Intimacy as a Keyword (False Start)

Intimacy is thus potentially and productively disruptive of the geographical binaries and hierarchies that often structure our thinking.
Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner, The Global and the Intimate

If you want to locate the hegemonic home of liberal logics and aspirations, look to love in settler colonies.
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Empires of Love

Intimacy was supposed to be about optimism, remember? But it is also formed around threats to the image of the world it seeks to sustain.
Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue”

Intimacy is a keyword that seems to mark out scale (even as it resists normative geographical markers of scale). Talking about intimacy brings us to the body and the way that we meet one another. Somehow, intimacy involves a combination of what Adrienne Rich calls “the geography closest in” and Erin Manning’s insistence that we are “always more than one.”

Intimacy seems to have a potential, but what? When Lauren Berlant tosses up a dialectical tension between the institutions of intimacy that determine the way we imagine having “a life” and the potential of mobile processes of attachment, it’s perhaps out of a skepticism with feminist histories that pose intimacy as the countermove to patriarchal totalized understanding (that Enlightenment trap).

Certainly, intimacy challenges a masculine desire to totalize our maps, instead pointing us to the details of everyday life. But also, as Berlant insists, the intimacies of everyday life aren’t always so great. They’re uneven and coercive. Be close, they push, but close in a defined pattern. Compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory sexuality. Compulsion.

In the heat of this, all that immanence at the heart of the Deleuzian cosmology feels messy and contradictory in the same way. While it’s tempting to pull out our copies of A Thousand Plateaus and start moaning on about rhizomes and lines of flight and EMERGENCE as if they’re liberatory moves, all of our intimacies seem caught institutionally even when they are self-organized. Any rhizome can run on an oppressive logic. If the intimate events of Western hegemony emerge into a set of inherited conditions, how do we navigate a desire to hold onto the intimate as a site of potential?

If I’m drawn to Elizabeth Povinelli’s gesture to the immanent dependencies of life and her concomitant frustration with the difficult negotiation between discourse and materiality, it’s maybe because, in her attempt to short-circuit the liberal binary between individual freedom and social constraint, she successfully inverts the communicative hope at the heart of the Deleuzian assemblage model, which insists on space as the emergently contingent result of the way we all meet and come together. To insist that we are immanently dependent on one another is to insist that we aren’t necessarily free to put together new social forms. We are coerced by the relations around us as much as we are enabled by them. If I need water to live, if I need to bring water into intimate relation with myself to live, then it goes without saying that I should probably take care of that water. Reciprocity. Except that homily doesn’t scale particularly well and our intimacies are toxically complex, pulled not only by the immediate needs of our and other’s bodies, but also by long histories and exploitative logics.

The result of this is a mess. The dynamic movements of self-organization as they buck and buckle against and within thick fields of spatial relations holding themselves together by clutching to devious institutional logics and forms. The embattled exchanges between materiality and expression and the philosophical poses that tactically lean toward one or the other pole. The ways that intimacies openly flaunt scale, operating at expanded scales like the global even as they come into focus when bodies meet. What can we do but refuse to resolve this?