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  • Whither Secrecy?
  • Matthew Potolsky (bio)

In his seminal 1907 essay on secrecy and secret societies, Georg Simmel describes a major shift over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the way Western cultures understood the legitimate scope of secrecy. In the early modern period, the state was “clothed with mystical authority” (336), asserting an absolute right to keep secrets and, concomitantly, to pry into the secret lives of its subjects. The sovereign knew all, while the people were open books. In the wake of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, the distribution of secrecy changed. Now government was supposed to be the open book, and the people had a right to keep secrets, protected by the presumption of individual privacy against intrusions by the state. “Politics, administration, and jurisdiction thus have lost their secrecy and inaccessibility in the same measure in which the individual has gained the possibility of ever more complete withdrawal,” Simmel writes (336).

Specialists would surely dispute many aspects of Simmel’s sweeping claim, but the basic observation seems relatively uncontroversial. Under the influence of the scientific revolution, democratic political theory, the rise of the public sphere, and the spread of technological innovations like the printing press, the early modern doctrine of arcana imperii, which endowed the sovereign with unquestioned authority over the secrets of the realm, gave way to a general policy of openness in public affairs and privacy in personal life.1 In 1791, Jeremy Bentham writes that “honesty” ought to be the “animating principle” of every political assembly (19); secrecy, by contrast, “is an instrument of conspiracy,” which “ought not, therefore, to be the system of a regular government” (39).2 Having once [End Page 787] been the very emblem of royal authority and an acknowledged source of social stability, the secret becomes a byword for corruption, to be rooted out through a policy of openness and publicity. A century later, but reflecting several generations of social experimentation, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren would formalize claims for legitimate individual secret keeping in their influential 1890 article “The Right to Privacy.”3

Simmel argues that the modern distribution of openness and secrecy conforms to a general rule characteristic of democracies, by which “what is public becomes ever more public, and what is private becomes ever more private” (337). But there is, he insists, no logical connection between democracy and openness, and it is entirely possible that the governing apparatus could again choose to operate in secret. Nor is personal privacy immutable: the balance of secrecy in a society can take any number of forms. “One could, therefore,” Simmel speculates, “entertain the paradoxical idea that under otherwise identical circumstances, human collective life requires a certain measure of secrecy which merely changes its topics: while leaving one of them, social life seizes upon another, and in all this alternation it preserves an unchanged quantity of secrecy” (335–36). One of my students once termed this formulation the “law of the conservation of secrecy,” by analogy with the first law of thermodynamics. There is, Simmel implies, a kind of physics of the secret, an indestructible quantum of concealment in social systems that merely changes form rather than ever being dispersed or overcome. We are never truly done with secrecy, though shifts in social and political mores can transform the distribution of secrets within a given society in dramatic ways.

Simmel leaves the future implications of this law a mystery, but it is useful, I think, to take his larger point about the conservation of secrecy seriously, at least as a heuristic. In the decade and a half since the September 11 attacks, Western democracies have been undergoing what looks to be an epochal shift in the distribution of secrecy akin to the one that crystallized in the 1790s, driven by a dramatic growth in the size and nature of the national security state, and aided by lower computer storage costs and the development of sophisticated algorithms for parsing data. Everyday citizens are again becoming open books to those in power, who gather and sort reams of information about their choices, habits, contacts, beliefs, and behaviors. Anything one does online, and increasingly much of what one...


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