On May 20, 2013, a pale, nervous American landed in Hong Kong and made his way to the Mira Hotel. Once there, he met with reporters from The Guardian and the Washington Post and turned over thousands of documents his high-level security clearance had enabled him to acquire while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. Soon after this exchange, the world learned about PRISM, a top-secret NSA program that granted (court-ordered) direct access to Facebook, Apple, Google, and other US Internet giants, including users’ search histories, e-mails, file transfers, and live chats.11xGlenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism Program Taps In to User Data of Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian, June 7, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data. Additionally, Verizon had been providing information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis” about customers’ telephone calls, including location data and call duration (although not the content of conversations).22xGlenn Greenwald, “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” The Guardian, June 6, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order. Everyone, in short, was being monitored. Glenn Greenwald, one of the first journalists to meet with Edward Snowden, and one of his most vocal supporters, wrote later that “the NSA is collecting all forms of electronic communications between Americans…and thereby attempting by definition to destroy any remnants of privacy both in the US and globally.”33xGlenn Greenwald, “The Crux of the NSA Story in One Phrase: ‘Collect It All,’” The Guardian, July 15, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/crux-nsa-collect-it-all.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, fully 91 percent of Americans believe they have lost control over their personal information.44xLee Rainie, “Americans’ Complicated Feelings about Social Media in an Age of Privacy Concerns,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, March 27, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/27/americans-complicated-feelings-about-social-media-in-an-era-of-privacy-concerns/. What is such a public to do? Anxious computer owners have taken to covering their devices’ built-in cameras with bits of tape.55xKatie Rogers, “Mark Zuckerberg Covers His Laptop Camera. You Should Consider It, Too,” New York Times, June 22, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/23/technology/personaltech/mark-zuckerberg-covers-his-laptop-camera-you-should-consider-it-too.html. Messaging services tout their end-to-end encryption.66xDavid Cohen, “WhatsApp Launches End-to-End Encryption,” Adweek, April 6, 2016, https://www.adweek.com/digital/whatsapp-end-to-end-encryption/. Researchers from Harvard Business School have started investigating the effectiveness of those creepy online ads that seem to know a little too much about your preferences.7Tami Kim, Kate Barasz, and Leslie John, “Why Am I Seeing This Ad? The Effect of Ad Transparency on Ad Effectiveness,” Journal of Consumer Research (May 7, 2018), https://academic.oup.com/jcr/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jcr/ucy039/4985191.
For some, this pushback has come far too late to be of any use. In a recent article in The Atlantic depressingly titled “Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism,” Ian Bogost observes that we have already become unduly reliant on services that ask us to relinquish personal data in exchange for convenience. To reassert control over one’s privacy, one would have to abstain from credit card activity and use the Internet only sparingly. The worst part? We don’t get the simple pleasure of blaming this state of affairs on Big Government or the tech giants. Instead, our enemy is, as Bogost intones, “a hazy murk, a chilling, Lovecraftian murmur that can’t be seen, let alone touched, let alone vanquished.”88xIan Bogost, “Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism,” The Atlantic, August 23, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/08/the-age-of-privacy-nihilism-is-here/568198/.
The enemy may be a bit closer to home, however. While we fear being surveilled, recorded, and watched, especially when we are unaware, we also compulsively expose ourselves to others. Not only has the number of people using social media continued to grow each year, but the importance of such platforms to users has only deepened: The proportion of Americans saying they would find it “hard to give up” using social media grew 12 percentage points from 2014 to 2018, to 40 percent.99xAaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2018,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018, http://www.pewInternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/. One suspects that the other 60 percent of respondents are likely not being honest with themselves (or at least with pollsters). The sharing of our lives online has become so ingrained that there are now articles detailing the proper etiquette for posting photos and video of live music concerts for the enjoyment of your online friends.1010xDaniel Craig, “How to Snapchat at Concerts,” Philly Voice, May 31, 2018, https://www.phillyvoice.com/how-snapchat-concerts-social-media-music/. (Just don’t do it.) Few now see the irony in bemoaning intrusive behavior in a series of tweets that go out to millions of followers, as Kim Kardashian did in 2013.1111xErin Clements, “Kim Kardashian Posts Twitter Rant about Privacy, Selfies,” The Huffington Post, June 7, 2013, updated December 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/07/kim-kardashian-twitter-rant-selfies_n_3401711.html. We desperately want to be seen—just on our own terms.
Yet this is about more than our online profiles. The vocabulary we now use to frame our political demands is predicated on seeing and being seen: looking certain ways, identifying with certain groups, dissolving certain barriers to public scrutiny. The complex set of convictions and strategies awkwardly lumped under the term identity politics is concerned, at least in part, with how certain groups are represented or misrepresented in the public sphere. “The personal is the political,” some feminists used to cry, directly linking the liberation of women to the ability to see into realms previously protected by the walls of the private sphere.1212xSee, e.g., Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). (As the historian Sarah Igo notes, televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority used a similar strategy, though with rather different political objectives.)1313xSee Sarah Igo, “The Beginning of the End of Privacy,” The Hedgehog Review 17, no. 1 (2015): 18–29, https://iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2015_Spring_Igo.php. In a more recent work, The Known Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), Igo also notes the tension between claims to privacy and the desire for visibility and recognition, writing that “Americans’ desire for privacy today is seemingly matched only by their quest for self-disclosure,” 352.
What are we to make of this ambivalence? How do we make sense of the tension between increasingly strident calls for privacy, on the one hand, and a confessional culture of exposure, social recognition, and solidarity, on the other? Why do we claim to care about our privacy when our actions and our political rhetoric counter such claims? What, in short, does it mean to see and be seen?
The Fearful Eye
PRISM might have been the headline-grabbing program from Snowden’s revelations, but it’s only one of several programs and contractors that do similar work. One such contractor, a Palo Alto company that builds “platforms for integrating, managing, and securing data,” calls itself, more whimsically, Palantir, after a divination glass in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
What does Tolkien have to do with our fears about privacy? The Oxford philologist and “father of high-fantasy” is not known for his cultural critique. But Tolkien was very interested in the concept of being seen. After all, the “ring” in the title of his trilogy (the “One Ring to rule them all”) has the power to render its wearer invisible to mortal eyes, and it was forged by Sauron, the “Dark Lord” who confronts and terrifies his enemies in the form of the all-seeing Eye. When Frodo and Sam approach Sauron’s lair to destroy the Ring, they gaze fearfully upward at an astonishing sight:
As from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye; and then the shadows were furled again and the terrible vision was removed. The Eye was not turned to them: it was gazing north to where the Captains of the West stood at bay, and thither all its malice was now bent, as the Power moved to strike its deadly blow; but Frodo at that dreadful glimpse fell as one stricken mortally.1414xJ.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, bk. 6, chap. 3 (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2007), 942. First published, England, 1955.
Although the powers of the Eye of Sauron are vague, it is evident that, whatever else the Eye might do, it is first and foremost a seeing Eye. Indeed, in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, Sauron simply is the Eye, a flaming void at the tip of the black tower, a dark pupil encircled by ceaseless fire. Saruman says of Sauron, admiringly, “Concealed within his fortress, the Lord of Mordor sees all. His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh.… A great Eye, lidless, wreathed in flame.”1515xPeter Jackson (director), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [motion picture] (Burbank, CA: New Line Cinema, 2001), quote referenced at TK421 website, accessed January 8, 2019, http://www.tk421.net/lotr/film/fotr/09.html. Confronting the Eye in a vision, Frodo describes it as “watchful and intent…a window into nothing.”1616xJ.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, bk. 2, chap. 7 (London, England: HarperCollins, 2007), 364. First published, England, 1954. Thus a central challenge of the heroes of The Lord of the Rings is merely to avoid the gaze of the Eye of Sauron, which probes Middle-Earth day and night and cannot be thwarted by any human means of concealment.
