Photograph by Lee Jeffries, Manchester – January 9, 2011.
I can only imagine what it must mean to be homeless and destitute. A sense of place and of belonging is intimately bound to a sense of self and as is perhaps attributable on many simultaneously expressed or experienced vectors of tribalism, participatory narrative and other methods or innate cognitive frameworks of aspirational self-definition.
I live in a culture in which a sense of self is intimately bound to tangible economic participation and an associated acquisition of material possessions or otherwise extended cognition. The possibility for the cultivation of continuous, stable and procedurally-defined symbolic narratives of self must be in at least part associated with those habitats that our places of residence, employment or sociological and cultural engagement represent. The personal (and personalised) experience of private or contextualised domestic and social places must be implicitly bound to the possibility of psychological individuation.
What happens to a person and member of our collective (cultural) experience and embodied memory when there is no personal place with which a self might become reflexively identified, when that self is quite literally undefined by no specific, particular or identifiably individualised and symbolic space or place ? Could this be some kind of initially tortuous catharsis and eventual freedom from self or is this actually more of an ironically empty and wall-less imprisonment and choiceless bondage to the economic and sociological vacuum represented by the impersonal and cold, hard concrete of the alleyway and city streets ?
When I recently saw a sad, lonely and dishevelled man outside a Macdonalds franchise, hunched and hovering half-awake over those few discarded cigarette butts he had gleaned from cracks in the footpath, defensively poised over his prone empty bottle of non-descript alcoholic respite on that dark and wintry city morning, I find it hard to imagine that any rational decision could lead someone to such a state of affairs. There is of course no one historical path to (or singular cause of) such an utter existential desolation and the diverse experiences of the homeless are no more uniquely captured by the scene I saw than any other particular living instance of human experience captures the much broader potential spectrum of all possibility. It may in any case be little more than wishful thinking to attribute any implicit or necessary rationality to human choices beyond a certain narrow range of existential or contextual self-interest.
It certainly appears that any fundamental belief in the “fairness” of life leads us to all manner of misattribution and misunderstanding of human motives, actions and their various good and bad consequences. It is not that the world could or should not be equitable and fair so much as that a belief that it is in some fundamental sense fair (in the provision of opportunity and forgiveness or potential remediation) creates a false belief that someone having fallen onto hard times will eventually “bounce back” and that such a circumstance of destitution must be an exception rather than being something of a rule or probabilistic likelihood in complex large-scale social, economic and cultural systems.
An attribution of belief in an intrinsic “fairness” to the world is simultaneously a leap of metaphysical faith into an unprovable ethical theorem of universal justice (or teleology of Goodness) and a virtual washing-of-one’s-hands or otherwise false absolution from personal responsibility and sense of compassionate obligation to our fellow human beings. We should not consider the world as fundamentally fair any more than we should assume that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics will cease gnawing away at the withered core of our transient (and perhaps deeply fragile) social and economic orders.
Justice or fairness is not implicit in the world; we have to continuously define, cultivate and maintain it ourselves.