Transparency in Postwar France
A Critical History of the Present
Stefanos Geroulanos



The Matter with Transparency

The role of philosophy is not to discover what is hidden but to render visible precisely what is visible, that is to say to make appear what is so close, so immediate, so intimately linked to us, that as a result we don’t see it.

Michel Foucault, “The Analytic Philosophy of Politics” (1994a, 3: 540)

It’s my inclination when I compose to be crystal clear in the sense that sometimes the crystal reflects yourself and other times you can see through the material. So the work suggests a hiding and opening at the same time. And what I want most to create is a kind of deceiving transparency, as if you were looking in very transparent water and couldn’t make an estimate of the depths. If you’re a complicated self you express yourself in more complicated terms.

Pierre Boulez, “On New Music” (1984)

The Crystalline Self, or, The Best of Masks: Starobinski, Rousseau, Rorschach

In 1957, the literary theorist Jean Starobinski published his thèse ès lettres, a reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s body of work, with the Paris publisher Plon.1 Starobinski, who had just defended this dissertation in Geneva, subtitled his book La Transparence et l’obstacle: “transparency and obstacle,” or, in Arthur Goldhammer’s translation, Transparency and Obstruction. He centered on the persona that Rousseau created for himself, above all in his later works, the Confessions, the Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, the Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Rousseau, this isolated, pure, sincere, truthful Jean-Jacques, hounded by self-dissimulating creatures of the shadow realm of false arts, oppressive mores, and enchaining lies generated by a long history of divergence from nature—which is to say, everyone around him.

Starobinski’s argument on transparency follows two movements in Rousseau’s thought. The first is Rousseau’s quest to render himself transparent and to conceive of a society that returns to the unmediated “Nature,” uncontaminated by human design, that preceded social obfuscation. Calling on his readers to return to a prehistoric age of transparency themselves,2 Rousseau appealed to a state of nature in order to imagine the possibility of a pure society.3 As he made clear in The Social Contract (1762), across history “evil is veil and veiling.”4 Identifying his childhood with this innocent time, he cast himself as a soul “transparent as crystal,”5 a crystal he was presenting to the world uncovered and unchipped.

Starobinski contends that Rousseau’s logic of identifying himself with purity generated an ever-compounding series of external obstacles, which Rousseau gradually came to perceive as insurmountable. Rousseau in other words succumbed to a second movement in his thought, one that followed from the very success of his pursuit of personal and ethical transparency. Having declared himself transparent, he found the masks, separations, and veils he had banished from his soul all now rising up everywhere around him, bringing back the opacity he had sought to overcome and rendering it an external threat. His transparency radicalized this world of lurking shadows in paranoid fashion; it guaranteed that the persecution he felt would become a cage welded shut.6 In Starobinski’s view, once Rousseau “achieved” his intention of becoming pure, he developed a “secret desire” to not act, to not be responsible for his life.7 Purity led to the projection of all action and all guilt onto others: Rousseau could maintain transparency in his self-affection only by treating it as contaminated by worldly action among those others who imprisoned him in an “impregnable asylum” of solitude and dispossession.8 Step by step, this countergesture immobilized the transparent soul, making inevitable the increasingly solipsistic, paranoid, haunted self that Rousseau famously became.

Rousseau’s claim to purity had already been a matter of debate and exasperation among his contemporaries. But Starobinski’s idea that this purity was itself responsible for generating the epistemological, ethical, and political obstacles that debilitated it was new. Original here was the identification of the two movements and, specifically, the conviction that it was the pursuit of transparency that led directly to Rousseau’s paranoia about an overbearing world of infinite obstacles. Rousseau’s search for transparency expanded from his self-depiction into an interpretation of problems as wide-ranging as social organization, ethical relationships, human history, and the likelihood of political remedy. Starobinski identified Rousseau’s politics with a commitment to liberation from the ornamentation and masking that defined aristocratic society, and that was exemplified by the theater—the “world of opacity” decried in Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (Letter to D’Alembert on the Theater).9 Famously, Rousseau counterposed the festival, an ecstatic, ultimately democratic event, in which masks could not survive, to the theater. A few years after his dissertation, in 1964, Starobinski presented Rousseau’s anti-theatrical festival as his principal influence on the French Revolution:

The festival that Rousseau envisaged was an assembly of people aware that their own presence was the basis of their fervor: they could look at one another with a joyful sense of their shared freedom. . . . They would celebrate a new transparency: hearts would hide no more secrets, communication would be completely free of obstacles. Since everyone present would be simultaneously audience and actors, they would have done away with the distance which, in the theater, separated the stage and the auditorium. The spectacle would be everywhere and nowhere. Identical in everyone’s eyes, the image of the festival would be indivisible—and it would be the image, multiplied indefinitely, of man meeting man in absolute equality and understanding. . . . The system of façades, screens, fictions, alluring masks which dominated the world of aristocratic culture could no longer be retained: they were condemned to disappear, for they were felt . . . to be simply inert elements, harmful obstacles.10

Transparency, under Starobinski’s pen, became Rousseau’s supreme mask: a mask first of all ethical but also epistemological and political, a mask that might efface itself perfectly if it did not also project inner anxieties onto the outside world and devolve its author’s search for sovereignty into a precarious solitude.

This was not merely a matter of literary criticism.11 For someone involved in psychological and medical debates like the ones Starobinski wrote about in Georges Bataille and Eric Weil’s journal Critique, this mask exposed a truly contemporary problem of the modern phenomenological, psychological, and political subject. In an essay published in Critique shortly after Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l’obstacle appeared in 1957, Starobinski took on the theory behind the Rorschach test with an eye to questions about sincerity and dissimulation, interiority and masks. He mocked the claims made for the test by its practitioners, presenting its practice as an exemplary case of psychology-as-policing: the underlying theory was so inadequate that “everything remains to be done.” Anticipating by several years Michel Foucault’s paradigm-setting Folie et déraison (1961; History of Madness), Starobinski denounced this policing as ever present in a modernity where “society no longer burns witches and the possessed, it puts them under care as ‘abnormals.’12 In his view, “contemporary psychology does not in the least like the notion of depth,” and the Rorschach test constituted the perfect reduction of interiority: it erased consciousness by ignoring all the complex operations of interpretation, expression, and communication in favor of two purified moments—the test subject’s perception and the test administrator’s unmediated translation of the test subject’s claims:

While the test appeals to the immediacy of perception, this immediacy is quickly lost and compromised, first because the subject must say what he perceived, and thus interpret in the “tribal language” what he has sensed; and following, because the psychologist must comment, in his science’s language, on the “naïve” speech in which the subject has held forth.13

This betrayed a conception of the mind as flat, mechanistic, and transparent. It allowed the psychiatrist to claim the status of an impersonal interpreter of scientific data and the test to typify “all the sadism that the psychiatrist disavows: a sadism . . . analogous to the machine Kafka describes in In the Penal Colony.”14

In Starobinski’s view, only one Rorschach theorist stood apart from this smothering of consciousness and intersubjectivity: the existential psychoanalyst Roland Kuhn, who wrote at length on patients who interpreted the blots as masks or saw masks in them.15 In his Phénoménologie du masque à travers le test de Rorschach (1957), published with an admiring preface by Gaston Bachelard, Kuhn identified the perception of masks in Rorschach blots with the patient’s dissimulating behavior and his or her willingness to project the mask onto others. Studying between 200 and 400 cases (42 of them in depth),16 Kuhn treated the practice of interpreting the blot as a mask as a sign of severe psychosis. The patient who saw masks everywhere transformed external reality into constant danger, and became at once guiltless in his/her own mind and unable to reason in harmony with others (see fig. 0.1 and 0.2).

