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Dwelling in a Global Age:
An Introduction

This essay introduces a cluster of essays that address the question of dwelling in a global age. Although their shared point of departure is Heidegger’s 1954 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” each explores how Heidegger’s meditations manifest in modern and postmodern fiction and how questions of dwelling resonate in our present globalized moment. Who dwells—or can stake a claim to dwelling—in neoliberal Europe, in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, in Trump’s America? Together, the collected essays explore how modern fiction stakes a claim for Being in the world, for both the lives it portrays and literature itself.

When thought’s courage stems from the bidding of Being, then destiny’s language thrives.

—Martin Heidegger, “The Thinker as Poet”

What Heidegger invokes in this initially oblique passage are the interactions—really, the inextricability—of thinking, Being, and courage. What is at stake in the act of thinking is Being itself, and to fully claim Being requires, in Heidegger’s time as in our own, a measure of audacity and courage. I write these words in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, a moment every bit as portentous as the postwar time of Heidegger’s 1954 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Notwithstanding every modern US presidential election’s hyperbolic claim to the status of most important election in our lifetime, the election of Donald Trump has undoubtedly and dramatically altered America’s—and arguably the world’s—prospects for what Heidegger called dwelling (Wohnen). Like us, Heidegger lived and wrote in what he perceived as a time of great upheaval, a time that, for him, put dwelling into question as never before.

So how exactly is dwelling—the prospect of dwelling or even thinking dwelling—different today than it was on 8 November 2016? Who can dwell now that could not before that date, and who will find themselves unable to dwell in its aftermath? These are admittedly not questions that the authors of the essays in this cluster had on their [End Page 2] minds as they prepared their contributions to “Dwelling in a Global Age.” But as you read their work in the wake of Trump’s ascension to the White House, the present occasion resonates throughout. It is not that the Heideggerian matrix of thinking, Being, and courage was not already at play in their writings, but we now have a very specific and shared context in which to read and grapple with that matrix.

In the lines that immediately follow my epigraph, Heidegger refines this thinking-Being-courage matrix in a way that also allows us to think dwelling:

As soon as we have the thing before our eyes, and in our hearts an ear for the word, thinking prospers.

Any possibility of dwelling must start with the act of envisioning it (“before / our eyes”) and naming it (“an ear / for the word”). Thus dwelling begins with the thinking of dwelling—it is and must ever be a conscious and deliberate choice—and that very thinking of dwelling in turn begins as a vision and a naming. In other words, in dwelling one stakes a claim for one’s Being in the world and one’s place in the world. And the world as a place fit for dwelling.

Each of these three essays addresses Heidegger’s opening questions in “Building Dwelling Thinking” in its own way: What is it to dwell, and how does building belong to dwelling? Heidegger is very clear that these questions are not literally about how to build: “This venture in thought does not view building as an art or as a technique of construction” (347). The task is not building in a literal (architectural, engineering) sense but in an ontological one; the acts that “attain to dwelling” are rather those that build a life, a sense of belonging to a place, a culture, a way of life—in short, a world—that we have a hand in helping to build or maintain. The literary bildungsroman reveals dwelling to us in precisely this way: as the individual’s struggle to achieve within the world that has produced her the status of a conscious and contented being. Every bildungsroman may thus be read as a narrative of dwelling, an anatomy of the space within which Being as the fulfillment (or not) of dwelling occurs. Although Heidegger more often found this “essential unfolding” in poetry (356), arguably no art form discloses the possibilities and dangers of aspiring to dwell more thoroughly and systematically than narrative fiction.

The essays that follow examine literary texts that are not bildungs in the narrow sense but that narrativize—anatomize—dwelling all the same. If, as Heidegger contends, dwelling requires attachment to a place—that which we may call home—and its corresponding customs and ways of Being-in-the-world, then we can read in the novels taken up by these essays the stakes, hopes, and dangers of [End Page 3] attachment to places, from William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and W. G. Sebald’s Suffolk to the post-Tiger Ireland of Anne Haverty and Donal Ryan. Each of these writers’ novels pursues Heidegger’s questions in settings that unsettle dwelling, that threaten to render it precarious, perhaps impossible. In our current global moment, we might revise Heidegger’s queries thusly: Is the promise-filled (elusive) prospect of dwelling even possible—that is, thinkable—in our time? Or should dwelling be the first ground—the absolutely nonnegotiable first demand—for thinking Being-in-the-world at all?

These questions necessarily throw us back into the language and nomenclature of dwelling. Specifically, we are concerned here with the nature of a demand. Who is in a position to demand dwelling and from whom? What agency holds the power to grant or withhold dwelling? Although Heidegger does not pose dwelling precisely in terms of a demand in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” his exposition of the language of dwelling moves directly from bauen (to dwell) to “the German word Nachbar, neighbor,” which he further defines as “[t]he near-dweller, he who dwells nearby” (349). The rest of his paragraph, which catalogues a series of analogues to building (working, traveling, and sheltering, but also cultivating and constructing), especially emphasizes the centrality of dwelling as an activity done with others:

Where the word bauen still speaks in its original sense it also says how far the essence of dwelling reaches. That is, bauen, buan, bhu, beo are our word bin in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling.

