‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

One possible reading of the homeless context

Let us pause for a moment, meditate and ‘silently’ contemplate the taking on and wearing of a habit. Imagine for a moment you are a young man walking across the fields. You lived in a same village as your father and grandfathers, the year is 1800, you come to a monastery door and lift your paw, bring it down on the wood before you. It opens and you enter a world in which you undergo a change. The day is structured and punctuated by daily habits. As you change, become part of the established order, the habit you wear changes. You are known and marked by your habit.

The daily customary habits, which begin in childhood socialization, sustain a particular experience of the body and of self. These habits result in bodily techniques, which as Marcel Mauss pointed out, are informed by and part of a symbolic (language) system. A structure which results in the individual taking on certain habits which become the script and text which grounds the story of that individuals life.

The homeless are thought to have bad habits. But is this an accurate description? For many homeless there is nowhere to hide and in the place of public role there is a flogging of the private within the public scenario. Put another way, the subject struggles to represent (re-present) themselves to themselves through taking on of the habit of the given ‘language game’ with a particular script, texture and grammar that anchors his or her life story. As such there is a failure to distinguish between that which is ‘me and not-me’ as it is on the basis of this distinction, via the use of language games, that the person comes to have an inside and an outside, a private and public world.

What is observed are group interactions structured along more informal lines with interpersonal relations being less subordinated to a public persona. There is little distinction between the public and private role and a preference for spontaneous expression. These inform patterns of relating that involve familiarity, apparent intimacy and less emphasis on bodily control.

Now as stated above, the homeless are told that they do not belong and their place is regulated to the margins of society. They are viewed as a public spectacle warning others of a similar outcome if they wish to stray from mainstream norms. Isolated, the subject becomes part of a signifying chain, which is crystallized around a network of shameful images. Such scenes of contempt, ridicule, derision, debasement, name-calling and abuse accumulate and result in a marking and stigmatizing.

If homeless people do take on and wear a habit, it is the cloak of shame, for in the critical look from the other; the subject is forced to embrace something of his/her being which lies outside the social order (signifying chain), to be seen as an object. The effects of this shaming, (be it name calling, abuse, scapegoat) is an identification and internalization of negative and oppressive cultural images, with the result of a potential living out of an internalized self-oppression. For many it is the beginning of the construction of a self-abusive life style.

The individual is driven to partake in things, which are not ‘good’ for them due to being ‘bad’, but at the same time the individual may wish to break free of this stranglehold of self-contempt and self-disgust. For some this is to bear a grudge and a wish to defy the authority of this Law – and thereby become a law unto him or herself. In this scenario the more the person acts in a submissive manner (to his/her own ferocious superego) the more this will increase the person’s hostility, making them more defiant at the moment of submission. This produces a vicious circle in which acts of defiance create fear and the need for further submission.

The defiance is both a hidden act of self-assertion and a misdeed, a “criminal act” arising from a sense of guilt. In the act of deviance (i.e. stealing or drinking in front of the police or unsafe sex) it is the execution of the forbidden in order to provoke punishment as an attempt to attach the sense of guilt to something tangible. When s/he breaks the law and/or defies social convention and/or takes too many drugs and/or fucks without a condom the result can be a punishment, suicide or a getting away with it. Getting away with it is confirmation that luck is on his/her side. It is forcing fate (the Other) to reply and reading into the reply whether fate (the Other) is on the side of life-preservation, and his/her form of self-identity, or annihilation of life. At times, the subject risks his or her life, with the hope of transforming the response of others, that is, of getting some recognition. Like the mystic, perhaps, s/he hopes to break all bonds of inhibition imposed on him/her by normative language, so as to have access to what is real and true to his/her being. Sadly, the result may be to simply end up as a waste product (object), ending in a terminal fading of the subject.

This urge to test fate is to place him/herself on the edge of an abyss is a form of Russian roulette in which there may or may not be recognition. The motivation is not simply a delight in the transgression of limits but also a need to place oneself in a vulnerable state. To put it more clearly, homeless people in London can get income support, but many refuse to accept this and instead beg, making themselves dependent on the kindness of strangers. The result is a compulsive dramatic re-enactment of the past traumatic events so as to experience, that which was absent (recognition and kindness) in the original text.