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


I have just finished up at the Just Men In Tights: Superheroes Conference. It’s been a very stimulating weekend and just what I needed to get my head back into myth, popular culture and the apocalypse.

Lots of interesting talks on everything from traditional superheroes such as Superman and Batman to readings of Queer as Folk. The good think for me has been that it has given me lots of references to follow up and even some new shows to look at. A number of sessions on the Superman prequel Smallville have piqued my interest.

Some notes:

In the opening keynote by Scott Bukatman talked about the superhero as characterised by four performative qualities: visual, kinetic, improvisational and linguistic. His connection to the everyday was an interesting one, like musical stars before them – he showed the singing in the rain scene from Singing in the Rain – the superhero makes improvisational use of everyday props and his heroics are embodied in his expressive choreography. Bukatman said that the Superhero improvises survival strategies using everyday objects: a form of “riffing off the objects of the world”.

The linguistic performance in the superhero genre was not immediately obvious but many superheros are brought to life in their slogans (“This is a job for superman..”.“is it a bird is it a plane”etc:) “an egotistical, flamboyant means of writing himself onto the world”. He made the interesting point that it is in this area that Buffy excels and that it is the first time that the linguistic is choreographed so closely with the kinesthetic since the days of musical.

Peter Coogan from Fontabonne University in St Louis created discussion with his definition of the Superhero: (soo’per hîr’o) n., pl. -roes. 1. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; who possesses superpowers, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills; who has a superidentity and iconic costume, which typically express his biography or character, powers, and origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Typically superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is kept secret. -superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero (Trademark).

Coogan maintained against some objections that Buffy for instance doesn’t fit the definition because she doesn’t have the dual/secret identity or iconic costume. He places her in the horror vampire tradition but admits the show draws heavily on the Superhero genre. He’s probably right in strict genre terms but one of the interesting things about contemporary practice that became very clear during the conference was that most examples of the current superhero are definitely hybrid constructions.

More on hybridity and the “neo-baroque” tomorrow.

Memories reminders ghosts and myths

I have been reading some stuff on “community of memory” (Paige Baty on Marylin and Barbie Zelizer on Kennedy) and then recently came across these two quotes from quite different sources.

Firstly Derrida’s notion of ghosts from an this essay on the cultural history of the highway:

Jacques Derrida has suggested that ghosts come to talk with us both from the past and the future. Learning to understand these ghosts of the future-past or the past-future is necessary, he claims, if we wish to take responsibility for future generations:

[we must] learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. (176)

In the case of highways, thus, it is important to understand the role that ghosts play in our constructions of the past and the future, if we are to learn to take responsibility for their role in the future. The way we imagine the roads of tomorrow suggests something about the way we value our selves, our environment, and our technologies — and suggests something about the way we must act, if we are to have responsibility for our future selves.

Secondly this essay from the Boston Globe on Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander.

WRITING ABOUT the Romans seen on film 50 years ago, the French theorist Roland Barthes saw in their sweaty brows the mythology of “man thinking.” These days, however, our Greeks and Romans do not think, they remind. They remind themselves of their destiny. They remind their followers of the glory they might win. And their stories remind us a great deal of our current empire, and its strategic uncertainties.

The author J. D Connor makes not just the obvious comparison to Iraq and the American empire but also takes this new taste for epics (Gladiator, Troy, Alexander and others to come soon) as a reflection of the global empire of Hollywood: “These days any commercial filmmaker (and particularly one with a fondness for casts of thousands and lavish period detail) needs a certain amount of imperial hubris: that is, he needs to believe that audiences will flock to his or her films around the globe.”

Today’s events are present in the history remade on screen:

Since much of the action of “Alexander,” moral and military, takes place in what is now Iraq, it’s hardly surprising that Oliver Stone takes some potshots at the president. What is unexpected are the heartfelt neocon speeches Alexander delivers. Standing on his balcony overlooking Babylon, he goes on and on: “These people want change, they need change,” Alexander asserts. He lives “to free the people of the world.”

To be sure, Stone lays the irony on thick here. After the first balcony speech, Alexander’s boyfriend Hephaistion quickly changes the subject to his sovereign’s dreamy eyes. And during Alexander’s second major policy address on the balcony, he is too preoccupied with Babylon’s “deep water port” to notice that Hephaistion is busy flailing away out of focus in the background, dying of a poison-induced fever.

When a trusted commander complains that conquering all of Asia “was not your father’s mission,” Alexander responds (again la W.), “I am not my father.” Why stop now? Why stop ever? One more month, Alexander tells his men in India.

It’s all here in a condensed image. The anxiety over empire, the anxiety of sexuality, the anxiety over expansion and retreat. We are reminded of history, we see ghosts of past present and future. We see cultural production.