Shelter in Place: Reading Bachelard During the Quarantine

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In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams. It is no longer in its positive aspects that the house is really “lived,” nor is it only in the passing hour that we recognize its benefits. An entire past comes to dwell in a new house…[1]

In Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel, Room, a woman kidnapped and imprisoned in a small shed has to find ways to survive with the child she has had since being detained.  For Ma, there is the painful knowledge that a far vaster world exists outside; but for her son Jack, the dimensions of the shed define the contours of the world.  Room is the world.  Everything he has ever known is between those walls – even the sounds and images he watches on a tiny television, beamed in from who knows where, as far as he understands.

Thankfully, few of us experience such a suffocatingly limited range of the world as Ma and Jack.  Yet our homes do become true microcosms of the world at large, indeed the entire cosmos.  Metaphors of the house mirror the body, with a head (the attic), a body (the lived-in floors), and feet (the cellar).  The house of our childhood becomes our first map of the world, which we use to navigate when we venture out into broader concentric circles of life.

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This is, anyway, the insight that the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard offered in a very curious book, written toward the end of his life.  First published in 1958, The Poetics of Space was all about the root metaphors that structure our lives – particularly the images of the house, the attic, the corner, the drawer that make up domestic space and imprint themselves indelibly on our unconscious. 

In these days of quarantine, when so many people are holed up at home for long stretches of time, it is impossible not to reflect on the territory of the domestic – the patchwork and scaffolding of spaces that flow from the bathroom to the kitchen, to the TV room, to the side-porch, to the kitchen, as we nervously flit from one segment to the next.  A very lived-in world becomes, presumably, a very observed one. 

Like the body itself, which is invisible and not thought of when it works normally, in the hustle and bustle of daily life, it becomes unusually legible when something goes wrong, when it occasions attention, when you realize that it’s there and it looks like that.  That’s weird, isn’t it?  Did you ever notice that was there?  Huh.

Let Us Think of Common Things

One of Bachelard’s great insights was to look at ordinary things that seem thoroughly unremarkable, and to realize how profound they are – how, so deeply as to be imperceptible, they structure and mediate our experience of the world.  He’s far from the only thinker to reorient our attention to the ordinary, of course; think of the philosopher Michel De Certeau and his influential 1980 work, The Practice of Everyday Life, or really of any one of a vast number of social historians, particularly in the United States and France, who looked to tell the stories of regular people in their workaday worlds: worlds of spoons, chairs, garden patches and workshirts. 

One of my favorite writers, J.B. Jackson, was a master of this mode of analysis, spinning out the untold histories of garages, trucks, playgrounds, even the road itself.  A street might seem like the most unremarkable thing imaginable to most people, just a thing you drive on. As Jackson observed in his essay, “Roads Belong in the Landscape”:  

It might even be said that it was the road which first brought us together in a group or society. Yet the purpose of every road or lane or path is to lead to a destination, and the question itself presupposes a house. So the true function of the road is to serve us by taking us home. Without a specific destination, a road has no reason for existing. Left to its own devices it tends to wander into the wider environment and disappear.[2]

Here, the ornery self-taught geographer is sketching out the opposing view.  Jackson goes on to explain why the road is a space for being and an arena for action in its own meaningful, misunderstood right.  He agreed, however, with Bachelard on the rich symbolism of the house:

House is much more than shelter. It implies a territory, a small sovereignty with its own laws and customs, its own history, its own jealously guarded boundaries. House stands for family, for dynasty. However most it may be, it still has its place in the elaborate spatial hierarchy of the European world: kingdoms, principalities, domains – then the house.

We all understand intuitively that any home is a “small sovereignty with its own laws and customs,” with rulers and rules.  Some homes are kingdoms, and some are republics.  And this political analogy speaks to the profound importance of territoriality to humans, the need to mark off space and know where one is properly situated.

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Yet Bachelard’s purpose in The Poetics of Space was not merely to call attention to quotidian things (“quotidian” – that wonderfully French-sounding word, with its murky Norman roots).  That in itself would be a shopworn and familiar insight.  Rather, he is nudging us to see how spatial metaphors fundamentally shape our ways of perceiving and thinking. 

For example, we might think of the attic, where lots of old stuff is often stored, as being analogous to the head or, particularly, the mind – a storehouse of memories.  I still tend to think of memory as being a filing cabinet, with images, thoughts, and facts organized in little folders.  This is probably due in large part to a Donald Duck cartoon, Mathmagic Land, that I loved as a kid, though the metaphor of the mind as a filing system is pervasive; today we are as likely to think of the mind as a hard drive or operating system, but the symbolism is about the same.

Are We Minds or Are We Men? It Depends.

Such metaphors are common in human history, especially with respect to technology.  The historian of science Laura Otis has shown how, for Victorians, the new technical infrastructures of the day mirrored their own evolving knowledge of the human body.  “In 1851 the telegraph and the nervous system appeared to be doing the same things and for the same reasons,” Otis argues in “The Metaphoric Circuit: Organic and Technological Communication in the Nineteenth Century,” a 2002 essay. “Their common purpose was the transmission of information, and they both conveyed this information as alterations in electrical signals.”[3]  In other words, the telegraph and its close companion the railroad made up a greater body, in communication with itself, much as our own bodies were wired.  This is not unlike the metaphor of finance as the “circulatory system” of the global economy that was often used in 2008 financial crisis – cut off the bloodflow of money, and each individual part of the organism dies.