FIGURES 0.1 AND 0.2    Roland Kuhn’s case history no. 3: “Kono,” a patient suffering from schizophrenia, identified the first card of the Rorschach test (below) with the face of his father, and specifically with a drawing of his father’s face (above) that, as a child, he had made to “cut to wear as a mask” (Kuhn 1957: 21, 23). SOURCE: Fig. 0.1: Kuhn 1957. Fig. 0.2: Hermann Rorschach, Psychodiagnostik: Tafeln (Bern: Huber, 1921), card 1,

Both Bachelard and Starobinski interpreted Kuhn’s Rorschach masks as potentialities of being, and hence as fundamentally future-oriented. In his preface, Bachelard—who had invented the concept of the “epistemological obstacle” that Starobinski was using in his reading of Rousseau—went so far as to claim that Kuhn’s interpretation of masks was an essential complement to a Freudian interpretation of dreams.17 Starobinski treated the argument on masks as profoundly consequential for any phenomenology of depth, depersonalization, and dialogue.18 Wherever transparency laid its claim, dissimulation reigned; to dive into masks was to deny psychologistic reductionism, to engage questions of human existence in earnest rather than police them away. Going one step beyond Bachelard, who largely identified the desire for dissimulation as a pathological condition, Starobinski suggested that the human being “remains always possessed by a troubled desire of obscurity and depth.”19

It is hard to miss the parallel between Starobinski’s treatment of Rousseau and his interest in the Rorschach test and its masks. And yet readers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction usually place Starobinski in the camp of lucidity and transparency. His colleague and mentor Georges Poulet wrote of his “intellect as being analogous to Rousseau’s, yearning for an immediate transparence of all beings.”20 Robert Darnton (who pronounced the book a true classic of eighteenth-century scholarship), Judith Shklar (who called it the “second best book” on Rousseau, after Rousseau’s own Confessions), and Martin Jay have focused on the impulse to transparency.21 Still, Starobinski’s attachment was much more to masks, obstacles, and opacity than to their banishment; for him transparency was itself such a mask—a supremely forceful one. This is how he would later on describe his own intellectual concerns of the time, retracing his Rousseau book

back to the time of [World War II], to the anxiety aroused in me by the fanaticism in uniform whose irrational imperatives had unleashed a worldwide conflict, and to the astonishment I felt at the seductive power exerted by leaders whose “charisma” stemmed essentially from their knowing how to make use of a certain kind of mask. My interest centered on modern ways of using masks and their powers of fascination. Meanwhile, in literary history, I was obliged to take note of a literary tradition of denouncing masks. . . . My first project . . . [was] to write a history of the use of masks in terms of the most typical examples, coupled with a history of the kinds of accusations that had been leveled at masked behavior. I wanted to combine a history of mystifying alienation with a history of demystification.22

Starobinski had offered a version of this project in an essay titled “Interrogatoire du masque” (1946; Interrogation of the Mask).23 That “interrogation” engaged in half-literary-historical, half-philosophical-political fashion with a Europe riveted by a proliferation of masks, lies, and veils: “The new masks that we have now seen at work are the expression of the lie of the will to power.”24 He still hoped that the human dependence on masks could be overcome:

We know today how certain masks are impressive and shallow, and what it costs to prefer them to the truth of our own face. Still, we are not finished yet with masks. As long as this sour dissatisfaction that refuses to accept the servitudes of our carnal identity remains alive within us, as long as we suffer from our own incompleteness, the mask will remain this strange promise of a healing through metamorphosis for us. As long . . . as we dream of being stronger or better than we are, the mask will tempt us the way Mephistopheles tempted Faust. It all happens as if our truth could never be for the now, as if we needed to quest eternally after the human face.25

So dreamt the younger Starobinski—of an unmasking that would penetrate to the true human face, and shaping this hope into both an urgent political demand and an ever-receding possibility. The change of attitude between 1946 and 1958 is astonishing. A dozen years after “Interrogatoire du masque,” Starobinski argued in Jean-Jacques Rousseau that the transparency of the self had proven to be little more than a particularly dangerous mask. The shift helps us delineate the intellectual and political claims of that book and brings into relief Starobinski’s demand that a modicum of opacity, dissimulation, and masking remain essential to subjectivity.

Any effort to enforce absolute transparency—on oneself, others, or society at large—was bound to fail and primed to recreate, perhaps in a far more paranoid form, the very shadows and masks it sought to banish. Starobinski’s reconstruction of Rousseau as a thinker whose obsession with transparency ended up by projecting outside the opacities he could not bear within would prove exemplary of the postwar concern with the term “transparency” and its implications. A transparent society, like a transparent ethics, comes with a price: a redeployment of masks, which results not from the failure but from the realization of one’s intentions.

Fold upon Fold: The Development of the Critique of Transparency in Postwar France


During the three decades after World War II, French philosophers, psychoanalysts, filmmakers, anthropologists, poets, historians of science, and politically engaged intellectuals from Jean-Paul Sartre to Jean-François Lyotard consigned the hopes associated with transparency to an armory of destructive modern illusions. They treated the concept highly critically, even dismissively, and relegated its corollaries—both ideas and ideals—to a past that most of them considered obsolete. Until “now,” they claimed, “to be transparent” had been a synonym for surviving free of sin and secrecy, for revealing and taming hidden motivations, for living an ethical life unburdened by lies and bias. To make the world transparent had meant knowing it without illusion and without intermediary. To make the social and political realms transparent had meant cleansing them of injustice, corruption, superstition, and oppression from authority and capital. To make the visible transparent had meant purging it of false images and reaching to its supposed essence. But not any more.

The tightly wound web of the concepts, ideals, and goals these figures linked to transparency had been central to ethics, politics, and epistemology at least since the Enlightenment. Rousseau was only one of the more famous names in the modern idealization of transparency; a list of his precursors and followers would be long indeed. It begins perhaps with Descartes and his cogito and features Comte’s ideas of the flawlessness of a world perceived through positivist science; the young Marx promoting revolution in the Communist Manifesto; Nietzsche and the perspective of the Übermensch; Léon Brunschvicg equating mathematics and idealism; and Heidegger and the authenticity of being-toward-death—but also Robespierre in his famous speeches from Year II on political morality and on revolutionary government; the nationalist uses, from Rivarol through Renan, of the French language as a paragon of clarity; and Napoleon, with his dream of a perfect police. Throughout the history of European philosophy, philosophers and scientists had repeatedly introduced the concept of transparency into the formulation of social goals and treated it as a foundation of knowledge or as a premise in human beings’ interaction with their world. Interpersonal transparency often appeared as a prerequisite for sharing meaning, and self-transparency as a subjective ideal, or even as an ethical desideratum. Specifically, it had been possible to claim

  • that the self could be transparent to itself, and that achieving a pure, crystalline self was the very purpose of ethics;
  • that the mind could know the world and could have an unimpeded encounter with it;
  • that relations between individuals could be pure, not dissimulated—that a “meeting of the hearts” between two individuals was possible, desirable, ethical;
  • that society could be open, transparent to its members and/or to the state.

