Can You Keep a Secret?

Nicole Bauer

Just as transparency may protect citizens from a government overreaching its bounds, there is also safety in secrets. A cultural and historical inquiry into a contemporary issue.

Photo credit: Vs Heidelberg Photos

“Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now. It’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle.”

These were the words of Judi Dench’s character, M, in the 2012 James Bond film, Skyfall, defending the necessity of covert operations and keeping the identity of agents hidden in order to protect them.[1] One of the central crises of the film was the loss of a laptop containing the photographs and identities of agents working undercover in several places across the globe, compromising both their safety and the secrets of the governments who employed them. The story of James Bond has always been one of secrecy and glamour, an agent who worked undercover protecting lives and his government’s secrets first in the polarized world of the Cold War, and later in the fragmented, supposedly more “opaque,” post-Cold War landscape. In any case, whoever his enemies happened to be, the efforts of the secret agent were always in the service of democracy.

While security might be invoked as a reason for government secrecy, it is often held in opposition to its competing paradigm, that of transparency. Some may see a government protecting its secrets as a sine qua non of democracy, while others may be more likely to see in it the potential for an Orwellian totalitarian regime; a state that uses surveillance to pry into the private lives of its citizens while keeping its own inner workings hidden. In the latter case, the transparency is one-sided: the citizen is transparent to the state but not vice versa. Thus, both secrecy and transparency play important roles in our political imagination and in contemporary understandings of democracy and totalitarianism. As the radical French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat wrote in 1774, it was important to “open the entrails of wickedness” to battle a secretive, despotic state that pried into the secrets of its citizens, who were only “safe in obscurity.” Two salient examples of this tension between security and transparency in modern politics are the controversial figures of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Both have attempted to “open the entrails of wickedness” through WikiLeaks or through the unveiling of NSA wiretapping, and both have been heralded by many as heroes, fighting a vast and powerful government that has overstepped the boundaries of legitimate power. They have become Robin Hoods of information, as it were, stealing and then redistributing to the masses the knowledge that the state has kept hidden from or collected on its citizens. Their critics have argued that Assange and Snowden have at best been a hindrance in the efforts of the state to promote security and national interests, and at worst have unwittingly endangered the lives and safety of many, though an important difference between the two is that Assange released confidential documents and Snowden revealed the use of government surveillance. As surveillance can be seen as an increase in the transparency of the individual, one might say that Assange wished to increase government transparency while Snowden wished to put a halt to increased individual transparency. But like James Bonds’ fictional laptop, that information, once made public, could represent a disastrous security risk.

It is important to note, however, that the language used for and against figures like Assange and Snowden, and the responses to their actions, are the result of deep-seated cultural anxieties in the West—anxieties over being seen without seeing, and anxieties about what is hidden from view—that go back to the eighteenth century. These anxieties or fears are often barely articulated.

Reexamining the theories of two important thinkers, Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault, helps us to unearth the roots of both the modern notions of privacy/secrecy and that of transparency. Habermas is known for his theory on the development of the public sphere, and Foucault for his ideas on discourse and the interplay of power and knowledge, but both tell a story, from very different points of view, of the emergence of our understandings of secrecy and transparency, beginning in the eighteenth century. The tension between transparency and secrecy has thus been a matter of debate at various points for hundreds of years, which helps explain how complex, entangled and often ambiguous our conceptions of these two issues are today and how transparency and secrecy are both necessary for a functioning democracy.

For Habermas, the emergence of transparency as a political value coincided with the formation of the modern public sphere. According to Habermas, the public took on a new and unprecedented role in the eighteenth century. Until then, the public sphere was the domain of the sovereign who commanded his subjects’ gaze and occupied a public role and space, particularly through lavish displays at his court and elaborate ceremonies. In the eighteenth century, however, with the rise of the press, increased literacy, new kinds of sociability and new spaces like coffeehouses, the idea of public opinion began to gain ground. Slowly, the public replaced the king in newly designated public spaces. Public opinion became a mysterious force to be reckoned with, to which even monarchs now had to be sensitive, and the private and public spheres took on the delineations that they have had into the modern era. Eventually, these new public spaces and the rise of public opinion created the conditions of possibility for new concepts to be “thinkable” such as the notion of the people replacing the king as sovereign.

Michel Foucault looked at the same period as Habermas, but told the story of the shifting notions of the state from the vantage point of power, particularly the new conceptions of the workings of power. His is a deft narrative of the increased use of surveillance and other methods of social control. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault described a shift in the late eighteenth century, to a new episteme, that is, a new constellation of intersecting discourses that constitutes a set of assumptions and sets the boundaries of what is thinkable or possible. One symptom of this shift is that many began to think of the power of the state in new and unprecedented ways. For Foucault, one of the important changes that took place was the idea of the reversed gaze. While in the medieval and early modern periods, kings and others in positions of power were the object of the gaze of the people, putting on displays and performing rituals to reinforce power and legitimacy, the state began to “reverse the gaze” as the modern period approached. Rather than the people gazing onto the monarch but remaining unobserved, the state began to increase the mechanisms of surveillance and documenting such as marking population growth, creating a more modern police force, increasing the government records of identity, criminal behavior and mobility. By the late eighteenth century, writers and political thinkers began to decry what they saw as the state’s intrusion into their privacy, often seeing this as one of the worst abuses of power. Accusations of the police reading private letters or intruding into homes were especially frequent. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many thinkers saw surveillance on the part of the state as an unavoidable evil, the excesses of which could only be hindered by transparency and accountability. The idea of a state that penetrated into the secrets of private individuals while preserving its own secrets became repugnant.