Dwelling is thus immanent, not just broadly to Being but more precisely to Being-with (Mitsein). This dwelling as Being-with extends beyond our fellow humans to our inhabited environment, as it manifests in building (bauen): “We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers” (350). That in turn requires not only the freedom to build (Freiheit) but the state of being at peace (Freide) because only those who can dwell in peace (those Heidegger calls “the free, das Frye”) are truly free to build. The common etymology of peace (Freide) and safety—for Heidegger the German “fry means preserved from harm and danger . . . safeguarded”—further confirms the relation between dwelling, building, and peace (351). Where these do not coincide, where Mitsein is denied to some or all of the populace, the very act of thinking dwelling—and especially of staking a claim [End Page 4] to dwell—requires the courage to demand it. All of human history, emphatically the five hundred years after Columbus, is that of individuals and peoples making such demands, of dwellings disrupted, destroyed, demanded, sometimes achieved, but too often denied. Today we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented series of events—from wars, environmental degradation, and refugee crises to the rise of a post-truth reality television celebrity to the apogee of global power—that makes the question of dwelling and its possibility more urgent than ever.

Each of the essays collected here presents one or more fictions that historicize a particular flash point or crisis in the history of dwelling: the US Civil War, World War II, and the globalization-fueled rise and crash of the Celtic Tiger.

Herman Rapaport’s “Fantasies of Settlement: Heidegger, Tocqueville, Fichte, Faulkner” thinks dwelling at the intersection of sovereignty and settlement. Rather than a “univocal answer,” Rapaport offers a genealogy of dwelling that reveals (or in Heidegger’s terms, unfolds) a “politics of political ontology” mediated, if not defined, by what he calls “fantasies of settlement.” If we accept for the moment “sovereignty” as a rough analogue for safety—the state of dwelling at peace, “safeguarded,” as Heidegger proposes, “from harm and danger”—then the failure of settlement also dooms dwelling. And if this unsettlement is only giving the lie to what Rapaport calls “fantasies” of dwelling as an “imaginary conception,” such fantasies always already belie the knowledge, however repressed, of the precariousness of dwelling.

This is especially the case when an act of settlement requires a corresponding denial or erasure of another’s claim to dwell. Rapaport notes how this simultaneous settlement and denial finds its clearest manifestation in the land itself, more specifically in “legitimations and rights in relation to place” that equate settlement with biopolitical superiority (for example, claims grounded in racial, ethnic, or national identifications). Thus begins a counterintuitive genealogy that unfolds across two centuries before settling on a novel that encompasses a similar timespan: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! In the supplementary Chronology, the novel fixes (somewhat uncertainly) the birth of antagonist Thomas Sutpen in 1807—the same year, incidentally, in which Fichte published his “Address to the German People”—and maps over the span of a century a greater Caribbean that includes pre-statehood West Virginia, Haiti, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. At the novel’s core stands Sutpen, his lifetime a chronicle of claimed, imagined, diminished, and ultimately destroyed fantasies of settlement. [End Page 5]

The final and most fateful failure of Sutpen’s claims to dwell—Sutpen’s last stand, as it were—unfolds in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where, as Rapaport notes, “the settlement of native peoples, slaves, former slaves, poor Southern whites (tenant farmers, hill people), the middle class, and the well-to-do is never something entirely settled.” The spectacular unraveling of Sutpen’s imaginary sovereignty (another in a long line of resettlements, of dwelling’s claims and counterclaims, in America) also serves as the novel’s central preoccupation, a slow-motion train wreck from which none of its several narrators can look away. In the end, the grandiose fantasy of settlement manifest in Sutpen’s Hundred, the plantation on which most of the novel’s characters live and die, is just one more blip in the long history of the impossibility of dwelling and the persistence of human attempts, however misguided, to dwell. Yet even from a distance of forty years and over 1,300 miles, in the chill of his Harvard dormitory, Quentin Compson continues to brood over it, as Rapaport eloquently writes: “Here nothing is settled, which is why Quentin goes over and over this history and the blindspot around which it fails to complete itself.” The annihilation of the US South thus reverberates across the decades, leaving its survivors and heirs in the “unsettled existential state” that engulfs Quentin, which Faulkner’s readers know from the earlier novel The Sound and the Fury leads to his eventual suicide.1

Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn initially seems to occupy the very opposite of Faulkner’s unrelenting focus on settlement and sovereignty. The novel’s German subtitle, “eine englische Wallfahrt” (“An English Pilgrimage”), suggests a relation to dwelling that the narrative itself does not easily surrender. But Satarupa Sinha Roy’s essay, “Wandering to Dwell: Heidegger and the Phenomenology of Dwelling in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,” takes its cue from this subtitle to demonstrate how the narrator’s wanderings in fact portray a pilgrimage, a search for dwelling in the face of a seemingly endless history of destruction. Sinha Roy describes the novel precisely in terms of an “inquest” into dwelling in the face of human and natural histories that would deny it: “If dwelling is the manner in which man comes to be in the world, how does dwelling unfold as a mode of being against a history of violence, oppression, and destruction?”

