Why are people fascinated by prison life

How much secret does a person need?

Whoever hides something has something to hide. Everything is to be disclosed. Total transparency or: of life in a world in which even the most intimate is dragged to the light of day.

The secret - the hiding of realities through positive or negative means - is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, ”noted the German social and cultural philosopher Georg Simmel in an essay from 1907. This sentence strangely stands at right angles to our excited political discourse Days in which the secret and those who have it or make it so are on trial. But the pathos of transparency, the demand that in principle everything must be clarified and everything should be disclosed, turns into the suspicion of living in a transparent society in which even the most intimate can be dragged into the light of day. Orwell's “Big Brother” and Michel Foucault's “Panoptikum” describe one and the same dystopia. It goes hand in hand with the suspicion and the disclosure of the fact that we live in a huge prison and are in principle as monitored as in that famous panopticon of the prison created by the liberal English enlightener Jeremy Bentham. What at first glance appears to be a stimulating goal that we have no secrets from each other, both privately and politically, turns into its opposite in a kind of negative dialectic: into pure horror, into the fact that we are no longer allowed to have secrets. A society in which there can be no secret is totalitarian by its very nature. At the same time it creates an army of people who archive the secrets of others and keep them under lock and key at the same time. Beyond the mystery lives the delusion of the complete control of people by people.

From a very specific perspective, the secret has a bad rap. This has to do with the fact that the other, as a person and as a group, wants to withhold something from you. Anyone who has or should have a secret almost automatically comes under suspicion: the reason they, the secret bearer, have can only be problematic. Whoever has a secret, whoever hides something, has something to hide - for example in Ibsen's "Ghosts" in the bourgeois family or in the political arena in those highly problematic milieus of secret services and secret societies.

As Freud's reflections on the uncanny show, all words that refer to the family of words “homely” have no simple counterparts. The "secret" is not the opposite of the "uncanny". Words like “secret” or “uncertain” do not even exist. If there is a “positive” negation of the secret at all, then it is precisely the transparency, the demand for transparency as an element of political correctness, which is the official secret, which in Austria Obviously better protected than in other countries, or denounce secret agreements from the outset, precisely because they withhold something from the normal citizen that he and she are entitled to know. It is not without reason that the production of secrecy, the secrecy, is seen as a form of the accumulation of power. The local emperor of our days knows that as well as the department head of a company or a modern university manager: Information, especially keeping it back at the right moment, is politics, a politics that is effective, if not without risk. If it is exposed, that trust is lost, which is not unduly supported by human relationships.

This pathos of transparency has just as much to do with the change in the media as it does with a new unease in politics that can be observed in almost all western countries. It is based on the juxtaposition of good citizens and bad politics, of practices that withhold information from citizens and systematically withhold something from them. This is the only way to understand why the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or Edward Snowden have almost achieved cult status in a not inconsiderable segment, precisely because they, the whistleblowers, whistled and publicized the secrets of the powerful. The story of these new media heroes is put into a very specific, thoroughly traditional narrative format, it is the fight of the Davids against the Goliaths of this world, especially against the "hegemon", the USA, a confrontation between the List and the new weapons technology is determined, in which the young Davide are superior to the imperial Goliath.

The accusation of betrayal is reversed by the pretty imagery of blowing the whistle ("to blow the whistle"). The fact that someone "unpacks" and reveals a secret loses its offense, which it possesses from the point of view of the group that was previously in possession of this secret, for example the diplomacy or the very institution that bears the overly euphoric name of serving the secret to stand. Behind the general outrage over the secret spying is the question of the extent to which political secrets in diplomacy and the military are compatible with the rules of the game of democracy or are always justified by a kind of state of emergency and anticipated emergency situation.

Which brings us to the fact that the secret is a strange perspective phenomenon, in which it depends on whether you look at the secret from the internal or the external perspective. The secret systematically excludes other people, it establishes an invisible border and thus sets in motion all those psychological and political energies that aim at disclosure. So hiding is much less an act for something than an act against someone. Robinson has nothing to hide: because he is apparently alone on the island. Moreover, it contains a radical form of “political” asymmetry between those who have imagined knowledge that is classified as important and crucial and those who are excluded from that knowledge.

