Tomás Errázuriz and Ricardo Greene
Recommended citation: Errázuriz, T., and Greene, R. (2020). ‘The bright side of Coronavirus. Reinventing home from quarantine’, entanglements, 3(2):49-59
We recently went to Cuba to present the results of a research project about the reusing of everyday objects. Before the trip, many people told us that landing in Havana was like “going back to 1950”, the city apparently being frozen in the past. As we walked through its streets, however, talking to people and entering their homes, it seemed the opposite. A place with problems, no doubt, but in terms of consumption, it seems to us that it represents the direction in which we should move in the future: without luxury purchases, producing a minimum of garbage and reinventing what is broken or repurposing it.
In Chile, until not long ago, we lived with that same logic. How many of us grew up hearing phrases like “whoever keeps always has”, “food should not be thrown away”, “it can be used for something” or the usual daily cry of “Lights out!”. These commandments responded to the need to value and care for scarce resources. People changed the soles of their shoes when they broke, repaired the juicer when it stopped working, and rehemmed the skirt that came undone. With great ingenuity and popular creativity, they also reused what had lost its original function: the old t-shirt was transformed into pajamas, and when that was no longer useful, it continued its life as a rag; plastic bottles mutated into flower-pots; wheels into grills and tires into swings. Rural houses, up to today, give account of that circular spirit, where everything can have a new life and the garbage is a destination reserved almost exclusively for what can return to the soil.
Since the nineties, however, these skills have been gradually forgotten; and even worse, undervalued. Malls, retail stores and credit cards multiplied, free trade agreements were signed, and the market grew and diversified by leaps and bounds. The advance of consumerism, the growing importance of material success, the tyranny of fashions and programmed obsolescence built a society that discards without hesitation, and where fewer and fewer people have the capacity to repair their things or the interest to make them last. As never before, we live obsessed with the new and the young, and time seems to diminish the value of things. If a while ago an iron, a mattress or a stove lasted for decades, today it is not strange that they are discarded after a few years. The shoemaker says he’s running out of work, and of course, why fix the heels when you can buy a new pair in 12 installments?
We all know how this story ends: not with laughs but with fire. Environmentalists and scientists have been warning about it for decades. It is clear that the patterns of consumption to which we have become accustomed are not sustainable, and that radical changes are needed. Although there is much talk of recycling, circular economy, sustainable consumption, eco-design and so many other proposals that seek to avoid disaster without destabilizing the markets, the boat of capitalism is about to drown us all. Instead of repeatedly patching the cracks in the hull, it is time to look for a new boat.
Then Coronavirus arrived. With it, the nightmare of disease, poverty and death. At the same time, a glimpse of hope; not so much about the present, but about the future, about the world we can build. There is no doubt that the interruption of “normality” has forced us to rethink the way we relate to our things. From one day to the next, our physical space shrank and what used to happen in the street, at work, in the cafe or in the gym, became part of home. Work tables were improvised and chairs were adapted to withstand long days. The dining room table multiplied its functions, zoning and specializing its cover between meals, games, business and studying. Supports were also invented to carry the computer or the tablet to the kitchen, the bathroom and other unthinkable places; walls, furniture and shelves that served as wallpaper were ordered and cleared; and spaces were established for games and sports activities, some temporary and others permanent. In a matter of weeks, the house was another; unrecognizable and shape-shifting.
Hygiene practices also produced a small revolution. The new home entry rituals involve spatial transformations. It is no longer just a matter of arriving and crossing a threshold, but of maintaining a space immunologically safe from outside threats (Douglas, 1966). The relationship between the inside and the outside became more complex, and many homes implemented transitional spaces for anything that might be contaminated, such as masks, shoes, clothes, keys and wallets. It seems that, somewhat cut off from the world, the home in times of COVID-19 is being transformed into a self-administered territory, which we must care for and protect. It also becomes a productive space, which can provide us with part of what we need to live. In the cities, people have come again to organize home or collective gardens, and to prepare their own bread, partly to provide food for times of reduced income, and partly in the interest of caring for the planet in the face of an increasingly acute climate crisis.
