Intimacy is a term that brings together a lot of related concepts regarding closeness and familiarity. There is a physical closeness regarding sex both with respect to an actual sexual encounter as well as an ongoing sexual relationship. There is an emotional closeness that includes private knowledge and an ongoing familiarity between two people. The emotional closeness can be romantic or connected to family or friendship. There is a cognitive closeness where one can have a thorough and deep knowledge of a particular subject matter. There is also a sensory closeness that involves a thorough and deep knowledge of a sensory phenomenon. Take, for instance, in the old days, a frontier scout’s knowledge of a particular terrain out West. All of these involve an implicit almost tactile (and sometimes literally tactile) connected embrace of someone or something.
Intimacy is an important factor in keeping us grounded and bonded to the external world. It is an important antidote to numbness. Which is why the social isolation and shelter in place required to deal with the Corona virus can be so destructive to our search for intimacy. It has been bad enough to navigate through all the sensory distortion created by technological environments and our growing involvement with computers and other forms of screen reality, with the Internet of Things, with Artificial Intelligence and with virtual reality. But Covid 19 is provoking us to use technology as a means of preventing ourselves through mediation from contacting it and contracting it in practically all areas of our lives.
And yet, we all have a need for intimacy in its many manifestations. We all have a need to get close up to and to get very familiar with some people, some things and some places in our fields of experience. Again, I am using the notion of intimacy in all of its meanings. They are all connected with our need to touch the world, both literally and metaphorically. Going through the different senses, where we see something both literally and metaphorically, we tend to experience it neatly, clearly, as a defined discrete entity. Something is perceived visually in terms of its boundaries, and it then falls into place with other entities. Order is experienced in the world. With sight, our impulse is to focus on things and to be uncomfortable with blurriness except in the visual arts and other aesthetic experiences.
With hearing, some sounds can be shrill and staccato, and voices tend to be defined discrete entities. But one can’t always easily identify where sounds are coming from, so they lack the precision of sight. And many sounds in motion tend to be flowing blendable continual stimuli like the flowing woosh of rivers or the hum of fields or forests or jungles.
When we get to smell, there is so much less mediation and much more closeness. There is much less of a sense of precise sensory boundaries with smell, and much more a sense of being enveloped by flowing blendable continual stimuli. Now taste has the boundaries of a material piece of food that is chewed or sucked and then swallowed, but as it disintegrates in our mouths, it is experienced through a kind of immediate touch sensation. Of course, taste in liquids, is a pure streaming experience of flowing blendable continual stimuli. Finally, much of what we experience as taste is really smell anyway.
And then when we get to touch, if we close our eyes and just touch something, we experience it frequently as another kind of pure flowing blendable continual stimulus. For small objects, we can detect the boundaries in a blurry way, but for larger objects and things that are part of living environments, there is a sense that they flow without precise boundaries. This is why touch is the metaphorical sense of bonding and grounding.
Touch is the foundation of immediate experience, which is what intimacy is created from. But as modern technology has increasingly turned more and more human experience into mediated experience, it has been causing intimacy to disappear. In terms of cognitive closeness, what is the point in becoming intimate with a subject matter, if whenever one has a question with regard to it, one can just go on a computer and look it up. Or one can go on a Smartphone and ask Siri or Alexa a question. Why should one weigh down one’s brain with the baggage of knowledge, when one can pick it up so easily when one needs it. In terms of sensory closeness, why should one become so familiar with a terrain, with a landscape, when one can use GPS to navigate on one’s journey.
In terms of sexual intimacy, we are getting to the point where we will be able to replace humans with robot lovers. But until then, as a result of certain apps today, one can go from human lover to human lover to human lover without having any of the emotional problems associated with an ongoing sexual relationship. Finally, the increasing use of Zoom and other similar apps during the Covid 19 pandemic is going to contribute to a loss of an emotional closeness. It is just very hard to maintain an intimate experience with a tactile foundation on a technological medium where the connection is exclusively visual and auditory. Any organic imprints that are made and preserved on screen reality are much weaker than they would be if they were made in external world reality. For person-to-person contact imprints, their intensity and depth are so much greater if one can get a sense of stereoscopic experience the way one does in external world reality. It is the stereoscopic aspect that can give a tactile sensibility to the visual experience. And one must not forget that people have personal scents, and physical surroundings have their own smells in external world reality. And voices in external world reality don’t sound metallic the way they do on Zoom.
The truth is that we need intimacy in all the ways that have been discussed in order to avoid living in an experiential vacuum, a living death where we are immersed in numbness. And in addition to these ways, there is another way we have to engage in intimacy. We have to be intimate with ourselves. We have to know ourselves, and accept ourselves and love ourselves in order to have a sense of self that is both well-defined and coherent and generally strong. We have to be able to go deep inside of ourselves in order to be able to obtain this kind of intimacy. But with this intimacy, we should be able to survive and perhaps even thrive in the face of the sensory distortion created by the social isolation resulting from Covid 19 as well as the extreme weather events from climate change.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow