The intimacy of ONE

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Intimacy throws up word pictures and connotations of something shared between two or more people. The oxford dictionary[1] tells us that in legal parlance, ‘intimacy’ is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. We may also speak of an intimate group of friends. Thus, intimacy seems tied to shared experiences among small numbers of people. After all, one hardly hears of an ‘intimate’ moment between thousands of people. But what if we took intimacy to its final conclusion and consider intimacy between the smallest number possible, i.e., the intimacy of one?

In these times when even pop culture memes proliferate about the ills of hyper individualism that capitalism has wrought under the tutelage of western liberal democracies, this may seem like an odd position to take. Aren’t we all supposed to be healing, laughing, thriving ‘in community?[2]’ Perhaps, but that is one side of the coin.

Can we start thinking of aloneness as luxury? This was certainly common in the pre-modern world. Arthur C. Brooks[3] summarizing Aristotle’s ethics provides us with a useful heuristic lens with which to understand the nexus between intimacy and leisure. He tells us how the philosopher defined work as a useful activity, recreation as something we did to take a break from work, but leisure was an end in itself, ‘the pinnacle of human life-almost divine.’ The 20th century German philosopher Joseph Pieper[4] wrote a book called ‘Leisure, the basis of culture,’ and indeed its importance and place in society has been extolled historically,

and is needed urgently in our age of hyper neo liberalization.

However, it is also the case that in the contemporary Western world, ‘being alone’ has come to be coded as something bad and undesirable. As Robert Coplan[5], (a leading developmental psychologist) has pointed out, one of the primary reasons for this negative view is because solitude was used as a method of punishment, at least since the medieval era. And it still is, of course: think solitary confinement in a prison setting. The famous Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis[6] wrote extensively on the link between solitude and anxiety, linking the first phobias children develop to “situations of darkness and solitude.”[7] But Dr. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, a founding member of solitude lab[8] and a social psychologist at Durham university, presents a more complex picture of our relationship to alone time. One of her research projects has found that solitude could lead to relaxation and reduced stress when individuals actively chose to be alone.[9] She elaborates on the fact that it is not that being alone is automatically good, but that it can be, if one understands that solitude can be a choice.  She tells us how “Solitude has become a topic of fascination in modern Western societies because we believe it is a lost art – often craved, yet so seldom found.”[10] This is undoubtedly linked to the neo liberal landscape we live under. Several studies in the past decades have also found that spending quality time with oneself is linked with an increase in empathy, better productivity, less anxiety, and improved social relations.[11] But many of these discussions and debates pre-suppose a western landscape and the socio-economic relations that operate in the Global North.

The idea that solitude can be a choice, propagated by Dr. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, is contentious in a South Asian context. I want to speak about ‘self-intimacy’ from a place that de-centers the western narrative and anxieties that surround solitude in the social sphere. Older systems of community are fractured and ruptured in many parts of the Global North, a by-product of full industrialization and transition from feudal to capital, but this is not the case in many parts of the Global South, particularly in South Asia, where class (caste) and social relations lie at the intersection between feudalism and globalization.[12]

While I focus below on how mainstream discourse and critique of western modernity ends up re-centering global North frames (by outlining a few specific instances as examples), I want to emphasize that this is not to argue against universality per say or to parochialize the non-West under (now heavily disputed) arguments of ‘cultural relativism.’ Also, more than ever before, vast overlaps between vastly different regions and people operate under the tutelage of a digitally connected globalization world. The problem arises when the wide differences in living conditions, material factors, political economy, and cultural narratives between Global North and South are invisibilized or ignored, in favor of ones that operate in the former region.

Cue various middle class South Asians taking to social media recently to denounce celebrations of Valentine’s Day because it is a ‘made up holiday’ and a ‘capitalist construct.’ One is tempted to ask, are all the other thousands of holidays and festivals the subcontinent celebrates ‘real’ or found occurring ‘naturally’ in the wild? Has there not also been a neo-liberalization of festivals like Eid, Diwali, Holi, Karva Chauth and so on[13]? The critique seems misplaced in its zeal to code so-called western imports as capitalist while processes of neo-liberalization are impacting and re-arranging social relations across East West binaries.