Spending all day at home has had other unexpected consequences. The intensive use of spaces and appliances generates wear and tear, accelerating deterioration processes. Things are failing more than before, and during these months calls for help from teachers, gasfitters and electricians have circulated profusely through WhatsApp groups, not always with success. In the absence of professional help, and sometimes to save money, many have been encouraged to repair their things themselves. Without the possibility of going to a hardware store, those who applied Marie Kondo’s minimalist method are now regretting their pristine homes, where it is impossible to find a string, elastic bands, parts of things or loose screws to assist the repair. The quarantine has favored the reunion with the toolbox, and a monument to the quick fix has been erected (Errázuriz, Greene and Berczeller, 2020). Who hasn’t searched through closets and drawers for a piece that can replace the one that was lost or broken: the right bolt, something to act as a washer, or something to replace the broken chair leg? The bravest have even dared to open those mysterious white boxes we call appliances to discover a world of wires, filters and motors that invite experimentation, not always successful.
In these processes of repair, we are acquiring a new consciousness about materiality, the mechanisms of functioning and the general state in which what we are trying to intervene is found. This consciousness reaffirms the importance of care and forms of use to extend the life of our things. It is when darning a sweater that we realize we must take it off carefully so not to force the tissues. The repair of the washing machine will teach us, perhaps, about the need of not overloading it and to clean its filters periodically, while the timely repair of that door or piece of furniture that has come loose will prevent irreversible damage.
At the same time, we have learned -or remembered- that contrary to what the market tells us, anything can support multiple functions, beyond the one for which it was manufactured. Pots are useful to boil dirty cloths, a microwave to kill germs, a tub to wash fruits and vegetables, and cardboard boxes to build a play castle for children. It just takes some imagination to build a better world.
Several things have become evident during this period: the importance of domestic work, the inequality in our cities, the need for public health, and also that much of what we thought was indispensable was not so. We have learned that there are alternative solutions to problems that occur outside the market; through networks of care and collaboration that allow us to live by buying less and doing more. The Coronavirus has helped us imagine other possible worlds, and it is up to us to bring the best of them to the table.
Towards a Shape-Shifting Ethnography
During the 20th century, the incorporation of women into places of paid work, the reduction in the size of homes and the specialization of the market produced a type of home that was less and less self-sufficient and part of diverse consumer networks. The pandemic strained this relationship due to the heightened fear of the outside world, the threat of a shortage of basic products, and the decrease in family incomes. One could argue that the COVID-19 brought an uncertainty that undermined distinctive values of urban life such as interdependence and economic specialization (Durkheim, 1984; Simmel, 1950), opening up the possibility of recovering more autarchic —individual or collective— forms of supply and production. Evidence of this is the fact that the purchase of basic materials —flour, wool, inks, leaf litter—has been steadily increasing over final consumption products. Today, the number of houses that are, at the same time, productive spaces for self-consumption and places of production, trade and sale is growing, and their relationship with the market is being re-articulated.
In line with the above, many urban households have been recovering “rural” logics of storage, repair, maintenance and reuse. In part because of the difficult access to the market and partially because of a growing awareness of the climate crisis, damaged things are not discarded as easily as before, but stored, fixed, dismantled or re-imagined. Likewise, inputs and raw materials are stored in crates and warehouses, whilst other discarded spaces are transformed into vegetable gardens or compost spots. Everything can be used for something (else).
Perhaps one of the most influential ethnographies of domestic space is Bourdieu’s analysis of the Kabyle (1979). He studied the configuration of the prototypical Kabyle house, underlining the symbolic significance of its spatial patterns and revealing how its internal distribution, hierarchies and significances corresponded with the way society was structured. Bourdieu understood space merely as an epiphenomenon of the ‘real’ variables that gave society shape, the interior reflecting and reproducing the exterior. Although he afterwards came to criticize his own structuralist arguments (Silverstein, 2004), his reflections still occupy a key position in the discussions about the relation between the spatial and the social —the visible and the invisible.
