Intimate Discussions at School of Everything Unplugged…

The School of Everything Unplugged weekly meetup is the scene of some very interesting conversations and discussions (and I am trying to document them as a record of my learning…). One of the most thought provoking – though also ambiguous and, perhaps, inconclusive (it is the meetup’s style to leave outcomes open-ended; it is about the conversations – the process – rather than the answers!) – was about our concepts of intimacy. Actually, I say “one of the most”, but it was actually two sessions: we’d arranged for Cassie Robinson to come and lead a discussion on intimacy, but the first time around she was unable to make it, so we improvised and had a discussion about intimacy anyhow; and then, a couple of weeks ago, Cassie came and we had a second discussion.

They were very different sessions – in the first, it was the blind leading the blind as we struggled to build a mutual understanding, in the second Cassie talked about her work in this area.

“Intimacy” is a difficult subject, too. We each have our own understanding of the word, internalised, and it is hard to avoid lengthy discussions about semantics. (I thought about having a dictionary definition of intimacy here, but I think I like the ambiguity…) Everyone’s experience is different: families differ, educations differ, cultures differ. It is hard to separate ideas of intimacy from ideas of sex – never an easy topic to discuss in public, with people one barely knows. Indeed, I am writing this in a public space, very aware of those around me and conscious that some of the websites I look up have the potential to offend onlookers… (Anthropologist Kate Fox has a lot to say about the impact of English culture on our general inability to hold any kind of serious conversation in “Watching the English” – she calls it “our social dis-ease” – and has a whole section dealing with sex.)

There is also the illusion of intimacy created through our use of online social media and the internet generally. Things that were once private are freely shared – not only our marital status, for instance, but whether we are interested in seeking other relationships. Virtual worlds like Second Life add another level of illusion and complexity…

On top of which, there may be generational differences, too – societal attitudes to intimacy must have changed hugely in the last fifty years.

So: lots of big issues.

Several people at the first session had experienced living in different cultures, and brought a different perspective to our talk: we kept coming back to cultural aspects of intimacy – the way in which some cultures display friendship in a physical way.

One of the conversationalists had worked in the area of public health, and public sexual health; their take on intimacy at work was of course very different to some others’. The discussion of intimacy at work was fascinating, since different spheres create different expectations. The false intimacy created by people on the supermarket checkout being required to engage customers in conversation – the realm of emotional labour – to build customer engagement (and the discomfort this can create) compares to many corporations’ attempts to increase employee engagement. How much do we – should we – share with colleagues and customers?

Institutions and organisations aim to manage and control, often through hierarchies. This of course gives rise to consideration of power and politics. A teacher started discussing the issues faced when considering issues of intimacy in the classroom – especially in relation to physical contact between teacher and pupil.

Someone else raised the issue of intimacy between pupils: a school head had asked for advice about “sexting” between pupils, and was disconcerted by the assertion that this was simply an extension of age-old adolescent sexual exploration by new means; and probably uncontrollable.

Our discussion was very broad – we were exploring what we meant by intimacy (and I am still not sure that there I understand what we came up with). Cassie brought a bit more discipline to the conversation. She is part of a research project Our Intimate Lives, exploring intimacy in a variety of contexts. Cassie is interested in physical intimacy as an expression of sexuality and how this affects society and ourselves. (Can one have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy? Just a thought.) The increased commoditisation of sexuality and its transmission in society by the media has led to confusion in a variety of contexts. The free availability of sexual images increases this.

Cassie also believes that an open expression of intimacy and sexuality – our “true sexual identity” – is key to our eudaemonic wellbeing. This of course is – intimately – related to sexual politics. The circumstances in which one chooses to share and explore one’s sexuality – particularly whether it is something one chooses to keep private. (The recent tragedy of David Law’s resignation after he was outed by a national newspaper following an investigation into his expenses claims sprang to mind.)

This raises broader questions of identity, too: the extent to which our view of intimacy and sexuality is tied to views of our identity. There was a discussion about whether one has “one true self”, and how ideas of “self” were mediated by society and culture. In the digital world, where it is possible to have multiple (and often anonymous) personas, the public and the private is often confused or merged: we may have multiple “selves”, some of which may be public.

In different situations, we may have a different view of “self”. Many artists have shared their view of “self” – the self-portrait has been a staple of art for centuries (if only because oneself is the cheapest, most available model). But many artists choose to share themselves in a very open way – Jo Spence’s photographs documented her life with breast cancer in a raw, seemingly unedited form (though of course clearly edited and curated to provide a particular picture). [Cindy Sherman’s work may be seen as the antithesis of this, deliberately assuming a variety of anonymous identities in her self-portraits.]

These discussions raised many more questions than the answers they provided; thinking about the possible answers is probably just the start…

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