The novel’s kaleidoscopic narrative “wanders” through not only seemingly unconnected scenes and encounters but through a myriad of discourses and genres: narrative fiction, travelogue, autobiography, and natural history, among others. The result, Sinha Roy claims, is a narrative that can absorb within its post-empire and postglobal frame such disparate subjects as the “perilously overfished” North Sea herring, the trial and execution of Roger Casement, and the [End Page 6] former military compound at Orfordness—all part of a wandering that seeks not only signifiers but the very language out of which to articulate, and perhaps to attain to, dwelling. Heidegger’s few direct references to language in “Building Dwelling Thinking” assert both the centrality of language to any understanding of “the essence of a thing,” whether it be dwelling or its failure (348). Heidegger further speculates that it may be the desire to overturn language’s preeminence by bending it to his own imperatives—what he calls “man’s subversion of this relation of dominance”—that “drives his essential being into alienation.” Readers of Heidegger will no doubt note how aptly this admonishment, echoing his famous dictum in the earlier “Letter on Humanism” that “[l]anguage is the house of Being,” folds into his meditation on dwelling (217). For when the language of dwelling—its nomenclature—diverges from lived human experience, the result can only be the radical alienation we find in Sebald, Faulkner, and so many other chroniclers of the modern quest to dwell.2

Jason Buchanan’s essay “Ruined Futures: Gentrification as Famine in Post-Celtic Tiger Irish Literature” does not explicitly reference dwelling in Heideggerian terms, yet the radical alienation it exposes as the result of gentrification in neoliberal Ireland is no less ominous for it. In Haverty’s 2007 The Free and Easy and Ryan’s 2012 The Spinning Heart we see the consequences of gentrification as a radical redistribution of populations as well as capital—neoliberalism’s rejection of the very values of safeguarding and preservation that ground Heidegger’s vision of dwelling. Both novels chronicle, as Buchanan notes, how in the early twenty-first century the “speculative nature of global gentrification reshaped the way the Irish articulated narratives of property, land, community, ethnicity, and home.”

The neoliberal narrative of “space as a fluctuating commodity” and “consumable product” runs exactly counter to Heidegger’s conception of dwelling as a sparing and preserving (“to take under our care” [“Building” 353]). Likewise, the furious pace of construction and development that characterized the first phase of the Celtic Tiger exemplifies a divergence of building from dwelling, a building that is not for dwelling but for the speculative accumulation of capital. Those left in its wake remain surrounded by structures not built with them in mind or for them at all. Gentrification is by definition anticommunal. Thus under gentrification there is much building but no dwelling. This is precisely why Haverty, a native Dubliner, describes the bucolic Ireland that protagonist Tom Blessman has come seeking as “a fantasy. Well, a construct, at least” (112). “Construct” here references both the physical building boom and the fantasy (but not of settlement) in the name of which the new cityscape has been erected. [End Page 7]

Ryan’s novel presents an arguably more disturbing portrait of how neoliberal gentrification destroys dwelling, as its setting is not urban but rather the rural spaces that so closely inform Heidegger’s work. The huge but nearly unoccupied country estate at the center of The Spinning Heart is emblematic of what have come to be called “ghost estates,” which Buchanan aptly describes as “unintentional monuments to Tiger-era gentrification.” Their status as unoccupied shells stands as what Buchanan calls “the unfinished ruins of the future,” as bleak a harbinger of the future as the abandoned compound of Sebald’s Orfordness and a reminder of the past—the very antithesis of Heidegger’s building as gathering (Versammlung).

The essays collected here and the fictions they explore leave us in a place closely analogous to Heidegger’s closing description in “Building Dwelling Thinking” of what he calls “the plight” of dwelling: “that mortals ever search anew for the essence of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell” (363). The future possibility of dwelling, which seems as precarious as ever, is a good deal less certain, Heidegger seems to say, than the desire and longing and quest to dwell. It is the persistence of what might be an impossible demand that persists all the same. “In the very depth of misfortune,” Heidegger tells us, “they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn” (352).

Alfred J. López

ALFRED J. LÓPEZ <alopez@purdue.edu> is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University. He has authored four books, including José Martí: A Revolutionary Life, which has been hailed as the definitive biography of Martí. López’s essays have appeared in American Literature, Comparative Literature, Cuban Studies, and South Atlantic Quarterly, among other journals, and he is a contributor to the Huffington Post. He was the founding editor of The Global South, a leading journal of globalization studies.


1. The Sound and the Fury’s 1929 publication predates Absalom, Absalom! by seven years, making the latter a kind of prequel.

2. The oft-quoted sentence makes even more sense here when read along with the one that follows it: “Language is the house of being. In its home man dwells” (“Letter” 217).

Works Cited

Haverty, Anne. The Free and Easy. London: Vintage, 2007.
Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” 1954. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Krell 343–63.
———. “Letter on Humanism.” 1947. Trans. Frank A. Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray. Krell 213–65.
———. “The Thinker as Poet.” 1947. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Martin Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Writings. Ed. Manfred Stassen. New York: Continuum, 2003. 19–23.
Krell, David Farrell, ed. Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. 2nd ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993. [End Page 8]