Monday, December 15, 2014

Georg Simmel: Secrecy

It's one thing to respect other peoples' privacy; it's another thing to deliberately hide stuff from other people, to go beyond privacy and modesty to deliberate secrecy, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff.
The secret in this sense, the hiding of realities by negative or positive means, is one of man's greatest achievements... [T]he secret produces an immense enlargement of life; numerous contents of life cannot even emerge in the presence of full publicity. The secret offers, so to speak, the possibility of a second world alongside the manifest world; and the latter is decisively influenced by the former.
It is clear that a secret changes the relationship between two people or groups, and it is evident that the occasion of secrecy has changed in modern times: what once was public has become secret, and vice versa.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

We often think of secrecy as evil and shameful -- "the immoral hides itself for obvious reasons" -- but sometimes a "noble individual... conceals his best" for various reasons.

We can understand the use of secrecy for strategic reasons, but should not forget the fascination with secrecy, of knowing something (and thus possessing something) that others cannot. The secret seems to have "special value." This is revealed in the child's boast "I know something that you don't know" and in the fact that revealing British parliamentary discussions used to be a criminal offence. The converse is true: people often think there is some mystery in "superior persons" and "superior achievements;" they long to know their secret ingredient.

How does a secret get revealed? Often enough, in betrayal, when the secret is "dissolved." In consequence there is a constant tension in secrecy, where "the external danger of being discovered" is woven with an internal angst, the fear of being discovered. There is, therefore, in the arc of every secret, a constant interplay between "concealing and revealing."

The question of secrecy is nowhere more revealing than in the modern society of individualism and the money economy. It used to be that few secrets were possible in the small face-to-face community, but the secrets of government as to debts, taxes, and the armed forces were absolute. Today, in the large money economy, secrets are everywhere. Personal wealth is easy to hide, its abstractness and complications make is hard to understand, and its "effect-at-a-distance" allows its "complete withdrawal" from local eyes. And personal privacy has become a social good.  Meanwhile public affairs are supposed to be transparent on the view that "everybody should know the events and circumstances that concern him."

Secrecy "operates as an adorning possession". A "noteworthy person" exists partly in what is concealed. And yet the function of physical adornment is "to lead the eyes of others upon the adorned" in the same way as a secret makes someone special.

Next: The Secret Society.

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