Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Depersonalized Intimacy: The Cases of Sherry Turkle and Spike Jonze

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Depersonalized Intimacy: The Cases of Sherry Turkle and Spike Jonze

Article excerpt

What I call "depersonalized intimacy" posits modes of being with one another that are not predicated on a self that is in control of its own value, its own self-knowledge, or its own interpersonal interactions. The demand to be a knowable, self-aware, and authentic self thwarts many a friendship, love affair, and intimate conversation, and yet we continue to turn to the self-help aisle or Oprah to learn to be better at expressing and knowing ourselves. When that fails, we lament that we are misunderstood, unheard, and unmet by the other. This disappointment suggests that there is a transparent, authentic, and real self that needs recognition and mirroring. But this self is, I believe, a product of the neoliberal economization of the self, in which human capital becomes another site of investment and entrepreneurial ventures. (1) As an antidote to this harmful and illusory expectation for the self, I suggest an ethics of depersonalized intimacy, in

   [B]oth persons and states are construed on the model of the
   contemporary firm, both persons and states are expected to comport
   themselves in ways that maximize their capital value in the present
   and enhance their future value, and both persons and states do so
   through practices of entrepreneurialism, self-investment, and/or
   attracting investors. (22)

which we disinvest from an imagined relational self who is in charge of her actions and emotions and expected to perform herself to the other in an authentic and coherent manner.

To begin to think through what depersonalized intimacy looks like, we can turn to representations of couplings between organism and machine, because they offer a model that is not invested in who or what self and other are, ontologically. If one of the selves is automated, then friendship, love, and communication may function very differently from the normative paradigms of relationships and open up new possibilities for encounter and intimacy. Depersonalized intimacy accepts that in a relationship neither entity fully knows itself or why it acts the way it does and thus, of course, will not ever fully know the other. Instead of so much "fear, love, and confusion" (Haraway 178) around affective bonds between human and non-human, we can investigate the ways that those relationships free our reductive and imaginary constructs of self and other. We can begin, in other words, to not "take it personally," to not take personally even those moments that seem to offer an interpersonal knowing of self and other, because such moments are always already imbued with histories, pressures, and contingencies that have an opaque correlation to the intentions, thoughts, and awarenesses brought to the encounter. So much of what informs who we are and how we are with others is inaccessible to us. Both humans and automated machines are programmed by ideology, by forces that are unconscious and invisible. If we humans can begin to imagine our similarity to the inhuman robots that we fear and love, we may be able to learn something about ourselves and the limits and problems of our desires for intimacy.

I examine the enduring power of these desires through a discussion of two recent texts: Sherry Turkle's 2011 book Alone Together and Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her. Turkle has emerged as a particularly vocal critic of the loss of authenticity she sees ensuing from the proliferation of technological mediation, a proliferation in which robots replace humans and our mobile devices divert our attention from each other. And in Jonze's representation of a human/operating system relationship, the director falls into a standard romantic plot that misses the rich opportunities to think through intimacy and authenticity afforded by robot and non-human fantasies. Both Turkle and Jonze represent "couplings between organism and machine," to use Donna Haraway's phrase, but these couplings repeat well-worn tropes about relationality. They are predicated on an ideological and affective structure that posits the self as knowable and shareable. …

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