Understanding Intimacy: Between Joys and Frailty

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An epochal issue

Intimacy is a defining fact of our times. The beginnings of the 20th century were marked by the spread and recognition of a public sphere born from the emerging institutions of first modernity (free market, the nation state, and modernist urbanity). Later, a landmark of modern societies has been the rise of the intimate sphere. As the British sociologist Anthony Giddens put it, that development represents “a second modern revolution” (1992). When considering the unfinished movement of incorporating women in the job market that has brought deep changes at home and elsewhere, however, we should probably call it an ongoing revolution.

This rise of the intimate sphere entails different aspects. First, valuing intimacy: broadly recognizing its contribution to individual fulfillment and collective life. Second, its increasing politicization and visibility: the intimate sphere has become more and more an arena for controversies and disputes. Finally, a blurring of frontiers: the conflating of dimensions, like “domestic”, “private”, and “intimate”, which once tended to be contained under restricted borders.

In many languages, the word “intimacy” sounds glamorous. It evokes familiarity, safety, and coziness: a realm of close relationships, personal space, and consented human contact. Yet the meaning of intimacy diverges considerably among societies, social groups, and individuals. Its conflictive facets vary. Topics that according to one person cannot be addressed in public can be talkable, even banal, for someone else. Objects and practices claimed by many as exclusive or private can be considered common or public by others. Despite these conflicting dimensions, today a strong collective puts the right to intimacy on the agenda, as a compulsory spirit of the epoch. Everyone wants to have an intimacy.


A fuzzy, messy, and slippery definition

No matter this glamorous appeal, intimacy is an ill-defined issue. What should we take as “intimate”? The domestic, the home, the self, privacy, secrets, the body, sex, subjectivity? A mix of those things? The category is neither scientifically circumscribed, nor socially unproblematic. It is, by its own nature, plural and contested. As the ways to feel in proximity and familiarity are manyfold, we should rather speak of intimacies, in the plural.

Intimacy denotes forms of proximity in space: face-to-face relationships, daily routines, and close contact. An added ingredient is affect: intimacy has to do with feelings, love, and trust. And of course, it has to do with the self, because those affects and relationships are linked to the deployment of subjectivity. Yet intimacy cannot be treated as a solipsistic phenomenon, produced in isolation. A subject becomes oneself by bonding with significant others. Intimacy is about a subject-in-relation.

As a sphere of experiences of familiarity and closeness, intimacy is bound to the reflexive self because it informs a singular point of view. Such unity and singularity are expressed in the space as a place of your own, in speech as an “I”, in interaction as a character, in discourse as a voice. The idea of intimacy encodes the entanglement of relation, space, and affection that occurs in everyday life (Löfgren, 2014). By having belonged to a family and having dwelled in a certain place, you come to know what an intimacy looks like.

I have discussed in length this definition in Metropolitan Intimacies. An Ethnography on the Poetics of Daily Life (Cruces, 2022, 47). Nobody can set neat fences to this fussy, messy, and slippery ground, conceptually opposed to the public realm. Consider for instance the ethnological “home”, the geographical “domestic space”, the biological and architectural “habitat”, the sociological “privacy”, the historical and literary “everyday life”, the psychological “self”, the philosophical “world-of-life”. People cram together these partly distinct, partly overlapped conceptualizations, when talking of things like feeding the kids, going late to bed, doing chores, looking for a place of your own, uploading selfies, having sex, gripes, or plans, shopping, or mourning a deceased. The intimate space is a lively mess. It lacks fixed borders. In results from a never-ending activity of boundary-work (Nippert-Eng, 1995), the ceaseless intimacy-making by the dwellers.

My strategy as an ethnographer in Madrid, Mexico, and Montevideo was not to impose a restrictive definition on the loose and overextended uses by the population, but rather to focus on the very narratives that dwellers from these three world cities made.


The art of narrating life

The goal of my project was to provide ethnographic flesh to the ongoing transformations of the intimate sphere. It was a multi-sited, collaborative, experimental, transurban, narrative, and visual approach. It resulted in a documentary film, The order I Live In. An Indoor Urban Symphony (Moreno and Cruces 2018), and afterwards in the monograph Metropolitan Intimacies. An Ethnography on the Poetics of Daily Life (Cruces 2022).

The narrative vein is what captured me most. We gathered a corpus of micro-stories of daily life, in the genre that sociolinguists call personal narratives and accounts of personal experience. What initially began as an exploration of the processes of the modernization, individualization, and commercialization of our homes became a collection of moving stories. A few participants became protagonists: Norma, the girl who signed inside the closets to conjure her anxieties of moving too much and too fast from home to home across Mexico. Camilo, a Montevidean architect who founded a Club for Singles because he hated dining alone. Manuela, a Madrilenian who wondered what the hell to do with the undesired heirlooms inherited from her deceased father. Lila, who wittily explained in front of camera the forbidden pleasures of cleaning a bathroom by splashing water on the walls.

These apparently minor trifles entice me because of their beauty. As daily life tales, they exhibited good form, round endings, and poetic justice. There was also a remarkable quest for meaning. These personal narratives purported to make sense of fragments by composing a whole out of the dispersed and ephemeral condition of our lives.

