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Interpreting NatureThe Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics$

Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor, Martin Drenthen, and David Utsler

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780823254255

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823254255.001.0001

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Bodily Moods and Unhomely Environments

Bodily Moods and Unhomely Environments

The Hermeneutics of Agoraphobia and the Spirit of Place

(p.160) Chapter 8 Bodily Moods and Unhomely Environments
Interpreting Nature

Dylan Trigg

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This essay investigates the claims that the genius loci of a place is determined as much by the formal properties of a place as the “mood” that is carried into it and that the interpretation of an environment is primarily bodily rather than cognitive. This investigation is focuses on the phenomenology of agoraphobia. Spatial anxiety is demonstrative of how our experience of the world depends as much on the objective features of the world as it does the bodily mood with which we interpret these features. The epistemic advantage of agoraphobia is that it foregrounds themes that are otherwise tacit: the contingency of boundaries, the vulnerability of home, and the unfamiliarity of our experience of the world. The question raised through this investigation is the role of the body and bodily experience in defining the character of environments.

Keywords:   Agoraphobia, Place, Body, Mood, Hermeneutics, Environment, Home, Environmental philosophy

I have often said that all men’s unhappiness is due to the single fact that they cannot stay quietly in a room.1

Pascal’s Abyss

Shortly after his coach was nearly thrown into the Seine while crossing the Neuilly-sur-Seine Bridge in 1654, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal became convinced that an abyss had formed on his left-hand side. Quite apart from the logical improbability that such an abyss was real, this near miss of the Seine had set in a place a reality of Pascal’s own, and one that was entirely independent of the objective properties of the world. Such was the extent of his anxiety that for a while Pascal would require a chair beside him to feel reassurance that he was not on the verge of falling. In a letter written by the Abbé Boileau, we are told the following:

His friends, his confessor, and his director tried in vain to tell him that there was nothing to fear, and that his anxiety was only the alarm of an imagination exhausted by abstract and metaphysical studies. He would agree … and then, within a quarter of an hour, he would have dug for himself the terrifying precipice all over again.2

What is striking about this statement is that in it, we witness a struggle that takes place between Pascal’s rationality assenting to the illogical nature of his fears and the irrationality of those fears (p.161) resuming their powers. Evidently, the incident on the Neuilly-sur-Seine Bridge had shaped his bodily experience of space, meaning that no abstract mediation could alter his visceral experience of an abyss beside him, leading Baudelaire to remark that Pascal “sees only the infinite through all windows.”3

Originally termed “Pascal’s disease,” the condition would later develop into various spatial phobias, including “la peur des espaces” [the fear of spaces], “horreur du vide” [horror of the void], Platzsch-windel [place dizziness], and, finally, agoraphobia.”4 Marked in each case by an intense anxiety brought on by being in particular places, especially those in which the urge to flee would prove difficult, the condition has moved from a simple fear of public places to the more complex anxiety surrounding places that are in some broad sense unfamiliar. In such conditions, the attack can include sensations ranging from heart palpations, shortness of breath, vertigo, trembling of the limbs, tunnel vision, nausea, derealization, and, at its most severe, an abiding sense of impending doom or death. Because of this anxiety, the agoraphobe’s experience of the environment tends to be characterized by a series of invisible boundaries and borders that demarcate familiar or homely places from unfamiliar or unhomely places. For this reason, interstitial environments such as elevators, bridges, and airports are especially hazardous for the agoraphobe, given that physical retreat would be comprised once those places had been entered.

As to the underlying anxiety that takes place in the agoraphobe’s environmental experience, writing at the close of the nineteenth century, Freud’s claim that “the recollection of an anxiety attack” is at the heart of agoraphobia’s powers retains its theoretical accuracy.5 At its core, agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder rather than a fear of places qua places. In this respect, agoraphobia is the necessary outcome of an anticipatory anxiety about experiencing anxiety. In their highly sensitized mode of being in the world, agoraphobic people tend to interpret their bodily response to the environment through a filter of apocalyptic doom. The formula invariably adheres to the following structure: “If I don’t get out of here immediately, then X will happen,” where “X” might include heart attack, fainting, or vomiting. Because of this catastrophic bodily interpretation, constant supervision of the body’s sensations as well as a “superstitious avoidance behavior” accompanies all environmental experience, with an unflinching vigilance directed toward any unfamiliar or uncomfortable sensations.6 Once detected, those bodily sensations (p.162) urge the agoraphobe to flee the scene immediately, in the process reinforcing the sense that particular places are marked by the potential of danger.

