Intimacy Is a Crisis

By Alex Lambert

When you endlessly increase the liberating power of the media, you bring what was once hidden by distance and the secret - which was distant and naturally foreign to each one of us - far too close; you then run the risk of reinventing, here and now, some kind of barbarism (barbaros = foreigner, one who does not speak the language). In other words, you run the risk of inventing the enemy.

Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor

A partial history

In this small essay I take a brief tour through the history of intimacy in the West. I wish to show that today we are experiencing a crisis of intimacy. Intimacy is becoming a mystery. We worry so much about this that we stop caring about those who are not intimate. The non-intimate is devalued, and this becomes a serious political problem. Intimacy’s qualities are under attack. Qualities like privacy and familiarity. We fear that once intimacy has been thoroughly disqualified we will have lost something sacred. This is the crisis. It attracts and concerns us. Yet in attracting us, it distracts us. While gazing on this burning home should we not ask: what would be lost if we surge into the flames? 

The crisis is clearest when contemporary pundits describe public intimacy as a contradiction in terms, as if intimacy must be private.[i] Recall the demagoguery directed at the first generation of youths who took up social media. But where did this conjugation of intimacy and privacy come from? The Latin noun intimus described a form of male friendship that the Romans admiringly adopted from the Greeks.

For the Greeks, the intimate realm was that of the fraternal polis. Here public life and public policy were simultaneously practiced.

This intimate public was a space of free becoming for all but women and slaves. Hence Socrates could easily stop and question Phaedrus as the amorous scribe strode through Athens to confront his male lover. In the home, or oikos, women reproduced a cruel division of labour, far from the fraternal delights of the Socratic dialogue. The Oikonomikon names a regime that modern audiences would hardly call intimate.[ii]

At the nadir of classical thought, Jesus had a good word. He flung his word like seeds, promiscuously. His sermons were intended to be broadcast and retransmitted as far and wide as possible, anticipating the current convergence of television and networks. Soon his body as bread and wine would be consumed with a similar mass appeal. The Gospels describe another intimate public that emerges between believers and their deity. Be welcomed into the bosom of God, say the believers. There all struggles end. To that place let our sights be set, our voices echo, and our fingers reach. Witness here a truly rapturous idea of universal intimacy.[iii]

Sadly, religious men often hold the reigns of promiscuity. Those who took up the Son's word were predominantly men. Augustin and Aquinas lived some eight centuries apart. Between these great poles exist a solemn procession of men with privileged access to truth. Yet there is a sensual aspect to God. Sweet nameless Touch, whose modes exceed all words. Touch was among the most prized umbilicals to God. Woman mystics were similarly prized as the amplifiers and translators of touch. They knelt beside divine relics, chose who could kneel beside them, and in so doing gained what little privilege they could.

But what to do when the oligarchs of Enlightenment and their relentless machines come? Try bolt and bar the shutters to the storm of reason. Witness the pulpits splinter, while grand marble is fixed in the office galleys of somnambulists, mesmerists, alienists, and eventually the shrinks. Witness as hands that would touch the divine are repurposed by textile industries, refashioned by reason and repetition.[iv]

The multicultural merchants of European cities felt something coming, but by the time industrial labour plunged in from the peasant towns, it was too late. Even the bourgeois were unprepared. Beginning in 1853, the iron and glass spectacle of Paris was beset by the rational planning of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, one of the first urban technocrats. The reconstruction of Paris anticipated the postmodern urban grid, with its paradoxical, sanguine-chloric combination of progressive utopianism and fossilisation. Here one finds forgotten hinterlands and dreary housing estates. There one finds gentrified cultural hubs and the sublime objects of urban futurism: shimmering chrome skyscrapers.[v]

Booms and busts rocked the 19th century metropole. Where else to retreat from the calamity and confusion then somewhere private? Perhaps the home? Homes seemed to have a universal character.

They fit with the Catholics and the Puritanicals, the Workers and the Libertarians. The sanguine comfort of homely intimacy found a dialectical enemy: the choleric subjugation and alienation of the city. It would not be long before this quality would be considered an essence and an origin: all intimacy began as private and was most authentic when practice privately. [vi]

After a medieval period in which kinship spread throughout rural communes and intimacy seemed to exhaust all of social life, a new separation between oikos and polis was emerging, along with a new regime of the Oikonomikon. For those who were privileged, public life could not be abandoned. For the patriarchy of policy makers, their gentile coffee houses were simply too sacred. Again men were to be those who strode the boulevards and experienced free thought and becoming. Yet this was somehow less intimate and more individual. The new public man was a liberal-minded entrepreneur in a market of individuals. He was not to be denied his homestead and the familial pleasures therein. Nor was he to be denied the rigid division between private freedom and public freedom. The threat to privacy and this very gendered division was a discontented fugue that wrung through the modern psyche. Hence liberal philosophy discovered that privacy is essential for individual freedom, and Supreme Court Justices proclaimed the legal right to privacy in the home.[vii]

Unfortunately, humanity mourned a greater homecoming: the bosom of god, the bliss in the garden. True to the zeitgeist, believers would no longer have a public relationship to god, but a private, individual one. Those who were indifferent to God practiced another form of faith, self-belief. Their priests were thus experts in the Ego. The priesthood of psychology had a similar knack with words, both spoken and written. 

Even as intimacy found these modern qualities, systems were subverting them. Non-normative rhythms, rituals, spaces and times can always be found forming in the interstices of the normative.

Women found written media and a lexicon of infinite subtlety to express a certain intimate politics, deemed by the venal classes as too sentimental for public life. Colonised subjects tactically recoded their intimacies to retain traditions even as the juggernaut of empire and capital attempted to subjugate and erased them. Men found public houses to practice a fraternal intimacy that the alienation of urban life and the factory could not destroy. The ancient arts of homosocial public bathing could not be expunged from the privatised city. Moreover, intimacy itself would soon become a commodity, and thus something that circulated publicly through the market.[viii]

From these and other disturbances emerge an arabesque of contradictions and complexities that come to define the 20th century. Asteroids of thought and disagreement collide. For instance, the psychological priesthood soon discovered a way to stimulate their hip pocket nerves by publishing magazines and cheap, paperback self-help books. Through confessional disclosures, psychotherapy fundamentally advocates the mediation of the intimate. It explodes private intimacy, and makes it a topic of public scrutiny. It is interesting to trace how this resonates with the identity movements of the 1960s. Two decades on from the proclamation that ‘the personal is the political’, Oprah broadcasts a catchy bubble gum imbroglio of psychobabble, relationship advice, and feminism. Soon this televisual intimacy will form a confusing cinema verite: reality television. Eventually it becomes the kind of media we call social.[ix]

Retracement: technology and economy

What is intimacy if it is not private, familial, romantic, heterodox, and so forth?

Today it seems that intimacy is of concern. It concerns us like technology, religion, and modernity.

The concern motivates a search for an essence and this reveals a lack of an essence. The moment two different cultural or historical qualities contradict each other one is confronted with this lack. The honest or unconscious acknowledgment of this lack precipitates a neurotic withdrawal. We fill the lack with supplemental qualities, what I call stabilising discourses. Psychotherapy, evangelism, family, friendship, homeliness, privacy, and romantic love.

None of these discourses are really stable. They disperse into one another and find homes in a cloud of family resemblances. Consider the porous boundaries between love and privacy. One meets one’s love in public. One loves that which is public. One rests in peaceful love in private beds. One loves that which is private. Yet the discourses are different. Romantic love may provide a greater sense of security and fulfillment then, say, a large group of friends. Some discourses are more effective than others, subjectively and culturally, at stabilising. And if they have this power over life, who could deny that these discourses are not real? If they give breath to being, who could say they are nothing but the truth?

Anything that thoroughly destabilises a discourse of intimacy at both the subjective and cultural registers can be called a kind of event. The event has no clear origin, no locatable match spark in the tinder dry woods of thought. Yet when the sound of the crowd who question a discourse becomes more than just a murmur, it is clear an event has occurred. These are the symptoms of the general crisis: the realisation that intimacy, so sacred, is a vacant reliquary.

I invite you to consider this hypothesis: the current paradigm of technology and economy has produced a politics of intimacy that suggests such an event has occurred. By technology and economy I draw attention to digital configurations that have been engineered to absorb and reproduce surplus capital, and take their obvious form in Internet-based communication. Many of these forms seek to stabilise intimacy, and hence tacitly acknowledge that it is under threat. Social media algorithms do not connect users with useful weak ties, they trap them in intimate bubbles. Similar algorithms operate in dating apps. Relationship trackers who quantify their intimate relationships based on metrics like stress induction do so only to know who is a worthwhile companion and who is not. The relationship tracker declares: ‘He makes me stressed out regularly, so he is no friend of mine’. In these examples technology is employed to immunise people from the great wide world and its contradictions.

But even as they promise to unburden us of deciding who and who is not intimate, these technologies foist upon us a new set of literacies and labours. Consider the set of tools to control one’s privacy and organise one’s set of online connects through social media.

This bureaucratisation of intimacy is one of the clearest signals that a crisis event has occurred and the nature of social life is changing.

In response to the extensive quantity of social connections we are burdened with the intensive quality of preserving and protecting intimacy. ‘Intensive intimacy’ names the crisis year 2018, when the intimate is so thoroughly mysterious we are prepared to spend untold hours labouring to catch just a glimpse of its face.