Ideally, the enmity against the secret owes itself initially to an enlightening figure of thought. Enlightenment in its metaphorical meaning means that everything dark, suspicious, all machinations of the powerful should be dragged into the light of day. And that this is possible in principle. Brightness is just another word for the creation of a state of secrecy, which, on closer inspection, itself reveals eerie features. As Heidegger and his school never tired of emphasizing, the Greek word for “aletheia” has the etymological meaning of unconcealment and nudity; Related to this is the almost forgotten meaning of "apocalypse": revelation. At the end of time there will be no more secrets, everything will come to light.

Enlightenment enmity against the secret is aimed at all areas of life, at the dynastic secret and cabinet politics, at the supposed secrets and miracles of religion, which are exposed as lies and priestly deeds, but also at the secrets that lie behind the lies of the aristocratic, later open to civil society and its relationships. In Balzac's great story “Eugénie Grandet”, for example, it is the father's immeasurable wealth that is systematically made a secret by him. This revelation occurs in several forms in modern society, as a scientific impetus to dissolve the secrets of the physical world through science, literarily as social criticism and journalistically as the establishment of an institution that systematically exposes all false but also relevant secrets of this world .

The uncoverers, unpackers and whistlers of our day are only the most conspicuous representatives - and like all enemies, like all "antis", they are in a systematic relationship of dependence on what they are fighting. You are negatively fascinated by a phenomenon that carries certain charges. Because the erotically saturated world of mystery appears from the outside, but sometimes also from the inside, as meaningful and important. This world awakens the imagination, that of desire and that of fear. The mysterious and frightening woman of the French or Austrian fin de siècle is the erotic object of male desire, and fear of the confusion of modern society generates horror fantasies that culminate in garish and ludicrous conspiracy theories.

The story of the “Jewish world conspiracy”, that post-Enlightenment story that authors such as Umberto Eco and Danilo Kiš have spread literarily, is probably the most repulsive form of false disclosure about which only one thing is true: the combination of fear and aggression against “the others ”in their own culture, the Jews. Every conspiracy theory operates at its core with a pretended and catchy secret. The discoverer always ascribes special knowledge to himself. If this is recognized by others, its symbolic capital grows in that part of society that sees itself excluded from the hidden. - The Enlightenment is essentially anti-mysterious, and yet in its historical formation, precisely the epoch of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, it has, interestingly, produced a wealth of secret societies, of which the Freemasons are only the best known. The knowledge that is supposed to be available to all of humanity here becomes the secret of a small group which, viewed socially, is constituted by this very secret. Presumably this functional property is one of the reasons why Simmel called the secret a social achievement. Incidentally, the mechanism that sets the secret in motion can be described very well using the example of the Freemasons, whose history was described and analyzed in detail in our room by the Innsbruck historian Helmut Reinalter. What has been said and imputed to Freemasonry since its existence and what has entered into it bitter, thoroughly affective enmity - hatred and resentment up to the desire for annihilation - is precisely this systematic withdrawal of supposedly important knowledge and the associated suspicion that, very similar to in the anti-Semitic treatise of the "Elders of Zion", the core of this mystery is opaque and manipulative world domination.

The Enlightenment, the historical but also the structural, has, one could say, an unenlightened relationship to the mystery. In its aversion to priesthood, ignorance and mystery, it draws on the pull of all that is mysterious - because the secret societies already mentioned, like the secretly organized social revolutionary parties since the end of the 19th century, are more than just emergency measures against the grip of absolutist regimes. An essential political and private function of the secret is also manifested in the need for protection, one that is connected with self-preservation and self-constitution. Members of secret societies and revolutionary groups see themselves as elites and avant-gardes, as the political standard-bearers of tomorrow - in truth, this social act contains their entire discursive and political secret.

