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Sex and the Commons III -- Stunted Intimacy


Love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even in its most fleshly. – Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain.

In these Neuromyth.com blogposts on Sex and the Commons, I have been exploring the relationship between the sad state of our national discourse and the failures in the development of healthy physical intimacy which may be behind our social fragmentation, separation, and isolation.


In part I, I discussed the erosion of our sense of a common good, which may be produced by information overload, generational increases in anxiety, endemic loneliness, and a disembodied world of electronic communication, but has led to any sense of a common good being trumped by identity politics and the growing vulnerabilities of proliferating and diverse individualities. I suggested that there might be a connection between the erosion of a common good and the likelihood that the personal autonomy necessary to step beyond oneself into an increasingly diverse social world may be crippled by difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimacy.


In part II I drew clear attention to the sexual recession. Despite greater tolerance of both sexual behavior and variety, there is evidence for a broad withdrawal from physical intimacy extending well into adulthood. Masturbation, hookup sex, the illusion of sexual availability via the Internet, the avoidance of bad sex, and demographic increases in anxiety and inhibition all contribute. The sexual recession is likely to directly reflect our increasing difficulty with negotiating, and for younger generations learning to negotiate, the intimacies of bodily relationships with others. Such intimacy is the primary ground for not only establishing sustaining healthy relationships, but for developing the personal autonomy without which attention to greater goods is difficult to either establish or to expand.


I ended part II with a theological reflection from Stanley Grenz, but it does not take a theologian, or any specific religious commitments to understand that the nature of personhood is that we cannot be human “by ourselves,” but require mutuality and interdependence. It is sexuality that draws us out of ourselves into communion, a “one-in-another” which requires a desacralization of the boundaries of self, not as introducing impurity or pollution, but seeing sexuality as the prototypical form of embodied, relational communion, in each other becoming more than each alone. When these capacities are delayed or stunted, not only are there problems for our personal psychology, but for the development of the social autonomy that makes democracy possible. It is this which may be behind much that has become unhinged in both our political and cultural intercourse.

The Boundaries of Self: Freedom, Vulnerability, and Intimacy

We have all been affected by the increasingly isolated, internally fragmented, and even empty self the effects of which appear to be accelerating precipitously in contemporary life. Jean Twenge’s meta-analytic findings show major increases in anxiety over the latter part of the century just past. Census data show a doubling of single-person households in the space of a generation, to as many as 40% in major urban areas. Our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, electronic communication, so readily available, easily attenuates our mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies. We protect our vulnerability only at great cost to our capacity for real loving intimacies with others, even our idealizations and projections run unchecked by genuine relationship. We are left only with our romantic longings, projections of our golden shadows turning love into a religion, too often blind to the redemptive qualities of our most intimate relationships. Our culture commodifies everything, abstracting things from their context, so we remain unaware (or defend ourselves from the awareness) of the working conditions behind producing that new iPad, and treat it as if it had intrinsic value independent of the system of exchange and interaction that presented it to us, or the uses to which it can be put. Our social fragmentation represents the same pattern of isolation and fragmentation, as separate domiciles no longer house extended families but separable individuals, whose time is increasingly occupied with choices between commodities rather than in interaction or relationship with real, human others. Twenty-two percent of Millenials say they have no friends.


In his work presented at a conference on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual” (and also published in the March 2011 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science) Steven Winter pointed out that we all too often treat the self in the same bounded and commodified way. We treat the self, and its commitments and aims, in abstraction from its contingent, social situated nature. This includes its own higher order processes, which are not merely given, but must be nurtured to development. Winter focuses attention on the development of sexual autonomy. He reminds us that the sexual autonomy which has been the center of American constitutional law for 50 years, while couched in the language of individual rights is not, in anything but its most narcissistic forms, something that one pursues alone. Sexual autonomy is not about individual privacy. Winter finds this somewhat surreal: “after all, when one is alone, one does not need a condom” (238). It also doesn’t apply equally to all individuals. If a man’s lover is pregnant, there is no way he can legally require her to have the baby. If he does not want children, there is not only no way he can stop her from having it, and he is responsible for supporting the child. If sexual autonomy is a fundamental aspect of human flourishing, it is because, as Plato points out in the Symposium, eros is a sexual desire that attaches to a person. It is something that enables us to treat another being as the person they are, sex being an agency by which we respond to each other through our bodies, even at our most carnal, interested in a relationship between persons.