As transparency came to be heralded as a check on government abuses of power, it also aided in the demonization of the idea of secrecy. Transparency was seen as an essential component of the modern state while secrecy and subterfuge took on new negative connotations. Secrecy came to be seen as going hand-in-hand with corruption and irresponsibility, fiscal or otherwise. Transparency, on the other hand, was a marker of a new kind of regime, which, if not entirely democratic, would represent the interests of the nation and be accountable to it.

The notion of transparency had its origins in literature in the mid-eighteenth century. Sentimental novels, especially those of Rousseau, painted the portrait of lovers and heroines whose defining feature was transparency. In this sense, it meant sincerity, a lack of artifice, disinterestedness, and ingenuous emotion. According to the literary theorist Jean Starobinski, what was hidden, secretive or mysterious as well as what was artificial were the only things that could mar the lovers’ purity, as well as their eventual happiness in these novels.[2] While the theme of deception and masks existed already in literature, Rousseau’s emotional tenor, his urge that hearts should be transparent to one another, gave the theme new verve. In La Nouvelle Héloïse, Starobinski argues that the character of the lover, Saint-Preux, whose love is more pure, more pleasurable, the more transparent it is. For Saint-Preux, a “secret intrigue” or a “mystery” would be a barrier to his bond with Julie, his lover; it would drive a wedge between them and obfuscate the mutual transparency they enjoyed. If one kept a secret from the other, the lovers would instantly feel ill at ease and would hide from each other.

After its beginnings in the sentimental novel, transparency slowly took on a political resonance. Sincerity and selflessness still remained integral components to the definition of patriotism, the fervor for which was gaining momentum in the second half of the eighteenth century, but transparency came to seen as the state’s accountability to the nation, and a check on abuses of power. Before the eighteenth century, the idea of secrecy or state secrets were seen as a given, or even a positive trait. The king and his council acted out of reasons of state for the good of all, and did not and should not answer to anyone but God. Furthermore, courtiers, ministers and others involved in politics assumed that government officials possessed secrets about personal or political matters.

Secrets could be used as weapons, but they were not in themselves problematic. But with the rise of the notion of public opinion, the state was seen as expanding its power of social control through surveillance, all the while maintaining its own aura of mystery. One French journalist, accusing his government of secret abuses in prisons, wrote in the 1780s, “Does anyone keep a check on the judicial assassinations, the secret acts of vengeance, …clandestine murders, of the victims given up to the torments of the state prisons? …The picture of free countries is very different. There are no shrouds of mystery to cover the iniquities of the administration…”[3]

Just as the fear of government secrecy was heightened in the eighteenth century, so, too, was the wariness of government surveillance. One example is that of a French lawyer imprisoned in the second half of the eighteenth century, Simon-Nicolas Linguet, who professed untiring, fanatical patriotism for his own country again and again. As a mark of that patriotism, he had taken it upon himself to unveil the governments’ foul secrets. To him, it was a duty that he owed the people and the king who had too long been manipulated by greedy ministers. What seemed even more despicable in Linguet’s eyes was that this same regime that so carefully concealed its own inner workings, had eyes and ears to penetrate into the private lives of its citizens. While Linguet constantly maintained that he had done nothing wrong and that he had nothing to hide, he nevertheless counted the unmerited probing of his secrets as a terrible abuse of justice and as one of the many affronts he had suffered. Describing the conditions a prisoner of the Bastille endured, Linguet wrote, “[The prisoner’s] letters, when he is allowed the means of writing, pass open to the police, or are there broke open. The doleful lamentations of the captives afford no small amusement to the persons appointed to inspect them: they divert themselves for a short time with the various notes of the different birds they have in their cage, and then tie up carefully in a bundle together the several epistolary productions of the day; not to be applied to any use, but either to deposit them in some hidden magazine, or to burn them; and neither the persons who wrote them, nor those to whom they are addressed, ever see them or hear of them afterwards.”[4]

And there existed a cultural dimension to privacy and transparency that is often overlooked. We have a cultural fear or suspicion of being watched, often manifested on the individual scale in various mental pathologies like paranoia. Our culture has a long history of anxiety over concealment or obfuscation.[5] We can see this in the fascination eighteenth-century French authors had for stories of cadavers, oubliettes and secret passageways in state prisons. One poem by an anonymous but patriotic author entitled “The Dawn of Liberty, or Despotism Expiring” described in florid language these same sentiments during the French Revolution. He wrote in an apostrophe to prisoners of the Bastille whose fates the poet lamented:

