The Comfort of Strangers

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Internet-hugs-smiley-cartoon-imageSomewhere in Japan, on offer for the throwaway price of a thousand yen, is a good night's cuddle. Somewhere in Seattle and elsewhere in Oregon, the price of an expensive meal will offer you the benefits of touch; hugging, cuddling, and spooning. Somewhere on a street corner, someone is standing around with a board that says “Free Hugs”.

Intimacy, otherwise sparse, is now available, sometimes freely and sometimes not. Theorists of the 21st century speak of the phenomenon called affective labor wherein even emotion is brought under the purview of capitalist modes of valuation and exchange. This is a matter of both lament and orientation. One is nostalgic for her grandmother who offered food and love in abundant measure, while being aware that all of it was provided through backbreaking, undervalued and underpaid, gendered labor.

Having lived in the US for close to a decade, I am intensely familiar with the enunciations of such affective labor. Cashiers who ask you how you are doing with such abundant cheer, even as they do not necessarily care to hear the answer, are part of this labor complex. Also inhabiting this phenomenon are bartenders; men and women, who must both produce unique personalities, as well as subsume them in the service of listening to your life story. In return, one plays the game. One declares to the cashier that life could be better, but isn't bad, and one produces for the bartender, a confession hopefully more interesting than the last. In turn is generated the counter effect of a hermetic sealing off from affective atmospheres. Modes of survival seem to depend upon avoiding all but the most perfunctory forms of structured intimacy, thereby retaining all control. In such a milieu, the form of loneliness produced is piercing, and singular. It creates an appreciation and tolerance for being alone, along with an inability to be anything but, compounded by a deep desire for the one true companion that will dispel this state of being. The myth that therefore sustains this affective dissonance and deprivation is that of the love story.

How does one imagine a love story? As a confluence of circumstances, a romantic restating of a contract, and as a set of eventualities set into motion by a single leap of faith. Theorists on contemporary forms of love attest to its singularity in modernity and as attentive to its context as to its enunciation. The setting of the love story, its aims, its entrapments while dependent on the context end up constituting its very value system, its world. Alain Badiou's book “In Praise of Love” for example alerts us to the dangers of love in the modern world. He questions the force of training in modern life, where one is asked to avoid the risks and instead “consume” love in the appropriate fashion, as in Badiou's example, through an internet dating site.

One of my favorite newspaper columns to pore over in the US is a series of classified advertisements collated under the title “Missed Connections”. Premised on the notion of the one true love, always already lurking around the corner, it details a series of encounters that may or may not actualize these hopes. I understand these investments. On my first trip to the US, I boarded a plane to Austin, Texas relieved that this was the last leg of a very long journey. A young Texan across the aisle from me, struck up a conversation, answered my questions, and dispelled my newly felt loneliness. I retain hopes of perhaps running into him sometime. When we parted on that journey, I said to him in deep dramatic tones, “Have a good life.” Since then, I have also produced investments in other random encounters, just because any of those might be the one.

Sophie Blackall© Sophie Blackall

The artist Sophie Blackall has produced a series of beautiful drawings around this column, and the book that emerged out of these ruminations is titled, “Missed Connections: Love Lost and Found.” The drawings and their accompanying text are together an exercise in joy. One of my favorite ones reads,

“Friday evening I was racing through the Main Concourse and you were there standing still, staring up at the stars. You had a book in your hand. You were lovely. Time stood still for a second while I fell in love, then I had to catch my train. Then I thought, Damn. Then I thought of a Plan. So here's my ridiculously romantic plan: Meet me under the stars on Valentine's Day. 8pm. Bring your book.”

Notions of intimate life within globalization narratives of the twenty-first century follow a familiar rhetoric. Those living in modernity seem to be beset by a loss of emotional connection, a condition of contagion as widespread as the movement of good, capital, and people. Even as mobilities of capital create possibilities of connection, human relations are said to be ravaged by an increasing distance from communitas. Coming to modernity seems to bring with it a necessary alienation. Georg Simmel's Metropolis and Mental Life for example, speaks of this blaseness of the city and its modernity.

A contrary view holds that globalization itself builds on registers of intimacy and indeed, practices of consumerism, production and work stem not from the homogenization of the world but through and within the intimate feelings of participating subjects. Globalization in this alternate conception is a set of culturally, but also intimately specific ways in which subjects respond to large-scale processes of economic and political change.

Metropolitan life, indeed all of modern life, as many will testify, is staged against the tedium of constant movement, routine life, and excessive stimuli. It is a contrary set of movements. On the one hand, one needs normalization – my bed, my toothbrush, my day, my night – and on the other, a burst of the extraordinary. It is a battle to feel, but not feel too much, a need to live in this familiar world, while rendering it both unnecessary and unfamiliar. And what better technique, than love? A reason to be, and yet, a reason beyond self. A glance here, a song there, the notion that a predetermined destiny has made itself manifest.

Public intimacy, and its increasing lack in private space, therefore seems to indicate this permanent search. Rather than a manifestation of pathos, I would like to think that this offers hope, and the possibility of a capacity, albeit hidden. The one true love story may well be a myth, but one would like to think that love isn't. But rather than be the kind of love that Slavoj Zizek describes as violence against the world where one chooses the one person in lieu of everybody else on the planet, public intimacy also seems to indicate a capacity for generosity and openness. Listening to strangers and being open to their comfort need not necessarily be either insufficient or indicative of hopelessness. Perhaps, the practice of intimacy is necessary no matter the place and time. Lest one forget. So the next time, you are at the park bench, the street corner, the security line, the grocery store; pause a minute, listen to the stranger, be hugged.