Where does the agoraphobe flee to? The answer invariably accents the importance of the home in the agoraphobe’s worldview. The idea of “home” is inherently ambiguous, ranging from a particular building or room, to a general neighborhood that assumes the appearance of being familiar. Various anecdotal reports testify to this ambiguity. Thus in some cases, the centrality of the physical home, with its borders and boundaries, marks a threshold from agoraphobic embodiment to non-agoraphobic embodiment, as Stewart Sadowsky writes: “Other clients are perfectly comfortable in their own homes despite the fact that they are alone and helpless should they have an ‘attack.’ The cozy familiarity of their home exudes a physiognomic air of safety and shelter. This permits them to cast off their constant concern about ‘attacks.’”7 In other cases, the locality of the physical home extends to a broader region, and might contain a multiplicity of different homely places. Kirsten Jacobson writes, “It is only when the agoraphobic is in his safe places or somewhere from which there is a reliable avenue to what he considers a home base that he feels comfortable and capable of carrying out his daily activities and interests.”8 As I shall spell out later on, this ambiguity is doubled by the fact that home relies as much on the environment as it does on the bodily way of being in that environment.

The Mood of the Body

In Pascal’s brush with the Seine, we witness an incipient agoraphobia being conceived. For him, the “eternal silence of these infinite spaces” took on a concrete form when the terror felt on the Seine became a component of his environmental experience as a whole, implanting anxiety in the materiality of both his body and the world.9 What is revealed in this confrontation with the abyss is an amplified facet of our everyday environmental experience, namely, that we carry places with us. Pascal’s vertiginous experience at the Neuilly-sur-Seine Bridge was not insulated to that place. Instead, the experience became incorporated into his bodily schema as a whole, affecting a topophobic relation with place thereafter.

In this historical illustration, there are at least two insights that shed light on environmental hermeneutics. First, the genius loci of a given place—be it an abandoned monastery, a forest in the night, (p.163) or the deck of a ship—is determined as much by the formal properties of a place as it is the “mood” we carry to that place. Only in the materiality of the body is a place given life, even if that life is essentially anxiety inducing. Second, our interpretation of an environment is primarily bodily in structure rather than cognitive. At stake in this interpretation is a reversibility between the world and the body, meaning that if we can speak of an anxious or ecstatic place, then it is only because we can also speak of an anxious or ecstatic body.

In this chapter, I will investigate these two claims by focusing on the phenomenology of agoraphobia. As indicated in the account of Pascal’s brush with death, spatial anxiety affords us a clear illustration of how our experience of the world depends as much on the objective features of the world as it does the bodily mood with which we interpret those features. The epistemic advantage of agoraphobia in particular is that it draws our attention to that which is taken for granted in our everyday experience of the world. In doing so, agoraphobia foregrounds themes that are otherwise tacit: the contingency of boundaries, the vulnerability of home, and the unfamiliarity of our experience of the world.

Applying this phobic background to the present context, my central question is as follows: How does our bodily mood affect our experience and interpretation of an environment? The question points to a central concern for environmental hermeneutics, namely, the role of the body in not only structuring and constituting space but how bodily experience defines the very character of an environment. To do justice to the nature of environmental experience, we need to address the relationship between the body’s moods and the variations in environmental interpretation that arise from those moods.

The inclusion of the term “mood” points to the Heideggerian notion of Stimmung, as it features in Being and Time.10 For Heidegger, mood refers to the manner in which we “attune” ourselves to the world.11 Attuning ourselves to the world is a fundamental given of being-in-the-world, given that, for Heidegger, being-in-the-world is affective in structure. In a word, things matter to us. The world is not a neutral canvas upon which we project our emotions and thoughts. Instead, we are “always already” in a mood with the world, as he writes: “The fact that moods can be spoiled and changed only means that Da-sein is always already in a mood. The often persistent, smooth, and pallid lack of mood, which must not be confused with bad mood, is far from being nothing.”12 Mood gives (p.164) coherence to the world, disclosing and closing possibilities depending on the mood we are in. That we speak about being in a mood rather than approaching mood as an experience that is forced upon us confirms Heidegger’s point that mood has an ontological validity to it. At no point are we not in a mood with the world.

In this respect, Heidegger’s understanding of mood extends beyond the private domain of the individual world. My mood is not, as it were, cut off from a world external to me. Rather, my mood sheds light on an aspect of the (social) world that is already there. Far from the province of the psyche alone, mood thus implicates both the intersubjectivity of the world alongside the world’s materiality. “It comes,” so he writes, “neither from ‘without’ nor from ‘within,’ but rises from being-in-the-world itself as a mode of that being.”13 In this way, mood acts as a bridge between being and world, disclosing ethical and aesthetical values in the act of shaping the world in a particular manner.

