The Political Dialectics of Transparency in Modernity and Beyond: The Radicalization and Problematic of Visual Politics
Douglass, R. Bruce
The idea of transparency has achieved cult status in the public sphere. It has been touted as the solution to all political ills ranging from the opacity of power, to secrecy, crime and corruption. At first glance this seems unproblematic; however, a closer look reveals a deep-seated tension embedded in the history of the concept that is in need of clear articulation. In this dissertation I trace the logic of transparency in politics back to the Enlightenment period. From the writings of Rousseau, Kant and Bentham, it becomes evident that political thinkers at the time had significantly different understandings of the meaning of transparency. Two influential ideas of transparency with conflicting aspirations emerged: it was linked to the emancipatory, democratic ideal of publicity on one hand; but it is also came to be associated with the (vastly different) notion of surveillance, implying control and domination. The historical background reveals that surveillance and publicity are both part of one vision, i.e., the desire for transparency. In other words, what links these two ideas is their shared emphasis on the use of vision as a means to understand the logic of political life. I claim that our aspiration for a transparent society is turning out to be misguided. The confusion surrounding transparency is becoming more evident in our time as the advance of technology lets us do both things well, i.e., hold politicians accountable, but also to spy on others. I argue that today most vehicles of publicity (for example the Internet) can be also construed as instruments of surveillance, leading to an erosion of the ethical aspects of publicity. Specifically, what is at stake here are our civil liberties. I suggest that a combination of the methodologies of Foucault and Habermas can help us confront the challenges presented by both avatars of transparency, i.e., publicity and surveillance.Ultimately, I attempt to answer this question: is it in fact valuable to pursue the ideal of transparency in politics, given the technologies now available?
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