Presumed Intimacy

Chris Rojek

Love from afar, it seems, was a highly refined construct as far back as the eleven hundreds. The main difference between today’s long-distance relationships, say, of people who engage online, and “distant love,” as it was formally called by the Troubadours—aside from the fabulous body of poetry the latter engendered—was the fact of romantic surrender. Theirs, however, was more absolute.

Legendary among the poets who engaged in “nicety of speech, courtesy in loving,” is the case of Jaufre Rudel of Blaya, who fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli, though he had never laid eyes on her, much less touched her. Much as we do in today’s dating sites, where references to this or that quality are made without proof, Jaufre Rudel had heard about the Countess’ beauty and grace virtually, through reports from pilgrims who stopped at Tripoli in Antioch. He composed many songs for her.

Such was his need to see her, that overcoming all limitations, Jaufre Rudel set to sea. On the way he fell terribly sick, so that everyone thought him dead. Even so, they succeeded in bringing him to Tripoli, where, upon seeing him, the Countess took him in her arms. He came briefly into consciousness, realized that it was his love, and after praising his Maker for having given the chance to see his lady, died in her arms.

— “Amor Lointain,” Beatriz Hausner, Enter the Raccoon.

I tracked down this book because I wanted to learn about “parasocial interactions” or “parasocial relationships.” Despite having a fairly large university library, and further despite parasociality being a known concept since the 01950’s in the least, this was the only book on the subject I could find in the academic catalogues. That should have been a clue that something about my interest in the topic was not entirely above board.

Parasociality was a concept introduced by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in a 01956 paper published in the journal of Psychiatry, “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” Parasocial relationships are one-sided, where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time; but the other party is completely unaware of the other’s existence, either by conscious choice or extenuating circumstance. For the longest time, it was theorized to only be common to mediated environments, such as television and radio broadcast. Viewers and listeners of the broadcast age would form illusory relationships with media celebrities and news personalities, despite said sociability being utterly impossible due to both geographic distance and the power relations of broadcast media, making such “relationships” entirely nonreciprocal. Horton and Wohl stressed that parasocial interactions were becoming so common, following the previous ascendancy of radio broadcast and the rising growth of television, they were liable to be in active social competition with kith and kin. The power of celebrity could cancel out the effect and influence of one’s own family.

It was not the first time the question had been posed, but merely the first a possible answer was offered. Earlier in World War II, a popular radio singer was given a single afternoon to run a pledge drive for raising war bonds. While it was likely known that Kate Smith’s popularity would bolster the overall effect of the pledge drive, the final result of $39,000,000thirty-nine million in war bonds being amassed in only a few short hours seemed wildly out-of-place with expectation. (Thirty nine million in 01946 money would inflate to five hundred and thirteen million in 02019 value, roughly a half billion.) Even earlier than that, some Marxist scholars such as Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, were reaching for similar explanations in trying to account for the behaviours of fascist demagogues as radio broadcasters. As they noted in their research of “the authoritarian personality,” such bully-pulpits could openly threaten the general public with violence and browbeat their own most devoted listeners using con-artistry and vague appeals to Christian faith, all while still maintaining not just the permissive tolerance but also the open acceptance of the radio listening public. In both cases, for good and ill, there had to have been some sociological factor to account for why. Capitalist or communist, liberal or fascist, everyone and anyone with an agenda for their own profit was desperate to solve the riddle of the magnet-and-coil sphinx in the newly-invented mass broadcast media. ... and the answer to that riddle was “parasocial.”

Yet, as soon as it was properly introduced in the mid-fifties, nothing much happened. That paper would be the last thing the sociologist Wohl would publish before his death of cancer. From what little I could find, Horton’s academic career as a psychologist didn’t go much further, if I had to guess because of its conclusions being ever-so-slightly-out-of-line with the vogue of psychiatric behaviourism. While it may have been pushed and published as a psychological (as opposed to sociological) concept, there was no attempt within academic psychiatry to replicate the findings. Tainting matters was a level of kookiness and quackery, as the “para” prefix in “parasocial interaction” was the same usage as “parapsychology,” the oft-bunk study of extrasensory perceptions, telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. It likely didn’t help matters that the chosen abbreviation for parasocial interaction in the original paper was “PSI.” Interest in it was completely absent by theoretical psychology for nearly 40 years, until the social phenomenon of celebrity stalkings and developmental eating disorders in response to media representations of body image eventually forced the profession’s hand to bring it back into fore, hurriedly and as-was.