Moving us in a different direction, the data collected in our researches on COVID-houses stressed the need to keep approaching domestic spaces in a more fluid manner, understanding the shape-shifting ways homes are constantly being re-produced. Even more, we are also called to challenge the binary theoretical scope under which the home is usually set. Blunt distinctions such as the private and the public, the individual and the collective, or the internal and the external need to be constantly re-assessed in order to understand the ways homes are in constant transformation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a transformation in the ways the domestic material environment is conceived. The practical function of objects takes precedence over other symbolic and aesthetic ones, and these objects acquire value as things; dynamic entities that have the capacity to transform themselves and acquire diverse positions in an ecology of things (Domínguez, 2016). Likewise, the line that separates consumers and producers is blurred, dwellers becoming hyper connected agents nourished by forums, instructions, and YouTube channels that train him/her in a wide diversity of areas and crafts (gastronomy, gardening, plumbing, carpentry, etc.).
For those of us who investigate the domestic space, the pandemic exposes the fragility of the structures from which we understand our daily lives. In the midst of an ongoing process of reconfiguring “the domestic”, the challenge is not to identify and understand new relationships and values that come to replace those that previously prevailed. Instead, the key is to understand the domestic as a dynamic, mutating, and ever-changing unit of meaning. Our function is not to fix, but to characterize these movements, identifying rhythms, directions and acting forces, and understanding that, under the pressure of well-being, economic survival and the environmental crisis, the domestic constitutes a space of resistance, adaptation, and creativity, from where it is possible to generate alternative forms, which can —we hope— become the jumping-off point for more radical, collective and sustainable ways of life.
 During 2020 we have conducted three experimental research projects with undergraduate and graduate students: (i) a visual auto-ethnography on the mutation of COVID homes; (ii) a series of participatory photographic essays about new hygiene safety procedures and technologies; (iii) an ethnographic research to identify individual and social practices that have moved into the private houses, and to understand their impacts, transformations and re-significations on daily life and spaces..
Bourdieu, P. (1979). Algeria 1960: The disenchantment of the World. The sense of Honour. The Kabyle House or the World Reversed. Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Domínguez, F. (2016). On the Discrepancy between Objects and Things: An Ecological Approach. Journal of Material Culture, 21(1), 59–86.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis Of Concepts Of Pollution And Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Durkheim, E., and Halls, W. D. (1984). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.
Errázuriz, T., Greene, R., and Berczeller, D. (2020). To Discard or to Accumulate: That is The Question. Diseña, (17), 182-203.
Silverstein, P. A. (2004). Of rooting and uprooting: Kabyle habitus, domesticity, and structural nostalgia. Ethnography, 5(4), 553–578.
Simmel, G. (1950). The Metropolis and Mental Life. In K. H. Wolff (Ed.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel (pp. 409-424). New York: The Free Press.
Tomás Errázuriz is an associate professor in Campus Creativo at Universidad Andrés Bello. Trained as a historian, he holds a PhD in architecture and urban studies. He has published widely on the relationships between everyday life in domestic and mobility spaces. Some of his latest publications are «Terminal Station: the life of things in rural houses» (In F. Alarcón ed, ARQ, 2018), «Everything in place: Peace and harmony in an overcrowded home» (Visual Communication, 2019), and «To discard or to accumulate: that is the question» (with R. Greene and D. Berczeller, Diseña, 2020). Tomás actually is a founder member of the «Cosas Maravillosas» initiative (www.cosasmaravillosas.cl), and he is currently leading a three year research project on the relationship between repair, reuse, and affects in the domestic space.
Ricardo Greene is a Sociologist, MSc in Urban Development and PhD in Anthropology. Director of Bifurcaciones, Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, he has also directed and coordinated Esto Es Talca (a chrono-photographic project), CinEducación (an audiovisual participatory platform) and FIDOCS (Santiago International Documentary Film Festival). Ricardo has published articles, books and documentaries in subjects such as residential segregation, elites, racism, audiovisual methods, domestic objects and urban culture. He is a founder member of the «Cosas Maravillosas» initiative (www.cosasmaravillosas.cl), and is currently based at Universidad de Las Américas, Chile.