In a region where arranged marriages proliferate and even heterosexual love is under constant scrutiny and regulation so the caste-class-religious-purity nexus can be maintained, it seems odd that the self-ordained progressive youth choose to lazily borrow a critique being generated from a totally different spatial and temporal frame. On the subcontinent ‘love matches’ are highly frowned upon and frequently lead to extreme harassment and even death[14] when they transgress caste or religious lines. Thus, the critique of Valentine’s Day ends up ironically echoing the same line as religious fundamentalists who deem it ‘not part of our culture.’ However, it is precisely because the celebration of romantic love is not part of South Asian culture, and because romantic intimacy not parentally mandated via the institution of marriage, is a social taboo, that it contains transgressive potential. The discourse on alone-time in South Asia has similarly collapsed arguments and ideas that are irrelevant in the local context, because the dominant discourse constantly uses the western frame as a universal.

At a European university I attended, there were frequent discussions on ‘decolonization,’ which ranged from organizing parties where old Bollywood tunes were paired with Syrian food to broad brainstorming sessions about how ‘ethnic’ culture(s) could be curated, represented and made to perform for bourgeoise consumption.  This is a de-materialized stance, and the constant slippage of ‘decolonization’ between its original coinage, which was a process of land back for indigenous nations, to arbitrary diversity and inclusion programs at universities, has been critiqued by activists and scholars for a long time now. Back in 2012, Tuck and Yang[15]published an academic article in a leading journal titled ‘decolonization is not a metaphor,’ where they insist on  reclaiming this term from alternative interpretations, stating that “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of indigenous land and life, it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve society and schools.”

A final example will hopefully illustrate the urgency of why this point needs redress and how the discourse on de-centering the West very often ends up re-centering its hegemony. A case in point is a conversation I had with a young graduate student. She had recently visited Nepal, where her parents had migrated from before she was born, and remarked on how wonderful it was that people had no need for personal space (unlike the west), how children shared rooms, and often even adults did not mind living in extremely close proximity within the same house. This fetishization of poverty and reading global south working class spatial arrangements as ‘counter culture’ to western standards of living (already always classed to mean western bourgeoise standards) is an example of the ways in which the ‘colony’ still serves as an opposition to western liberal modernity, however from the ‘other side’ – now in exalted position instead of inferior.  The global south starts being measured as subversive based not on its own internal power relations, material conditions, and particular idiocrasies but as a speak back to the West. Any difference is thus coded as progressive. This reading of ‘culture’ is class-blind, superficial, and contributes to a de-materialized politic, disproportionately harming people who live at the intersections of various marginalized identities that reproduce the structures of political economy.

Centering Global South realities, who, in the social hierarchy, is allowed the luxury of being alone? For those familiar with South Asian modes of relationality and its highly gendered classed society, which distributes labor on strict caste lines, consider how building an intimate relationship with the self can be nurturing, healing, and transgressive. And how alone time can allow people the space to think, process, and understand themselves at a deeper level and not always in relation to the social where reactive tendencies, strict hierarchies, and gender segregation percolate.

But how can self-intimacy be coded as positive, when the concept of desiring privacy is itself suspicious to many, particularly within frames of generational clash and under heteronormative neoliberal patriarchy? What about working-class time schedules that simply do not even code leisure as possible, much less desirable?

Familial intimacy is one of the few socially sanctioned models of intimacy in South Asia, and even friendship is highly regulated along a gendered axis so that it never has the possibility to turn into romantic love, which might in turn disrupt the caste nexus. In an article titled ‘Violent Intimacies,’ author Asli Zengin,[16] speaking in a Turkish but related context, tells us how the social categories of sex, sexuality, and gender are governed at the intersection of intimate contact and mandated encounters facilitated by the state, family, and institution(s), particularly in the case of gender minorities. Zengin states:

“The blood family can be one of the most violent sovereign models of intimacy—a deadly one, in fact. The production of intimacy between family members is frequently coupled with strict rules of producing, ordering, and regulating lives, bodies, and desires. The family, with all its emotional, material, and symbolic work, includes and excludes through drawing borders between different bodies and desires, inscribing its sovereignty over family members.”

