Intimate in public

Materiality, Biography, Mediation: Layers of Social Intimacy

Situations of mediated social intimacy are widespread. During the public ritual of 25 Aprile in the pandemic moment in and out of time, their frequency, interconnectedness and a sense of intense communitas were heightened. The first of three layers of social intimacy draws attention to spatial/corporeal materiality. Physical settings and the corporeality of the scenes are intimate in the sense of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a cosy and private or relaxed atmosphere: night clothing, kitchen table, breakfast, and coffee. Balcony and garden partially opened the private towards the public, evoking a sense of liminality. The woman in Klagenfurt reflected on this intimate moment: ‘Time collapses, space collapses; it’s as if we are all there … connected by the paths where struggles travel’.1

The second layer of social intimacy was added through the biographical in relation to 25 Aprile. A partially shared heritage, processed through different national discourses and biographical points of connection, was enacted and mediated in synchronous time and transnational space. The three women are first-generation university-educated professionals. None of them live in their countries of origin. They are befriended to different extents and share an interest in the act of resistance that was the Partisan struggle in Italy. Through their biographies, they weaved a web of meaning around the symbolic date, enhancing the sense of intimacy set by the private spatial and corporeal settings. For Pablita, the Londoner from Italy, it hints at childhood memories and family history. As a citizen and an activist, she enacts a firm commitment to resistance against all forms of oppression at her workplace and in her daily life, a commitment grounded in a radical history. Jane and Yonka grew up and studied in Germany, and work in Austria. For Jane, the Partisans, their history and those who remember them are part of her chosen daily life in Italy. She is acutely aware of and professionally engages with different approaches to remembering the two World Wars and Nazi fascism in several national environments. For Yonka, with a chosen home in London and currently in Brexit-induced limbo, Nazism and the resistance against it form a reference point in history. Seeking out commemorations of this time as well as the ambiguities of contemporary practices of resistance led her to engage with memories of the Partisan struggles.

The atmosphere in the three scenes above is solitary, unless we consider the presence of smartphones. This brings us to mediation, which can be defined as the result ‘of flows of production, circulation, interpretation and recirculation’ (Couldry 2008: 383), and which forms the third layer of social intimacy. Anthropologists acknowledged early on that digital media environments are imbricated with material space and corporeal encounters (Coleman 2010; Hamm 2003; Miller and Slater 2001). The question of intimacy in digital environments has been assessed with some concern as a state of being ‘alone together’ where ‘we’d rather text than talk’ (Turkle 2011: 23), or ‘detached engagement’ in (intimate?) echo chambers (Lovink 2011: 2). In contrast, Joanne Garde-Hansen and Kristyn Gorton analyse media as ‘affective tools’ (2013: 4). Rather than assessing the affective qualities of online interaction as a substitute for face-to-face contact, they emphasise that media content, technology and subjectivity are coalescing. Media are not perceived as objects separate from the self: ‘There is media inside me and me inside media’ (2013: 8). The women were connected in real time via a messenger service. The physical distance released them from the ambivalence and awkwardness of face-to-face contact under social-distancing rules. Their interaction constituted a transnational, mediated and intimate public involving ‘emotional reciprocity’ (Morrison 2011: 37).

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