A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability.Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Sitting in her living room. What occurs here, in this space filled up with her? And despite its force, how is it that this space so easily recedes to the background once words are spoken, once words are put to bodily experience and social relations, effaced by the retelling of the things of life that tend to unravel here? These questions are by way of an introduction to moments of coming apart in the household of a woman, Beverly, who I first met in 2002.
Let me start in a place adjacent to Beverly, with a reflection that comes from a short essay entitled “Means to Live” by John Berger, on the British photographer Nick Waplington’s series Living Room (2013, 108-110). Waplington photographed two working class families, his friends and neighbors in Nottingham, England, for more than a decade, roughly the same length of time I followed Beverly and her family in Baltimore. Berger’s reflections on Waplington’s photographs are rare because he is not preoccupied with the content of scenes but rather by what “give[s] expression to the energy of pleasures” in their rendering. His attention is on what lives “outside the frame” more than the composition of what resides within it. He writes,
[Waplington’s] photographs are not about captured moments. They are more experiential, constantly evolving over time, commenting on each other, alive. […] An artist’s vision can never be defined just according to what he or she has seen—how he has seen is equally important.Berger 2013, 109.
How one has seen and how scenes comment on each other—these are formulations I like very much. In the past I followed or attempted to follow individuals as they moved between institutional spaces, between different homes or couches or places where it seemed they were nowhere at all. There are certainly those elements in my work with Beverly, chasing her from hospital to hospital, shuffling between family members and friends from neighborhood to neighborhood, tracking her movements through her children and grandchildren as markers, and even after her death, recreating these movements in conversations with them, chasing her still. But here I am concerned with dwelling (though lingering might be a better, less Heideggerian word) as the terms of an encounter, after Emmanuel Lévinas, as the act of simply not turning away. My concern is in fact both, to linger and to dwell in a place, to be tied up with a milieu, in this case the home and the living room more specifically, which for the ethnographer requires not giving in to a sense of intrusion, when looking away or leaving might be the expectation, maybe even when this feels wrong—but here, to linger and to dwell are necessary in order to acknowledge the significance of presence, to give it its due, and not to allow the milieu of the living room to be separated away from Beverly’s role within it, to demonstrate the interdependence and entanglement of milieu and subject and psyche.
As with many concepts that are put to new use, there’s a natural hesitancy about fit, about the intentions its original user may have had and how far concepts can be stretched. Milieu is one. I am motivated in part by the question that Georges Canguilhem poses in his 1952 essay, “La vivant et son milieu,” about the contemporary nature of the category, which for his part involved a careful accounting of a protracted line of thought through Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Charles Darwin, Jakob von Uexküll, and Kurt Goldstein, among others (Canguilhem  2008, 98-120). I do not aim to reconstruct that line, only to say that the milieu concept can be easily misappropriated. Perhaps this is due to an eagerness to find new terms for culture (milieu as a site where culture takes place), to rethink bodily interiority in the guise of experience or biology as such (a Bernardian line of milieu intérieur), or to acknowledge the environment in and through which an organism lives only to more or less dispense with that environment in order to pivot back toward the organism. On one hand Canguilhem observed that the notion had become a universal way of capturing both the experience and the existence of living beings, including their composite parts and elements, therefore making it possible to appreciate the idea of milieu as a category of contemporary thought vital to the living at different scales. But even a casual reader of Canguilhem’s essay will notice one thing straightaway: “the living” resides on one side of the conjunction in the title, the living and its milieu—not a general milieu concept, not a generic environment, but a milieu proper to that organism, to the living—the notion of milieu affirms itself as a central category of contemporary thought, but one that is steadfast within and about the living, including, one could say, “the human.”
None of this betrays the genealogy of concepts in biology and philosophy that Canguilhem brings into clear view, precisely because Canguilhem’s view incorporates the problem of individuality, of a cell or something, or someone, else (2008, 98). I find a resource in one thinker essential to Canguilhem’s thesis, namely the neuro-psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, in thoughts outlined in his Der Aufbau des Organismus. Sharing the flavor of Goldstein’s conception of milieu, of its pressures on the individual, I take seriously the phantasms and expressions of suffering to which I bear some witness, for in this context the mode of anthropological engagement is a form of witnessing, a chosen set of optics that frame and fix a certain exposure of a scene—a scene that enfolds moments of madness in the terms of relations to others and to space, to the “ensemble of variables” and the “entourage of living beings” found there (Canguilhem 2008, 102 & 104). The organism finds itself in a contest of demands, and when sick or threatened, submits to these demands, moves within them, and forms new relationships with and within its milieu. As Canguilhem reads Goldstein:
A life that affirms itself against the milieu is a life already threatened… A healthy life, confident in its existence, in its values, is a life of flexion, suppleness, almost softness.Canguilhem 2008, 113.
