On the Beach

Jenny Diski

  • Islands of Privacy by Christena Nippert-Eng
    Chicago, 404 pp, £14.50, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 226 58653 3

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’.

Islands of Privacy makes the move from the idea of privacy as a series of islands in an ocean of public existence, on the beaches along which we can watch the negotiations, to more common interstitial places and objects: wallets and bags; mobile phones and electronic communications; doors, windows and front yards. These various liminal areas structure the chapters, while the substance of the book largely consists of 74 people’s transcribed responses to a 132-point questionnaire about each of these items or places. What the book gains from the predominance of the survey are verbatim transcriptions of individual voices and some interesting anecdotes, but much of Nippert-Eng’s engaging enthusiasm for beaches and pleasingly written speculation is lost to the formal requirements of sociology. It’s perverse of me to complain, since she is a sociologist writing a sociology book, but I would have been more content to spend the book on the beach (or peeking through windows, rifling through wallets and checking people’s mobiles) while Nippert-Eng continued beguilingly to observe and comment on the behaviour of strangers.

Although the survey group were from varying and sometimes impoverished backgrounds, they were at the time of interview ‘an undeniably privileged population’, all of whom lived in the Chicago area. They were contacted and asked to participate because of the author’s ‘personal knowledge about them and desire to speak with them’, though a few were recommended by interviewers on the project. As a result it is hardly a diverse cohort. The respondents are a ‘judgment sample’, not a random selection. The insights, Nippert-Eng points out, ‘may or may not hold for other populations in the US’. Or even for other populations in Chicago, let alone for other parts of the world. Still, if you are going to investigate what happens to people’s sense of the private at their doors and windows and in their front yards, on their mobiles and computers, between work and home and in their wallets, then they will have to be people who have houses, electronic goods, jobs, as well as money and credit cards to put in wallets and bags – though I suppose the dispossessed, out of work or homeless poor could sit on the beach along with the families, the fat and the young. The meaning of privacy to the impoverished or unemployed, as well as to different ethnic groups, or to the Spanish or to Kenyans, is a question that hovered in my mind as I read Islands of Privacy.

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