Mood is that by which our relationship with the world is possible in the first place. Mood is the context out of which our intentional states are rendered possible. This is clear enough in the notion of a public mood, such as mourning, celebration, or a social convention that has embedded itself in a heterogeneous culture. In each case, mood becomes a phenomenon that is both shared by a collectivity of people and at the same time experienced in a first-person manner. Consider here the different sensibilities marking various cultures, varying from the “stiff upper lip” of a certain class of Englishness to the expressiveness of Italian body language. Such ways of being-in-the-world are sedimented to varying degrees in the sensibility of a public mood.

This mention of mood as manifesting itself in the body alerts us to a shortcoming in Heidegger’s account. For although Heidegger has the distinction of elevating mood to a legitimate philosophical category, with its own unique mode of disclosure, what he omits in this study is the role our bodies play in shaping and determining the way in which mood is experienced. Given the pervasiveness of mood, this omission of the body is surprising. For it is not as though when we are bored or afraid that such moods color the world in an abstract fashion. Rather, we experience the tenor of those moods in and through our bodies. When depressed, the state of depression does not end with an abstract state of mind. Instead, the mood of depression takes place in the materiality of the body, in turn affecting a particular bodily experience of being-in-the-world. From this felt (p.165) materiality, the world itself becomes cloaked in a depressed aura. Things manifest themselves as constitutive of depression—the world assumes a particular color, texture, smell, sound, and so forth.

Likewise, if I experience overwhelming lethargy each time I am obligated to meet a friend from my past, then there is nothing mechanical in this response. Lethargy is a physiological experience that carries with it an evaluative framework. Indeed, the accompanying sensations of tiredness and indifference are structured by an intentionality that is directed toward the old friend. If I experience a withdrawing of my body in the company of this person, then this is also a withdrawing of my world from this person. For instance, if this person attempts to rouse me from a state of indifference, then I experience this as a violation of a boundary that I have constructed in my bodily being. My body’s refusal to engage with this person is the means by which this relationship works in the first place. Thus, if I am walking or sitting with this person, then I will do so with certain restrictions and limitations, so as to avoid establishing a reciprocal space between us. At all times, the relationship is mediated by an asymmetry in our bodily comportments. In this way, the body is the principle manifestation for values in the intersubjective/intercorporeal world. The body is a sensing and thinking organ: In its flesh, values manifest themselves. Indeed, it is only through the body that the felt experience of value is possible.

At its basis, therefore, the body’s moods carry with it an interpretive structure. More than an affective component to lived experience, mood is a mode of knowing the world through the primacy of the body. Although we may remain self-consciously unaware of how our body interprets the material world, the fact that this interpretation persists nevertheless is clear from how we can suddenly find ourselves in a mood without even knowing how we got there. Mood is pervasive; it absorbs the world and our experience of the world, such that the very act of interpreting the world is incorporated into our bodily sensibility. It is for this reason that the particular experience of interpreting the world as a singular phenomenon is seldom noticed, except as a vague and inarticulate drone.

Because a mood like depression has such a pervasive power, there can be no reconciliation between a depressed and nondepressed mood, as Heidegger writes of “bad moods”: “In bad moods, Da-sein becomes blind to itself, the surrounding world of heedfulness is veiled, the circumspection of taking is led astray.”14 The overarching power of mood to render Da-sein “blind to itself” is only possible (p.166) because mood embeds itself in the fabric of the body. Indeed, if it is the case that our bodies are the first point of contact with the world, then it is only through the body that the pervasiveness of mood can have a reality. Through the body, the mood of the world assumes a felt reality, conferring a thematic and affective unity upon the world that would be fragmented were it the case that our living bodies were homogeneous blocks of materiality.

The relationship between the bodily nature of mood and the interpretative experience of the environment is implicit in Pascal’s abyssal experience. For him, an agoraphobic mood opened up a certain mode of being-in-the-world, from which objects in the world reveal themselves as assuming a phobic or fearful quality. What this illustration provisionally shows, therefore, is how mood, interpretation, and embodiment form a tripart unity, with there being no possibility of one existing without the other, as John Russon says in his eloquent account of mood: “Mood and interpretation are not separate spheres of our existence; rather, we exist interpretively, and mood is the fundamental way in which interpretive existence is experienced by us.”15 In claiming “we exist interpretively,” Russon highlights the necessary connection between affectivity and hermeneutics. To understand the materiality of the surrounding world, we need to address the mood of the interpreting body placed within that environment. In order to render this point clear, I would like to connect Heidegger’s notion of mood with Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodied subjectivity. The result of this dialogue will be the grounds of hermeneutic understanding of mood. Once this connection has been made, we will thus be in a position to see how a bodily mood such as agoraphobia generates the very spirit of a place and how that spirit can also displace us from our bodies.