If one understands modernity in the panoramic view as a contradiction between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, then the historical, also German Romanticism in its relation to the mystery can be understood as the opposite pole. The world established by the Enlightenment is perceived as prosaic and empty. In Romanticism, literature is no longer a medium of enlightenment, but the place of mystery, of the poetic that the ordinances of reason have, as it were, driven into exile, as in E.T.A. Hoffmann's subtle story "Klein Zaches, called Zinnober". The aim of romantic poetry and politics is therefore the restitution of all those phenomena that the enlightenment discourse has discredited. In this new psycho-aesthetic discourse, this includes not only the miracle, the fantasy, the mind and the magic, but also the secret. In a famous fragment from the years 1797/98 Novalis describes the "operation" of romanticizing: that it gives "the common a lofty meaning, the ordinary a mysterious reputation, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite an infinite semblance".

This establishes a new way of dealing with the secret that goes beyond the clarification. An aesthetic constructivism emerges in which the secret becomes, as it were, secondary, in which its production character, but also its unavoidability, is emphasized. The world, which is shed in an unusual light or dark, not least because of certain alienation techniques, appears to be a mystery in spite of all scientific aspects, just like the face of someone else. In summary, it can be said that all romantic and post-romantic literature is carried by the eroticism of the mystery.

But why does Simmel describe the secret as an achievement? Quite simply because it is of crucial importance for the process of customization. What at first glance might appear to be a secondary phenomenon is, on closer inspection, central to our social well-being, which takes place in the interplay between what is our own and what is strange. The secret has its fixed place in the poetics of space (Bachelard). Even small children hide certain things from others, not least from adults. What is precious to a child does not want to share with anyone; it hides it in boxes, drawers or in closable vessels, just like the first love letters later. It was not for nothing that Simmel saw an inner connection between letter and secret. Even if the secrecy of letters may seem anachronistic in the age of digital reproducibility, certain access codes in the computer ensure that not everyone knows our secrets. So it is the secret that creates something of its own, a “home”.

The secret always strives for its dissolution and disclosure. That is what can be called its erotic structure. Because something is hidden or appears to be, it triggers the desire to be exposed. From a social point of view, it can create intense relationships between those people who share a secret. Telling someone a secret of yourself or others under the seal of secrecy seals a kind of trust pact, which is not infrequently ritualized. The “blood brotherhood”, for example, is such a ritual - as are the various celebrations of secret societies and religious communities. "Secret of Faith" is what the Catholic fair ritual means.

The smallest group in a society is the intimate couple. Two people base their relationships not least on the exchange of (narrative) secrets about themselves that they have never shared with anyone or only very few. Even if the pathos of this relationship in the state of total infatuation suggests never having secrets from each other, a certain reservation remains and remains a store of smaller or larger own secrets. Conversely, couples know that they are in possession of shared experiences, the intimacy of which also consists in sharing them with one another, but not communicating them to others, third parties. The secrets that couples have at their disposal from the outside world mark the invisible limit of an intimacy that is only constituted by the structure of concealment, that strange communication of silence. The private is precisely that space that is inaccessible to others and tends to remain closed.

That the secret could vanish from the human world, as in E.T.A. Hoffmann's above-mentioned story is highly improbable beyond the enlightening reservations about the secret and beyond the romantic longing for it. Incidentally, it is by no means certain that modern natural sciences have eliminated the mysterious, cryptic and incomprehensible in this world. Romanticism and the Enlightenment are and were naive in different ways with regard to the mystery of their tendency: Romanticism because it systematically suppresses the political and social explosiveness of the phenomenon; the Enlightenment, because it deliberately overlooks the anthropological anchoring of the mystery. That secrets are created and also disclosed is part of those individual and social processes that revolve around individualization and socialization.

In the end, by the way, what the long well-kept secret reveals is mostly disappointing. As long as it was left unventilated, it kept the energies of the imagination going. This is what makes so many books on secret doctrine so trivial, as banal as those historical pornographic works that reveal the forbidden secrets of sexuality. Many of the Stasi files, and even the diplomatic and military secrets, are far less sensational than they initially appeared.It is or was the aura of mystery that surrounded them. In this respect, romanticism is right when it assumes that the secret is an aesthetic and, moreover, a social operation. And at the same time an experience: the face of the other and even the bare body always retains a moment of the impenetrable, especially for the carefully observing person. Canetti wrote the aphoristic sentence: “Leave a riddle or you will really die.” ■

("Die Presse", print edition, April 19, 2014)