Intimate Knowledge

A common theme when people articulate an ideal relationship among intimate others is one of intersubjective knowledge; couples, best friends, etc. are idealized as knowing what the other “really” means whether that meaning is expressed frankly or obfuscated through some kind of seemingly unrelated idiosyncrasy.

Following upon this framing of what ideally intimate relationships look like (and that intimate relationships are ideal), liberal American culture attempts to support and show solidarity with minority subjects by articulating an intimate relationship with them. White liberals seek to articulate themselves as “really” knowing what’s going on and what minorities “really” are (black people aren’t just criminals, they are x).

What this fantasy papers over is how falsely intersubjective intimate relationships are; they are constituted by painful misrecognitions, apostrophe, and subjects with completely different “facts of life” (race, gender, political views, etc.). The claim of intimate knowledge is predicated upon a desire to render another knowable. At worst this involves completely dominating another through structures of intelligiblity and fields of knowledge; white liberal discourse looks irrevocably towards some kind of “at best.”

Intimacy, then, in this cursory glance, is not some kind of transcendental connection or free-flowing link between the minds of one to the other; rather it is forged by unknowable subjects constantly negotiating misrecognitions, conflicting fantasies, the attrition of everyday life, and uneasy confessions. Intimate connections are sensed as meaningful not because it provides a window into the mind of another, but because they have been forged out of radically contingent circumstances.

So when people are consenting to an intimate relationship, they are not and cannot be promising/promised an absolutely safe, comfortable, and completely mapped out space; but are agreeing to enter an unstable, messy, and wobbly relation where everyone is showing up with radically different “stuff.” This is why articulating clear parameters for intimate relationships is an important focus for feminism: the very grounds of what constitutes intimacy itself (which is supposed to be unspoken/inherently known) has been an important site of control for patriarchal authority. (Note: this is not an excuse for abusive behavior in relationships, where abusers cast themselves as “just figuring things out” or “trying their best to learn.” Physical and emotional/mental abuse belies how the abuser has already located their intimate partner(s) as objects subordinated to the abuser’s own sense of self.)

A clich√©d faux pas is when a white person, after listening to a person of color talk about their experiences, replies with “I know exactly¬†what you mean!” Such a familiar response is troubling precisely because the white person is claiming to have completely rendered the minority experience knowable. This is not problematic just because the speaker in my little reenactment is white (can POC even claim to know what a monolithic minority experience is like?) but because the claim presupposes complete knowledge of the very mind of the minority subject, a knowledge predicated upon assimilating the minority into normative discursive systems of power.

Just as the conservative demand to “know” who is coming into the country renders immigrants knowable through exertions of power and the complete penetration of the immigrant (demanding access to all their personal information, demanding to know if they are “morally sound” i.e. Christian, keeping them under complete surveillance and marked off as potential threats, demanding proof they are sympathetic towards American imperialism, etc.), liberal hegemony’s demand to “know” the minority encloses them into a position constituted by the knowledge produced by white liberal discourse (minorities are “just like us,” oriented toward a rhetoric of essential human rights, merely want to engage in “respectable” conversations, want a fair chance at participating in global capital, etc.).

It would be interesting to see how intimacy extracted from the particular couple form can be articulated differently and imagined all sorts of political/personal attachments.