In that meantime, the only ones who found PSI truly useful were the advertisers and media corporations of the broadcast age, who wished to use the proposed methods of PSI measurement in market testing and public relations management. Nearly all of what I was able to find on PSI in the academic catalogue consisted of journal papers and commissioned studies measuring the likelihood of forming parasocial relations with given media images, branded products, or cartoon characters. Each came with their own flavour of management for the “PSI-scale” and more their own custom sampling conditions. If it could be measured, even with units of measurement I just made up, then surely it must be real; and if I paid good money for that information, then surely it must be even more real. Surely.

The more I looked into the matter, the more suspect the whole thing seemed. At best, it was only expressed at the extremes of psycho-normative behaviour in hypermedia environments. At worst, it was just another tool to manufacture the consent of public opinion. The field was a raging forever-war between appeals for mental health and capitalist profit motive. In such a fight, the noble losers didn't have the option of surrender, and the vicious victors didn't have the option of satisfaction. At this point, Rojek comes along, and says we’ve been looking at it all wrong this whole time. Even when the onslaught of digital media should have demanded new and expanded research into PSI, Rojek claims that our framework to approaching parasocial relationships—even down to the label we’ve given it—prevents us from understanding its exact process. Rojek offers the dynamics of “presumed intimacy” as what should replace parasociability. ... or, perhaps more accurately, posits the existence of such a system. Despite following his logic fairly well, I’m not sure he’s quite able to provide the full picture of what presumed intimacy actually entails; but he can at least prove that it exists, and that it is superior to PSI as a framework for understanding social dynamics extended by mass media.

Consider the example I’ve provided from Hausner’s poetry. The clearest picture of celebrity culture and parasocial relationship if there ever was one, even if nearly 1000 years old! However, it only considers the affair from Jaufre Rudel’s viewpoint; the common man who has fallen in love with a faraway and unreachable celebrity of high society. This was the same perspective which approached the subject of parasociability writ-large during the age of broadcast media, all of us as hapless viewers enthralled to these mysterious, yet only partially existent personae. If we were to turn the process on its head, we must interrogate the Countess of Tripoli for her role in this story. Why was it necessary for her reputation to precede her? What compelled her to cradle this dying commoner whom she did not know and had no reason to acknowledge? While Jaufre Rudel’s actions make an almost logical sense, even if his brain should hang forlorn between his legs, the actions of the Countess seem disjointed and almost alien should her opinion even be attempted, much less imagined. Parasocial interactions only made sense because the exclusive and monopolistic nature of mass broadcast media meant that the role of the viewer was the objective truth for the overwhelming majority of the population. Even considering the alternative was not meaningful as a practical matter, since the total number of celebrities which that system of media could support at any one time was already several sample sizes too small. By the force of sheer numbers alone, celebrity culture was something that celebrities themselves had very little to do with. ... at least as far as PSI was concerned.

