The WikiLeaks story is dramatic on so many levels, with a character at center stage, Julian Assange, worthy of Shakespeare: accused of sexual impropriety and putting lives at risk, touting an idealistic mission of transforming global geopolitics by turning them inside-out, inspiring the creation of a hall of mirror-sites and spawning cyber-attacks on his behalf and counterattacks from all corners. I’m not sure which Act we’re in right now. I am sympathetic to many of the ostensible aims of WikiLeaks in terms of opening and framing a discussion about the actual motives of U.S. foreign policy, and/or making for a more accurate assessment of body counts, especially innocent civilian deaths, for instance, which may have been covered up in Afghanistan and so forth. But that’s not exactly what I’m interested in pursuing here. Rather, what I want to start to explore is this idea of transparency that has become part of our common parlance–at once meme, metaphor, value, tool, call to action, and presumption–and I want to initiate a conversation about its pervasiveness, its relationship to selfhood and privacy, as well as why we are (rightly, I think) so conflicted about it.
The conflict is this: transparency is desirable in many situations–when it comes to how charitable organizations spend donations, when it comes to what corporate lobbyist met with what senator and how many times, as well as what their voting record was. But things get a little stickier when it comes to the self. How many of us, for instance, want to live here?
While this house looks isolated in the picture, presumably tucked away in the woods away from prying eyes, the question demands that we think about transplanting the very same structure into the midst of others, and furthermore that those others dwell in similar conditions. In other words, imagine a town like this (“Dogville,” sort of). Most, I think, would object, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we have this notion of the self as a bastion of privacy, a self to which we attribute a proprietary relationship. To some degree, perhaps, we are all Hamlets, rebuffing the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the world.
- Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
- me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
- my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
- mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
- the top of my compass: and there is much music,
- excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
- you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am
- easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
- instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
- cannot play upon me.
Hamlet famously defends an inner sanctum, a “mystery” to which none but he can ever be privy. And yet there is paradox here, insofar as Hamlet’s soliloquies are precisely where he makes himself most transparent, lays bare his consciousness, and sets forth as one ideal for literary character the full disclosure of consciousness, even as he seeks to lay bare the true motives of Polonius, Claudius, and his own mother, co-conspirators. In short, Hamlet becomes at once both a mouthpiece for transparency and one of its most ardent critics.
How thoroughly do we want to know ourselves, do we want to envision the possibility of being known? There is something undeniably exhilarating about the “Bodies” exhibitions, which set forth our mortal coils with all of the coils intact, intricate and elegant and raw, unadorned by the makeup that is skin, the lip-gloss comprised by lips. Yet is there not something disturbing, also, in such transcendental nakedness, such baldness, figurehood, brute physicality? And what attributes of humanity are lost or effaced when we foreground bodies this way–I, for one, a brute materialist, dare not speak of a “soul,” but involuntarily in even glancing at the picture below I am tallying a loss, a repleteness that is departed, a Cartesian upper deck that was once teeming with vivacity and nuance, with all the dynamism that is recalled by the dance still resounding in these bodies.
Similarly, there’s a part of me that wants to go gaga and applauds the breakthroughs in neuroscience of the past few decades that afford us an unprecedented view both of the physical landscape and the neural correlates of behavior in fMRI and other imaging techniques, for instance. But what happens as we become more and more transparent, when our frontal lobes and limbic systems begin to look like the bodies above, except while we are still alive and thinking/feeling? You might not object to a full-body scanner at the airport–might prefer it, in fact, to a full-body groping–but how do you feel if your thoughts are as readily exposed as your underwear? Sheer speculative fiction, for today…pun intended.
In more recent literature, David Foster Wallace contends with some of these problems in “Good Old Neon,” a story which I’ve had occasion to reread several times of late. Wallace’s narrator announces from the outset, “Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. mostly to be liked or admired.” Later in the story, the narrator alludes to the “fraudulence paradox,” whereby the more fraudulent one is, the more one tries to cover one’s tracks, convince others that one is sincere, i.e. anything but fraudulent. One of the most compelling aspects of Wallace’s story is the way in which it positions and implicates the reader as it enacts the very problem that it is describing—its narrator appears to be exhaustively revealing to the reader and revels in confessing the ways that he has deceived Gustafson, his therapist, depicting him as well-intentioned but a goof, lacking in “enough insight or firepower to find some way to really help me[.]” In denigrating Gustafson, Wallace’s narrator cozies up to us, but it’s readily apparent that his rhetorical techniques might as easily be seen to apply to this story; he declares, “I’m putting all this in such a long, rushing, clumsy way to try to convey the way I remember it…” The account is peppered with seeds of doubt, of self-awareness of its own fictionality and our desire to transcend this. To take merely one instance, early on he reveals that he is dead, and ponders the absurdity of our “even hearing this” and so forth.
Briefly I must mention “confession,” which entangles this issue in a whole set of theological concerns and precursors, making me wonder about our inheritance of Judeo-Christian traditions and the role they play in all of this. To what degree do we fetishize transparency, and further how much of this is playing out a secular version of a Judeo-Christian hand where God already sees all the cards?
It would also be inexcusable for me not to mention at some point the great film “Liar, Liar,” which makes Jim Carrey’s character, against his will, that “one man picked out of ten thousand” that Hamlet alludes to. Carrey’s character gets turned inside-out, his depths plumbed and his “inner mystery” veritably paraded out on a catwalk.
There are myriad other angles that I should deal with but can’t here, for reasons of time and space: limited versus omniscient point of view, reality tv, online privacy, Habermas’s notion of transparent communication versus the postmodern skepticism toward the very possibility of such, “Machiavellian intelligence” in primates, i.e. how deception and concealment are intrinsic features of chimpanzee behavior, and on WikiLeaks itself, the compelling argument made by Daniel Drezner that the current state of affairs will lead to an unfortunate backlash with more opacity rather than transparency: http://chronicle.com/article/Why-WikiLeaks-Is-Bad-for/125628/.
Getting back to Wallace, though…I don’t want to give away too much about where the story winds up, but suffice it to say that his grapplings with paradox, authenticity, and genuine emotion reach their apotheosis in the last few pages of “Good Old Neon.” I’m pretty sure he’s tipping his hat to Shakespeare in the final moments, thus situating himself in an age-old conversation.
And I’m fascinated, lastly, in the metaphorical implications of neon in this context. Wallace equates neon with–if not authenticity itself–at least something approximating it toward the end of the story. Neon in itself is a colorless gas, whose bright properties are evoked only with the infusion of electricity. It is at once something utterly natural, a trace element found in stars and air alike, yet representative of all that is artificial–the giant signs that blaze like fires might have in primitive times, signaling human gathering, and now signaling bars, gas stations, strip malls, city life, things open. Transparent it is invisible…and yet can be caught solely in the transparency of tubes. As a sort of paradoxical element, then, it embodies the many paradoxes, contradictions, and ambivalences that arise as we confront the timeless, urgent issue of transparency.