Such claims were no longer tenable. Postwar French thought built tool after tool for dismantling them:

  • The presumed transparency of the self—in Rousseau’s terms, a transparent soul; in Verlaine’s, a transparent heart—became a central target of critiques of “the subject” that denied the capacity for self-knowledge and the homogeneity of the self and dissected it until unconscious codes, norms, and the alterity of the other could explain both how this self is fragmented and constructed and how it is articulated as singular and absolute.
  • Epistemological transparency, an enigma for philosophers and scientists already in the 1930s, came simply to be dismissed as a fantasy of scientific positivism and idealism, tendencies that had not appreciated what an abyss separated the mind from the world. The question became how the positivist shortcut could be obviated or shown to be staged, how obstacles and especially social and mental structures could be studied, if science was to be rethought and this fault overcome.
  • The rise of notions of separation, the other, abnormality, and masking specifically targeted the overbearing romantic idea of a “meeting of the hearts.” Like the transparency of the self, transparency in ethics (and the impulse to it) could appear as a delusion.
  • A “transparent” society was now synonymous with a completely homogenized, indeed totalitarian society. Against this threat, changing concepts of norms, the other, alienation, complexity, and information, like the new figures of the résistant and the gangster, the lacuna in the subject, the maladjusted adolescent, and the student revolutionary offered a sense of the individual’s need to become irreducible to state and social standards.

In a word, transparency had become suspect. It represented dated, even oppressive promises. It was mercurial—slippery and poisonous. It held up a false mirror to the self, to society, to knowledge, proffering a misguided belief in the purity of self. The world was not transparent, because it was complex, layered, structured, filled with heterogeneity. To appeal to transparency and related ideas was to pretend that this complexity did not exist.

Transparency thus wilted to become dead weight. Until World War II, it had supposedly composed a unitary worldview, masking and oppressing rather than revealing and liberating. Recoiling from its illusion also meant rejecting an opacity hidden “within” it and rendered unreachable: each danger seemed to give quarter to the other and to a foggy, mystical self-loss that pompously announced authenticity or enlightenment. Forms of otherness, concepts of structure, codes for information and power could hold off homogenization. They could serve for retrieving the minute, the a-normal, the oppressed, the different, and for using them as an interface through which philosophy could mitigate a better-theorized knowledge and a more just, more hybrid view of reality. A different world, dynamic and cognizant of difference, could perhaps arise.

This book draws up the history of these concepts and ideals from the standpoint of postwar thought; it reconstructs this evolving critique and, with it, the quiet role of transparency in earlier systems. My purpose is to trace the steps and shifts—at times disparate, incremental, recursive, or convulsive—that exemplified a major revaluation of ideals. It is also to recompile the arsenal of hermeneutic, historical, and political weapons and counterideals that emerged from under the penumbra of transparency and promised a better understanding of the world, society, information, and the self.

Of course, transparency had occasionally been written up with a potentially critical eye before, notoriously by Paul Valéry in the Log-Book of Monsieur Teste, in an ironic 1903 passage on transparency and self-narration:

So direct is my vision, so pure my sensation, so clumsily complete my knowledge, and so fine and clear my reflection, and my understanding so perfected, that I see through myself from the farthest end of the world down to my unspoken word; and from the shapeless thing desired on waking, along the known fibers and organized centers, I follow and am myself, I answer myself, reflect and reverberate myself, I quiver to the infinity of mirrors—I am made of glass.26

For all this irony, however, the rhapsodizing of transparency continued.

The first systematically critical uses of “transparency” as word, concept, and figure appeared in the skeptical moment of the immediate postwar period—the subject of Parts I and II of this book—and had a sociopolitical component. Phenomenologists and scientifically minded epistemologists were the first to inscribe this critique into their approaches. The political climate, with its calls for ideological purity doubled by the state’s attempts to reach into grey zones of control over private and social affairs, gave it a certain currency that was not immediately apparent. Intellectuals presented the postwar condition as one in which perception and reality were differently juxtaposed from how they had been before the war: the philosophical or ethnological gaze had been confounded, its totalizing scientific claims thwarted to such an extent that it needed to start anew. Squirming in its limited ability to control economy and society at the end of the war, increasingly corporatist, and encumbered by a forceful but all too autonomous police, the French state posed an intellectual as well as an everyday problem. The state’s effort to rule over its citizens, to purge society of collaborators, and to reach into private and public life without constantly confronting elusive grey zones, in which citizens, economic forces, and sociopolitical formations stood apart, created a duplicitous and tricky relationship and sparked some limited forms of resistance to state power, which were often understood as a refusal of state-imposed transparency.

Jean-Paul Sartre was perhaps the first to dismantle traditional approaches to perceptual, phenomenological, and ethical transparency systematically, even if he eventually resorted to a morality of “engagement” that recovered meaning or truth only in the transparent, authentic act by which human beings bear the world on their shoulders. Others went further, notably Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who opted for “ambiguity,” Georges Canguilhem and Alexandre Koyré, who waged war on positivism and intellectualism, and Daniel Lagache and Jacques Lacan, who sought to save psychiatric care from a state-led ideal of a normative, standardized selfhood. They and the likes of Lucien Febvre, Emmanuel Levinas, and Georges Friedmann involved themselves in identifying the perils of a transparent gaze, especially when that gaze was attached to a communist or statist politics. Anthropologists—notably Michel Leiris, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and André Leroi-Gourhan—similarly served as protagonists of a discipline that, shedding its earlier aims at totalization, now became a leading opponent of racism and advocate for others subjugated or denatured by the West.

By the mid-1950s, the critique had spread across new social and ethical theories that rethought (a) foundational concepts such as separation, individuality, alienation, identity, alterity, and the human, and (b) relations such as those between science and the human being, the subject and the absolute, the normal and the aberrant, the state and society. Transparency was involved and invoked in the major conceptual shifts of the 1950s, which constitute the subject of Part III, in many ways the backbone of this book: the fast and wide dissemination of the idea of “the other,” from phenomenology and anthropology to ethics and psychoanalysis; the rethinking of norms as constructed, not natural, and as structurally violent toward human difference; the prioritization, among structuralists, of language as fundamentally exceeding the speaker’s grasp; and the antihumanist attention to both the limitations and the overbearing force of human access to the world. Separation, others, obstruction, heterogeneity, doubts, masks, ambiguity, dialectical remainders, abnormality, and the circumvention of reductionisms became the central tropes and themes of the conceptual web. Thanks to these displacements, it became possible in the 1950s to discard the epistemological and ethical pretense to transparency, to pull back its skin and peek at a messy tissue composed of things, signs, thoughts, and problems formerly undisclosed—all now in need of study and understanding.