Retracement: cosmopolitanism

Intimacy today is defined by crisis. The crisis is not only one of deciding upon an essential quality, such as privacy, but also one of scale. Globalisation and urbanisation, with their various engines and effects, have produced a scalar crisis in intimacy. On one scale, intimacy withdraws to the size of a romantic partnership or family. On the other it expands to include an entire nation or race. At this latter scale people talk of national, cultural and racial intimacy. Both scales are inherently antagonistic in a symbolic or real sense.

Certain intimate couples or family units are considered legitimate, while others are considered perverted. A vote for gay marriage manifests the politics of intimacy at this scale. Certain nations or races are considered pure, while others are less than human. Witness the virulence of right wing fascism in Europe and the United States.

Yet both scales are also inherently non-antagonistic. Intimacy emerges through both exclusion and inclusion. Hate is alloyed with care. Without this care, no scale of human sociality would be possible. Indeed, without being cared for we would not live beyond birth. So let us concentrate on the potentials of care. Let us acknowledge the true universality of care, and hence its capacity to mediate difference. Let us understand the norms and cultures that allow care to proliferate.

Let us critique and deconstruct all systems that prioritise antagonism over care.

This is the project of cosmopolitanism: the social process whereby intimacies can encounter one another non-allergenically, through the fecundity of care.

The crisis of intimacy is doubled. The burning home is of course a crisis. But the fact that we are so concerned with our own homes that we ignore the non-intimate is also a crisis. We are so embroiled in the intensive labours of intimacy that we forget the cosmopolitan. We are so determined by technologies that demand these intensive labours that it has become difficult to imagine a different form of social and political life. Never before have we lived in an era that so values the intimate. We are told by our parents, teachers, therapists, professors, artists and politicians that cultivating an intimate life is the path to happiness. We are told by the Left and the Right that the grand cosmopolitical projects – communism and capitalism – are cruel, corrupt failures. And yet there is no solution to the mystery of the intimacy. Either we embrace this mystery and turn toward caring for all, or the barbarity of the foreign will consume us.

Dr Alex Lambert is a lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Monash University. He specialises in the study of digital media and intimacy. He is the author of Intimacy and Friendship on Facebook.

[i] This proclamation has a long history. It often accompanies an association of public intimacy with narcissism. See: C Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979); C Rosen, "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism," The New Atlantis 17 (2007).

[ii] The analysis of the political and gendered relationship between the Athenian polis and oikos is closely associated with the work of Hannah Arendt and the reading of her work by Georgio Agamben. See: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[iii] For a comparison of Socrates and Jesus’ approaches to the expression of intimacy in public, see: J D Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[iv] Constance Classens’ magisterial histories of medieval touch reveal the central role of gender. Her work and David Parisi’s chart the way industrial production transformed the practice and meaning of touch. See: Constance Classen, ed. The Book of Touch (New York: Berg, 2010); D Parisi, "Tactile Modernity: On the Rationalization of Touch in the Nineteenth Century," in Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, Touch, ed. C Colligan and M Linley (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011).

[v] This was famously analysed by Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project. The application of his ideas to postmodern urbanism are numerous. See: Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Boston: MIT Press, 1991).

[vi] Richard Sennett critically charts the manifestation of private life and the destructive ‘personal malaise’ it injected into 19th century European public life. Robert Bellah provides an American perspective that meditates more on the role of religion. See: R Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Knopf, 1977); R N Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985).

[vii] This new regime retains the Aristotelean idea of the public as a realm of freedom, proposed in his Politics. It adds the necessity of a protected private life, which is similarly seen as a space to be free. Near the turn of the century the right to privacy entered legal discourse via the US Supreme Court Judges, Warren and Brandeis.  See: John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty," in Utalitarianism and Other Writings, ed. H B Acton (Longon: Everyman’s Library, 1972); S Warren and L D Brandeis, "The Right to Privacy," Harvard Law Review 4 (1890). For a gender critique of the liberal conception of privacy, see: Beate Rössler, "Gender and Privacy: A Critique of the Liberal Tradition," in Privacies: Philosophical Evaluations, ed. Beate Rössler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[viii] Lauren Berlant explores the intimate publics produced by female writers. Greg Allan explores early 20th century working class male public intimacy. For a history of homosexuality within the politics of publicity go no further than Michelle Foucault. See: Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (Brooklyn: Punctum, 2012); G Allan, "Friendship, Sociology and Social Structure," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 15, no. 5 (1988); M Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[ix] The pre-eminent cultural history of the massification of psychotherapy can be found in the work of Eva Illouz. There are other connection between pop psychology, intimacy, and 20th century art made by Ursula Frohne, and applied to the evolution of reality television. See: E Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007); U Frohne, "Screen Tests: Media Narcissism, Theatricality and the Internalized Observer," in Ctrl_Space, ed. T Levin, U Frohne, and P Weibel (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002).