Cruel Despotism! …
Secretly in this place they stole your life away
They confined you. Strange barbarity!
These appalling dungeons where you lived in horror
Where the deep silence only inspired terror
The sun began and ended its course
Without the daylight ever reaching you![6]

Secret deaths, hidden horrors, dungeons of impenetrable darkness: they may have inspired terror, but they also inspired a great deal of poetry and other literature. Everything could now be rectified, the horrors of the past could remain in the past, but that did not mean that they would simply be erased. Journalists and writers seemed to believe implicitly that these stories should be revived and retold again and again, like ghost stories told by the fire, to make readers not only shudder with fright but quiver with patriotic fervor.

The suspicion of secrecy along with the fear of shadowy, illicit dealings on the part of a group or individual can thus be seen as an unresolved anxiety over what is hidden from view. Furthermore, fear is often the other side of desire. These anxieties about secrets and hidden knowledge also reveal an unspoken attraction or fascination with what is concealed. The intense fear as well as fascination articulated about secrets may demonstrate the new desire for concealment that the rise of a surveillance state had created. This perhaps subconscious desire for concealment is intimately connected to the notion of the modern, private individual that developed alongside the modern state as the delineations between private and public, secrets and accessible knowledge, the individual and the collective, were still being articulated.

The transparency of both the individual and the state are unavoidable in the modern era, but equally unavoidable is the drive and capacity to keep secrets.

There has been a flurry of scholarly discussion and debate on the subject of government transparency as well as on the use of surveillance, especially in the fields of sociology and anthropology, arguing both for and against government secrecy and use of surveillance.[7] Many of these scholars fail to note, however, that surveillance and transparency are two sides of the same coin: the transparency of the individual and the transparency of the state. Just as we cannot return to a pre-modern understanding of the state, so, too, is it impossible to live in a world without surveillance or without some standard of transparency and accountability. The transparency of both the individual and the state are unavoidable in the modern era, but equally unavoidable is the drive and capacity to keep secrets. While the notion of the state possessing secrets is an old one, governments will most likely continue to keep secrets from their citizens well into the future, possibly for sinister reasons, possibly for security, just as individuals may keep secrets for reasons good or ill. Bearing that in mind, there are dangers in both the excess of secrecy and the excess of transparency.

As we have seen, both individual/state transparency and the related suspicion of secrecy are integral to modern understandings of the state. By revisiting the theories of Habermas and Foucault, and examining the roots of these understandings in the eighteenth century, we can see how complex and ambiguous these notions were and still are. Moreover, it is helpful to keep in mind that contemporary reactions to the use of surveillance, as well as discussion of government transparency, are also rooted in half-articulated anxieties about observation and concealment. We may fear what is hidden from view, but it also carries a fascination for us. Just as transparency may protect citizens from a government overreaching its bounds, there is also safety in secrets.


Nicole Bauer is a PhD student of history at UNC Chapel Hill.


References and Footnotes

  1. Skyfall. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Columbia Pictures, 2012. Film.
  2. See Jean Starobinksi, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988)
  3. The Press in the French Revolution Ed. J. Gilchrist and W.J. Murray (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971), 79.
  4. Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet, Memoirs of the Bastille. Containing a full exposition of the mysterious policy and despotic oppression of the French government, In the Interior Administration of that State-Prison. Interspersed with a Variety of Curious Anecdotes. Translated from the French of the celebrated Mr. Linguet, Who was Imprisoned there From September 1780, to May 1782 (London: G. Kearsly, 1783), 23-4.
  5. Dena Goodman explores the gendered dynamics of the anxiety associated with concealment in her book on women and letter writing in the eighteenth century. She argues that the notion of the woman’s locked writing desk provoked anxiety over what was hidden just as women’s bodies provoked anxiety on the part of men. See Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
  6. Recueil de pièces intéressantes sur la Bastille (Paris: J.B. Hérault, 1790), 12.
  7. Some scholars argue for more transparency today in governments as well as in multinational corporations. Others argue indirectly for more transparency on the part of the government by offering theories of resistance to surveillance. Building off of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, they use his idea of cultural capital to argue that this helps structure the dynamics of surveillance practices and power relations including the ability to contest surveillance, though others believe we can never reach a condition of perfect security. Still, others argue that surveillance might be justified if submitted to a normalized set of rules, or that secrecy is necessary in a large community. Influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the control society, they argue that surveillance can often be mutual, benign as well as malign, and that surveillance not only plays a role in the governing of others but in self-governing. He emphasizes that even with the rise in surveillance technology, we are not living in an electronic panopticon. Interestingly, some point out that transparency may depend on secrecy: people often need anonymity in financial transactions, and they need secrecy as part of the normal voting process in a modern democracy.