An Agoraphobic Mood

To begin putting the body in mood, and thus the mood in hermeneutics, I would like to return to our agoraphobic case study. In particular, I would like to consult the example of Allen Shawn, a composer who has written a history of his agoraphobia. Let us join Shawn as he was faced with an empty road “bound on both sides by large open fields.”16

[W]hen I got halfway down this empty road, I would freeze in place and balk at continuing, exactly like a dog who freezes at (p.167) the door to the veterinarian’s office or a horse who refuses to walk over a rotten bridge. I couldn’t be convinced that I could continue to walk despite whatever symptoms I felt and that if I did so, I would in fact get to the end of the road and still be the person I was four-tenths of a mile back. The physical reactions included my becoming short of breath and beginning to breathe rapidly (in fact to pant like a dog), feeling my heart beat at twice the normal rate, getting extremely warm and sweaty and feeling like discarding my coat and jacket, finding my vision growing dark and blurred, feeling my face grow cold, and my legs tremulous, weak, and then extraordinarily stiff.17

The critical question that must be pursued in light of this passage is as follows: How can an innocuous environment be interpreted in such a way so as to present a threat of total destruction? At stake in this question is not the issue of what lies “beyond” the mood of agoraphobia, as though a psychoanalytic explanation could decode the symbolic ciphers latent in the agoraphobe’s experience. Rather, it is a question of how this particular mode of being-in-the-world is opened up for the agoraphobe—a world that is seemingly at odds with a rational assessment of how it is manifest: in other words, as nonthreatening. What is striking about Shawn’s account is the intensity of his physical response to an invisible threat, such that the very continuity of his personal identity is called into question on this empty road. As though he could be swallowed up by the emptiness of the road itself, Shawn’s experience testifies to the mysterious way in which an environment can become the expressive medium for the body’s moods.

How is this relation between the materiality of the world and the lived experience of mood possible? In a critical passage, Merleau-Ponty gives us a clue: “The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved with a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.”18 As the vehicle of our being-in-the-world, the body is the material reality of our commitments and values. It is only through the lived body that the world can be augmented to a form a coherent union with the I. As Merleau-Ponty argues, if my experience of the world is ruptured by physical disability, then thanks to the intelligibility of my body, a new relationship will be formed that maintains existential unity despite any physical deficiencies. The world will not remain frozen in my (p.168) able-bodied memory of the past but will instead adapt so that my being-in-the-world has a spatio-temporal continuity to it, despite the objective destruction imposed upon me. In this way, the structure of being-in-the-world attests to a circularity between body and world, with each aspect thinking through the other in a shared dialogue. In its instincts, habits, and desires, the body’s being only has a reality in relation to the world. And the same is true in reverse: The materiality of the world—its particular affective tone—is only animated in light of the body. Each aspect gives the other their life, and this life is given context by the body’s mood.

As we see in the illustration from Allen Shawn, this dialogical structure takes on a particular clarity in relation to the environment, such that the texture of spatiality corresponds with the felt experience of the body. In his phobia and anxiety, the materiality of the empty road that Shawn stands before becomes imbued with an existential value. More than the mere means to get from one point to another, the road becomes the material manifestation for the specific way that Allen Shawn comports himself in the world, as he writes: “I couldn’t seem to get past the point at which I would be closer to the destination than to the point of origin.”19 The struggle inherent in this journey comes alive in the circularity between body and environment, in the process generating the conditions under which value is felt through the flesh.

The manifestation of value in the flesh is clear enough in Shawn’s account of walking down an empty road. What is notable is that a particular localized part of the body—in this case, the legs—becomes the focal point of an existential struggle: “I was convinced that when I reached the midpoint, my legs would not move at all and that I would be trapped in place there. I had a vivid picture of myself standing at the centre of emptiness, screaming.”20 This focused intentionality— what Merleau-Ponty calls “pain-infested space”—gains a meaning that reaches beyond the localized sensation itself, affecting the totality not only of the body but also of the environment.21

Seen in this way, the mistake in approaching the relation between body and world is to treat specific affective responses such as phobia as a deviation from the self. At stake in this approach would be a relegation of these affective responses to an arbitrary and mechanical response lacking existential value. Indeed, during periods in which he finds himself in “secure surroundings,” this is precisely how Allen Shawn reasons his agoraphobia: “I even pretend to myself … that my ‘personality’ … is somehow incompatible with agoraphobia. (p.169) Sometimes it feels like just an unfortunate fluke that I inherited this trait.”22 As Merleau-Ponty indicates, if the “body is the vehicle of being in the world,” then everything within that world shapes itself to the mood of the body. In this respect, to think of environmental experience as having a true or false aspect to it is misleading. True, we can speak of certain experiences of the world being more preferable over others, but this level of preference is not an indication of the normative character of place. Rather, the character of place stands in a reciprocal relation to the body in the place. That Shawn experiences his agoraphobia as somehow “incompatible” with his “normal” personality only reinforces the anchoring and normative role his phobia plays in defining his experience of his self and the world.

