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.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we may say that Vivienne’s appearance in front of millions of French men and women glued to their television screens also ushered the viewers—and, through them, all their near and dear and eventually all the rest of us—into the confessional society: a heretofore unheard-of and inconceivable kind of society in which microphones were fixed inside the confessionals, those eponymical safeboxes and depositories of the most secret of secrets, the sort of secrets that would be divulged only to God or his earthly messengers and plenipotentiaries; and in which loudspeakers connected to those microphones were perched on public squares, places previously meant for the brandishing and thrashing out of the issues of common, shared interest, concern, and urgency.

And so the initiation of the confessional society was the moment of the ultimate triumph of privacy, that foremost modern invention—though also the beginning of its vertiguous descent from the peak of its glory. The hour of its Pyrrhic, to be sure, victory: privacy invaded, conquered, and colonized the public realm at the expense of losing its autonomy—its defining trait and the most cherished and most hotly defended privilege.

But let us begin from the beginning, better to comprehend the present-day twists of the plot.

* * *

What is “private”? Anything that belongs to the realm of “privacy.” To find out, however, what in our days is understood by “privacy,” let us consult Wikipedia, the website known to promptly and diligently seek and record whatever is currently believed/accepted by popular wisdom to be the truth of the matter, and to update its findings day in and out, thereby closely following its targets, which are notorious for running faster than even the most dedicated of its pursuers. As we could read in the English-language version of Wikipedia on July 14, 2010, privacy

is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively…. Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity, the wish to remain unnoticed or unidentified in the public realm. When something is private to a person, it usually means there is something within them that is considered inherently special or personally sensitive…. Privacy can be seen as an aspect of security—one in which trade-offs between the interests of one group and another can become particularly clear.

And what, on the other hand, is the “public arena”? A space with an access open to anyone who may wish to enter. Everything that may be heard and seen in a “public arena” may, in principle, be heard and seen by anybody. Considering that (to quote Wikipedia once more) “the degree to which private information is exposed depends on how the public will receive this information, which differs between places and over time,” keeping a thought, an event, or a deed private, and making any of them public, are obviously as much at cross-purposes as they are, courtesy of the mobile border that separates/connects them, interdependent. The realms of the “private” and the “public” tend to be on a war footing, and so do the laws and norms of decency that are binding inside those realms. For each of the two realms, the act of self-definition and self-assertion is performed in opposition to the other realm.

As a rule, the semantic fields of the two notions are not separated from each other by borders inviting/allowing two-way traffic, but by frontlines—preferably tightly sealed and heavily fortified on both sides against trespassers and the turncoats accustomed to sitting across the barricade—but most particularly against the deserters from one’s own camp. Yet even if a war hasn’t been declared and warlike actions have not been undertaken (or if hostilities have been suspended), borders as a rule tolerate selective cross-traffic only: free-for-all traffic would defy the very notion of a boundary and render the boundary redundant. Control, and the right to decide who or what is allowed to pass the borderline and who or what is bound to stay put on one side only, and so also the right to decide what items of information have the prerogative of remaining private, and which ones are allowed, pushed, or decreed to become public, are as a rule hotly contested. If you wish to know which side is presently on the offensive and which is (pugnaciously or half-heartedly) trying to defend its inherited or acquired rights against invaders, you could do worse than ponder the exquisitely witty actor and writer Peter Ustinov’s prophetic (since it was made in 1956) foreboding: “This is a free country, madam. We have a right to share your privacy in a public space.”

* * *

For most of the modern era, the assault on the current private-public frontier, and yet more importantly a univocal revocation and arbitrary change in the extant rules of the border traffic, were almost exclusively expected/feared to come from the side of the “public”: public institutions were widely suspected of an intention to invade and conquer the sphere of the private and to take it under their administration, and thereby severely curtail the realm of individual or group free will, depriving human individuals or groups of individuals of shelter and, in consequence, of personal or group security. The most sinister and harrowing demons haunting the times of “solid modernity” were compressly yet vividly portrayed in George Orwell’s trope of the boot trampling down a human face.