Sexuality is an important area of emotional and psychological life where I must learn how to take initiative with respect to my well-being and do so in concert with others. Under modern social conditions in the West, it is the social domain in which teenagers and very young adults get their first real taste of freedom as they explore their sexuality outside the supervision of parents and social institutions. Indeed, in early adulthood, sexuality is the domain in which we learn to be responsive and responsible to the other. The successful negotiation of sexuality and, ultimately, intimacy requires one to develop skills and values such as empathy, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, recognition of and respect for the other. These are precisely the skills too frequently underdeveloped when intimacy is stunted by contemporary practices, and at the root of the polarization and fragmentation of our national discourse.


Intimate relationships are one of the primary ways that we seek recognition and establish identity, hence the havoc wreaked upon our sense of ourselves by the pathologies of intimacy, in narcissism, manipulation, and exploitation, or why childhood sexual abuse can destroy the very capacity for agency. An important part of what we expect from intimacy is someone who “sees me as I really am,” and one of the advantages it gives us is the comfort and confidence to be just that, ourselves. Electronic communication produces greater distance between the self and the proliferation of personae which it makes possible.

We establish our autonomy, our freedom, and our identity, finally, only on the fragile and vulnerable ground of our intimate interdependencies. While there are dangers when our self-boundaries are overwhelmed, intimacy requires us not only to guard them less zealously, but to open them, both to another, and to ourselves, as the only way we can ever transcend ourselves is by going beyond them. Self-transcendence is driven by our longing for the kenosis of pouring ourselves into things greater than ourselves. Perhaps we too easily forget the ones closest to us, those who know us best, the ones from whom we always learn the most about ourselves, one of the central benefits of intimacy. Only with our closest intimates might we find the other within, the deepest well of our own self-transcendence, in all our anxiety and vulnerability, taking the risks without which we can never step outside of ourselves to genuinely love.


Philosophers like Sartre and Marcel, and even theologians like Buber and Bonhoeffer, argued several generations ago that self and other have no independent existence or intrinsic identity. Even contemporary cognitive science suggests that subjectivity is preceded by an intersubjectivity that is the product of empathies that run deeply beneath the surface of our embodied and interdependent biological lives. But it is such empathy that is abrogated by much in our contemporary culture. While our neuroplasticity makes it possible for us to be, in Andy Clark’s apt phrase natural-born cyborgs, one of the crucial lessons of our extended developmental dependency (and again I would encourage a serious look at Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood) is about how much our very subjectivity is rooted in biologically embodied relationships with other human beings, however much attenuated by a contemporary culture of electronic communication.

Our relationships are our redemption. We act on each other’s behalf, and show kindness in our bodily presence, with a touch, a kiss of peace, in holding and being held, in assurances of love, in the return of hope, in laughter and in tears: “Your tears moved me. I don’t think people really have any idea what they do for one another. I don’t know if you realize how much you’ve done for me.” We redeem each other bodily. Hoc est corpus meum. It is our sexual incompleteness and the quest for coupled and communal wholeness, which leave us open to what is outside of our control, and other than ourselves, but without which we feel incomplete.


The Disembodied Politic: Technology-Mediated Social Intercourse

In a previous blogpost on “Disembodied Communication” (3.14.2018), I asked some questions about our contemporary technological vector, particularly the cyberpsychology of electronic communication. We live in a world in which we are mimetically engulfed. From the nonverbal synchronies we share with our caregivers, through the behavioral contagion of adolescence, to the empathy of shared emotions as adults, we feel comfortable and connected. Without them we feel rejected and alien, even when the idea of connection is presumed in our symbolic communication. But even as emojis can only point to but neither produce nor sustain actual shared emotion, our sense of connection is only a pale substitute for the fullness of embodied presence in face-to-face interaction and is only developed and sustained within it. The emotional pain of social rejection depends upon the same physiology as physical pain, and our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, bodily isolating technological mediation reduces the risk of rejection only by attenuating the very mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies behind not only our closest intimacies, but our very experience of ourselves as embodied agents in the world. Indeed, it may severely reduce the bodily interactions without which one’s agency and intimacy are stunted if not simply abstracted away.


