests that literature, with its exposure of unhomely moments, performs a similar haunting, a haunting of the “historical present” (as it is articulated by those in power). Being a member of the dominant culture, I can only be more or less haunted by, for instance, the specter of white supremacy animating American history. Perhaps the unhomely, for someone like me, is a re-cognition of the reality of such hauntings; it is a becoming-real of a specter of oppression.

Such a modulation, I believe, occurred the following morning, when I road my bike to the campus where I study, gazing at the houses and apartments and small businesses of Houston. I was stuck in the unhomely, passing through what could only be the unhome, where Trump-supporting families were tucked into their houses, behind massive iron fences with sliding electronic doors so that the residents could pass from the chamber of the car to the chamber of their property without encountering the hazard of public space.

Then, on campus, I lost it. I spent most of class ducking outside to cry in the bathroom. Horror into grief, fear into sadness. I’m not a crier, so it was a bit dismaying, yet also unmistakably satisfying. Actually, I suppose, it turns out I am a crier, or at least that I have one housed in me. And then, in the weeks that followed, sadness gave way to something else, which I hold tightly inside of me, guarding it from fear and cynicism, sharing it when I can.

* * *

In the emerging field of ecocriticism, much attention is devoted to the “eco-” and its etymology, from the Greek oikos. Oikos refers to three related but distinct concepts: the family, the family's property, and the house. These three meanings serve as a convenient introduction to ecocritical questions of the kind that Donna Haraway poses, for instance, regarding the status and purpose of kinship (with non-human “family”), or with the pathologies of capitalism (whose property?). The idea of home is obviously central here; home is the center, world is the periphery. Now, in an age of global Trumpism and global warming, my prehension is that much can be gained from a mutually reinforcing concept (or re-concept) of “home,” one that is both ecologically and politically committed.

In the wake of the election, The New Yorker published an eccentric thinkpiece, “The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy.” From that article: “Pronounced ‘hoo-guh,’ the word is said to have no direct translation in English, though ‘cozy’ comes close. It derives from a sixteenth-century Norwegian term, hugga, meaning ‘to comfort’ or ‘to console,’ which is related to the English word ‘hug.’” The author documents what was essential a hygge craze in 2016, the year also of Brexit, Trump, and the renewed visibility of fascisms around the world. The author’s own feelings about this feeling are complex; hygge comes in for critique as “unabashedly bourgeois,” and yet, as she wraps up: “Still, there are some lessons from hygge that Americans might heed. There’s the Nordic insistence on knowing how to do practical things and doing them well, on taking care of your body with time outdoors every day. The hard-earned lesson of frigid Scandinavian winters is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothes—that all you really need to get through difficult times is shelter and sustenance, kith and kin.” Hygge is by no means isomorphic with coziness. Perhaps hygge is an experience of the antithesis of unhomely, that is, something like a comfort with the clear articulation of world and home, or nature and culture. One is over here, the other over there. Hygge is not hatred of nature (ecophobia?), given that outdoorsiness is essential to it; but rather, hygge is having the right clothes and the right shelter to accommodate nature, or to account for its inclemency. Like the Coast Guard, semper paratus. And as near as I can tell, hygge depends upon the presence of Scandinavian cold weather. Needless to say, window units are not hygge – or are they?

This word, this feeling of hygge might, I think, be placed in opposition with the unhomely moment, or more particularly, the ecological unhomely (logos un-homed?). The ecological unhomely, as I’m imagining it, confronts us when rain gets in our tent, or sand in our bathing suit, when we find scorpions in our boots or cockroaches behind our fridge. It is the microscopic horror of the discomfort, the gross-out. The ecological unhomely is the failure, or absence, of hygge.

I think hygge, if not pathological, is at best a dangerous feeling. It depends upon the sanctity, the sanctuary of shelter. Realistically, humans need shelter, which appears right at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the world has a tendency to try to kill us, and we take shelter in order to stop it from doing so. Any yet… And yet, what if we, wherever possible, challenge ourselves to treat the unhomely moment, by which I mean, the ecologically unhomely moment, as a gift? Or what if, in turn, we treat hygge as something like an indulgence, one that nauseates, like those photographs of the gilded Trump penthouse? In the way that experiencing Bhabha’s political-historical unhomely reveals the insidious ways in which white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism structure our most intimate and private experiences, the ecological unhomely can make visible the traumatic rupture between nature and culture, a rupture that is a very old (cosmic?) inheritance indeed.

And of course, these varieties of unhomely experience (political and ecological) are not merely analogous but overlapping. Political injustices compound and reinforce each other at the global scale, becoming more historical, more public, and at the same time more invisible to the global northern consumer-citizen. Such pluralized oppression is most effectively countered by explicitly pluralized activism and action. I want to be clear that embracing the unhomely, ecological or otherwise, is not “enough.” Properly understood, it is not even action at all, but rather an incentive-to-feel, a gathering of empathy, a shift of consciousness toward new possibilities and places to begin.

So then the deconstruction of the (un)homely binary might inspire us to get cozy with critters, however slimy; it might mean getting grossed out by our microwaves and Keurig machines. It might mean rolling around in the dirt (ecosexually?), letting mosquitoes have their fill; as Timothy Morton suggests, we might “shake hands with a hedgehog and disco.” It might even mean chucking the window unit and sweating through the night. But then it occurs to us that the body is a home, walled by skin, with sweating serving as its own central air, a means of attaining homeostasis (hygge?). Homes inside of homes, inescapably.

And again, chucking the window unit where?

* **

At my old apartment, the window unit presented me with a constant dilemma. How hot is too hot? What can I live with? Now, in this new place, I have central air conditioning and the choice is made for me. The apartment has a programmable thermostat, which my roommate has explained to me several times and I still fail to understand. For the time being, I have retreated from the unhomely, as bleak political and climate news ricochets around inside the selectively permeable inner surface of my bubble.

From where I sit on this couch, in the seventy-six degree living room, I see beyond my laptop a washer-dryer, a refrigerator, a ceiling fan, an overgrown monstera attempting to struggle its way out of the porcelain pot that houses it. Without question, I am coolly ensconced in the midsummer Houstonian equivalent of hygge. I feel irked; cabin fever. Perhaps I’ll go for a walk, or a bike ride, and get a little sweaty.