Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

In The Postmodern World, Intimacy Has Become A Strange Thing


In The Postmodern World, Intimacy Has Become A Strange Thing

In today's world, emotional bonds are rare as we chase for newness relentlessly

Artwork by Sreedeep Bhattacharya

Feel for each other?

Offer’s valid for a limited time

What are the essential ingredients of a pristine, romantic association? Introduction, anticipation, initiation, expectation, complexity, eccentricity, intimacy, reward and recognition. Not to forget the garnish of conflicts and contradictions; pathos and pleasure; tantrums and traumas; itches and aches—and, possibly, a lot more.

Whereas these elements may have remained somewhat unaltered, there seems to be a sea change in the pace, method and format of executing romantic intent. I was recently reading Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover that provides a plethora of feelings underneath the flesh and bone of contemporary lovers. While the memoir celebrates the nostalgia of togetherness, it is time to run a feeling-check in an era in which moving on has been sufficiently normalised.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, we seem to be obsessed with the new and the now—that includes new people, new projects, new objects, new passions. Even though every ‘new’ appears somewhat old way too soon. Therefore, feelings often reside as fragmented residues, expressed in short bursts and manifest in recurring installments. In the restless game of Grab and Grab More, friends-with-benefits have back-benched the idea of ‘forever’. Open-endedness and uncertainty are the normative social principles around which we meet, mate, relate, relish and reject. It is as if our personal life is imitating the internal logic of consumption: that of desiring—consuming—exhausting—disposing; followed by a renewed craving for the new, yet again. It is a constant, relentless chase.

This lure of newness is often more exciting than the stability of what we might have. An expedition in search of the unknown is more thrilling than the monotony of domesticity. Also, new-found capacities to access newer options have given rise to excess. In the vast choice-basket, for many individuals, feelings are increasingly short-lived, transient, momentary.

“You were supposed to be a one-night stand. A bookmark. A ten-line poem in my grand anthology of lovers” is the most reiterated realisation in the Handbook of Love. True to the spirit of a postmodern lifestyle, there is a great deal of ambiguity and contradiction in people’s lives that reveal the schizophrenic aspects of the intimacies of our times. Feelings of longing and proximity are often pacified by convenient, ephemeral instincts. Reasons to depart are in confrontation with excuses to spend one more night together. Yes, it is complicated. It is in a flux. And it is quite cool that way, for many of us.

Bodies flirt and indulge. Many bodies among those are non-exclusive and non-committed. Bodies live in moments—as we trail past simultaneous and parallel narratives of sights, touches, tastes, conversations, encounters and feelings. Bodies get aroused in present-tense. Bodies care less for the past or the future. Bodies soon outgrow and get bored. But what remains constant in this exploratory process is the return to ‘newness’. Newness is the new aphrodisiac. Newness is addictive. It evokes fresh feelings. Even when we love each other, even then, the offer remains valid only for a limited time.

No longer are we working in a mono-mode. Bodies presume that there will be other bodies—whether lovers or not, with or without feelings. Bodies embody that possibility of multiplicity, with or without feelings. We are in a state of ambivalence—a desirable chaos. For feeling’s sake or for fuck’s sake, this is not a crisis but a condition quintessentially postmodern. This does not mean that bodies do not crave attention or feel affection. Sure, they do. But bodies are also increasingly and unapologetically frivolous and permissive. All the more in an app-mediated world, where distance is no longer an obstacle. However, getting in touch is no obstacle to staying apart. Solitude and space are as sacrosanct as intimacy.

Given our perennial propensity to publicise the private on social media, one can be very certain that we are displaying so much in fragments that we have lost the patience to weave a longer narrative.

An excess of mushy moments, a possibility of cohabitation and the sight of colourful romantic expeditions on social media—all that is the surface. Once stripped of its surface, the body is inherently instantaneous and ephemeral and reckless. The body does not necessarily want to establish ‘order’ and ‘permanence’. Rather, in several cases, the body loves to seek expression through the processes of consumption and exhaustion. Hence the predominance of consumerist phrases, such as: ‘It didn’t work out’ and ‘I regret wasting time on you’, or considering another person as a ‘good bargain’ or a ‘better deal.’ It is a manifestation of the fact that other bodies are the ultimate consumables, where the idea of permanent settlement is dated and dead.

A Handbook For My Lover makes the claim that textual glaciers are actually located in the most private landscapes of the body. I am not quite sure how many of us even have the inclination to use the textual stream of thought to capture either our feelings or our private landscapes. But given our perennial propensity to publicise the private on social media, one can be very certain that we are displaying so much in fragments that we have lost the patience to weave a longer narrative. “To strip, you must wear your sins like clothes.” There are no double standards regarding the confessional aspects of stripping, which is to lay bare one’s feelings or the lack of them.

But how often and how many of us have the time to observe and analyse, let alone document the contradictions between taking a pause and increasing pace; between freedom and submission; between excitement and boredom; between anticipation and delay; between feuds and reconciliations; between expectations or the lack of them; between orgasms and sexual incompatibility? Do we have the time to tend to the dirty table after the meal?

We are inhabiting in an era of hyper-self-indulgence—with or without feelings. Who said feelings are not consumables? You may (re)collect them while using the body as an archive, or archive the body through text or images. In that process, the body also becomes a personal(ised) archive to be consumed and exhausted—well within the consumerist scheme yet again. It is a narcissistic and nostalgic project. The body is served as an instant aphrodisiac.

Writing or reflecting, in themselves, are futile, when the fresh journey towards the new is action-oriented. A new encounter is just a swipe away. Words only have the perfunctory role of throwing, receiving, pressing hints or deciding the logistics of the meeting ground or the sharing of commonalities. Melancholia over ‘forgetting’, or the initiative to ‘preserve’—seems to fade fast under the spell of recent updates, notifications and acquisitions.

So, how does it end? It ends too frequently. Or it ended long ago. Or it never began, for all you know. Or there are no formal beginnings and endings; but only multiple spill-overs and constant starts. Associations are too fluid. As individuals feel for each other instantly and also disassociate freely. It is all in the present tense. At times, memory screams out loud—claiming that remembering itself has become amnestic, by habit or by design, in order to forget the past bitterness. Yet another felt ambiguity.

You’ve got to feel for the bodies caught in this ambiguity—between frequent apertures and departures. Not Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, it is Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Love which is of greater relevance to make meaning of the drift: “Each connection may be short-lived, but their excess is indestructible…Love as sharp, short and shocking episodes…the kind of skills that are acquired are those of finishing quickly and starting afresh…Contacts require less time and effort to be entered and less time and effort to be broken.”

Ironically, nothing seems to be more permanent than the ephemerality of feelings. The habit of finishing quickly and starting afresh does not leave much room for retrospection. In retrospect, the shared memories are stored in outsourced, invisible cloud spaces, only as fragmented images and moments. Multiplicity and abundance of choice have liberated the body. For many, the body is no longer private property, to be possessed. We need a new handbook and a much-evolved template for intimacy. While feelings can be subjective, it is necessary to feel these transitions first, instead of being judgmental about them.

The bottom line: ‘detachment’ as a feeling is as dominant as any other. Finally, there is a legitimate category for the detached in the romantic domain. They are ‘fraysexuals’—a person who feels attracted to someone relatively unknown. Sexual or romantic attraction diminishes with the development of an emotional bond or with the deepening of feelings. Frays need a constant supply of newness to feel attracted, or they are attracted to individuals to whom they are emotionally less connected. A classic case of mind-body duality.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Body of Feelings")

(Views expressed are personal)

Sreedeep Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University