Intimacy and technologies: a pre-history

There have always been technologies of intimacy, they are not the product of our internet age. We think, we learn, we love with people but often through things. The gift, the love letter, the dowry. The romance novel, the lovers’ hideaway, the celebrity crush, the diary, the Grindr profile. Memoirs, rituals, hashtags and funerals. Intimacy is always virtual even when it is at its most sensuously physical. It is mediated by memory, story and hope.

Bernini’s St Teresa and a Grindr profile are both snapshots of longing. Both represent bodies turned towards the other. Both tell us something about virtual intimacy.

Intimacy is a liminal space that connects us to something/someone whether that’s through screens, through falling in love with history, through bodies rubbing up against each other and dissolving, or through believing that an angelic arrow is piercing your insides with mystic fire. It’s also about bodies taking flight, refusing to settle. It’s troubling and wonderful.

But that all sounds too exceptional, because intimacy is also quotidian, it’s what Kathleen Stewart has called ‘ordinary affect’:

a surging, a rubbing, a connection of some kind that has an impact. It’s transpersonal or prepersonal—not about one person’s feeling literally becoming another’s but about bodies literally affecting one another and generating intensities: human bodies, discursive bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of water. (2007:128)

Love, especially queer love, is what some queer theorists have called a public feeling (Cvetkovich, A., 2007). The web and other digital technologies both extend and complicate that publicness, but queer love, has never been a private, self-contained emotion. We have always carried into our private moments both the weight and the possibilities of queer history.

We grapple with love and sex and hope and shame and with our first unexpected gifted moments of joy and pain through the only tools we have. There are the things we are told and the things that we come to know, each edging up against the way it seems things are. Both our personal histories and those public structures of feeling shape that journey to understand and to become intimate. For me this tangle of intimacy has always been about love, sex and religion.

Excerpt from my latest BentStreet piece for their terrific special issue Love from a Distance: Intimacy and technology in the era of COVID19. It’s a meditation on the technology of narrative through the lens of Robert Gluck and Margery Kemp

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