A life: soft, plastic, but not gentle. When Beverly could no longer walk up and down the stairs to her bedroom, because of her pain and shortness of breath, the living room became her bedroom. The life of the home happened there. Her mother slept in a chair and her preteen grandson often slept in a cramped crib meant for a toddler. The room was constantly configured and reconfigured based on her functioning, on her needs and disappearing autonomy.
Beverly’s living room is a large room situated in the front part of her row house. The front door leads immediately into this room. A dining room to one side, unusable as a dining room, filled with boxes and old clothes. Her living room is more than its four walls; so much lives “outside the frame.” It is dust floating on rays of sunlight through cigarette smoke, chemical disinfectants, peeling wallpaper, cobwebs, stale urine, cooking oil, street noise, television chatter, and strong soap.
Beverly would hold up in the living room, on a couch or chair, situated so she could recline and watch things frying or boiling in the kitchen, eyelids heavy, open burners on the stove. Her living room appears in the background of my notes, banal as the weather, a suspension in which life just happens. It was sunny, humid, rainy, or cool. It was morning or early evening. Such-and-such stopped by, the conversation went like this or that. I asked questions, scribbled notes, most of them indecipherable, almost as a way of forgetting or forestalling a return to that place until I had some distance or perspective, hazarding a return. We talked about her health, the health of her children and others. On the surface, the structure of these notes over years amounts to little. But these otherwise trivial scenes had the power to saturate like a deep stain, one that I hoped to wash off each time I arrived home only to reappear. Not necessarily a physical dirtiness, but something persistent and mutually corrosive within the scene.
A few years after her death her grandson casually tells me that once, when he was very small, she forced him along with his younger sister and brother into her makeshift bed and began to cover them in blankets and sheets and duvets, and eventually even bath towels. They were tucked in so tightly they could not move. The two younger siblings liked the game at first, and he tells me he too felt there was something reassuring about the weight of the heavy blankets. But even as a small child he knew to wiggle his arms enough to give his younger siblings room to breathe. The younger siblings eventually became scared and he worried that they would suffocate; something confirmed when Beverly whispered not to let them (an unnamed them) hear them breathing. It was hot and humid, and Beverly had shut and locked the windows.
And then it stopped. They were under those blankets for what he described as hours. She eventually ran out of things to pile on top of them. His sister had peed herself and they wormed out. They found Beverly slumped in a chair, asleep with the television on.
I imagined this scene in a room where I had spent so many hours of nothing.
My aim is not to link these scenes to some clinical or social concern, but rather to consider the site where distress asserts itself in new terms, in a new relationship to milieu, a place of immediate demands, but rife with memory. It also needs to be clear that these scenes were always tangled with dozens of other scenes, other pressures, so that if taken cumulatively they seem routine or trivial. They are events that get recorded as non-events. Even her non-voluntary short-term psychiatric hospitalizations were always, in the time that I knew her, the by-products of trips to the emergency room for other reasons (problems managing her diabetes, headaches or back pain), events bound up with other events.
And then the milieu would shift, and she within it, a different momentum in the moments of crisis and chaos and longing and confusion—I would leave and return to something wholly different.
In his essay, Canguilhem evokes the Pascalian interpretation of the environment as mi-lieu, middle: the organism is middle, that is, itself a center (2008, 117; Geroulanos & Meyers 2018). The organism does not simply reside there; it draws everything toward itself, wrapping the milieu around itself, as its center. The living room as milieu shrunk around Beverly, even as it made demands on her, pulling in things and spaces beyond this space.
Berger saw Waplington’s photographs as affirmative and whole despite the poverty and social insecurity in which the families lived: the living room offered as means to live. In Beverly’s living room I saw a breakdown of cohesion and an uneasy lack of affirmation—a heady mix of dullness, joy, sorrow, care and uncaring. But like Waplington’s photographs, these ethnographic scenes are not a few captured moments that vacillate between light and dark, but rather images of “moments that seem to be commenting on each other, alive.” They are the place and substance of living.
In the end, I wonder how these lesser milieus might stand up against grander currents of contemporary thought. I wonder where it is that coming apart finds lodging.
Read another piece in this series here.
Berger, John. 2013. Understanding a Photograph, edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer. New York: Aperture.
Canguilhem, Georges. 1952. “La vivant et son milieu.” In La connaissance de la vie. Paris: Vrin.
Canguilhem, Georges. 2008. “The Living and Its Milieu,” in Knowledge of Life, edited by Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers, translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg, 98–120. New York: Fordham University Press.
Geroulanos, Stefanos, and Todd Meyers. 2018. “The Organism and Its Environment: Integration, Interiority, and Individuality around 1930.” In The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.