Electronic communication, in hiding our vulnerability behind screens of defensiveness, distance and projection, often flies directly in the face of the development of both agency and intimacy and may undercut the very emotional and cognitive capacities necessary for social intercourse. I believe that it is the attenuation of such capacities which is behind the disordered state of our public and particularly our political discourse. By channeling our social intercourse to distance senses, away from smell, taste, and touch, physical presence, facial expression, and the coordination of bodily interaction we interact as if we were disembodied. While temporarily avoiding feelings of vulnerability and mortality, we risk the further disconnection, alienation, and isolation likely only to exacerbate them in the long run, and as terror management theory suggests, polarize our differences to the point of mutual incomprehension and, ultimately, anger and violence. While communicative technologies may also enable us to expand our interiors in more inclusive ways, they will only do so to the extent that they reduce our obsessions with unique, egocentric individuals, and our beliefs that we have autonomies independent of the social nexus within which they are developed: real bodies, in real places, with excruciatingly finite lives. Unfortunately, it has become all too clear that it is polarization and mutual incomprehension that has come to define our social and political discourse.


David Baron-Cohen warned us, in The Science of Evil it is the failure to empathize with the pain of victims that leads to genuine pathology. You want to abstract out all empathy cues? Eliminate the facial engagement of shared emotion, and communicate entirely by e-mail, text, or Twitter and then wonder why you feel lonely and alienated. I believe that failures in emotional communication are made increasingly likely by the attenuations of electronic communication. I believe that the love and support we give each other is less real or even obviated when it is not embodied, imaginary rather than real, possible but not actualized. This is the sin which Gabriel Marcel (1951) calls desincarne. What does it mean to “communicate” absent bodily presence, absent face-to-face emotion, absent coordinated movement, absent touch, absent holding and being held, absent laughter or tears?

Misplaced Bodies

People tethered to their mobile devices can be with you, but they are always somewhere else as well. This is the height of disembodied activity. When someone is physically present in one place, but their minds are elsewhere, they are not really “present” to us, in the sense of giving us their undivided attention. They are always waiting for something else to happen, some other contact to intrude. Even when someone is communicating with you, how is their body interacting with your body? Not by their physical presence, nor by the coordination of movement that even walking together or turn-taking in conversation requires. They are looking at a visual display screen, more often than not at text, not at actual events or interactions but descriptions of them, their fingers (or thumbs) flying over a touchpad or keyboard, heads bent over and not paying much attention to the world around them. People can be in the same room with each other, even standing next to each other and only interacting with others who are only present to them via text. Issues of embodiment include questions of place, of where you are located and what you are doing. Where are you? If you tell someone the physical location of your body, is that where your attention is directed?


In my experience, the loss is not simply connection, it is to thought. The growing literature on “embodied cognition” documents a myriad of symbioses between bodies and thinking. Students have a hard time following an argument with more than one or two steps, and one wonders about the connections between literal steps and steps of an argument. Is it harder to follow an argument if you rarely walk anywhere? Students have little or no comprehension of a wide range of nonliteral forms of discourse. One needs to mark them, as in saying, “I’m being sarcastic; I don’t think this is literally true” – which seems to undercut how sarcasm actually works. Students will take things literally unless told otherwise, and they often cannot sustain the back and forth of conversation. In an introductory class, I got in the habit of using the last 10 minutes requiring students to converse with an interlocutor that is sustained over the course of the semester. It is not a waste of time, but remediation; conversational skills need practice.


Unshared Emotion

We are highly responsive to the emotions of those around us, and emotions can even be entrained subcortically, without our awareness, mediating appeasement, fear, and rage via the contagion of facial expressions and bodily expressions of emotion that are part of our social interdependence. Of course, this requires bodily presence, and face-to-face communication. This can often make us feel vulnerable, and make our mortality salient, against which we may defend ourselves with avoidance, denial, or dissociation, or shape with symbolic functions, themselves beholden to a living scaffold of bodily and social interconnection for which they are fragile prosthetics. The emotional pain of social rejection is mediated by the same physiology as physical pain, and our technologies provide us with endless ways to avoid rejection by distancing and attenuating our social intercourse. Electronic communication channels this away from immediate, physical, bodily engagement, magnifies the illusion of disembodied selves, and further fragments our experience. Our greatest human experiences and deepest intimacies, which often connect and integrate the pieces, are attenuated, and the isolated individualism that is such a hallmark of our contemporary culture becomes an even more serious, even toxic problem. The empathy of young adults has been in decline since 1980, but the last ten years have seen the steepest drop. In a cross-temporal meta-analysis, 75% of roughly 14,000 American college students rated themselves as less empathetic than those of 30 years ago.