Somewhat inconsistently, yet not groundlessly, public institutions were suspected of evil intention or of the malicious practice of erecting barricades that block many a private concern its access to the agora or to other sites of the free exchange of information—sites on which raising private troubles to the level of public issues could be negotiated. Obviously, the equally gruesome record of the two similarly rapacious and cruel twentieth century varieties of totalitarianism (which, as if to top despair with hopelessness, seemed to have exhausted between themselves the spectre of imaginable choices: one variety claiming the legacy of the Enlightenment and its modern project, and the other decrying that foundational act of modernity as a sorry mistake or a crime and rejecting the modern project as a recipe for disaster) lent veracity to the suspicions as well as justification to the resulting anxiety.

Though by now past their peak, such suspicions linger, and anxiety refuses to abate—galvanized time and again, resuscitated and reinvigorated by the news of one or another public institution arbitrarily transferring ever larger swathes of their own functions and obligations from the “public” to the “private” realm, in blatant violation of usages firmly entrenched in democratic mentality, even if uncodified, while transporting in the opposite direction, openly or surreptitiously, collecting and storing for future villainous uses ever bigger volumes of indisputedly private information. And yet whatever was the case of the assumed greed and rapacity of the public realm, and of its imputed or anticipated aggressiveness, and however the perception of each might have been changing over time, alarms of the impending invasion and conquest of the public sphere by private interests and concerns were at best few and far between. The task inspiring most of our ancestors and older generations to take arms was one of defending the private domain, and so of individual autonomy, from undue meddling by the powers that be.

Until recently, that is: because today, triumphant reports of the “liberation” of successive areas of public territory by advancing troops of the private, greeted as a rule with applause and jubilation by the avidly and joyfully watching crowds, are mixed with (thus far faint) sombre premonitions and with (thus far sparse and tentative) warnings that the ostensible “liberation” bears all the marks of imperialist conquest, ruthless occupation, and greedy colonialism—with all its orthodox trappings, like killing off or famishing to death the “native nations” of annexed lands or locking them up in a few isolated reserves.

* * *

On secrecy (and so obliquely on privacy, individuality, autonomy, self-definition, and self-assertion—secrecy being an indispensable, crucial, and undetachable ingredient of them all), Georg Simmel, arguably the most insightful and far-sighted among the founders of sociology, observed that to stand a realistic chance of surviving intact it needs to be acknowledged by others. A rule needs to be observed that “what is intentionally or unintentionally hidden is intentionally or unintentionally respected.” The relation between these two conditions (of privacy and the capacity for self-determination and self-assertion) tends, however, to be unstable and tense—and “the intention of hiding” “takes on a much greater intensity when it clashes with the intention of revealing.” What follows from Simmel’s observation is that if such “greater intensity” fails to emerge, if the urge to defend secrecy tooth and nail against interlopers, meddlers, and busybodies disrespectful of one’s secrets is absent, privacy is in danger. And this is exactly what now happens, as Peter Ustinov, updating Georg Simmel’s pronouncement, spotted in the mood of our times, which are only a few decades younger than those of Simmel’s study.11xAll quotations in the paragraph are from Georg Simmel, “Zur Psychologie der Mode; Soziologische Studie,” Gesamtsausgabe, 5, (1992).

Occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy and individual autonomy that emanate from the wide opening of the public arena for private concerns, and its gradual yet relentless transformation into a sort of light-entertainment variety theater, find little if any repercussion in the public agenda, in media programming, and first and foremost in popular attention. The paradox of the “deregulation” (read: the voluntary relinquishing by the state of a great number of its competences jealously guarded in the past) coupled with “individualization” (read: the abandonment of a great number of the state’s past duties to the individually managed and operated realm of “life politics”), both advertised as the royal road to the ultimate victory of individual rights, sapping the foundations of individual autonomy while stripping that autonomy of its past attractions which used to raise it to the rank of a most coveted value, is all but covered up in the process, attracting little if any attention and triggering little if any action.

What is secret is, by definition, the part of knowledge the sharing of which with others is refused or prohibited and/or closely controlled. Secrecy, as it were, draws and marks the boundary of privacy—privacy being the realm that is meant to be one’s own domain, the territory of one’s undivided sovereignty inside which one has full and indivisible power to decide “what and who I am” and from which one may launch and re-launch the campaigns to have and keep one’s decisions recognized and respected. In a startling u-turn from the habits of our ancestors, we’ve somehow lost the guts, the stamina, and above all the will to persist in the defense of such rights, those irreplaceable building blocks of individual autonomy. In our days, it is not so much the possibility of betrayal or violation of privacy that frightens us, but its opposite: shutting down the exits. The area of privacy turns into a site of incarceration, the owner of private space being condemned and doomed to stew in his/her own juices, a condition marked by the absence of avid listeners eager to wring out and tear out our secrets from the ramparts of privacy, to cast them on public display, to make them everybody’s shared property and a property everybody wishes to share. We seem to experience no joy in having secrets, unless these are the kind of secrets likely to enhance our egos through attracting the attention of researchers and editors of television talk-shows, tabloid first pages, and the covers of glossy magazines.