Most of the frontal assaults on “transparency” launched earlier had aimed at the preceding philosophical generation, typically accusing it of ironing out the “folds of experience,” and its relations to the state and politics. From the 1950s on, the attack could be directed at one’s peers: it was Lévi-Strauss against Sartre, Canguilhem and Lacan against the psychologists, Derrida against Lévi-Strauss. As new, systematic, and rigorous philosophical languages emerged around the tropes of the norm, the other, and the symbolic, these languages motivated a search for new ways of thinking. They aimed at factoring ineradicable complexity and otherness into thought and intellectual engagement, and they all encoded a refusal to grant transparency new philosophical possibilities. Transparency represented a faux humanistic urge, to be left behind. As Jacques Lacan warned, truth throwing off its mask and ostensibly revealing itself meant that it merely “[took] on another and even more deceptive mask.”27

By this stage in the 1950s, transparency was a word, a concept, and an image in relatively broad and quite univocal employ. It had clear epistemological, ethical, and political domains of application and fairly straightforward uses. Once the 1960s set in, the refusal of transparency could be taken for granted: transparency now was an illusion that required its own history, a problem invoked to mobilize the search for complexities. It could be used for slander. Rather than unfold pleats and marvel at the bright flat panes that would supposedly appear in their stead, philosophers focused on uncovering ever-multiplying fissures, opacities, forces, and obstacles. Far more acutely aware of the conditions in which these forces had emerged, philosophers also became profoundly invested in historicizing the establishment, course, achievements, and ills of modernity.

Part IV, which deepens the book’s analysis of conceptual debates, focuses on the structuralist generation—Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, André Leroi-Gourhan, and especially Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The crystallization of new philosophical concepts and priorities—such as cybernetics, discursive history, difference, and the origin of modernity—accelerated the rethinking of the history of philosophy and modernity, of the control of information, and of the status of the present moment. By the mid-1960s, ideas of a self-transparent self, transparent communication, and a “crystalline” community were not only relegated to an earlier age—an age hypothesized as having perhaps ended—but were routinely marked as a fundamental characteristic of modernity. Transparency was identified with the establishment of modernity, notably in Descartes and Rousseau, as well as with its ills: it served as an operator or signifier that grounded both the strengths and the weaknesses of thought and life in the twentieth century. It profoundly affected the present time and, for any better future to become thinkable, it had to be replaced with the image of a non-human and antihumanist complexity. Language, information, and their regulation seemed particularly consequential for moving away from the pretense that communication between two people or integration into society could be complete. As a philosophical act, their endorsement was decisive for the course of philosophy, in that the relentless criticism and re-dating of transparency forced rethinking of the past and the present. The present became less and less the vanishing point of the past, and more a crossroads through which information management, normativity, and the deconstruction of selfhood cut new paths, beyond modernity and the limitations it imposed on society.

These shifts paralleled a widening gulf between state and society, which was exacerbated and highlighted in and after May 1968. The anti-transparency phenomenon had heretofore aligned philosophy’s animus toward a transparent self with society’s conflict with the state. Now the critique became forked. In one direction, the philosophical and structuralist critique of transparency was in the process of wording new sciences of language, society, and representation and of turning them into the tools for something new, dynamic, more hybrid. In a different direction, a revival took place, of the unitary agent of history, now explicitly aimed against a homogenizing and too-powerful state. This agent was the conglomerate of student and proletarian movements, which, defined above all in its opposition to the state, became a decisive force in political opposition: the whole philosophical tine of the critique of transparency was sidelined as an abstract matter of discourse and epistemology. In other words, the varieties of Marxism that dominated the period 1966–75 absorbed structuralism well, as Althusserians and Maoists showed. However, their opposition to the state and its norms now defined a new generation, and political and revolutionary activity let slide the forms of complexity and multiplicity that were being elaborated by philosophers. “May ’68,” as a confrontation, turned the public’s rapt attention to a much more immediate politics of the Left, which prioritized very different lineages, images, and tropes. The state-society conflict, rather than complementing the promises of philosophy, largely sidelined the non-humanist future as vague.

In the mid-to-later 1970s, even those intellectuals who kept their distance from gauchisme shifted their attention to a critique of transparency that was political first, targeting information and its neoliberal commodification (Jean-François Lyotard), the disciplinary power and purposes of government (Michel Foucault), or totalitarianism and the chances of democracy (Claude Lefort and his collaborators). Lefort in particular identified transparency with totalitarianism and helped turn it into the explicit target of political philosophies concerned with democracy and power. “Transparency of society to itself; transparency of the instituting to the instituted; of the idea to the real, of the project to its concretization, of the will to what it wills, of freedom to its goal”—this was the decisive modern mirage and persistent threat, the phenomenologist Marc Richir argued in a passage that intentionally conflated phenomenology, the Terror of 1793–74, and the Soviet regime.28 Part V of this book follows the period 1968–85 right up to the development of new languages favoring transparency in the 1980s, which sidestepped the critiques and brought France closer to the admiration for transparency typical of other Western societies.

Why Postwar France?

Part of the appeal of the concept of transparency is the significant disparity between its uses and meanings in postwar France and those developed in other Western societies after World War II, which have largely led to the current dominance and celebration of this concept.

Today, transparency is usually conceived of in the Popperian framework of an “open society,” where good government is identified with open leadership and respect for privacy. On January 20, 2009, in an inaugural memorandum titled “Transparency and Open Government,” U.S. president Barack Obama proclaimed: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. . . . Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”29 In this kind of idealization, the roots of transparency extend back into history, and it is given a linear rise to prominence. It is promised as a human right in a world dominated by information management, bureaucratic administration, and the inscrutability of power; it becomes a slogan and fuels the distribution of praise and blame (you should be more transparent; this government is more transparent than any before it). It pretends to mirror, in government, a heightened acceptance and aestheticization of personal exposure among the citizenry, and it promises governance as a “collaboration.” Secrecy and privacy require justification and become matters of negotiation. As a result of contributions to public discourse by organizations like Wikileaks and by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden—to say nothing of the systematic dissembling of Donald Trump—the pursuit of transparency usually bypasses critical examination, and resistance seems somehow nefarious.30 In postwar France, its uses and problems were diametrically opposite. A first question, then, is: Why did transparency come “under fire” precisely then and there, especially given that it had served as an intellectual and political ideal until World War II? Why did the French experience differ so radically from that of other countries, languages, and cultures? Why did France take a path that still remains so alien to the dominant pursuit of transparent institutions today?

