Some notes on home and roots

We are sitting at a terrace in Pardubice after the research seminar, discussing an upcoming conference dealing with the topics of nationalism and the rise of populism in Europe. I think we are all, at least to some degree, living a somewhat cosmopolitan academic life, which entails mobility, moving from one place to another. At a certain point, the discussion turns from them – the nationalists and the right wing-populists – to our own relation to home and roots. The Indian scholar talks about her home-province, where she belongs to a language minority consisting of roughly one million speakers. My colleague from Helsinki talks about how the identity of Eastern Helsinki is defined by the border between the capital and the more peripheral regions of Vantaa and Sipoo. The Slovak researcher reveals some intricacies about living in the Czech Republic, as a Slovak. What is shared by all of us is that the words home and roots awaken thoughts about a certain language-community, cultural context or geographical place, to which our mind turns like the needle of the compass searching for the magnetic pole. These concepts do not primarily belong to the nationalists or the right-wing populists; they are universal, essential for the ways in which all of us orient ourselves in this world. But what do we mean by these concepts? How can we use the words “home” and “roots” without falling back on stereotypical polarities: liberalism/conservatism, cosmopolitanism/nationalism, pluralism/identitarianism?


 In his book At Home in the World, phenomenologist and anthropologist Michael D. Jackson deals with the meaning of the concept of “home”. In his field-work, Jackson travelled to the Australian outback and found a narrative of loss and re-discovery of home. He describes the predicament of the, so called, “stolen generations”. During the 20th century the Australian government took into custody approximately 100 000 children of aboriginal origin. They were transferred to missionary stations and governmental institutions. The new custodians raised the children as white Anglo-Australians with the aim that the children would forget their culture, language and their biological parents. Their connection to their sense of belonging to place, language and culture was disrupted, one could say that the aim was to cut their roots, in order for them to become like all other (new) Australians.

While growing up, this generation carried a common trauma that expressed itself in alcoholism, drug-abuse and alienation. The aboriginal Australian identity started to become seen as a trait of a culture of failure, in the eyes of the Anglo-Australians. During the 1980’s a better understanding of the characteristics of this trauma started to develop. A movement called Link-Up was established with a goal to return the stolen generation to its roots and to reconnect the lost children with their biological parents. Some of the urbanized aborigines who had been abducted by the Australian government returned to the bush. Newly established village communities where built in the Australian heartlands.

For some, the return was no longer viable; the whole idea had become alien. For others the movement entailed a very concrete sense of homecoming. The new village communities where conceived as healing. As if the actual soil, in which a certain culture had grown during the past 50 000 years, carried the ability to cure the sense of alienation brought about by trauma. A part of the generation that had become alienated, due to abduction and urbanization, and who’s language and culture had been demolished at some point, were still able to find a sense of home through reestablishing a connection with the practices and places of earlier generations. Jackson condenses the meaning of home into two aspects: it is the place to which you and your thoughts return too continuously, but it is also the community without which your life lacks meaningfulness.[1]


In The Need for Roots, Simone Weil addresses questions concerning the nature of our rootedness and alienation. According to Rush Rhees, the essay builds on Weil’s concern about the aftermath of the Second World War in France, he writes: “Her problem is: how can France be brought live again – how it can start a new life after the German occupation.”[2] The essay is written in 1943 in London, before the end of the war.  Weil ponders: ”Don’t let us imagine that being worn out, all they will ask for is a comfortable existence. Nervous exhaustion caused by some recent misfortune makes it impossible for those concerned to settle down to enjoy a comfortable existence. It forces people to seek forgetfulness, sometimes in a dizzy round of exhausted enjoyment – as was the case in 1918 – at other times in some dark and dismal fanaticism. When misfortune bites too deeply, it creates a disposition towards misfortune, which makes people plunge headlong into themselves dragging others along with them.”[3] It is a description of the trauma set forth by the loss of roots. A loss that makes one estranged from the world and leads to self-absorption. Being lost creates an attachment to the feeling of misfortune, a feeling that easily caters to fanaticism. The Need for Roots is a sign of warning to the French and the Europeans. The Treaty of Versailles led to a loss of rootedness – a sense of a past and a future in Germany – that provided fertile soil for Hitler. The vacuum created by the war, any war, is dangerous because it can trigger a renewal of the chain of events.


Weil urges us to take seriously the feelings of homelessness and rootlessness. These experiences bare witness of a foundational aspect of the movements of our mind. Loss of sense of home and roots is traumatizing and malign for our psychology. This sense of loss does not adhere to any specific political inclination. It is not bound to any specific culture or socio-economical group. Rather, alienation, rootedness and rootlessness are part of the dynamics of our common human psychological makeup. They are part of the fabric that the movements of our minds consist of, the inclinations that determine what is familiar and strange, known and unknown, habitual and alien.

How we approach this dynamics is foundational for which kinds of social and political communities we establish. But to understand this dynamic, it is not enough to look at sociological or political spectrums, the concepts of roots and home reside in each of us, and the loss of them will always entail affliction.

Antony Fredriksson


[1] Michael D. Jackson, At Home in the World (Duke University Press 1995). 

[2] Rush Rhees, Discussion on Simone Weil (SUNY Press 2000), p. 40.

[3] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. A. F. Wills (London: Routledge 1952), pp. 92-93.