The result is that the public sphere now finds itself flooded, overcrowded, and overwhelmed, having become the target of continuous invasion, occupation, and colonization by the troops of privacy. But are those troops leaving their past shelters—barracks, stockades, and fortresses—prompted by the urge to conquer new outposts and spawn new garrisons, or are they rather running away, in despair and panic, from their customary safe enclosures, now found to be no longer inhabitable? Is their zeal a symptom of a newly acquired spirit of exploration and conquest—or rather an outcome of, and a testimony to, expropriation and victimage? Is the task they have been ordered to perform in our liquid-modern times, the task of finding out and/or deciding “what and who I am,” too daunting to be seriously undertaken inside the skimpy plots of privacy? After all, the evidence piles up by the day that the harder one tries to experiment with successive tentative approaches and to laboriously patch up successive public images, the less likely seems the prospect of reaching the self-assurance and self-confidence whose promise triggered all those exertions.

These are but a few of the questions with no obvious answers. There is another question, thus far similarly waiting in vain for an answer. Secrecy, after all, is not only the tool of privacy, of cutting out a space entirely of one’s own, of setting oneself apart from intruders and unwelcome companions; it is also a most powerful building-and-servicing tool of togetherness, of tying up and protecting arguably the strongest among the known and conceivable inter-human bonds. By confiding one’s secrets to some selected, “very special” people, while barring those secrets from all others, the webs of friendship are woven, one’s “best friends” appointed and retained, infinite commitments entered and maintained (indeed, blank checks are signed, in as far as the commitments are indeterminate and lack the withdrawal clause); loose aggregates of individuals are recast into tightly knit and firmly integrated, possibly long lasting, groups. In short, the enclaves are cut out of the world inside which the troublesome and vexing clash between belonging and autonomy is for once laid to rest; in which the choice between private interest and the wellbeing of others, between altruism and selfishness, self-love and care for another, stops tormenting and no longer foments and fans painful and irritatingly repetitive pangs of conscience.

But, as Thomas Szasz (in The Second Sin) observed already in 1973, focusing on just one, but immensely effective, tool of human bonding: “traditionally, sex has been a very private, secretive activity. Herein perhaps lies its powerful force for uniting people in a strong bond. As we make sex less secretive, we may rob it of its power to hold men and women together.”22xThomas Szasz, The Second Sin (New York, NY: Anchor, 1973). Sexual pursuits served until recently as a genuine epitome of intimate secrets, meant to be shared with utmost discretion and with only the most carefully and laboriously selected others—in other words, as the prime example of the strongest binding, most difficult to cut and take apart, and therefore most reliable of inter-human bonds. But what applies to that most effective weapon and guardian of privacy, applies even more to its lesser companions, inferior substitutes, and paler copies. The present day crisis of privacy seems to be, in other words, inextricably connected with the weakening and decay of inter-human bonds.

* * *

The hope of fulfilling the demands of individual self-assertion and community building while simultaneously defusing the conflict between autonomy and belonging, has been recently invested in cutting edge technology known for its astonishing facilitation of inter-human contact and communication. Frustration of the hope so invested is, however, gathering force and spreading.

Such frustration is perhaps an unavoidable price of the accelerated passage of information, offered by the creation of the “information highways.” All kinds of highways tempt more people to obtain vehicles, to use them, and to use them more often; hence the highways tend to become rapidly overcrowded (they, so to speak, invite, create, and beef up overcrowding), which defies their original promise. Getting the travellers promptly to the planned destination may prove to be a much more harrowing task than expected. There is another powerful reason to be frustrated: the destination of messages, of the “vehicles” meant to rush and dash along these highways, is after all human attention, which the internet is unable to expand, just as it cannot render its consuming-and-digesting capacity greater! On the contrary, adjusting to the internet-created conditions makes attention frail and above all shifty, unable to stop and stay still for long, drilled and accustomed to “surf” but not to fathom, to “zap” through channels but not to wait until any of the zapped-over plots is revealed in all its width and depth. In short, attention tends to be trained to skate over the surface much too fast for getting a glimpse of what hides beneath.