Intimacy is certainly a matter of face-to-face interaction, relationships, materiality, practice, and affect. But it has to do as well with what the philosopher José Luis Pardo has called “the art of narrating life” (1996, 29). As the art of giving form and meaning to one’s life, intimacy is by necessity poetic. It could be otherwise? I don’t mean poetic in the sense of words composing poems, but in a much broader scope of poiesis as a process of creating meaning – framing things in such a way that relations, order, and sense emerge. Hence, objects, people, and places become part of a bigger whole. A universe. A constellation. An atmosphere. An order of your own.

The emergence of one’s own order entails a ceaseless task of boundary work, semantic displacement, personal signature, and formal closure – the poetic processes on which my monograph focuses. Those micro-stories harbor some of the deepest processes of intimate life: the mysteries of one’s singularity, the entanglement between the senses, the rejoicing of the self, the passage from “Me” to “Us”, the emergence of the commons, and the homesickness of the voyager.


Enjoyment and agonies of the self

Let me briefly focus on the rejoicing in one’s self. I like Simonet-Tenant’s (2009, 43) notion of intimacy as “jouissance de soi”: rejoicing in oneself – in Spanish, gozo de sí. The case of Yunes and Martin, a young couple who recently moved into a little house at the outskirts of Montevideo, illustrates well a key moment in life when the joy of self-affirmation, the openness to the present, and the progressive discovery of a beloved come together. We visited them only a few days after they moved into their rented house. The furniture was still to find their places. In a tiny bright interior, with chirping birds, mattresses on the floor, and a single pan, they explained that while things are necessary, “the need to inhabit the place was much stronger”. This joy of two lovers inaugurating a new dwelling is constitutive. Promises of the unknown materialize in the ambiguities of the futures still to come: empty spaces to be filled, walls to be painted, rooms to be occupied, words to be said, dreams to be shared. The situation invites the revealing of oneself while discovering the other: two processes intertwined in the invention of a We.

The rejoice in oneself is, mysteriously and imperatively, the rejoice in the life of others. Proximity and familiarity, as essentially relational phenomena, involve a self-in-relation, not the experiences of someone locked in his/her interiority. The intimate world emerges from personal attachments in concrete spatial settings. In interactionist jargon, we could say that the self lays down its boundaries through participations and belongings. On the one hand, personal identity extends further to the bigger social wholes of which one is somehow a part: a household, a family, a group, a class, a church, a company, a party, a club, a city, an ethnic group, a nation… Conversely, belongings are partial entities that function as indexes of the person’s overall individuality (my hand, my bike, my room, my name, my wallet). Thus, we see how this relational self is processual and in-becoming, defined by flexibly remapping its limits, in a play of alterizing/identifying with some others (Bauman 2004). This interplay of participation and distance continuously remaps “I,” “You,” “We,” and “They,” as well as their reciprocal frontiers. Such a tension is the very center of intimacy-making in everyday life. It appears at the same time as the factory of common culture and the realm where individual character finds expression.


The frailty of intimacy

Unless you mystify it, intimacy cannot be fully understood without considering its other face: grief, violence, illness, precarity, and suffering. The absence of an exploration of the dark side of intimacy was an obvious flaw in my research, but I voluntarily decided not to focus on that side. The reason is partly theoretical: happiness tends to go underrated among academics. We privilege serious, gloomy, or acidic tones over the sometimes bland, simple, and petty joys of intimate life. And yet joy, as I have argued here, is of the essence. No matter how difficult times may be, no matter how short the economies were, our informants always preferred to show the best of their lives, to speak of the objects they loved, the deeds they were proud of, the memories of their best times.

A second reason to have avoided the darker side of intimacy is methodological. You are not entitled to enter someone’s house to expose their wounds, dig into their conflicts, and leave a mess you could not dream of restoring.

And yet, the existential fragility and volatility of our happiness is an essential issue. Now that the book is finished and I envision future explorations, this side is what interests me more. The challenge is: how to tackle unhappiness without producing a miserable, deprived view of other’s intimacies? My earlier inquiry modestly stopped a step before these frontiers and futures of intimacy. But thinking in that direction now seems urgent, precisely because of how vulnerable and precious intimacy is.




Coudreuse, Anne, and Françoise Simonet-Tenant, eds. 2009. Pour une histoire de l’intime et de ses variations. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Cruces, Francisco. 2022. Metropolitan Intimacies. An Ethnography on the Poetics of Daily Life. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books.

Gerd Baumann and André Gingrich (eds.) 2004. Grammars of Identity/Alterity. A Structural Approach. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Giddens, Anthony. 1992. The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Löfgren, Orvar. 2014. “The Black Box of Everyday Life. Entanglements of Stuff, Affects and Activities.” Cultural Analysis 13: 77-98.

Moreno Andrés, Jorge, and Francisco Cruces. 2018. The Order I Live In. An Indoor Urban Symphony. canal.uned.es/video/5c07ac67b1111f5b718bb727

Nippert-Eng, Christena. 1995. Home and Work. Negotiating boundaries through everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pardo, Jose Luis. 1996. La intimidad. Valencia: Pre-Textos.

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