Throughout the twentieth century, transparency had very different sets of meanings in Germany, Russia, and the Anglo-American world. In Germany, it has consistently functioned as a national and public ideal, easily adaptable to political circumstances. For the German National Socialists, transparency was, simplistically put, a matter of purification that would allow for race and socioeconomic organization to correlate; it is in this sense that Hitler declared, at the opening of the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition, that “to be German is to be clear.”31 The term’s postwar democratic career began with Karl Jaspers’s complaint that Germans continued to live beneath a mask they had to shed.32 It continued throughout the 1960s, expressed by Jürgen Habermas’s valorization of the public sphere and by a culture of holding the older generation responsible not only for Nazism but for failing to work through the past and produce a truer social space.33

“They who build transparently build democratically,” the motto went. Transparency has long been a mainstay of modernism in architecture and art; modernity, as Anthony Vidler beautifully put it, “has been haunted by a myth of transparency: transparency of the self to nature, of the self to the other, of all selves to society, and all this represented, if not constructed, from Jeremy Bentham to Le Corbusier, by a universal transparency of building materials, spatial penetration, and the ubiquitous flow of air, light, and physical movement.”34 But in Germany during the latter part of 1940s, and again from the 1970s on, transparency became a central political-architectural metaphor, a performance of the accountability of government itself.35 Even critics—for instance, Hans Blumenberg, whose anthropology of rhetoric granted that there is no pure self-relation and no pure Habermasian communication—credited the very thinkers whom the French dismissed (thus Blumenberg praised Kant) and did not construct the present’s relation to the past by celebrating complexity at the expense of transparency.36

In late imperial Russia, transparency was already a catchword for administration and governance around the turn into the twentieth century.37 After the Revolution, the project of “tearing off the masks” attracted revolutionary fervor, particularly in the early Soviet years, and this led to self-inventions designed to show how individuals were becoming true in order to fit into a revolutionary system.38 In the USSR, the construction of communist selves in the 1930s involved speaking a Stalinist language that regulated what was acceptable public discourse and how individual attempts at privacy or escape could be handled.39 East of the Iron Curtain, in the decades after 1945, the persistence of non- or precommunist norms in private life (not least those of non-communist art) and the problem of non-socialist résistants and, later, dissidents, became important concerns in the production of an official history of the regime and of the proletariat’s triumph. In East Germany, the fear that the new regime lacked adequate support and could be clandestinely undermined by either Nazi sympathizers or (especially) partisans of the (West-German) Federal Republic was paramount.40 Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet motto of glasnost (“openness”) promoted a version of greater governmental transparency to enable perestroika (“rebuilding”).

In the United States, after World War II, despite occasional efforts to question the claim to transparency by placing the dramatic aspect of everyday life and selfhood center stage, political and economic thought called consistently for “more” transparency, at the level of both institutions and social divisions. Among intellectuals, too, for every Erving Goffman who critiqued the pretense to transparency and for every Hannah Arendt who worried that the social had ruined the democratic potential of a strict private-public divide, there would be a Lionel Trilling who chose a version of transparency—in Trilling’s language, sincerity—as a norm-setting ethic, over modern “authenticity.”41 For all the analytical power that a Michael Fried would put into demonstrating that minimalist theatricality was destroying the very possibility of modernist absorption and of genuine aesthetic experience, a phalanx of other critics would celebrate intentional, authorial, and artistic transparency.42 The political force of the Freedom of Information Act and the Watergate effect in America in the 1970s strengthened the liberal, Popperian, and also libertarian suspicion that closed-doors government was either poor or manipulative.

So, rather than provide a systematic comparativist account of the uses of the term “transparency” across different languages and cultures (Durchsichtigkeit, Transparenz, transparency, glasnost, and so on), I propose to make a close examination of the French conceptual web in which transparency played its part. In some of the chapters that follow I reconstruct the multiple parallel prehistories where postwar thought ruptured. But here it is important for this conceptual history to emphasize how the aftermath of World War II down to the 1970s created a structurally different intellectual regime, so that the French case stands apart.

With France’s defeat in 1940, the generational divide of the 1930s—which had already pitted younger, more radical intellectuals against a university cohort of older Dreyfusard idealists—became institutionalized. This put an abyss between the postwar period and earlier ideals of social harmony or claims that the state could improve society. The war—or rather the occupation and the Vichy government—hung over France long after the Liberation, especially as projects of political, social, and national regeneration proved disappointing (as in the case of communism) or tiresome (as in the case of résistants’ emphasis on their purity).

The transparency concept deployed and modulated the weight of these histories. With the Liberation, France seemed to experience a “year zero”: the world appeared decidedly different from that which had preceded the war, and the French Enlightenment and republican and revolutionary traditions needed to be rethought as a whole. Distance from state policies and political alternatives was coupled with the state’s mistrust of society itself—the same society that came out for Pétain in 1940 and for the barely more palatable de Gaulle four years later—such that the corporatist and welfarist efforts that followed, weighed down by the collapse of the French empire stage by stage, identified few chances at substantive internal change. A parallel opening, in anthropology, to the racial, colonial, or indigenous other coincided with the anticolonial movement and opposed governmental ideologies of national and cultural integration. As elsewhere in Europe and especially in Great Britain, during the late 1940s, and then again in the late 1950s and 1960s, the state treated society as pliable: state intervention in everyday life, although intended to deal with problems like crises in policing, the end of the occupation, the persistence of economic devastation, or the influx of French Algerians, and to offer a rational expansion of the welfare state and of the university system, nevertheless generated a whole arsenal of criticisms of state overreach. New dreams of humanity were possible only at a remove from the state and its work toward economic normalization and advancement. State-society relations often hinged precisely on the issue of transparency, notably in cases concerning the purge of Vichy collaborators in 1944–45, police activity, the anti-tax poujadiste movement, the black market, the government’s relation to the army (especially in the context of Algeria), the status of the French language, postwar urban planning, the adaptation of children and adolescents to society, the status of the pieds-noirs, and, in the 1970s, what has now come to be known as the banlieue.43

Eradicating the blind spots of French state power generated resistance to rules and policies perceived as excessively normative or as enforcing social transparency. If anything, the violent war in Algeria and the difficult management of the influx of French Algerians after Algeria’s independence only solidified the sense that social space, already shaded by political division and now also by revolts of the youth, was changing into an incomprehensible realm of shadows. In the absence of a revolution, society remained epistemologically grey. Institutional, generational, and intellectual developments became encoded into what we might call an epistemology of everyday life and its structures: existentialism and structuralism offered solutions to questions developed politically and philosophically for a world that seemed unable to move away from the terrain that was politically on offer. Just as, with the gradual distancing of left-wing intellectuals from the Soviet Union, “alienation” became systematized into a premise of consumption that embraced all social life, “structure” elevated the present temporal moment—at the expense of continuities built by modernity—into a new conceptual and historical form. While elsewhere such developments put pressure on opening a public sphere and on making government more responsive, in France, for much of the intellectual world, the chasm between society and state seemed absolute by 1970, as in Pierre Clastres’s famous title La Société contre l’ètat (1974; Society against the State). May 1968 had changed the equation, radicalized this contrast, and made revolution and antistatist transformation into major political and intellectual goals.

Some celebrations of transparency emerged, for example, in the promised overthrow of “spectacular” capitalism, and in the mass politics and “general will” of the Chinese proletariat. But, more important, May ’68 hung over the Left throughout the 1970s, notably in the debates of the Gauche prolétarienne party and its milieu, not least because it developed a new “regime of historicity”: it refused the static tensions of the earlier 1960s, resurrected agents of history, and pitched revolution as a dynamic force in political activity and thought.44 Preoccupations with the state and transparency reflected a new set of concerns: the potential of May and its interpretations among Maoists and other radicals, the danger of totalitarianism, the needs of democracy (highlighted by Claude Lefort), and emerging worries over “neoliberal” economics.

