Monday, August 20, 2012

Remote Intimacy

In Relocations, an awesome book, Karen Tongson writes about "remote intimacy", a term she credits to Jennifer Terry.  (Terry defined it as the "transmission of sentiments through designed uses and creative appropriations of telemediating devices".)  Wish I had page numbers, but I read it as an ebook and every page was Page 1.  Ain't technology grand?  You've probably experienced remote intimacy, even if you don't know the term.  The classic example is listening to a favorite song and feeling like somewhere out there, another person is listening to the same song and loving it, too.  It can also be experienced in groups, as in that scene from The Perks of Being a Wallflower that launched 10,000 "infinite" tattoos. The kids in that book, who presumably live in some uncool suburb, listen to the Smiths together and "feel infinite".  (The Smiths seem to have launched a disproportionately high number of remote intimacy moments.)  Tongson writes:

"...Listening as remote intimacy brings people, things, and concepts together, even if suburban space and time dictates their dispersal and isolation."

and in greater detail:

"In a pre-digital age, remote intimacies were practiced through the shared consumption (or some would say overconsumption) of broadcast television and popular music, as well as by "hanging out" live, at differently situated chains or even at amusement venues like Knott's [Berry Farm, a southern California theme park].  Sometimes the resonance of these activities and of these shared popular objects is only discovered belatedly, thus recreating intimacies in the present based on the shared, remote gestures--some experienced in isolation--in the past.  I would venture to describe such asynchronous echoes as remote intimacies across time."

Remote intimacy is especially important to the suburbs, because it can take away the inferiority of being in "a suburb of [some larger city]", allowing people to connect with faraway places that might have more in common with their own.  For instance, Tongson describes how music connects Birmingham, England with Riveside, California.  By identifying with a place like Birmingham, you can escape the feeling of living in a "lesser version" of LA.

But remote intimacy is older than this implies; predating recorded film and sound.  In her notes to the book, Tongson uses a quote about how morning prayers connect people with millions of unseen others doing the same thing.  It's one reason why these rituals are so powerful.  You feel remote intimacy with people across time (because your ancestors did the same thing) and in the present time, with people across the world.

Of course, the internet has caused remote intimacy to take up a much more prominent place in many of our lives.  The interesting thing is, Tongson never says that remote intimacy is an inferior copy of other intimacies, or that it is unhealthy in some way.  (This is how people alone in their rooms with music or the internet tend to be perceived.)  To Tongson, it is a way through which people fight isolation, rather than a way to become more isolated.  When talking about intimacy, relationships are always privileged, but they are not the only place to find intimacy.  I think it would be hard for most people to get by on remote intimacy alone.  But these little moments of connection?  They matter.


Eric said...

Really interesting topic. I live 5 minutes from Knott's Berry Farm and I have fond memories of going there over the years. Remote intimacy puts a new spin on those memories, as I haven't been there in about 10 years.

I participate in global meditations, and remote intimacy describes exactly the feeling of what is going on. I hadn't seen it in that way, but more in a spiritual sense. I guess this kinda demystifies the experience but I still think it is just as powerful.

Thanks for sharing, I think I'm going to pick up her book to read.

Sara K. said...

Another form of remote intimacy: watching astrological phenomena such as solar eclipses. I saw the solar eclipse earlier this year in Taiwan, and I know my father saw the same solar eclipse in San Francisco.