For better or worse, digital media shattered most aspects of monopoly that the corporate media nexus held over mediated society, democratizing at least some of the means of production to the larger population. Now the total number of people who find themselves on the receiving end of celebrity culture has swelled considerably, to the point where their views and expectations would reach a critical mass—even as a minority—and have effects on the wider social fabric. What once might have been the secret techniques of impression management deeply held by publicity companies for their rich patrons, are now things that all public persons are required to do in order to placate their audience. ... an audience they might not command, but find themselves rather constrained by. We all live in the ghostly presence of “statistical men and women,” a strange—if abstract—divinity, for whom we modify our behaviours to seek favour, and to whom we make almost prayer-like appeals. This constant and unflinching acknowledgement of the apparitional “statistical men and women” who always exist just out of earshot is one of the primary things for public persons to understand if they wish to maintain presumed intimacy with their audience; a mass of people to whom they are connected, yet cannot ever truly know the constitution of. Stand-up comedians can at least “read the room” to gauge if the group of people they are in front of will think one type of joke is funny or if another would offend, but media personae are offered no such affordances, the spotlights of their stage so bright as to cast the whole theatre into an unknowable darkness. Thus presumed intimacy may have a surface appearance of reverence towards human rights, and it most certainly does given how unprompted displays of bigotry is one of the most common ways to run afoul of it, but there is still enough flack in the system for it to be woefully abused by technocratic politicians or particularly deft cause célèbres. Presumed intimacy is a votive behaviour, and cannot be considered a genuine reflection of empathy or altruism towards the lesser off and misfortunate, but may have more to do with self-preservation and projecting an image of crediblity in the sight of others. The Countess of Tripoli did not console the dying man because she had reason to care for him, but instead to maintain the power and prestige of her “publicness” before those whom she held feudal office. Complicating matters more, public persons in the mediated sphere may be put under the constant expectation to endure a form of noblesse oblige, but the private persons who behold them are under no obligations to do the same. It is the interplay between these two groups which forms the basis of democratic society, and why Rojek ultimately calls presumed intimacy an exploitable “darkling sensibility” and a type of artful social interaction.

Rojek is ultimately a cynic about presumed intimacy, and for good reason, given his subject of expertise in celebrity culture. The strategic deployment and management of presumed intimacy is what celebrities have always done, dating back to well before the mass media, so the entire field reeks of nefarious manipulation and the cold calculations of power. Each celebrity’s “para-confessional” deliberately formulated and executed, so that even the most spontaneous outburst of pure humanness would always be a factor in a publicist’s calculus. Rojek insists presumed intimacy cannot be separated from the core functions of neoliberalism, as presumed intimacy is most exemplified by the empty paternalism of centrist American presidents and Canadian prime ministers. Once television broadcast became the primary medium to represent the public sphere of Western nations, politicians adopted the mannerisms and presentation of celebrity actors to bolster their effectiveness for winning Democracy’s numerous popularity contests, engendering entire industries of publicity management and media manipulation to support that need. While this may have been the core method of business for the television age, the question of its ultimate effectiveness turns to what it enables for the leadership of these nations, and that outlook thus far is grim. Despite the diffusion of tools made available for recording history, very little History has been made. Appearing “authentic” and “genuine” on televised appearances might be quite important for these very-serious prettyboys, but it has only enabled them to relinquish their power as leadership of a nation in favour of becoming multi-purpose media spokespersons. Should something happen to negatively affect a large portion of the population, perhaps something put into motion by the elite or upper class for purely selfish reasons, presumed intimacy allows for the perfect response from authority: acknowledge problem, sympathize endearingly, then continue to do nothing about it. This strategy could be repeated indefinitely, and has. In the final chapter of the book Rojek changes channels, foregoing a direct conclusion to instead give a scathing sermon about neoliberal capitalism and the importance of abolishing it. I appreciated that, as I am wont to do, but I felt it didn’t really have much to do with the topic at hand. (Thanks? I guess?) Had I read this book at almost any other time in my life, I likely would’ve agreed with him on all points. Yet, I left this book on a strangely hopeful note, and I’m not sure I was supposed to. I am more optimistic than Rojek, or perhaps just naïve, to see a silver lining in what presumed intimacy is and what it might end up becoming.