We still need to learn and develop empathic skills, which require the face-to-face contact to read and experience the emotions of others, and to gauge their responses to our own. We need to be able to have a feeling, consider it, and decide whether to make the deliberate move toward intimacy of sharing it. Nevertheless, Turkle’s ethnography Alone Together suggests that young people often express emotions while they are being formed, where feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated, a thought formed by sending it out for responses. They often appear to be developing a “collaborative self,” uncomfortable until a response is given to a fledgling feeling or thought, needing to be connected to “feel like themselves”. We need time to think about who we are and what we value, to manage and express feelings. And we need to learn something about personal boundaries, about secrets kept, shared, and betrayed. How do we develop intimacy with no assurances of privacy, that what we send electronically isn’t made privy to others, known and unknown, trusted or not. What is a personality so fragile that it needs constant support?


Inattentive Intimacy

Technology-mediated communication clearly allows us to reach out across greater distances, to a wider range of people, and to do more than we could have done only a decade ago. Unfortunately, many of the iGen (or Generation Z) communicate largely via texting and social media. The irony of Facebook is that while pictures and profiles can be readily available, communication is limited to writing on someone’s “wall,” or sending text-based messages which at best, can move to the level of a back and forth written chat. But as Turkle points out, text-based communication frequently uses a language of abbreviations and “emoticons.” This is not so much sharing or experiencing emotion as indicating or describing it, at best. Relationships appear to be “ramping down,” just as our connections with technology ramp up. “How are you?” is too open-ended, so we ask “where are you?” or “what’s up?” These are good questions for getting someone’s location and making a simple plan. They are not so good for opening a dialogue about complexity of feeling. We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone; in intimacy, new solitudes, as Turkle puts it.


Much of this has to do with a sense of vulnerability, and a desire for a level of control which is not possible in face-to-face conversations, or even on the telephone. Composing one’s thoughts online can indeed give the opportunity to think through, edit, and assure greater clarity. The idea, that hiding may make it possible for the shy and guarded to open up, is not new. So, texting provides protection, where even a phone call is too unbounded. Receiving one may feel like an intrusion. We prefer to keep ourselves at a distance. We don’t want people to see us upset in public. The feeling of control also makes it possible to ignore the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, avoid hearing a hurt or angry sound in someone’s voice, and miss all body language. This doesn’t encourage authenticity or spontaneity and can generate mistrust.

Even the telephone can seem to claim too much time and attention. The telephone can allow a kind of communication that texts and e-mails do not. Both parties are present at the same time, questions can be answered, turns are taken, and mixed feelings can be expressed by timing or tone of voice. E-mails can repeat without resolution, misunderstandings are commonplace, and feelings are easily hurt. Yes, with e-mails texts, and instant messaging we can “connect” when and where we want and avoid responding without much difficulty. The telegraphic nature of “chats” and “tweets” can provide succinct snapshots of emotion, insight, or even encouragement, and make us feel acknowledged, supported, and even desired. However, they are not the way to understand something very deeply, or cope with a situation of any emotional complexity, despite their ability to fill-in, and the momentum they can provide.


Even our face-to-face conversations give way to interruption by incoming electronic communication. How much of a person’s attention do you have when they have a cell phone in their hand, and they glance down, their minds suddenly no longer with you? What does it mean to spend more time with someone when they only have such interruptible attention? I know that when I am conversing with a parent in their home, that a child demanding attention can often be a legitimate interruption, and I can see them there, reaching to be held, and even respond to that child myself. But what of unknown others, who will have precedence over my physical presence, even as I, in turn, can ignore any boundaries that might once have been demarcated by my presence, and our interaction. Here the research clearly shows that even the mere presence of a mobile communications device has negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversations quality in dyadic settings, an effect most clear when people are conversing about personally meaningful topics.

Authenticity is “…the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families and know loss and the reality of death… A love relationship involves coming to savor the surprises and rough patches of looking at the world from another’s point of view, shaped by history, biology, trauma, and joy” (Turkle, p 6). But we seem to want “a willful turning away from the complexities of human partnerships.” The demands of friendship can be exhausting, but so too our demands on friends when we need support, and we can alienate or fail each other. Relationships can be “complicated,” and intimacy has demands that the comforts of mere connection do not. As Turkle puts it “Teenagers are drawn to love stories in which full intimacy cannot occur—here I think of current passions for films about high school vampires who cannot sexually consummate relationships for fear of hurting those they love” (p 10). Technology changes boundaries between intimacy and solitude. If telephone conversation reveals too much, it becomes easier to text..