To stand a chance of being noted at all, electronic messages tend to be shortened and simplified, in order to deliver all their content before attention breaks away and drifts elsewhere—a necessity that makes them utterly unsuitable for conveying profound ideas needing reflection and contemplation to be absorbed. The tendency to shorten and simplify messages, to make them ever more shallow and therefore yet more amenable to surfing, marks from the start the brief yet stormy history of the World Wide Web. From elaborate, thoughtful letters to e-mails, from there to yet more curtailed and simplified mobile phone messages, and finally to “twittering” admitting no more than 140 digits. If you apply the Darwinian principle of the “survival of the fittest” to the electronic world, the information most likely to reach human attention is the shortest, the shallowest, and the least burdened with meaning: sentences rather than elaborate arguments, single buzz-words rather than sentences, “sound-bites” rather than words. The price we all pay for having more information “available” is the shrinking meaning of its content; the price of its ready availability is a radical reduction of its significance.

The other, though closely related, ambivalence endemic to the new information technology is the immense facilitation of community formation arriving in a package-deal with the equally immense facilitation of its dismantling. Users of Facebook boast of making half a thousand “new friends” in a day—more than I’ve managed in an eighty-five-years-long life. But doesn’t this signal that when speaking of “friends,” we have in mind quite different kinds of relationship?

Unlike the formation for which the name “community” (or for that matter any other concept referring to the public side of human existence, the “totality” of human association) had first been coined, internet “communities” are not meant for durability, let alone being commensurate with the duration of time. They are easy to join, but they are similarly easy to leave and abandon, at the moment when attention, sympathies and antipathies, and moods or fashions drift in a different direction; or at the moment when boredom of “more of the same, ever the same” sets in, making the current state of affairs look dreary and feel unappetizing, as it sooner or later must do in a life-world bombarded by ever new (and ever more tempting and seductive) offers. Internet communities (recently, and more accurately, called “networks”) are composed and decomposed, enlarged or cut in size, by the multiple acts of individual decisions/impulses to “connect” and “disconnect.” They are therefore eminently changeable, fragile, and incurably fissiparous—and this is precisely why so many people, cast in the liquid-modern setting, welcome their arrival and prefer them to the “old style” communities, remembered as monitoring their members’ daily conduct, keeping them on a short leash, fighting every sign of their disloyalty and even minute misdemeanors, and making a change of mind and decision to leave either impossible or exorbitantly costly. It is precisely their perpetual state of transience, their admittedly temporary because eternally provisional nature, their abstention from requiring long-term (let alone unconditional) commitments or undivided loyalty and strict discipline, that make them so attractive to so many.

Substitution of internet networks for old-style communities was greeted by many as a huge leap forward in the history of individual liberty to choose. And yet the same features of networks that make them desirable require a high price, which many people, and their growing numbers, find unpalatable and unendurable. This price is paid in the currency of security, which the old-style communities delivered, whereas the internet “networks” are incapable of responsibly promising. Moreover, this is not just a case of exchanging one value for another, “a bit of security for a bit of freedom.” Demise of the old-style communities contributes to the liberation of the individual, but the liberated individuals may well find it impossible, or at least beyond their individual capacity and the capacity of the resources they individually command, to make sensible use of their decreed freedom—to be not just free de jure, but also de facto. The allegedly fair exchange is seen by its many presumed beneficiaries as rendering them much more helpless and hapless, and for that reason more insecure.

To sum up: it may be surmised that making individual liberty genuine calls for a strengthening, rather than weakening, of the bonds of inter-human solidarity. Long-term commitment, which strong solidarity promotes, may seem a mixed blessing—but so does the absence of commitments that renders solidarity as unreliable as it makes it uninhibiting.

Privacy and the public find their cohabitation full of sound and fury. And yet without their co-presence, human togetherness is no more conceivable than water without the co-presence of hydrogen and oxygen. Each of the co-present partners needs the other in a wholesome condition; in this kind of cohabitation, a war of attrition is tantamount to the suicide of both. Now as in the past and in the future, self-care and the care for the other here point in the same direction and recommend the same life philosophy and strategy. This is why the search for a settlement is unlikely ever to grind to a halt. Neither are the sound and the fury.