The dust of such tensions settled in the 1980s, the end point of this study. Through televised debates over state violence and terrorism that continued in West Germany and Italy, through public scandals (domestic and foreign) such as Watergate and the stir created by publication in French translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s L’Archipel du Goulag, 1918–1956 (1974–76; The Gulag Archipelago), the late 1970s promoted a growing awareness of the need for institutional and governmental openness. A resurgent republican universalism settled into intellectual consensus. Soviet glasnost, European economic integration, and Anglo-American small-government politics during the Reagan years only contributed to making the French case seem exceptional. The new concerns consigned the erstwhile dominant anxieties about transparency to the margins of intellectual life. Anxiety about the state, which had fed the critique of transparency, was largely replaced—especially in the Mitterrand government, after its 1983 economic volte-face—by a full-throated advocacy of modernization and transparent information. Republican universalism became the prevalent rhetoric of the Left in the 1980s and swept aside the pursuits and pressures of the preceding generations, giving the conceptual web a new structure, which prevails to this day.

When the classicist and historian Paul Veyne refused causal and contextualist lines of reasoning in favor of an approach that resembled “a polygon with an indefinite number of sides,” his goal was

to reveal the unpredictable contours of this polygon, which no longer has the conventional forms or ample folds that make history into a noble tragedy, and to restore their original silhouette to events, which has been concealed under borrowed garments. The true forms are so irregular that they literally go unseen. . . . If, then, history proposes to lift the cloth and make what-goes-without-saying explicit, it ceases to be explanatory and becomes a hermeneutic.45

The silhouette I am trying to assemble from the “contours” created by the backdrop above is akin in spirit to Veyne’s. I am talking about a hermeneutics of conceptual events that allows us to discover a non-causal but continually reorganized relationship between concepts and history. Whereas elsewhere in the West a certain continuity of traditions of openness and transparency could be reconstructed that supposedly dated back variously to Luther, Descartes, or the American Revolution, tensions in postwar France generated a sense of break with such traditions and spurred a radically different approach to transparency in its relation to society and selfhood. Epistemology and the human sciences contributed to governance, but some intellectual strands in them contributed even more to a vehement critique of that governance and postwar society more generally. Ever since the 1960s, the intellectuals discussed in this book have offered tools, some of them used today in a renewed critique of transparency, in a manner not matched by, say, British or German social science of the period. The positive aim of the critiques of transparency was to step beyond the exhaustion of historical progress.46 Thus this book is also an episodic history of postwar France itself, at least insofar as postwar French thought involved major attempts to overcome the limitations and violence of modernity and to remold thought and society drastically and swiftly.


To approach the word and concept of transparency as well as the figures associated with it, the book takes its first cues from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s focus on the uses rather than meanings of words and from Georges Bataille’s remark: “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words but their tasks.”47 Insofar as the philosophers, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and political thinkers who treated transparency with great suspicion (and even wielded the critique against each other) often shared little by way of schools of thought, political stripes, or particular projects, my focus here is on the word and figure of “transparency,” and on how it was rendered into a “master code” almost coordinating the web of concepts that dominated the 1945–80 period. The idea is to unleash a phantom concept that held a particular value and was a well-connected and important, if mostly quiet, operator in systems of thought in order to outline the critical, creative, dispersed, yet forceful conceptual disarrangements and rearrangements that occurred during the trente glorieuses, the thirty years of quite swiftly rising living standards in France from 1945 to 1975.48 Perhaps a better term for the intellectual history I am attempting is semiotic history: to pull historically relevant meaning out of the uses of an idea that seemed minor on its own terms yet was meticulously woven into the fabric of postwar life and thought, an idea phrased always in terms of a critique that gained momentum and became emblematic of the period itself. Starting from here, this project experiments in three methodological directions.

Historical Epistemology and Entangled Microhistories

The first direction involves my use of practices common in historical epistemology for a history of non-scientific concepts.49 I have organized this book around problems or objects. Each of the twenty-two chapters engages a particular object and the particular conditions under which this object could be asserted, elucidated, known, dismantled, refuted, or overcome. Particular objects recur over several, mostly non-consecutive chapters. Some of them concern high philosophical discussions that require me to study a text or a set of concepts at length; others, the anthropological and psychiatric production of knowledge; others still, a basic social sensitivity and suspicion of state practices. In other words, anxieties regarding privacy, the open society, and the fear of state intervention are contrived alongside philosophical articulations of particular concepts and alongside efforts to retheorize the meaning of science and information. These different objects relate through mimetic and conflictual relationships because, for reasons that will gradually become clearer, philosophical activity, especially in epistemology and the human sciences, functions as a social practice in a manner that both connects with and negates social activity.

This methodology is possible thanks to the extraordinary work carried out in recent years in postwar French history: it relies on the arguments and innovations of a new generation of intellectual historians.50 It also follows the path laid out twenty-five years ago by Martin Jay’s monumental Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, even though, as will become clear, transparency in my reading was a concept that all but bypassed vision, and the story I tell is quite different.51

As a result of the epistemological approach I pursue, there are several things I avoid. Although at specific moments I look at particular “prehistories” from the vantage points of the postwar period, I have intentionally not offered an overarching linear history of transparency from the ancients to contemporary France, so to speak, partly to avoid causal and contextualist reduction, partly to retain the integrity of the more detailed objects of study, and partly because a long sequential prehistory would have made little sense to postwar French thinkers. Only some elements of this past did make sense within the postwar conceptual web of transparency. Also, the book certainly does not claim to cover the postwar waterfront. I do not cover histories of gender (Julia Kristeva’s, Luce Irigaray’s, and Chantal Ackerman’s work can be productively engaged in this context) and decolonization (though Aimé Césaire, and especially Édouard Glissant, with his “right to opacity,” could well be marshaled in strong support of my account).52 The net I should cast to cover these adequately would be too wide, the argument would wear thin; besides, my sense is that the logics of the feminist movement and decolonization cannot be properly synthesized around the figure of transparency.53 Instead of setting up separate lines or inserting token “representatives,” I refer to questions of gender and colonialism only where they directly impact the dismantling of the transparency dream.

Nevertheless, by virtue of its historical-epistemological priorities, the book does cast a wide net. It dissects matters in greater detail than intellectual histories focused on individual thinkers or ideas can; and it proposes directions for further research. For this reason, it proceeds in rhizomatic rather than linear fashion: readers could focus on the problem of psychiatry and norms through chapters 5, 9, 11, and 17, look at the rise of structuralism in 11, 13–14, 16–19, and 22, track the critique of Rousseau (further to the opening discussion above) in 14, 16, and 20, the problem of difference in 3, 6–7, 11–12, 14, 18, and 21, and the rise of computing and information in 5, 13, 19, and 22, or pick up the more political chapters 2, 6, 7–10, 15, and 20–22. The same goes for themes like representation, identity, homogeneity, and worldhood. These at times unrelated, at times overlapping discussions brought transparency to the fore at particular moments and compounded to produce far more elaborate syntheses and affirmations.

A Web as a Model for Conceptual History

Second, in this book I experiment with developing a model for studying the structure of concepts and their embeddedness in social life and thought. To do so, let me begin by expanding on Clifford Geertz’s note that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”54 Imagine a web made of strings. At each point where two or more strings intersect, they are tied together into a knot. Sometimes only a couple of strings cross at an intersection point, at other times there are many, a thicker knot; some strings begin at one knot and end at the next, others begin at one knot and go through several others before being tied at the last. As they extend between different knots, strings sometimes get tangled. Many strings allow some leeway: you could pull a string or a knot, and watch other strings tighten or move; you could effect a different threading, or even break a part of the web.