Interpreting the Mood of Place

Having considered how mood is bodily in nature, we now need to consider in more detail how that bodily mood affects our interpretation of the environment. At stake in this issue is the question of how a place receives its specific, heterogeneous character in and through time. It is thus a question that points to the genesis of a place’s particular genius loci. The full scope of this question would incorporate subjective, cultural, political, and economic factors. But within that complexity, we can isolate the role mood plays in giving place its dynamism and meaning. Such a task is only possible within a hermeneutic framework.

A hermeneutic approach to the genesis of place encourages us to take heed of the manifold ways in which environments can be understood as being both existentially meaningfully and materially real, as Clingerman writes:

Understanding environments (“built” or “natural”) requires a middle path to overcome certain intellectual obstacles and limitations of perspective. Structurally, a hermeneutics of nature “reads” nature by navigating through the way that our experience is irreducible to explanations that are naïve realist or social constructivist.23

Clingerman’s suggestion of a middle path highlights the methodological advantages of a hermeneutic approach to the environment. Able to mediate between the materiality of place and the existential significance of that materiality, by focusing on the role interpretation (p.170) plays in shaping our experience of the environment, hermeneutics draws the questioner into the question.

We have already seen this circularity between the subjectivity of experience and the correlating objectivity of world in the case of Allen Shawn. There, the bodily mood of agoraphobia set in place— in a literal way—an agoraphobic world. Understanding the agoraphobic body, we thus understand the agoraphobic environment, and vice-versa. Far from sanctioning a dualism, this two-way reversibility demonstrates an ambiguity at the heart of our environmental experience, in which the lived experience of the environment meshes with the materiality of the environment. Clingerman writes incisively, “Discovering the textuality of place is not simply an objective reflection upon nature ‘out there,’ but equally reflexive thinking of how we are as subjects understanding place through a placial pre-understanding.”24 The mention of a “placial pre-understanding” can be seen, I would argue, in terms of a pre-theoretical mood that is incorporated into a bodily schema.

In this way, mood presents itself as a mode of meaningful intentionality, a pre-reflexive grasping of the environment that is aided at all times by what Merleau-Ponty describes as the “expression of the total life of the subject, the energy with which he tends towards a future through his body and his world.”25 Merleau-Ponty draws our attention to the lived significance of environmental hermeneutics. Far from a mere “state of consciousness,” the perception of space is at all times rooted in a “latent significance diffused throughout the landscape or the city.”26 At the heart of this significance are the memories, values, and desires that constitute each and every lived experience of the built and natural environment. In a word, we come to place with that place already within us. This is possible thanks to the hermeneutic circulatory between self and world. As Clingerman states, “The self describes and redescribes itself in response to the confrontation of place; place coheres in its own work of identity and encounter with otherness. In other words, in a reflexive manner place similarly is manifested and reconfigured in response to the selves of its inhabitants.”27 The cohering power of place underscores its importance in defining who we are as selves. This redescription of the self is a task that is constantly being renewed, with each “confrontation of place” being an opportunity to either affirm or evade the self we have become.

Does the centrality of the bodily self entail an anthropomorphized interpretation of the environment? There is no reason to think so, (p.171) given that the relation between self and the environment instills what David Utsler terms a “creative tension,” as he writes:

Self-understanding comes by way of a reflective, analytical detour and the dialectic of the self and the other-than-self over against the immediate positing of the subject in the cogito. Thus, a hermeneutics of the self as an account of personal identity would not oppose the anthropocentric to the eco-centric, but would actually require a creative tension between both to develop what I call “environmental identity”—i.e., self-understanding in relation to the environment.28

As Utsler indicates, there is a self-reflexive aspect to environmental experience, which hermeneutics elicits. The self is not placed in the world in a detached way, before then surveying the contents of the phenomenal world, as though the reality of the self were autonomous from that environment. It is precisely because the self is placed within an environment that self-understanding is possible. In the following section, we explore how this self-understanding helps us understand the importance of the home within environmental hermeneutics.