The historian Paul N. Edwards has shown how these conceptual scheme tend to track with the technology of the era.  For instance, an industrial age called for industrial analogies.  “Freud founded his system of psychoanalysis upon the metaphor The Mind Is a Hydraulic System, a sort of complex, leaky network of plumbing governed by pressures and flows,” Edwards argues in his wonderful 1997 book The Closed World.[4] And this concept of mind is rather distinct from the information processing metaphor that emerged alongside the development of both computing technology and cognitive science in the years after World War II: 

The Hydraulic System metaphor invites us to view emotion and instinct, rather than rationality or action, as the central features of the mind. A hydraulic mind needs ‘outlets’ for inevitable buildups of pressure… The Reflex Machine and Hydraulic System metaphors do not simply contradict specific entailments of the Computer metaphor. If The Mind Is a Computer, it may be reprogrammed, while if it is a Reflex Machine, its responses may be modified through new conditioning… In contract, the Hydraulic System model offers the diversion of unchanging instinctual pressures into new channels, rather than whole sale changes in mental structure.[5]

These ways we think about how we think – or metacognition – have obvious implications for how we understand emotion, creativity, behavior, mental health and so much more. 

Indeed, the engineer and academic Vannevar Bush sat squarely on the pivot from one era and one set of metaphors to another when he wrote his prophetic 1945 essay “As We May Think.” Writing in The Atlantic, Bush sketched out the idea of the “memex,” a machine that resembled both a human brain and a library in a complex, searchable system of microfilm reels – widely regarded as a key precursor of the Internet.  Even as far-sighted a man as Vannevar Bush could only think with the tools available, even as he built something new.  “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, in typically gnomic fashion – and how “we may think” about thinking shapes what we are able to think.[6]

The Road Back Home

In The Closed World, Edwards illustrated how metaphors much simpler than “the mind is a computer” or “the mind is a hydraulic system” undergird our thoughts (drawing on the work of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson).  These vary depending on our language or cultural idiom – for instance, most readers of this essay will recognize the Happy Is Up, Sad Is Down framework, which gives us familiar thoughts like “I’m feeling up,” “That boosted my spirits,” or “I fell into a depression.”[7]  Edwards describes other such metaphors, including “Ideas (or Meanings) Are Objects. Linguistic Expressions Are Containers. Communication Is Sending.”[8] 

Important evidence for Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of metaphor is that many metaphors exist not in isolation, but are elaborated into complex systems whose coherence emerges from the experiential coherence of the source domain of the comparison. For example, the major metaphor An Argument Is a Journey, expressed in such phrases as “we have arrived at a disturbing conclusion,” relies upon the common human experience of taking actual journeys. Other elements of the journey experience (for example, that a journey defines a path, and the path of a journey is a surface) lead to other ways of using the metaphor, such as ‘we have covered a lot of ground in this argument,” since the metaphorical logic entails that The Path of an Argument Is a Surface.[9]

A road implies a journey, a Point A and a Point B, a beginning and an end – which can take the form of an argument or a narrative, as Edwards points out, but in all cases implies movement, action.  Bachelard was characteristically effusive when thinking of roads:

And what a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness!… When I relive dynamically the road that ‘climbed’ the hill, I am quite sure that the road itself has muscles, or rather, counter-muscles.  In my room in Paris, it is a good exercise for me to think of the road in this way. As I write this page, I feel freed of my duty to take a walk: I am sure of having gone out of my house.[10]

When we are all sheltering-in-place, we no doubt hear the call of the road – the restless itch to move, to go just about anywhere, for any reason.  A house may be a protective shell, as Bachelard frequently described it, but it can also be a box, like the “Little Boxes” of Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 critique of suburbia: something stifling and rigid, designed to fix things (and people) in their place. 

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But much of The Poetics of Space is dedicated to imagination and daydreaming.  Bachelard calls on readers to immerse themselves in “the virtues of shelter,” taking advantage of the security of home to embark on a journey inward instead of outward: “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace,” he insists.[11] 

Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows… Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.[12]

Our world may be hemmed in by metaphor, Bachelard seems to be saying, especially by the primordial metaphors of home.  But in imagination and memory the house can be as big as the universe itself. 

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Scrap Thoughts

For some reason, I find myself thinking of the end of the 1985 film Brazil, in which fantasy (sort of) conquers the suffocating confines of fascism.  The recent episode of 99% Invisible, “Roman Mars Describes Things As They Are,” was also on my mind while working on this.  And I’ve written about Stephen Pepper’s seminal work on root metaphors previously.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), paperback ed., 5.

[2] John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, ed. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 250.

[3] Laura Otis, “The Metaphoric Circuit: Organic and Technological Communication in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (2002): 105.

[4] Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 163.

[5] Edwards, 164.

[6] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, July 1945, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1922), 74. See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf.

[7] Edwards, 154.

[8] Edwards, 155.

[9] Edwards, 156.

[10] Bachelard, 11.

[11] Bachelard, 6.

[12] Bachelard, 11-12.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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