The web need not look two-dimensional: as you perceive a seemingly horizontal web from above, some points appear to be tied to others suspended further away, which you may or may not discern; and those points may in turn be tied to others through strings that produce hidden tensions. The web need not be singular or closed; the strings need not be of equal thickness and sturdiness; nor need two points be united by a single string only. The web is certainly not suspended in a vacuum: it is always enveloped in a medium whose enigmatic density allows it to be pliable enough to be moved around by these strings, to let some knots brighten up in its midst, to be torn or remolded by the tightened strings. Were the medium thick as mercury, we could sense its warping and forces surrounding each string as it moves; were it jello, we would see the strings tear right through; were it earthy, we would see the ground shift in uneven chunks.

Concepts are the points or knots of this web. They are tied one to another. To write their history is to address the way in which they are strung together, pulled, yanked sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another. Now they come close enough to us to be visible, now they fade out of focus. New strings appear, others loosen and vanish in the tangle. I call “intellectuals” those who engage, create, give new shape to the web or manage, sometimes by themselves, to pull certain points together or force them apart. When they write, whoever they might be, they create articulations, and along with the knots and strings they weave into their text they also drag others, often unconsciously. Like competing puppeteers, they raise some of these knots to prominence and alter their meanings. In this sense, intellectuals are epistemologists of their time who nurture, express, and promulgate conceptual tensions. Whoever they are—artists, scientists, letter writers, functionaries, lawyers, philosophers, filmmakers, diarists—they give us a sense of the political, philosophical, ethical, and everyday problems and tensions of their milieu, whether they understand and express them well or not. They are also controlled by the very strings they believe themselves to hold at their fingertips: their thought, refined out of particular uses of these strings, can often be pulled back into the web. Intellectual revolutions, too, warp the web in particular ways, like new networks introduced in it. The tension they bring in may shift or reconfigure a section of the web; over time, these networks mutate and fall apart, leaving ever weaker marks across longer distances—and also broken strings in their wake.

Regardless of how they are puppeteered, concepts strung together in a given space have a temporality and a life of their own, one not quite attached to specific intellectuals, or to social-political circumstances and events. More often than not they structure, clothe, stage these circumstances and events in manners that historians are often eager to ignore. Concepts do not rest among clouds, to be stared at, “contextualized,” or “historicized” from the “real” vantage point of society; rather they thread together the experience of knowledge, reading, speech, and belief. They cannot be experienced in the absence of this articulation, “without strings,” apart from one another. Nor are they felt the same way across social or other divisions—and this is why the web cannot be flat. Social life, that enveloping aether, mercury, or jello, holds the web in place and is at times moved around by particular ways of replaying and recasting concepts and their use. A level of uncertainty remains essential to the structure: Can we ever be sure how tight a knot is, or when a string has snapped and the world of a concept has irrevocably changed?

As the knot around which the aperture tightens in this project, transparency is strung, tautly or loosely, to other knots—perception, self, other, objectivity, norm, representation, information, the thickness (or opacity) of society—and these can take center stage. Reading transparency through the syncopation of discourse facilitated by this conceptual web helps elucidate the period better than alternative methods do: certain figures, terms, words, and problems yield an essential pattern of a period’s self-understanding, of its different thematics, theories, and genres.55 They are a central force present in various expressions and practices, yet do not seem to form easily identifiable spaces or objects of research. Thus too metaphors of a transparent society—metaphors of light, openness, homogeneity, reach, but also of obscurity, opacity, clandestinity, refusal of state-driven norms, inadaptability—are frequent actors’ categories in state-society relations. Without claiming for transparency the status of a motor of conceptual and cultural change in postwar France, I do mean that through it we can give voice to broadly felt concerns about aspects of French society and literate culture. Precisely because transparency is tied to other concepts, it is reflected or expressed together with them, in moments of social and cultural tension;56 and it, in turn, expresses, relays, short-circuits these tensions. In France, transparency played this mirroring, mimetic, and distortive role both at the epistemological and at the sociopolitical level.

A History of the Present

A final methodological experiment in which this project is engaged concerns the problem of confronting a contemporary conceptual problematic with an earlier one. In recent years, the pendulum swung toward a rhapsodizing of the open society, exposure, and governmental transparency.57 We traded the fear of a society pried apart for an aesthetics of exposure, and for a suspicion that privacy tends toward conspiratorial secrecy.58 (This is perhaps a reason why we find it so surprising in 2017 to see the givenness of this dream fall apart so easily.) Given the significant difference between the semantics and changing fantasies of postwar France and our own, this book should fall under the rubric of a critical history of the present.59

The predominance of our own understanding of transparency makes it difficult to recall that its current meaning is the temporary result of a social and theological negotiation rather than the culmination of a long tradition of celebrating the open public sphere, criticizing governments, and overcoming grey zones.60 Besides, these matters are not confined to directly political or social questions: transparency is of considerable significance in medicine and psychiatry, and there too, for the time being, the impetus toward privacy is fading.61 Transparency—this hall of mirrors where freedom of information allows us to see, and see ourselves, from every distorted angle, as if we were simply exposed from the outside—is often reflexively decried as neoliberal, or as a collateral effect of postmodernity.62 Some recent critics of trends “favorable” to transparency—including Byung-Chul Han in Transparenzgesellschaft (The Transparency Society)—construct a far too vague and easy target.63 These and other less theorized critiques, which identify transparency with neoliberalism in order to denounce the one through the other, fall prey to a magical thinking according to which transparency works everywhere in the same way and can be rejected uniformly across different domains that involve a dialectical interplay of opposites. Subtler critiques of a “transparency of the self,” such as Judith Butler’s warning that “to acknowledge one’s own opacity or that of another does not transform that opacity into transparency,” remain largely underappreciated.64 By and large, these approaches are directly contrastive.

This book proceeds otherwise: it confronts the recent celebration not with a contrastive alternative but with the dialectic of an evolving conceptual matrix, captured in its historical development. The French articulation of images, terms, temporalities, complexities, and futures in the half-century after 1940 allows us to unleash a series of questions related to the contemporary fantasy of transparency from a historical and philosophical perspective. What is a transparent life? On what grounds is a morality premised on transparency (of the state as well as of the individual) defensible? Does it mean anything to be ethically pure, or to engage others in a way that makes recognition possible? Is that really desirable? Epistemologically, how does knowledge relate to the crevices within it and to the conflicts it creates? How would abstraction and normativity avoid erasing the difference between experiences? Politically, what are the implications of calling for a transparent society or of pursuing a transparent domain of communication and power? What claims can privacy lay on the public sphere? How do values like liberty, justice, community, fraternity, or openness forge human relations today, and what kinds of opacity, complexity, and concealment thrive within them? What are the alternatives?

Such questions are present in this study and at times criticized for their limitations and tendency to reinforce a partial, even delinquent critique. I am at any rate moved by the need to raise afresh, in question form, the solutions pursued by French postwar thinkers in their rejection of transparency. Perhaps their solutions merit renewed attention today. Where transcendence had reigned, obstacles and mediation promised to create a hybrid existence that accounted for the complexity of information, language, and power. Identity was displaced by alterity and by a conception of individuality as shattered; splits, counternorms, pathologies, constructedness, and hidden forces took the place of self-sufficiency and dislocated its luminous subjectivity. If norms had quietly mediated between the natural and the human, for these thinkers they became signifiers of social organization and domination, themselves in need of being examined. Modernity’s lights seemed to extinguish the shadows; but then new fissures had appeared that would not be healed by these lights. Most conspicuously, the scientificity bestowed by humanism came into great doubt, as humans and science became near opposites.