Agoraphobia and the (Un)homeliness of Home

In the mood of fear and anxiety, the world reveals itself in a particular way, carrying with it a particular set of bodily sensations that are peculiar to the agoraphobic self. The question of how we might hermeneutically understand this relation between the phobic body and the materiality of the world is complicated, given that the sensations experienced do not prima facie appear to have a place in the schema of the “total life of the subject.”29 After all, if I am in the midst of a supermarket, feeling myself to be “far from home” (a key expression that haunts the agoraphobe), and thus threatened on all sides by contingency and uncertainty, despite the fact that I objectively know little harm could come to me in such an environment, then the relational circle between self and world appears to have come undone. My body appears to be speaking on behalf of a threat that “I” cannot detect. How can we explain this paradox in experience? On the one hand, for the agoraphobe, the body’s urge (p.172) to flee is so strong that no logic or reason could dissuade the subject from the compulsion to escape. On the other hand, as soon as that compulsion to flee is succumb to, then the reality of the escape assumes the appearance of an absurd drama.

At the heart of the phobic interpreting of the environment is thus a dissonance between cognitive and mental phenomena. Such a tension frames agoraphobia as an irrational phenomenon. Yet agoraphobia’s supposed irrationality only gains a currency if we grant rational thinking an ontological primacy over the body’s experience of the world. This, we recall, is exactly the pose Allen Shawn assumed with his own agoraphobia, as when he writes: “Sometimes it feels like just an unfortunate fluke that I inherited this trait.”30 This sense of having accidently fallen into agoraphobia, as though it were a bad habit and nothing more, overlooks the communicative and hermeneutic layer embedded in the phobic experience of the environment. To begin charting the meaning of this layer, we need only remind ourselves that a central theme for the agoraphobe is the elevation of the home to an ontologically privileged position. Not only is the home the place the agoraphobe flees to, it is also the existential and physical center of their reality and well-being. Consider the following quotes:

There’s an emotional quality to interpreting the landscape—on the way (nervous) I thought: “this house looks abandoned” on the way back (more relaxed) I thought: “People are probably home. Maybe they are making dinner.31

When I was home I felt I could control what was happening to me whereas if I went out, there were other people. …32

The fear begins as soon as the houses leading to an open area increase their distance from him. … A feeling of insecurity appears, as if he were no longer walking secure, and he perceives the cobble stones melting together. … The condition improves by merely approaching houses again.33

In each of these quotes, the importance of the home is indicated from different perspectives. In the first case from Allen Shawn, the affective experience of journeying through a place is mediated by the figure of the deserted and the inhabited home. When departing, Shawn’s anxious experience of the environment leads to an interpretation of the home as unhomely, absent, and altogether uninhabitable. This landscape of anxiety is reversed in his return journey. As his anxiety (p.173) subsides, so the act of bodily interpretation proceeds to put the home back in place, and thus to once again render it a beacon of existential security. At work here is a hermeneutics of the environment, which is guided at all times by the body’s bearing in the world. Departing and returning are experiences that are fundamentally interpretive in structure rather than strictly spatial.

In the second account from an agoraphobic patient named Iris, the home is elevated to a locus of self-control. Given that a large aspect of the agoraphobic’s anxiety is losing control in the face of others, the materiality of the home acts not only as a boundary against the outside world but also has a center of reality. Against this reality, the “look” of the other is denied access. Regarding one agoraphobic person, Joyce Davidson writes: “Sufferers’ homes are frequently organized to minimize the fear of the look. Brenda arranged for two garden sheds to be positioned immediately outside her patio doors, thus completely blocking the view (both ways) out over her garden, towards the back fence and beyond.”34 This approbation of the home as a mode of diverting the look of the other provides us with another way in which the home acts as the defining environment in the agoraphobic’s physical, physiological, and psychological well-being.

The final illustration, given to us by the founder of agoraphobia, Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal, is visceral proof that the agoraphobic’s orientation in space is only possible with reference to the home. Outside of this zone, the very fabric of the world becomes insecure, as though “the cobble stones [were] melting together.” Already in Westphal’s original description of agoraphobia, the critical issue is not the objective features of space—openness or closeness—but the relational distance to home. As Westphal’s patient leaves the confines of his zone of safety, so his body opens up to a different way of being. Now, movement is stifled and vertiginous, the very materiality of the world suffering from a lack of reality. Into this abyssal unreality open space becomes problematic, not because of the space itself but because certain aspects of the environment serve to divide the home from the non-home. Crossing the square—the archetypal agoraphobic motif—the danger is not of the square itself, nor even of the public eyes that descend upon the agoraphobe. To be sure, all of these things contribute to the agoraphobe’s concern, but the kernel of his anxiety is the question of how he finds his way back in the world. The abysmal quality of the agoraphobic world centers on the pathological (p.174) need to be orientated at all times, where only disorientation and distance are possible.