While this reading of familial intimacy is no doubt true in the South Asian context, one of the problems in more mainstream analysis is that ‘the family’ is often positioned on a certain class axis, and middle-class burdens are universalized. Elite women’s problems or the issues that impact upper class gender minorities are often taken to be the standard. Thus, under constellations of bourgeoise patriarchy, being “alone” is read as shameful / selfish, and a praxis denied to many.  As important and valuable as alone time is, the emancipation of middle-class women and expansion of their leisure time is gained on the backs of working-class labour. For non-working class South Asian women, their journey from the parental home to the husband’s home is tied sharply to the heterosexual matrix, and we see how desiring to be alone, self-exploration, and intimacy in solitude are coded as deviant. Working class women, however, must earn a living outside the parental home, often from a very young age, so the way patriarchy operates here is quite different. Both working class women and men labor under conditions where their time is not their own, and intense levels of productivity must be maintained to survive and make ends meet. Thus, alone time for the working classes is primarily not possible because the material conditions that reproduce the class system prevent it, but for women with class privilege, which is most often demarcated on caste lines, the deficit is ideological, a moral faux paus. It is all the more ironic, then, that middle class leisure is made materially possible only by exploitatively low wage labour, so that a liberalization of middle- class gender relations will actively curtail the prospect of leisure time and ‘intimacy with the self’ for laboring classes.

Chirashree Das Gupta[17] tells us that ‘In India, the family as the basic institution for social reproduction is shaped by religious and caste rules defining marriage and property relations,’ Describing the relationship between caste and oppressive labour in capital, she elaborates ‘…the adaptability of caste to changing economies and social formations lies in the abilities of caste power to extract coercive labour and unpaid work according to the social context… Patriarchy and caste mutate interconnectedly and adapt to the changing needs of capitalism.”

Thus, it is important to look at accessibility of intimacy not as something that is constituted by individual agency or choice alone but primarily mandated via historical processes that reproduce the caste-class-gender nexus. One of the popular theories that circulate in activist circles is ‘intersectionality,’ often used to explain the differences in the social lives of women based on their multiple identities. Coined by Kimberly Crenshaw[18] in 1989, ‘intersectionality’ describes how oppressive systems overlap to create specific difficulties for certain groups of people, for example Black women suffer from both racism and sexism.  The problem with reading solidarities via an intersectional lens is that the focus remains identarian rather than material. Social markers like gender and race are taken to be distinctly formed but then ‘intersect’ under Crenshaw’s popular theory. However, a material politic reveals that gender is always raced and classed; they co-constitute each other rather than intersect. Chirashree makes a similar point in saying “the relationship between caste and patriarchy in the making of the working class is co-constitutive rather than intersectional. Intersectional theory largely works as a status signifier but does not capture the inter relations between caste and patriarchy. It also does not capture how both caste and patriarchy together constitute class relations.”[19]

In conclusion, how can the working-class social nexus allow for self-intimacy when it is encumbered by a deficit of time due to working conditions but also gendered relations under the heteropatriarchy? And how can the same happen in the case of middle-class women when morality prevents access? It would seem these questions will be answered differently depending on whether the focus is on class and time deficits or on upper caste patriarchy. Here we can see how collaborative potential for the deviant intimacy of alone-time, which functions outside the heterosexual matrix of gendered familial codes of honor and sacrifice, are not collaborative at all because even as they seemingly come together on identarian lines, they fracture on lines of class and caste.

 

[1] A Dictionary of Public Health, edited by: John M. Last

[2] www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-normal/202007/the-role-community-in-healing

[3] How to Embrace Doing Nothing – The Atlantic

[4] Leisure: The Basis of Culture – Josef Pieper – Google Books

[5] Why You Should Find Time to Be Alone With Yourself, by Micaela Marini Higgs

[6] (Sigmund Freud)

[7] Why You Should Find Time to Be Alone With Yourself, by Micaela Marini Higgs

[8] HOMEPAGE | Thuy-vy Nguyen (solitude-lab.com)

[9] Solitude as an Approach to Affective Self-Regulation | Request PDF (researchgate.net)

[10] Time alone (chosen or not) can be a chance to hit the reset button | Aeon Ideas

[11] How Important Is Alone Time for Mental Health? (verywellmind.com)

[12] Close Distance”: Class and Intimacy in South Asia by Deepti Misri (“Close Distance”: Class and Intimacy in South Asia | Contemporary Literature (uwpress.org)

[13] The Goan EveryDay: A festival of consumerism

[14] Six men sentenced to death in India for Dalit ‘honour’ killing | Global development | The Guardian

[15] (PDF) Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor (researchgate.net)

[16] Violent Intimacies | Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies | Duke University Press (dukeupress.edu)

[17] Social Reproduction, Constitutional Provisions and Capital Accumulation in India | Chirashree Das Gupta – Academia.edu

[18] Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectional Feminism – JSTOR Daily

[19] Chirashree Das Gupta article: Social reproduction, privisions and capital accumulation in India.

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