Islands of Privacy

Jenny Diski writes:

Christena Nippert-Eng loves the beach in spite of the noise, the bugs, the pebbles, the filth and the fact that her dermatologist insists she wear factor-60 sunscreen from April to October. It’s a nexus thing for her and she is quite lyrical about it. The beach is a place where all manner of stuff comes together, juxtaposed ‘in the most enchanting of ways … Creatures that walk, creatures that fly and creatures that swim intermingle here, scaring, fascinating, feeding and amusing each other.’ Air mixes with water, sand and wind, the fresh with the rotten, salty, sweet. Stillness is punctuated by rhythmic poundings, erratic splashes and insistent shrieks. Nippert-Eng loves the beach because she is ‘drawn to the phenomenon of boundaries’. It’s such a good place to observe the public and private meeting, overlapping and drawing back that she made a diagram of a day on North Beach in Chicago delineating the various social zones. Sandcastles and beach balls at the water’s edge, a phalanx of family icons – umbrellas and baby buggies – take the space nearest to the water, further back are the bicycles and mobile phones of the single and young, and just behind them a solitary fat figure (‘an especially hirsute, grossly obese man wearing nothing but a fluorescent yellow thong’) lying on the sand grossing out the late-arriving, cycling, music-playing, mobile-chatting youth, of whose disgust he is oblivious. The beach is a happy metaphor for the boundaries of privacy, and the work that people put into achieving it, as well as the degrees of success and failure others have in acknowledging the boundaries or even being aware that they exist. Everyone knows their place, except for those who don’t. Nippert-Eng observed a mother who briefly left her blanket and umbrella to check on her children down by the water. When she returned, a man with a child in a large buggy had laid out his towel in front of her, blocking her view. She said nothing, it was a public beach and the space had been vacant, but in a moment she lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in the direction of the man and his baby. After an exchange of words, the man moved to the left and the woman blew her smoke to the right. A battle between visual and olfactory privacy resolved, as Nippert-Eng says, by ‘a stroke of symbolic interaction genius’.

(LRB 28 July 2011)