Notes on Belonging


Andrea R. Gammon researches and writes about environmental philosophy and place.
She immigrated to the Netherlands in 2013 and currently teaches philosophy and ethics at TU Delft.

“I brought you here because”

In each of these films, a narrator brings us to two places. She brings us first to a place of her past, shown to us by a still image. Maybe this place is as much in her present as in her past. But it is a place we only enter through the image, through her memory, and her narration. As we know this place, we know it with and through her. She brought us here.

She brings us to a second place. We are no longer looking at a still image of a landscape but instead at a moving image where she enters and centers herself in the scene, keeping her back turned. The shot is mainly still, but there is quiet movement. People walk by. The wind blows. Again, we learn of this place through her narration, through her still presence in it. She turns and faces us. We hear her sing a lullaby. She brought us here. 

She says to us: I brought you here because I have found this place. It is a place that somehow lays claim to me that I also lay some claim to: that I have experienced and that I know.

Belonging and place(s)

I am especially interested in these two places. The first—an older place, a place of home, of memory, a favorite place the narrators first describe—is perhaps the kind of place that naturally accords with an idea of belonging. This is a place that is missed or longed for, a place we can remember, or perhaps visit, but where we no longer inhabit or can access, a place we are exiled from. Commonly we think of belonging to places like this, especially to belonging to the place of our birth, our place of origin, nativity, or to places where we grew up, that were formative in our lives. We recognize that we as individuals are shaped by the environments, communities, and situations in which we live, and that in some important sense, our identities are constituted by this history of the self in and with its surroundings. This recognition grounds the idea that we could feel like we belong in a place or in a community.

Some philosophers have paid special attention to the home, and especially the childhood home, as sites of original protection and development, places where we might first locate a notion of belonging. Gaston Bachelard wrote this of how we remember our childhood home:

“When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of reverie, we participate in this original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise. This is the environment in which the protective beings live.” [1]

The unbroken and untroubled relationship between the child and the home Bachelard describes resonates with the work of Janet Donohoe, who explores the Husserlian idea of the homeworld. We begin forming our homeworld, Donohoe explains, as children, when we learn to differentiate the home from the outside, from the alien. The homeworld is the world of the deeply, primordially familiar. It is what we acquire through our bodies, through our memories, through our habits living in a particular society and place: the ways of behaving, speaking, and moving, the sense of space and time, gesture and other embodiments, most of which we learn and perform unreflectively and even subconsciously. This learned, originally homeworld, Donohoe claims, bears its imprint on us through our whole lives: she writes that it is the “hallmark by which we measure any other place and where our experiences are typical and are in conformity with our bodily expectations.” [2]

Our bodies and minds, even our abilities to perceive the world around us, are shaped by our homeworld, and these lived imprints are what make anything that is not the homeworld seem foreign and strange to us. This alienworld, then, is always constituted by the homeworld, or more precisely, what the homeworld is not.
Moving to or even visiting a different place or culture is one of the most immediate ways of feeling exactly the shape and imprint of our homeworld, as Donohoe describes. We often feel out of place, uncertain, as our ways of being, of thinking, of communicating, of moving in the world are challenged. This is can be freeing or exhilarating as well as deeply unsettling.

We might think of the second places in the films, where our narrators appear, along these lines: in Donohoe’s terms, stepping into the alienworld, though this is an unfortunate and graceless phrase we can leave behind. In entering these second places, the women show how they have begun to inhabit Nijmegen and to appropriate parts of this new city [3] into their own lives: that they have found some small places that they feel attached to in some way. They brought us here, and again we come to know these scenes as the present places in which these women narrate their migration and live their lives. It is in these second places that the question of belonging is more complicated, and I would venture more interesting. There is an important sense in which the experience of being somewhere new, of trying to enlarge one’s homeworld to encompass a new place, complicates the experience of belonging.

One way the films perform this complication is in the lullabies we hear each woman sing, lullabies that, may have been sung to them to soothe them, that they may have known since their childhoods. In the film, however, these are more than beautiful pacifying songs: they accentuate the vulnerability of each woman, who sings without any accompaniment, a song that shares with us some memory of her life. At the same time, the lullaby underscores the meaning and traditions of the older place and its tensions with the new. If there ever was an option a simple return or homecoming to the (perhaps romanticized) original home, we are reminded that this option is no longer open.

How do we belong in new, adopted environments? Can we make ourselves belong? I suggest that by already having found the places they bring us to, that is, already having found parts of their new city that feel personally significant, that lay claim to them in some way, these women have already started the relationship with a place that belonging can grow out of. What these short films make clear, individually and as a collection, is that these women do not simply belong to the first place. We do not come from one place and belong only and forever there. Such a nativist idea of belonging is not only regressive and politically repugnant, but anyone who has moved to a new place is likely to find this grossly mischaracterizes the experience of expanding one’s homeworld. Instead, belonging is a mutual relation. To be able to find a sense of belonging in a new place requires taking a radically open position that is often challenging and uncomfortable: where we feel not at home, out of place, homesick; where we feel lonely; where we lose connections and make new ones; where we acquire new languages, sensibilities, place-names; where we find ourselves attached to, and enlarged by new places that are no longer foreign to us. The places our narrators have found for themselves and have brought us to share with them, though still new, are places through which they already understand themselves.

Notes & References

[1] Bachelard, Gaston. (1994). The Poetics of Space. (M. Jolas, trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1958), p. 7.

[2] Donohoe, Janet. (2011). ‘The place of home.’ Environmental Philosophy: 8(1): 25-40, p. 34.

[3] The name Nijmegen derives from Noviomagus, which means new field or new market. Originally named Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum, Nijmegen was inhabited by Romans and Batavians in the 1st century CE and is considered the oldest city in the Netherlands.

Roodenburg, Hylke. (2001). ‘Stedenbouwkundige Geschiedenis: Nijmegen.’ De Stedenbouwkundige Geschiedenis Van Nijmegen. Available online: