The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Thematic: The Shifting Experience of Self

Privacy, Secrecy, Intimacy, Human Bonds—

and Other Collateral Casualties of Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman

Riding the sunlight road, seabrzdriver, via flickr.

The heavily trafficked border between public and private.

Alain Ehrenberg, a uniquely insightful analyst of the modern individual’s short yet dramatic history, attempted to pinpoint the birthdate of the late-modern cultural revolution (at least of its French branch) that ushered in the liquid-modern world we continue to inhabit, to design, as well as to overhaul and refurbish day in day out. Ehrenberg chose an autumnal Wednesday evening in the 1980s, on which a certain Vivienne, an “ordinary French woman,” declared during a television talk show in front of several million viewers that her husband Michel was afflicted with premature ejaculation, for which reason she had never experienced an orgasm throughout her marital life.

What was so revolutionary about Vivienne’s pronouncement that it justified Ehrenberg’s choice? Two reciprocally connected aspects: first, something quintessentially, even eponymically private was being made public—that is, it was told in front of everyone who wished or just happened to listen; and second, the public arena, that is, a space open to uncontrolled entry, was used to vent and thrash out a matter of thoroughly private significance, concern, and emotion. Between them, the two upheavals legitimized public use of the language developed for private conversations between a restricted number of selected persons. More precisely, these two interconnected breakthroughs initiated the deployment in public, for the consumption and use of public audiences, of the vocabulary designed for narrating private, subjectively lived-through experiences (Erlebnisse as distinct from Erfahrungen). As the years went by, though, it became clear that the true significance of the event had been the effacing of a once sacrosant division between the “private” and the “public” spheres of human bodily and spiritual life.

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