A history of the secret

What is the secret, and what is its relation to privacy? Some musings, on reading Clare Birchall’s 2011 paper “Transparency Interrupted” in Theory, Culture & Society.


secret (n.)Look up secret at Dictionary.comlate 14c., from Latin secretus “set apart, withdrawn, hidden,” past participle of secernere “to set apart,” from se- “without, apart,” properly “on one’s own” (from PIE *sed-, from root *s(w)e-; see idiom) + cernere “separate” (see crisis). As an adjective from c.1400. Secret agent first recorded 1715; secret service is from 1737; secret weapon is from 1936.

Of course linked to this is the word private:

private (adj.)Look up private at Dictionary.comlate 14c., “pertaining or belonging to oneself, not shared, individual; not open to the public;” of a religious rule, “not shared by Christians generally, distinctive; from Latin privatus “set apart, belonging to oneself (not to the state), peculiar, personal,” used in contrast to publicus, communis; past participle of privare “to separate, deprive,” from privus “one’s own, individual,” from PIE*prei-wo-, from PIE *prai-, *prei-, from root *per- (1) “forward, through” (see per). Old English in this sense had syndrig. Private grew popular 17c. as an alternative to common (adj.), which had overtones of condescention. Of persons, “not holding public office,” recorded from early 15c. In private “privily” is from 1580s.

To “set apart” and to make private (that is, not available to the public). There are two components: to make private, and an act of separation. Where private means unto oneself, “one’s own” (cf. idiom, a dialect spoken locally or in a small area). And and act to separate or segregate.

(A sense of this remains in officialdom-speak; the word “segregable” is sometimes used in relation to records which can be separated out and declassified from a larger collection of classified records.)

Yet notice also the sense of loss that this entails: to deprive (privation), or to take away. Presumably what is taken away is the sense and benefit of belonging, of not being alone, an “idiot” (Gk. idiotes, private person, especially one without skill, or professional knowledge, a layman).

It is noticeable then that privacy retains more than a bit of the idea of keeping secret. Where the classic definition is “the right to be let alone” in the classic Warren and Brandeis opinion, here we see also the sense of being apart, of not generally being available to everybody (especially the state no doubt).

This allows us then to examine a tentative opposite to the secret, ie., transparency, more critically. As Claire Birchall puts it:

Transparency assumes a secret that can be excavated and brought to light, just as it might suppose a text that can be fully readable (if not, what would be the point of transparency?). Derrida refers to a secret which is unknowable rather than just unknown. It is unknowable not because it is particularly enigmatic, but because knowledge, an event, a person, a poem, text or thing is not ‘there’, not present, in the way that we commonly understand it to be. And so, in any communication, any expression of knowledge, something is always ‘held back’. What is ‘held back’ is in no way held in a reserve, waiting to be discovered. Rather, there is a singular excess that cannot fully show itself: a non-signifying, non-present remainder. For Derrida, the absolute secret resides in the structural limits upon the knowability of the present (of events, meaning, texts and so on). In this sense, there will always be something secret.

In some ways this is straightforward; there is a limit to “knowability.” Full transparency (as access to the full truth, or full knowledge) cannot be achieved. Derrida went on to say that if everything must be made public, if a “right to the secret is not maintained” we are in a totalitarian space (Derrida, A Taste for the Secret, p. 59). On the other hand, at the same time, there is the concept of how democracy could occur without paying attention to your friends, to others in general, if one is totally closed off (private), as obligations/responsibility to community. (Democracy ought to guarantee both the right to reply and the right to remain silent, but does neither, pp. 26-7.)

Donald Rumsfeld said something similar in 2002 concerning limits to knowledge:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

In this typology of knowledge, there are several questions to consider, including why say “known knowns” and not just “knowns”? Or, having started that reflexive move, why end there (there are known known-knowns, etc.).

But there is also one combination missing; “unknown knowns.” What could this mean? How can you both know and not know something at the same time? The philosopher Slavoj Žižek offers an interesting solution. Here we must first know something, but then repress or suppress it.

Žižek was writing in 2004 about the Abu Ghraib scandal, which he interprets as the Freudian unconscious, with a quote from Lacan.

However, and perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, an equally commendable interpretation of unknown knowns are those that have been hidden or segregated; they exist but are not generally accessible.

In other words, what Rumsfeld missed, was precisely the secret.

In her piece Birchall begins to “recuperate” secrecy, as she calls it. Long associated with right-wing governments, she sees instead a valid role for it on the left. To do this she urges us to think about the commons–a secrecy commons. For example, WikiLeaks is interesting and radical not because it brings transparency, but because it uses secrecy to place knowledge into the commons. More specifically, it is non-statist, virtual, distributed, and “largely anonymous” (although this last criterion is effectively unmasked by now, especially with the imprisonment and trial of Bradley Manning as its source).

This is not a bad proposal, although it is perhaps not a complete solution. Indeed it is similar to one I made in my recent (2012) piece in Geopolitics “Outsourcing the State” (Downloads tab). There I argued that there is a process of informational “spin-offs” happening, whereby the government is seeing, indeed happily participating in, an “epistemic shift in sovereignty” (p. 688):

This is by no means to be understood as a central government trying to suppress challenges, or of the state in crisis. Rather, it is the state itself that is outsourcing and spinning off its capabilities in an unprecedented manner, especially in the defence and intelligence sectors. Paradoxically, WikiLeaks is part of this outsourcing, and the insecurities of it playing in this larger game reveal much about how it is supposed to be played – and who can play it and profit from it.

Despite writing the piece 13 months before the Snowden revelations about the extent of contracting in the intelligence community, I cannot claim originality to that insight, which came as a result of thinking through Matt Hannah’s book, Dark Territory, and writing our forthcoming paper on intelligence outsourcing. The phrase “epistemic sovereignty” is Hannah’s, and means who has control over knowledge (usually of course, the state in an informational asymmetry, but here posed as a question or “shift”).

One of the problems here is that we know even less about corporate operations in the DoD and intelligence community than we do about the government. This is not an argument to return everything to the government, or of course that transparency will fix everything. Nevertheless it is an observation opposed to Birchall’s who sees secrecy as a way to bypass neoliberalism, whereas I think it is in line with it.

A secrecy commons may be a good idea, but how long before it is colonized? Or can it keep outpacing capital? Ironically, what may drive capital–technological innovation–may also be required to continually escape it. Where Birchall is a bit out of date already on WikiLeaks, her point that secrecy is worth recuperating, still remains I think, to be explored.


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