Is the Eye a kind of global panopticon? Maybe, but the language Tolkien uses encourages a different analysis. When watched by the Eye, Frodo reacts as though struck with violent force. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes, “The Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.”1717x“There he took up again his great Ring in Barad-dûr, and dwelt there, dark and silent, until he wrought himself a new guise, an image of malice and hatred made visible; and the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure.” From J.R.R. Tolkien, “Akallabêth,” in The Silmarillion (London, England: HarperCollins, 2013), 336. First published, England, 1977. In other words, it is the experience of being watched that is frightful, not its repercussions. It is in response to this gaze that the characters of Middle-Earth cower and flee. When faced with that “window into nothing,” they feel they are facing death. The Eye sees us as God might see us—relentlessly, irresistibly—but instead of a beckoning call and an easy grace, what we encounter is malice. When we are seen in this way, we forfeit agency. We are left completely at the mercy of the observer, without recourse or excuse. To be seen is to encounter our powerlessness. It is to be alone.
The need to protect ourselves from the penetrating gaze of an all-seeing eye is, of course, ancient. In Genesis, Adam and Eve’s first action after their fateful repast is to conceal themselves from the sight of God. The notion of the “evil eye”—a pernicious gaze, channeled through god or man, that can bring a litany of ills to its victim—fills the writing of classical antiquity, from Plato to Plutarch.1818xSee, e.g., Peter Walcot, Envy and the Greeks: A Study of Human Behaviour (Warminster, England: Aris and Philips, 1978). It is not a modern fear, this aversion to the sight of others. We have long understood its power.
In Shame, Exposure, and Privacy, Carl Schneider notes that for many nineteenth-century thinkers, shame was associated with what it meant to be human: It was what accompanied our sense of ourselves as moral, feeling subjects.1919xCarl Schneider, Shame, Exposure, and Privacy (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1977), 2–6. We feel shame not just over the dirty necessities of human life, but also over our unspoken desires, our loves and hates. We feel shame because we can discern the difference between the sacred and the profane. In response, Schneider notes, we cover: clothing, veils, curtains, doors, but also etiquette, courtesies, lies, and masks.2020xIbid., 30. Hiding ourselves becomes a means of expressing shame, and therefore of signaling the value of something. The human fear of being seen is thus not merely about powerlessness; it’s also about protecting our worth as moral beings.
The impulse to hide our shame may even be unconscious. It is instinctual—even taken for granted—that we ought to hide what brings us shame, and we ought to fear its exposure. Yet the picture thus far is incomplete. Although the fear of a pitiless gaze is a near universal, it is rooted in more than our shame. The structure of this fear is built on the foundation of a deep human desire: to belong.
The Sluice Gate of Privacy
In the mid-1960s, during a period of heightened interest in privacy rights, the jurist Charles Fried put forth the thesis that privacy is related not just to our traditional interests in liberty and autonomy but also to our interest in forming relationships characterized by respect, love, friendship, and trust. “To respect, love, trust, feel affection for others and to regard ourselves as the objects of love, trust, and affection is at the heart of our notion of ourselves as persons among persons,” Fried wrote, “and privacy is the necessary atmosphere for these attitudes and actions, as oxygen is for combustion.”2121xCharles Fried, “Privacy,” Yale Law Journal 77, no. 3 (1968): 477. The philosopher James Rachels took up the thread several years later, arguing that privacy is valuable precisely because it allows us to decide who will see us at our most intimate, thus permitting us to differentiate relationships of vulnerability and trust from those of casual acquaintance.2222xJames Rachels, “Why Privacy Is Important,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 4, no. 4 (1975): 323–33. Without this sluice gate of privacy, Rachels argued, we cannot signal which relationships are important to us. He was joined later by Julie Inness, whose Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation has become the standard-bearer for the argument that privacy’s ultimate purpose is to foster environments in which we can be fully open—fully seen—by those we love and trust.2323xJulie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996).
What these philosophers suggest is that privacy is not always about withdrawal; it can also be about enabling a different type of seeing. We hide from some so that we might be better seen by others. Seeing does not have to lead to judgment. It can also lead to a form of radical acceptance that is itself made possible only through a brutal stripping away of our ability to dissemble or conceal. Loving is preceded by seeing, is made possible by it. Before anything else, loving requires looking into the heart of the beloved. This is the gift potentially on offer when we are “seen.” Tolkien’s Eye is so fearful precisely because we want to be seen, even though we know the dangers. We pursue the gaze that “pierces cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh,” whether in our lovers or in our gods, in a way that invites judgment and reproach, yet also—we are aware—creates the conditions for true belonging. The deeper our shame, the greater our pursuit.
This observation feels especially true to me, a queer Christian confronting a world in which “gay loneliness” makes news2424xMichael Hobbs, “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” The Huffington Post, March 2, 2017, https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/gay-loneliness/. and in which LGBTQ individuals contemplate and commit suicide at far higher rates than their heterosexual and cis-gendered peers.2525x“Facts about Suicide,” Trevor Project, https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/#sm.0001nefpcq2u3f46yqh1iaic9b6ax. Accessed September 5, 2018. Whatever else might help to explain these trends, it is clear that a deep human desire often goes unmet in the queer community, and I venture to suggest that meeting this desire requires being seen. Yet, unsurprisingly, the fear of being seen—of being “found out” and rejected—sits at the base of queer loneliness and insecurity. The “best little boy in the world” never lets down his guard.2626xSee Andrew Tobias, The Best Little Boy in the World (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1993). Tobias discusses the hypothesis that gay men pursue academic and personal achievement to receive the validation they fear they would not otherwise receive if their sexual identity were known. This hypothesis has been recently confirmed: see John E. Pachankis and Mark L. Hatzenbuehler. “The Social Development of Contingent Self-Worth in Sexual Minority Young Men: An Empirical Investigation of the ‘Best Little Boy in the World’ Hypothesis,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 35, no. 2 (2013): 176–90.
Queer theologians have long understood this tension. To be queer and Christian is, often, to exist in a state of hiding from one’s community while pursuing a faith that pronounces the impossibility of hiding from God. In this way, queerness and theology are situated unexpectedly at the center of the dual meanings of seeing and being seen, expressing both a desire for openness and an acknowledgment of the power of judgment. The strain of the contradiction provokes restlessness: The theologian Marcella Altaus-Reid has written that queer bodies are “to be compared to nomadic theologians permanently in search of the Other.”2727xMarcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (London, England: Routledge, 2003): 49.
I have no desire to valorize a notion of queer instability, or to paint queer life as nothing but grief and struggle. (Both impulses have been amply indulged.)2828xApril Ferricks, “Dead Lesbian Syndrome: How Tragic Tropes Continue to Misrepresent Queer Women,” Medium, March 11, 2016, https://medium.com/@aferricks/dead-lesbian-syndrome-how-tragic-tropes-continue-to-misrepresent-queer-women-9f0a1ead9b2c. But I do want to try to understand how these trends can be explained through the notion of the gaze of the Other, which can be the root of such joy and sorrow. Whether or not we completely sign on to the idea of the “peripatetic queer,” and whether or not this phenomenon is unique to queer bodies, the point here is familiar: The simultaneous fear of being seen and desire to be seen propels us to motion. We flee or we pursue, but always we do so in response to a gaze.
Recognition Theory and Privacy Rights
Indeed, an “eye”—whether perched atop a black tower or implicit in a social environment—haunts all human experience. In Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel argued that we come to know ourselves as conscious beings only through contact with—and struggle against—another consciousness.2929xGeorge Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, trans. Terry Pincard and Michael Bauer (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2018). I locate the genesis of recognition theory with Hegel, but others have argued that St. Augustine’s Confessions, which constitutes a dialogue of the inner self with God, can be seen as a much earlier version of the thesis that subjectivity can only be constructed through dialogic interaction with an Other. See, e.g., Raymond Geuss, Public Goods, Private Goods (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. 62–63. This now-famous “master-slave dialectic” was the progenitor of recognition theory: the notion that the quest for recognition lies at the root of all social conflict. To be recognized is to be seen and affirmed in your status as a moral equal; to be misrecognized is to be degraded, to lack social respect, and to be psychologically as well as morally harmed. As Charles Taylor has summarized it, “Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the precognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.”3030xCharles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1994), 21.
