Heartbreak House

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Thu, January 07, 2016 - 10:30:53

Years ago, when I read Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House, I didn’t like it and it made me angry. Written before WWI and (not surprisingly) set in England, it focused in two groups of people, the denizens of Heartbreak House and those of Horseback Hall. Those of Heartbreak House are sensitive, aware, artistic, and unable to act. Those of Horseback Hall are confident, callous, and bellicose. And they dominate, dominate, dominate. They do not sell—we’re talking about cartoons that delineate a certain kind of British view in located in a particular historical moment—but they do rule unquestioningly. In my distant memory, the play ends with the members of Heartbreak House going outside to stare at the sky while waiting impotently and impatiently for the bombs to drop, because at least that would change something. Bernard Shaw was not sufficiently prescient to anticipate the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli, and so forth. But he saw that war prosecuted by Horseback Hall would be truly terrible, and it was.

At that time in my life, I was not a designer. In fact, I barely knew what a designer was or did, apart from making excessively expensive clothes and accoutrements. But my response to the play was designerly in that it was founded in the need to do something. How could those who knew what was important tolerate inactivity? How could they cede power to fools? 

Despite a subsequent career in making things and, in that way, taking action, I understand the sadness of the situation of Heartbreak House better now than I did at twenty. Why were the inhabitants of Heartbreak House so passive? To act rightly, we first structure our world so that we know what actions to take, when to take them, and what they mean. We make choices that bring us to the brink of action and then it is only a little step over the brink. The inhabitants of Heartbreak House were helpless to do the right things when it counted because their scope of action was defined by what was promoted as valuable by the stentorious inhabitants of Horseback Hall. 

Recently, I wrote a blog piece about the importance of Feminist Maker Spaces, as reported by Fox, Ulgado et al [1]. I don’t want to over-romanticize these, but I want to express how happy it makes me to imagine them as a kind of modern, designerly, more functional response to a kind of split that in some ways is not unlike the Heartbreak House/Horseback Hall split. Of course, it is not about war. No bombs are going to drop if Google does evil. But it is about hegemony. Feminist Maker Spaces invite small and local actions, but they also presage and forecast different kinds of larger actions and rhetoric than we commonly see in the dominant technological culture. 


1. Fox, S., Ulgado, R. R., & Rosner, D. (2015, February). Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces. Proc. of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 56-68). ACM.

Posted in: on Thu, January 07, 2016 - 10:30:53

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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