Strange relationships

Julie Reshe on modern, nomadic relationships.

The new era in which we find ourselves in a globalizing and digitizing world is the era of digital nomads. Technically, the term “digital nomad” originally meant a category of people who work remotely using digital technologies and lead a mobile lifestyle.

Digital nomads are no longer a separate marginal group, but the prevailing way of life. Now it’s everybody with access to the Internet, that is, with the ability to communicate and collaborate with many people locating in different parts of the planet and to form diffused virtual connections.

From a philosophical point of view, today’s human is a nomadic subject. Nowadays nomads, that is, you and me, are not necessarily physically mobile, they are rather mobile in relation to the established cognitive and behavioral map.

Modern wanderers live on the move, the are formed, exposing themselves to the influence of various information spheres, not limiting themselves to the framework of a certain social group and the territory where they were born or which they chose for themselves once and for all. Therefore, in contrast to individuals from the traditional before-nomadic world, they are to a much lesser extent determined by the traditions, language, way of thinking and patterns of relationships that are generally accepted in their original social environment.

The world of nomadism has replaced the traditional world, with its stable, fixed and therefore more comprehensible picture of the world. In the traditional world, individuals were forced to perform roles assigned to them in advance, to accept identity imposed on them, to inherit the traditions and way of life of previous generations (expressed, for example, in the sequence learn-work-marry). There were only limited opportunities to go beyond the framework of this system and they were fraught with social ostracism.

The collapse of the traditional way of life happened because of the exposure of its relativity, it started to be obvious that there are no proper ways, that the conventional way of life is imposed by tradition and society, and therefore everything can be different, that is, the human and interhuman relationships can be rethought.

Nomads are strangers anywhere they go, they constantly wander, moving away from the fixed framework and identity — they are homeless children and a renegades in relation to the territory and fate attributed to them. They have a queer identity, persisting in a state of transformation and search for themselves, while never finding themselves completely.

The psychological aspect

For thousands years human psyche was formed in the environment of sedentary traditions. As a result, nowadays humans still retains the need for certainty of the cognitive and behavioral map. Together with the collapse of the traditional society, we have lost the ordinary happiness of stability and clarity.

People were happier (in the usual sense of the word) in a traditional society. The need for stability is best satisfied by religion (the most immutable traditional formation), providing the illusion of eternal moral dogmas and corresponding ideal patterns of live.

The happiness of certainty is achieved at the cost of restricting the freedom of movement in relation to stable cognitive and behavioral map and the possibility of transforming identity. In order to achieve it, one should choose (it is even better to accept the imposed choice) and remain faithful to one country, one profession, one partner, one identity. Therefore, the happiness of certainty is necessity accompanied by the suffering resulting from the lack of freedom.

The current epidemic of anxiety is largely due to the fact that the level of freedom available today implies uncertainty. Freedom is exhausting and causes nostalgia for the old way of life that restricted freedom. Today’s world is full of nostalgia for traditional forms of relations, despite the fact that they implied, for example, patriarchy — one of the forms of severe restriction of freedom.

There is a myth that one can return to the old forms, while freeing them from everything that restricted freedom. At the basis of this myth is the lack of understanding that the lack of freedom was the result of the existence of these forms.

Having found that the practice of freedom, fresh air and non-rootedness comes at a painful price, many contemporary thinkers, like Žižek, proceed in their thoughts from a feeling of nostalgia, claiming the world of incessant changes to be the evil machinations of capitalism and calling to either return to the elements of traditional order or form new immutable traditions, which inevitably entail (usually this is not mentioned) the rejection of the level of freedom available today.

But is it really worth it to be led by nostalgia? Freedom implies lostness, homelessness, thrownness, non-belonging. All of those is felt as the misfortune of lack of certainty. But at the same time, losing certainty, a person acquires something much more valuable, something we wouldn’t be able to gain at a lower cost.

Nowadays, we have already felt the taste of freedom and now, despite all its pain, suffering and and the temptations of nostalgia, we are no longer able to renounce it. Any step backwards will be accompanied by a bitter aftertaste of self-betrayal.

We are just starting to get used to the new world. Gradually, through the pain of lack of stability, we learn to live a different feeling: instead of happiness of paralysis, the heroic joy of freedom and adventure. The painful joy of freedom is the joy of the inventor, the player, the experimenter and the stranger. Instead of being afraid and running away from it, we can, on the contrary, plunge into it headlong to open up to the unknown.

Nomadic relationships

Traditional relationships are no longer possible, because they assumed a sincere belief in their obligatory and unchanging nature. The slightest doubt in this destroys their essence — today we can endlessly replay elements of traditional relationships, but we are doomed only to imitate the already dead form of the past.

Such imitation is often a form of escape from freedom and is due to the nostalgia for a certainty. Driven by nostalgia, we run away from the possibilities that this doubt opens up. To doubt is to find an emptiness at the base of established forms of relationships, that is, the absence of their unchanging basis. Such emptiness is formative, it opens up space for generating new forms. If there are no mandatory and proper forms of relationships, then we can come up with new ones.

Today’s nomadic world is often criticized for its lack of interpersonal intimacy, such criticism mistakenly takes a state of abolition of traditional forms of relationships to be abolition of intimacy itself. It is believed that the decline of the institution of traditional marriage means the loss of intimacy, and digitally mediated communication displaces genuine communication. But is it possible at all for a human being to exist outside of human proximity?