The fundamental aims of human existence—love, respect, access to social and material resources—can thus be seen as various forms of recognition from others. We must be exposed to the judgment of others in order to flourish. Axel Honneth, one of recognition theory’s most prominent architects, has argued that everything from social exclusion to structural poverty can be addressed through a proper regime of recognition.3131xAxel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). See also Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser, Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange (Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2003).
Recognition theory’s intersubjective focus highlights a tension with many prevailing theories of privacy rights. Privacy advocates often paint the private sphere as the locus of creative life. When asked to explain his actions, for example, Edward Snowden responded that he didn’t want “to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”3232xGlenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower behind the NSA Revelations,” The Guardian, June 11, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance. Prominent accounts of privacy’s value focus on its ability to preserve autonomy and freethinking.3333xSee, e.g., Stanley Benn, “Privacy, Freedom, and Respect for Persons,” in NOMOS XIII: Privacy, ed. J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York, NY: Atherton, 1971): 1–26; Joseph Kupfer, “Privacy, Autonomy and Self-Concept,” American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987): 81–89; and Beate Rössler. The Value of Privacy (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2005). But the supposition that there exists a Self outside of its implantation in social environments, which is therefore capable of flourishing only in retreat from the sight—and dialogic challenge—of others, is contested by recognition theorists: We require being seen in order to locate ourselves in this world. In this aspect, Honneth and others have company in other branches of political theory, such as communitarianism, that have long emphasized the reliance of our self-concept on our communities and on the webs of relations in which we are both seen and instructed. Creativity, independence, and free thought may in fact depend on the publicity of the public sphere rather than the seclusion of the private.
If we rely on the recognition of others for our ability to self-constitute—for our ability to situate ourselves in a larger social context and understand whether and how we are worthy of respect—then being seen can mean the creation or destruction of our ability to preserve an identity. The Eye of Sauron is terrifying not just because it sees us the way we long to be seen and yet withholds the affirmation that could potentially follow, but also because it denies us the basis for understanding ourselves as morally worthy subjects. We cannot live and belong without being seen by others; yet, similarly, we cannot be rejected and destroyed without being seen by others. Whether we flourish or wither, it starts with an outside eye. Sauron says “I see you,” and this phrase, so laden with emancipatory promise, becomes a paralyzing threat.
Our moral and political vocabularies have absorbed these intuitions. Modern identity politics—the tendency of political coalitions to form around markers of identity such as race, class, gender, and sexuality—trades on the notion of recognition. Contra the universalism of classical liberalism, in which embodied differences and social positions were seen as morally irrelevant, the politics of identity is about particularity and difference. As Taylor notes, whereas the commitment to equality formerly required difference-blind treatment, equal treatment has increasingly been recast as requiring difference sensitivity—distributing rights, resources, political duties, and opportunities in response to different identity categories.3434xTaylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” 27. Whatever the merits of this change, the result is that we have come to demand a new type of visibility. It is no longer enough to be simply one human among many, subject to the same standards and expectations; now, one has to be seen as a distinct member of a particular group. To participate in politics in this form is to make oneself visible before others in a myriad of ways: by self-aligning with certain identity groups for political organizing, by abolishing (or at least questioning) the traditional public-private divisions, by explicitly acknowledging one’s social position or identity in one’s work, by subjecting oneself to exhaustive scrutiny of one’s private life in seeking political office, by defining oneself. Areas of our lives that were once seen as private are now considered politically relevant, even morally weighty.