This relation between being orientated and being at home in the world points to agoraphobia’s power to disrupt our idea(l)s of home. In the previous passage, what we are contending with is literally an un-homely environment. Because of the agoraphobic’s intense attachment to the home as a site of refuge from the world, anything outside of that circumscribed zone suffers not only from a loss of reality but also from a lack of orientation. Into this disorientated environment, the world assumes an uncanny appearance, as Freud has it: “The better oriented he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the objects and occurrences in it uncanny.”35 No wonder, then, that outside the home, the agoraphobe feels his world turn unreal. In the high vaulted aisles of city streets and across the populated avenues that divide the space into atomized segments, the agoraphobe’s body breaks down. That there is such a world outside of his home, for him, is an affront to his ontological reality.

Considered together, at least three things can be said about the agoraphobic’s attempt at homemaking. One, for the agoraphobic person, home is a site that is fixed in space in a circumscribed and rigid manner. The home is a center, both figuratively and literally. Only instead of being a center from which life is projected, it has become a place in which life is withdrawn, as Jacobson puts it: “Home is a place of refuge and retreat for the agoraphobic, not, as it would be for the healthy person, a supportive base from which projects can be launched.”36 Beyond the walls of the home, the failure to make a home in the world is felt in the agonizing bodily sensations that accompany the agoraphobic experience of being-in-the-world. That these symptoms are experienced as a sense of impending death is thus entirely logical: Outside the home, the agoraphobic subject’s world collapses, their reality now dwarfed by total disorientation and unfamiliarity. To this end, the agoraphobe’s topophilia is equally topophilic. In other words, the agoraphobe’s love and attachment to home is predicated on an equal revulsion and alienation from the non-home, with each realm structurally implicated in each other. In his ambivalent relation to home, what he is ultimately lacking is the resources to find home, not simply in the immediate place beyond his frontier of safety but within the world itself.

It follows from this that the agoraphobe’s experience of being oriented in the world is at all times reliant on objective—largely (p.175) visual—cues. Instead of taking the home for granted as a background presence, an enforced vigilance is constructed so that the agoraphobic person knows where he or she is at any given moment. This insistence on a topographical approbation of space stands in contrast to a more fluid and bodily sense of being at home. Lacking trust in the body’s power to get placed in the world, the agoraphobe’s experience of being outside of the home remains hesitant and stifled. For the agoraphobe, the expression of being oriented in the world is only possible within the confines of his or her zone of homely safety. Beyond those margins, bodily and spatial constrictions take precedence.

Finally, the agoraphobe’s experience of being at home and thus of not being at home reinforces the fact that “home” is ultimately a contingent idea, which at any point could reject our experience of intimacy and familiarity, as Shawn writes: “How can it be—we ask ourselves—that for some people this alien place is home, this their daily view—one so familiar that they no longer even look at it—this their idea of ‘normality.’”37 What Shawn’s reflection captures is that the experience of being “far from home” is not a question of spatial distance but a mode of being-in-the-world. The unhomeliness of agoraphobia is located in its resistance to experiencing the world as a familiar phenomenon. In the place of familiarity, the agoraphobic subject continuously faces a world that withdraws from the certainty of being placed. In such a displacement, the circularity between body and world is evident in that both the agoraphobic person and the agoraphobic environment are fundamentally out of place and not at home. In this way, agoraphobia gives us a clear example that the meaning of home is subject to the varying moods of the body. Home is not something “out there,” waiting to greet us after a long day at work. It is a relation we hold to being-in-the-world. That such a relation is subject to the moods of our bodies is understandably anxiety inducing: Failing to construct a meaningful relation to the idea of home means that our world—and so our own self—becomes displaced from its axis.


What can the agoraphobic’s experience of struggling to be at home in the world tell us about environmental hermeneutics? As I have sought to argue in this chapter, I believe that agoraphobia shows us two things, each of which is tacit in non-agoraphobic experience. First, far from an abstract reflection on the world, mood is the primary (p.176) way in which the body interprets the environment. This is especially clear in the illustration of agoraphobia, as the body in question is heightened in its affective and interpretive sensibility. Because of this heightened status, the symbolic and existential depth of the world is given a visceral expression. Our experience of the world is never neutral, and our bodies are never blank canvases upon which the materiality of the environment is posited. Instead, our experience always involves a circularity between body and environment, with each aspect dependent on the other for its voice. Of the voice of the agoraphobic’s body, Sadowsky writes: “Agoraphobic symptomatology involves a direct and immediate affective reactivity to certain spatial physiognomies possessing their own symbolic depth.”38 Even if those symbolic depths are unregistered by the agoraphobic person, the body’s perception of the environment nevertheless maintains its principle aim: to be oriented in a home-world.39

That agoraphobia presents itself as an obstacle in the body’s aim of getting placed means that it reveals the centrality of the home— not only for the agoraphobe but for all interpreting bodies. Far from a pathological deviation incommensurable with “normal” environmental experience, agoraphobia amplifies what is common to all bodily subjects: that home is something that must continuously be reinterpreted, not only cognitively but corporeally, too. This can be seen in the fact that home is not only a place in the world but, more importantly, a relation to that place. Without building a relationship with the places in which we live—indeed, the world in which we live—human beings fall prey to ontological insecurity. The insecurity is not, as normative science would have it, a morbid psychic category of the agoraphobic personality but a given of what it is to exist, which each of us must contend with.

