History, Intimacy and Power

This post is a new format for me, because I’m using it to think ‘aloud’ about some of my current research and writing. Previously I’ve written about things which I’ve been exploring for some time, like marriage, marital violence, the household and so on. Instead I’m blogging here about a work-in-progress. This helps me formulate and work out what I think, but I am also making it public so that anyone interested in academic writing can see the mechanics behind the process!

In a couple of weeks I need to give a paper at a symposium of some note.  Its themes are intimacy and power. So, in preparing my paper, I’m thinking about these terms in more detail. It seems to me that intimacy is generally used in a couple of ways by historians. First, quite straightforwardly it denotes ‘private’ as in the bits of lives that are not seen by many, so an intimate history is a history of private life, perhaps of actions but typically of feelings and sexuality; like Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity. Intimacy is also used as a way to think about the practice of being an historian. Carolyn Steedman’s ‘Intimacy in research: accounting for it’ is a great example of a historian reflecting on her relationship with her historical subject and how that influences her interpretation and writing. This intimacy is about feelings: closeness and connection. Steedman reflects at one point: ‘You have worked for these feelings, caught the trains to distant archives, read the books these people read, deciphered their handwriting’.

The sense of intimacy as conveyed through words and images leads me to a much more theoretical discussion of it which I’m not particularly familiar with. I’m currently being guided through it by Gabriele Linke’s article ‘The Public, the private, and the intimate’ in Biography, 2011. Here intimacy is assessed on a much larger, collective scale and explored in terms of the public sphere. The literary critic Lauren Berlant’s scholarship is clearly seminal, with her development of the concept of the ‘intimate public sphere.’ Her theoretical framework considers intimacy as a relatively recent mode of social being, produced through printed media, where participation in the public sphere is primarily about self-disclosure and association based on shared knowledge about each other.

Despite its personalised disclosures of personality, emotions, and acts deemed private by some, the intimate public sphere is very much a collective arena in which political allegiance and belonging are negotiated. As I understand it, this is the novelty of the theory because it acknowledges the co-existence of intimacies of self-disclosure alongside and part of the political world.

Obviously this has gender and power implications. The intimate public is a mode of expression that can enable those perceived ‘weak’ (because of race, sex, sexual orientation, age), to enter the public sphere and access a political voice. It also means that the dominant (typically white, wealthy men) are held to account for their personal and ‘private’ acts. I don’t need to mention the numerous MPs careers stalled by such disclosures to point to the impact this can have.

The current resonances of this are quite startling, of course, when the concept is applied to social media – a form of communication and community so often condemned for facilitating self-disclosure in so many varieties.  All power to it in my view, for where else would you get to see the British Prime Minister asleep on his sister-in-law’s four poster bed?


Thus, one of the appeals of this theory of intimate publics is that they seem to be anti-hegemonic in nature, or at least potentially subversive. However, I’m trying to think about this in terms of the past, manliness, and hegemony. This raises different questions. So, when did the intimate public sphere come into being? If it dates to a group sharing common texts and things, then it could be argued to have a very early date (and not the 19th century, which seems to be where literary critics see its real development). After all, elite men have long been a like-minded group who whose world view and emotional knowledge was derived from shared experience (Berlant’s definition of the consumers of this public sphere). I’m wondering – was there an ‘intimate public sphere’ of manliness? And does this only work if the members of this group were intimate by sharing acts of self-disclosure? I can think of groups of men who did just that, particularly if the hypothetical ‘intimate public’ does not have to be a very large group.

In the article which is helping me think through these issues Linke suggests that

mediated intimate knowledge is not necessarily shared across group boundaries but within them, confined to a group, enhancing existing publics rather than transcending them (p. 17).

This certainly could be applied to masculine communities which in their own ways had emotional rules that permitted certain forms of self-disclosure. For example, what about the small, yet powerful group of the Hell Fire Club; surely John Wilkes was a master of self-disclosure? Or the emotional self-disclosure permitted by men sharing experiences of crisis, like soldiers, to take the most obvious instance where emotions are concerned. There again, for an ‘intimate public’ to work does the intimate knowledge on which it is based have to enter the public (however narrowly defined) through media – as in print and visual culture? Can we also assume an oral culture binds together men, though its physical traces for the distant past are more difficult to find? And does an intimate public sphere only come into being if it bonds strangers?

These are things I shall be thinking about over the next few days as I try and putll the themes together into a paper. I tell you what – I wish that the equivalent of Twitter and Instagram existed for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! As it is, my next task is to look at the evidence I’ve gathered on manliness and see where it takes me.