The embrace of “the personal”—of volunteering and demanding new forms of visibility—has entered academia as well. In Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich attempts to understand depression not as a personal, psychomedical condition but as a cultural-political phenomenon reflecting the anxieties and injustices of contemporary society. Her book is an avowed example of the “affective turn” in critical theory, which “has…made emotion, feeling, and affect the subject of scholarly inquiry.”3535xAnn Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 3. It is at once a work of critical theory and a personal memoir, chronicling the author’s journey with depression as a means of engaging in social critique. In the early 2000s, Cvetkovich (and other critical theorists, such as the late José Esteban Muñoz) gave rise to the Public Feelings Project, a network of scholars, artists, and activists—some organized in “Feel Tanks” around the country3636xSee, e.g., “Who We Are,” Feel Tank Chicago, http://feeltankchicago.net/about. —who operate “from the conviction that affective investment can be a starting point for theoretical insight and that theoretical insight does not deaden or flatten affective experience or investment.”3737xCvetkovich, Depression, 10. See also José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009), esp. 17–18. The members of this project link their scholarly work directly with their experience, making their emotive lives and identities integral aspects of the research they produce. They stand in opposition to the argument that theory is blind to the personal, instantiating in the academy—as in the arena of public discourse—the conviction that progress requires a lifting of the veil rather than a closing of the curtains.
The Story That Needs to Be Told
In her memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson chronicles her life with her partner, Harry, who escapes easy gender categorizations. Nelson writes movingly of her frustration in explaining Harry’s identity to onlookers who demand precise answers. “How to explain,” she asks, “in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?”3838xMaggie Nelson, The Argonauts (London, England: Melville House UK, 2015), 61.
Our political moment demands resolution, and in so doing it demands to see who we are. This is a beautiful and terrifying ordeal. It at once dangles the promise of a truly authentic politics—one in which the infinite variety of human experience and ability is made relevant—and threatens the possibility of humiliation, degradation, and powerlessness. The spreading of our personal data enables convenience and security, yet also domination and alienation: Now we know just how different we are from one another, as the buffers between us become thinner and thinner. Tribalism seems a natural consequence, if not an inevitable one. And all the while we are faced with what seems an impossible choice: Do we fundamentally rethink our terms of engagement with one another—both politically and socially—in favor of a deeper retreat into the private sphere? Or do we give up on the notion of privacy altogether, embracing our need to “be seen” in order to function?
One way forward is to identify what both impulses share: the desire to tell a story. We fear being seen because we fear being unable to give an account of ourselves, to contextualize who we are. Yet our desire to belong and to be recognized is a desire to tell precisely this story, and to have someone listen when we tell it. This desire is about more than control: It’s about completeness, authenticity, and whether the representation we see of ourselves in the world matches the stories we tell ourselves. It’s about resonance. Our embrace of social media, the use of identity in framing our political demands, the introduction of personal narrative into scholarly research: These are all admissions, in one form or another, that a story needs to be told. Our concerns with privacy are an admission that we are afraid the wrong story might be told, or that the wrong people might be in control of the narrative. Seen in this light, Facebook oversharing and confessional critiques may even be acts of defiance, relentlessly injecting one’s subjectivity into a world of “5,000 data points.”3939xThis is in reference to Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, who claimed in a Financial Times interview that he had a “massive database of 4–5,000 data points on every adult in America,” Gillian Tett, “Donald Trump’s Campaign Shifted Odds by Making Big Data Personal,” The Financial Times, January 26, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/bee3298c-e304-11e6-9645-c9357a75844a?segmentId=7d033110-c776-45bf-e9f2-7c3a03d2dd26.
Attention to the story might then help us to make sense of the dual meanings of seeing and being seen. Concerns about privacy are ways of controlling the narrative, making sure that the incomplete picture of ourselves that is contained in our personal data is not used to form a “story” (whether this is a security profile or a libelous rumor) without our input. We fear this intrusion both because of its potentially pernicious effects and because of its capacity to corrupt something we are seeking anyway: the chance to tell this story to another, to be seen and affirmed in it. What seem like contradictory impulses are perhaps merely incomplete outworkings of the same impulse, motivated in equal measure by fear and longing.
So how do we translate our ambivalence over seeing and being seen into a productive political conversation? How do we enable people to tell their stories? If we start here, perhaps the legacy of late modernity will be that we confronted the challenges of identity and privacy not by retreating into paranoia and isolation but by learning to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.