In both the bodily mood of the agoraphobe as well as their troubled relation to home, we gain an understanding on the hermeneutic structure underlying all bodily experience. The environment is spatial and bodily at once. It is the living nexus, from which our total subjectivity is both projected and introjected. The implication of this is that without a hermeneutics of the body, a hermeneutics of place remains unattainable. Places come to life thanks to the moods we carry into them. What this means is that the places that hold value for us are not only spatial in character but developed through our bodily involvement with them. The environment invites a response from us. In different ways, the hallway of an auditorium or a tunnel buried in the jungle urge a response from us. How we respond to (p.177) these spatial encounters will depend in large part on the mood of our body, which in turn defines the environment through interpreting it. Equally, our moods are never disembodied or despatialized but always involve a relationship to the living world. To overlook one of these dimensions is to ignore the fact that environmental hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of the bodily self.

Situated in the broader field of environmental philosophy, the contribution that a hermeneutics of the bodily self can make is two-fold. First, if environmental philosophy has for the most part concerned itself with specific issues in the world—ranging from pollution, the growth of skyscrapers, the use of cars, the shortage of natural resources, the extinction of species, and so forth—then what has been overlooked in this work is our very (bodily) relation to these issues. By placing the body central, environmental hermeneutics serves to remind us that the environment is not a static, objective world existing “out there.” Instead, the environment encompasses our bodies as our bodies encompass the environment.

Second, it follows that if our bodily relation to the environment is foremost in our grappling with environmental issues, then the question of what the environment can ethically teach us is an issue that must be called into a question. The reason for questioning this thought is that it presupposes a normative status to environmental ethics, and a status that is autonomous from the subject. Yet if the character and mood of the environment is provided by the relation human subjects adapt to the environment, then the extent to which the environment can serve as a beacon of ethical insight must be reconsidered. This is not to reduce environmental ethics to the whim of a relativist position. Instead, it is to acknowledge the dependence ethical positions have on the bodily moods that shape our understanding of the environment. (p.178)


(1) . Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. John Warrington (London: Dent and Sons, 1973), 70.

(2) . Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 20.

(3) . Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 345.

(4) . Cf. Isaac Marks, Fears, Phobias, and Rituals: Panic, Anxiety, and their Disorders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); David Trotter, “The Invention of Agoraphobia,” Victorian Literature and Culture 32 (2004): 463–474.

(5) . Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume III, trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), 81.

(6) . Dianne Chambless and Alan Goldstein, Agoraphobia: Multiple Perspectives on Theory and Treatment (Chichester: Wiley and Sons, 1982), 3.

(7) . Stewart Sadowsky, “Agoraphobia, Erwin Straus and Phenomenological Psychopathology,” The Humanistic Psychologist 25 (1997): 33.

(8) . Kirsten Jacobson, “Agoraphobia and Hypochondria as Disorders of Dwelling,” International Studies in Philosophy 36 (2004): 34.

(10) . Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

(11) . Ibid., 126.

(12) . Ibid.

(13) . Ibid., 129.

(14) . Ibid., 128–129.

(15) . John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 45.

(16) . Allen Shawn, Wish I Could be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Viking Press, 2007), 117.

(17) . Ibid.

(18) . Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge, 2006), 94.

(20) . Ibid., 118–119.

(23) . Forrest Clingerman, “Memory, Imagination, and the Hermeneutics of Place,” in this volume.

(24) . Ibid., 374.

(25) . Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 330.

(26) (p.341) Ibid., 328.

(27) . Clingerman, “Memory, Imagination, and the Hermeneutics of Place,” in this volume.

(28) . David Utsler, “Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics as a Model for environmental Philosophy,” Philosophy Today 53 (2009): 174.

(31) . Ibid., 133.

(32) . Joyce Davidson, “Putting on a Face: Sartre, Goffman, and Agoraphobic Anxiety in Social Space,” Environmental and Planning D: Society and Space 21 (2003): 113.

(33) . Terry Knapp, Westphal’s “Die Agoraphobie” with Commentary: The Beginnings of Agoraphobia, trans. Michael T. Schumacher (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988), 70.

(35) . Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David Mclintock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003), 125.

(39) . Cf. AnthonySteinbock, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology after Husserl (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995).