I know Rojek would disagree with me, and I know this because he most certainly has read the same sources I have, but I see presumed intimacy as something that could be repaired and used for better purposes. As I read it, I wasn’t sure what my ultimate reaction to the book was going to be. My thoughts only began to crystallize into something approximating clarity when I thought back to The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or at least what little of that incredibly difficult book I was able to understand. Habermas’ core contention about the broadcast media of his day was it represented a regression of public participation, even from the already exclusionary standards of the bourgeoisie, back into something approximating a technologically-buttressed form of courtly-noble society. The meticulously planned spectacles and productions within TV studios by the rich capitalists and their glamorous celebrities carried the same function of the grand fêtes at the court of Palace Versailles, where the prince-nobles fretted over the entertainment of their guests in an effort of propaganda to affirm their divine right of kings. (Efforts, while always undertaken, ended with the guillotine.) Yet just because these tiny, proto-publics were not open to all in a democratic manner did not mean that its members were completely enthralled to their autocratic masters. They were bound by custom and etiquette, perhaps most explicitly by the historical example of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano. The book of the courtier did not guarantee success at court, but merely the necessities of survival within it; just as at the Chinese Imperial Court kētóu was the manner and custom which court assumed, but did not by itself imply one had to completely “kowtow” to the heavenly emperor himself. This antique form of presumed intimacy was practiced by power-players of old, and was emulated by the citizens of the soon-expanding bourgeois public sphere in the “cultured personalities” of the “public person,” even as they moved towards Democracy. But again, culturing one’s personality was not a blueprint to success within the public sphere, nor even a limit on behaviour. (Habermas’ claim of there being a “golden age of rationality” in the bourgeois public sphere is by now well-known to have never happened; the public sphere was a corrupt institution from the very moment of its birth.) It was just the absolute minimum one could do as a bourgeois public person; any other enterprise to be undertaken in the public sphere would’ve required something else, something more. So long as we recognize that, it might be possible to account for both the strengths and weaknesses of the presumed intimacies we follow today.

Public spheres were rare throughout history, but now we at least have the technological means to regain one. Before the turn of the millennium, there existed none alive who had memory of what it was like to carry oneself within a public life which was—in theory, at least—available to all. What social skills would doing so actually require of one person? What responsibilities would we have to collectively maintain the public sphere? We don’t know, and there isn’t anyone who could authoritatively tell us. Worse yet, many of our old ideas about life as lived in the press, such as the refuge of scoundrels that often is “freedom of speech” or the eternally raging slapfights of “the marketplace of ideas,” have turned out quite counterproductive and downright stressful when they shifted from being the only-imagined ideals of liberality into something we actually have to construct our lives within. So many of the issues and dramas which I keep seeing sparked on message boards and social media all seem to have some connection to the mysterious disconnect between us simultaneously living as both public and private persons. I see in the idea of presumed intimacy a kind of hint to a workable solution. For as condescending and abusive as presumed intimacy might be, and for as empty as its surface-only appeals to human rights definitely are, I’ve only seen bad things happen when people operate without it. I can’t deny its effectiveness, having been the de facto method of public presentation for so long already, and maybe soon the de jure. Rojek theorizes, possibly incorrectly but hopefully not, that the form of presumed intimacy he studies first developed along Durkheimean lines. Émile Durkheim first posited the division of labour in industrial society due to the dynamic density which took place during urbanization. When large populations moved into smaller geographic areas, they reconfigured their understanding of the social world, enabling the formation of new and more complex types of social relationships. This is what would allow for the otherwise unnatural parasocial interactions and presumed intimacies. But Durkheim says that increased dynamic density can lead to something else too: moral density. A kind of organic solidarity, understood as a humanistic civic belief system, where respect for personal dignity and material well-being are collectively shared throughout society. Sure enough, the ideology of human rights formalized no less than 50 years after Durkheim theorized it, even if embryonic in form. This means that regardless if presumed intimacy is primarily used as a function of power, it is still linked to the application of human rights and judged by its criteria. ... superficially, of course, as Rojek makes great pains to point out—but even a superficial link is still somewhat material. Because of this, I think there is still some hope to be seen. If we understand what presumed intimacy is, specifically what it is and also what it is not, then perhaps it could become the new Cortegiano for the new age. It can be that bare minimum it takes to live convivially with an ever-increasing public sphere, so long as we know it is just that, and only that. If we understand this, then that enables us to begin moving beyond it, and to challenge the powerholders who would deflect their responsibilities. Presumed intimacy is not a path to success. It is not some simple steps to achieve social popularity. It is not an alternative to actually doing concrete things to respect and uphold human rights in the world, nor is it an alternative to praxis or collective action. And it is not the thing you do in order to get away with shit, 'cause you were gonna do that anyway. It is just a means to live in a world of statistical men and women, and that’s all.

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