The recent discoveries of social cognitive neuroscience have revolutionized understanding of human beings. While it was traditionally assumed that individuality (that is, the state of being disconnected from others) precedes sociality (inclusion in a society), now it has become clear that the radically opposite is true. The initial state of an “individual” is the absence of her as an individual, her inseparability and unity with others.

The social mode of our brain is basic (when we think about nothing, we are thinking about others), which means it is possible to consider the human brain as an instance of connection with others, and not as a separate thinking apparatus, that socializes only afterwards.

Since the human need for the intimacy of others is basic, its dissatisfaction is most unbearable, it is accompanied by emotional pain akin to physical pain. Sociality is so defining for a person that a question arises whether it can be reduced to a need. The term “need” indicates the primacy of its carrier — the individual. A need is just an attribute of an individual who may persist without satisfying her need. By reducing sociality to the need of the individual, we remain within the outdated pattern of understanding that presupposes the primacy of individual, and attributivity of sociality.

In reality, we are first of all sociality, while individuality, that is, separation from society, is secondary. It arises as a deviation or breakdown of the initial social bondage.

The primacy of sociality means that on the inner level — on the inner side of our disunity — we are all interconnected. We are the primary undivided — the orgy of unity, where each body penetrates every other body. Disunity and the existence of personality is a secondary and derivative phenomenon in relation to the ineradicable immanent mode.

The thirst for freedom, which is also inherent in human nature, goes against our basic need for unity with others. Freedom is possible under the condition of a certain degree of detachment from the cohesion of the social body. Individualities have their own point of views and their own goals, different from those of others. They are not an exact copy of others, that is, do not completely subordinate themselves to the common thoughts and intentions and assert their separate existence from others, while remaining part of the social body.

The contradictory nature of human desires (the desire for freedom and basic sociality) becomes noticeable at a very early age, when a child simultaneously needs someone to take care of her and, despite this, craves for detachment, independence and freedom. Even later in life we never get rid of this internal contradiction. We always remain united with others, but at the same time we want to be free.

Traditional models of romantic relationships are focused mainly on preserving the original unity of a person with others, which is achieved at a cost of suppression of personal freedom. The generally accepted notion of a romantic connection reproduces the ideal of timeless connection and dissolution in mutual possession. Traditional marriage is a formal fixation of the status of the spouses’ ultimate fusion. To each person traditional relations assign a certain area of social relations, upon the borders of which they are not allowed to go.

It should be noted that the generally accepted definition of individuality implies a fixed set of features, while the nomadic individuality is self-eliminating (queer-identity). Nomads don’t define themselves completely, their personality is in a constant process of self-transformation, in other words, they does not cease to expand the scope of their freedom in relation to others and to current themselves.

The nomadic individuality shifts accents: it is aimed at realizing the need for freedom, sacrificing a state of initial unity with others. In nomadic type of relationships the level of rigidity is minimized, they are more mobile, and allow a greater degree elegance and diversity of their forms. Nomadic relationships differ from traditional ones in that they include strangeness which allow them to distance themselves from the usual forms of relationships. The internal orgistic plan remains at the basis, since along with its elimination individuality also disappears, but the density of this space is facilitated by a large amount of air — the lacunae of emptiness necessary for maneuverability and freedom of action.

The usual framework of sexuality, which we normally use when discussing intimate relationships, is not suitable for discussions of nomadic relationships. If you think about it, the concept of sexuality is almost as traditional a concept of marriage. Both assume heterosexual relationships as basic, reducing the whole range of corporal diversity to sexual differentiation (that is, the division into male and female). We should not be deceived by the concepts of homo-, and bisexuality, they retain sexual differentiation as a base, only rearranging the original components (instead of female/male: female/female and male/male) without abolishing them, but only masking heterosexuality, which is preserved and even asserted in its central place. Perhaps the concepts of gender and non-heterosexual orientations are an important step in introducing strangeness into the traditional form of relationships, but still such strangeness is rather benign for them.

To talk about the intimate side of nomadic relationships, one should rather use the concept of corporality, not sexuality. Such relationships begin with a practice of phenomenological epoché — bracketing or suspension of judgments while taking into account solely the pure factuality of bodies, cleared of their histories and their identities (including gender and sexual identity). This technique allows to break the vicious circle of repetition of identity and the usual forms of relationships and to play new ones. The technique of epoché does not cancel everything that was put into brackets, some elements of bodies’ identities and histories are included in the relationships being played out, but only as conditional, that is, such that are reduced to the status of the material for the game, being deprived of their seriousness and “truthfulness” .

It is the involvement of the epoche technique that distinguishes everyday life from art. Daily life is a replay of established identities and non-strange forms of relationships. A theater piece differs by the fact that its participants (screenwriters, directors and actors) are involved in the active formation of the storyline. Precisely because the authentic them are suspended (their everyday life stories and identities are put into brackets) a work of art becomes possible. They can use elements of their life experience, but only to the extent that they are necessary for art purposes.

Nomadic relationships are an endless journey, embodied in the theater, the game and the experiment, in which we are simultaneously actors, co-authors and accomplices. To involve yourself in a relationship means to plunge into a collective performance, the materials for which are our body, time and space of our lives — skin, autumn, chat, genitalia, thoughts, window, half an hour, smile …

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▪️ professor of philosophy, SAS UTMN ▪️ director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, GCAS ▪️ negative psychoanalyst

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