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Blog entry #6

Written by Flora Botelho. November 18th, 2019.

2019.10.18 | Middle Class Urbanism

An Exploration of the Concept of Intimacy

Intimacy, from the Latin intimus, is that which is innermost. Intuitively, we associate It with affection and attachment, with privacy and the personal, and with informality; it is, in sum, that which is not governed or formalised, that which doesn’t appear in public, but is rather kept inside. Intimate aspects of life can be experienced alone (as with bodily functions and emotions), but they are also shared in personal, close relationships. Intimacy is thus also related to the process through which one exposes one's innermost self: intimare (intimate) is to make known, to announce. How does one bring what is hidden out? An extra-personal, and necessarily interpersonal, space must be produced for what is inside to come out without becoming public, and thereby, no longer intimate.

It seems, then, that intimacy is bound up to an underlying distinction between two different domains: one internal (private, personal, intimate), one external (public, impersonal, general), which compose both the social world and the person. While the outer aspect of a person is subject to social norms of conduct and needs to conform to a certain role, the inner one is associated with spontaneity, relaxation and lack of constraint. In the public domain, generality and impersonality are characteristic of interactions that do not depend on knowledge of the individual, but only of their social position. In intimate spaces, in contrast, a person is particular, unique, and known in their individuality. In intimacy one can express one’s inner self; which, in western conceptions, is perceived to be a person’s authentic part, that which hasn’t been shaped, tamed or curated. Thereby, the intimate domain presupposes two things: one, the inexistence, or the suspension, of social roles and hierarchies for the establishment of a space of equality in which people can be “themselves”, (an equality grounded on common humanity) and; two, a relationship based on empathy, compassion and affection that allows for mutual self-disclosure and trust.

That’s how it seems to be conceived; is it also how we practice it? How do we create intimate spaces and how do we produce intimate relationships? It seems that exposing oneself and making oneself vulnerable is what makes it possible for people to express and cultivate their feelings for one another. Mutual emotional vulnerability produces dependency and attachment, an affective reliance. While different degrees of intimacy are appropriate for different types of relationships, the most intimate one allows for (and depends on) trust, emotional closeness and open communication of thoughts and feelings. Here, the romantic relationship as a freely chosen bond is often presented as the ideal form of intimacy. While friendships are also freely chosen, the combination of physical intimacy, sexual desire and intensity of emotions make it ideally possible for the experience of intimacy to be complete in one single relationship, whereas in non-romantic relationships it is always contingent, limited or filtered. Family relations are first, not freely chosen, and second, limited by moral boundaries, generational differences and the necessity of performing certain roles. Parents, for instance, must have some degree of authority and children must gradually gain privacy in which to develop their individuality – current trends to make one’s mum one's best friend attest to the need to shift from the hierarchical parent-child relationship to a peer nomenclature in order to qualify their relationship as truly intimate. Intimate interactions between people in formal relationships, such as between subordinates and superiors, are most times perceived as transgressive and tend to be kept separate from the work place. They depend on the temporary removal of markers of status, since intimacy can only happen between equals. Practices of intimacy do seem to be based on equality, empathy and self-disclosure.

Now, looking at Polana Caniço (the informal neighbourhood of Maputo where I did my fieldwork), what I intuitively identified as intimacy, or the intimate domain – such as the home, the family, the couple, friendships – are not defined by an opposition to a formal, public domain, nor by gradual self-disclosure. I will thus tentatively dissect the elements that made me place these relationships or spaces under the nomenclature of intimacy to find out, first, if it is an adequate categorisation and, second, if we learn something about the term and its uses in everyday life and in the anthropological literature (which is vast, especially in its feminist incarnation, and most times imprecise): What I am calling intimacy in my field has to do with sharing intimate spaces, with engaging in activities that should not be performed on the street, or with strangers; it has to do with domesticity. It also has to do with affection, or the expression of it. And with the body: with physical contact, and with bodily functions. Commensality can be intimate, or signal intimacy: it involves trust that one won’t poison your food, for instance, and that we share it, no one is deprived. Getting inebriated together usually establishes a momentary intimacy (Danes can easily grasp that), as it makes one vulnerable.

These aspects were manifest in the sharing of clothes, rooms, beds, in being naked or changing together, in touching – doing one another’s hair, rubbing lotion on one another’s skin, washing (bodies) together, urinating together. They were present in cooking and eating together, and showing care and concern: sending messages to check if the other is safe or doing well, showing pride and sharing joy for good fortune or achievement, or in sharing tears when it comes to misfortune – in short, in expressing empathy, compassion and affect. All of these practices seem to be undeniably intimate, but they do not rely on the premise of western practices and conceptualisations of intimacy; they are not built on the idea of two domains (intimate and public) and two selves (the social and the authentic). More than anything, intimacy in my field has to do with a sense of being ideally able to rely on that relationship – a bond, or some sort of permanence.

The implications are many: once knowing one another’s inner reality is not a goal, neither full trust nor full disclosure is desired. And in as much as there are elements that one wants to keep hidden, they are hardly aspects of one’s personality or character that correspond to true, inner selves. While secrecy is consistently practised within intimate realms, the notion of privacy is rarely to be found. The outer domain, which we call public, is made of something completely different, nearly opposite to how it is understood here: lawless, dangerous, murky and unknown, it has little to do with formality or social roles. On the contrary, roles are in fact performed and fully produced within the intimate domain – and these are hierarchical and continuously reaffirming difference. Last, the notion of authenticity, which appears discursively with some frequency in other social strata of Maputo, was very vaguely present in my neighbourhood and never brought up in conversations about the way one feels in intimate contexts.

And if intimacy is in both contexts connected to vulnerability and to trust, in Polana Caniço – and probably in most parts of the world – the trust is placed on the bond, not on the other person. It does not depend on self-disclosure, on a sense of truly knowing the other. Rather, I find that in intimacy, vulnerability is permanently managed, self-protection continuously exercised.

Whether this tells something about ourselves, I am not sure. It may be that "our" practised intimacy is not so different from "theirs", and that the discrepancy between the ideal intimate relationship and the ones we actually live is one more evidence of the central place the individual, authenticity, freedom, and, in this case, the monogamous romantic relationship hold in neoliberal, postmodern narratives, but have little to do what we are actually doing. Probably not. I look at my Instagram feed and think that we are pretty much living the dream.

(The writing-in-flow I choose for blog posts does not allow for accurate references. Ideas presented here though, however poorly reproduced, do spring from brighter minds, among them the works of Anthony Giddens, Staney Cavell, George Simmel, Judith Butler, Elisabeth Povinelli, Maurice Bloch, Peter Geschiere, Alcida Honwana, Sertaç Sehlikoglu, Aslı Zengin, Matthew Carey, my supervisors Morten Nielsen and Inger Sjørslev, psychiatrist Robert Mendelsohn, psychologists Sonia and Edwin Nevis, Sigmund Freud himself, as well as several contributors to Psychology Today).