The liberation of language promised to offer tools, even entire sciences, for grappling with the power of a dehumanized information boom and its undemocratic consequences. It was essential, however, while peeling away, to not reduce veils, filters, norms, layers, obstacles, and the infractions forced by language. How these veils, obstacles, and language were rendered visible and how they, surprisingly, lit up an entire intellectual world is the play of this book. As an idea, transparency seemed destined for the realm of dreams unexamined; it inhabited a past whose battles and tragedies left behind wreckage and ghosts as well as room for improvement. Its place was to be invaded by the secret, difference, separation, the opaque, the private, the spectacle, the power of uncontrollable information, the transience of becoming, the obscure objects of desire, the counternorms of those ill-adapted to normality, the small heterogeneities of life.


1. Starobinski 1988/1971 (subsequent citations are to both editions).

2. Ibid., 25–26/13–15.

3. Ibid., 26, 28/15, 18.

4. Ibid., 34/21.

5. Ibid., 218, 301/181, 254.

6. Starobinski explicitly diagnoses paranoia: ibid., 240–41/201–2.

7. Ibid., 283/239.

8. Ibid., 284–5/240. Starobinski’s title for the subsection of his chapter 9 that examines the raising of walls trapping Rousseau as resulting from his quest for purity is Intentions réalisées.

9. Ibid., 116–21/92–97, noted by Jacques Derrida in OG, 353 n. 30.

10. Starobinski 1964: 101. On the influence of this argument, see, e.g., Michel Foucault’s note on Starobinski, Rousseau, and the French Revolution in F-DE, 195.

11. Authorial transparency was a major concern of the Geneva School, with which Starobinski remains identified and whose focus was on highlighting the relationship of an author to his or her text. The secondary literature on Starobinski that references questions of authorial transparency includes Lawall 1968; Miller 1966; Colangelo 2004; and Vidal 2001.

12. TM, 792–804 (all quotations are from 796 and 797). The essay was republished as “L’Imagination projective” in Starobinski 1970: 238–54. On the mistrust of psychology among epistemologists and Marxists in the 1950s, see Bianco and Tho 2013, xxiii.

13. TM, 800. Starobinski was hardly alone in criticizing the Rorschach test. See Lévi-Strauss’s citation of Margaret Mead’s dismissal of the value of the test (Lévi-Strauss 1987, 12).

14. TM, 798.

15. Starobinski has recently written of Kuhn’s influence on his own study of melancholia (2012: 10–12).

16. See Kuhn 1957: 17, 20.

17. Bachelard 1957: 9.

18. TM, 803.

19. Ibid., 804.

20. Poulet 1969: 63. Poulet followed this reading of Starobinski’s “optimism, even . . . utopianism” with doubts as to whether “Starobinski’s criticism, like Blanchot’s, is doomed to end in a philosophy of separation” (ibid., 65).

21. Darnton 1988; Shklar 1988. Shklar does touch on the paranoid consequence of Rousseau’s emphasizing his own transparency, but she neither considers it essential nor follows Starobinski’s argument. Darnton 1984: 78 recognizes the significance of opacity for historico-anthropological study but treats it as something dissolved by proper analysis. See also Jay’s account in J-DE, 80, 90–93.

22. Starobinski 1989: v–vi.

23. Starobinski 1946; on Rousseau, see 3: 219 there.

24. Starobinski 1946, 4: 375.

25. Ibid., 376.

26. Paul Valéry, “L’Homme de verre” (1903), in Valéry 1960: 44; translated as “The Man of Glass,” in Valéry 1973: 44–45, translation modified. My claim is not that transparency had an exclusively positive hue before the war and that the situation changed afterward. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, e.g., mocked non-Durkheimian sociology for its facile link between society and consciousness, saying: “The phenomena of our own consciousness are far from being ‘transparent’ to us” (Lévy-Bruhl 1927 [1903]: 119). Yet he also treated the primitive mind as irrational and praised rationality as aiming toward a kind of transparency. Marcel Proust’s character Norpois disparaged a kindred notion of transparency when exclaiming, about a friend: “Who wouldn’t know him, I ask you? The man’s soul is as clear as crystal. Actually, that’s the only fault one could find with him—it’s not necessary for a diplomatist to have a heart as transparent as his” (Proust 2002 [1919]: 33; on Proust and transparency, see also the brilliant discussion in Cohn 1978, who began from the premise that narration in modernist literature, from Tristram Shandy up to Nathalie Sarraute’s novels, made possible a transparency in literary character that the novels’ authors specifically denied to actual humans). Here is a passage that captures Proust’s notion of transparency as a literary ideal: “Impressions of the sort that I was trying to stabilize would simply evaporate if they came into contact with a direct pleasure which was powerless to bring them into being. The only way to continue to appreciate them was to try to understand them more completely just as they were, that is to say within myself, to make them transparent enough to see right down into their depths” (Proust 2003 [1927]: 185 emphasis added; see also 185, 187–88). Even though rejections of one kind of transparency before World War II routinely reverted to benefiting another, obviously the term had its critical uses. Similarly, I don’t need to insist that transparency did have its occasional positive uses in the postwar era.

27. SLP, 270/224.

28. RTS, 10.

29. Barack Obama, “Transparency and Open Government: Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” (January 21, 2009), (accessed January 10, 2017).

30. See critical works, especially in German, such as Han 2012 and Schneider 2013.

31. Adolf Hitler, “Speech at the Opening of the Great German Art Exhibition,” in Anson Rabinbach and Sander Gilman, eds., The Third Reich Sourcebook, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 496.

32. Jaspers 2001: 11 (see also the chapter “Our Purification”).

33. See Jaspers on a “life lived beneath a mask,” cited in Michaud 2004: 43.

34. Vidler 1992: 220.

35. Barnstone 2005: 1–2.

36. Blumenberg 1987: 456.

37. Kotsonis 2014: 179–82 and ch. 6.

38. Fitzpatrick 2005: 3–5, 13.

39. Kotkin 1995: ch. 5; Halfin 2000; see also Hellbeck 2000 on diaries.

40. E.g., Herf 1997.

41. Goffman 1959; Trilling 1972.

42. Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967) in Fried 1998. For an often undialectical celebration of the twentieth century as a century of transparency in art, see Cohen 1995: 26.

43. Rabinow 1989: “Introduction to the Present.”

44. Hartog 2003.

45. Veyne 1983: 38; 33–34.

46. Jacques Derrida coined the terms “New Enlightenment” in Derrida 1990, e.g., at p. 496, and “Enlightenment to come” in Derrida 2005; for a discussion, see Balibar 2012.

47. Bataille 1985: 31.

48. Reinhart Koselleck argues that “Begriffsgeschichte is always concerned with political or social events” and examines “prevailing” concepts (Koselleck 2004: 86). On the first count, I beg to disagree; on the second, I see no reason to treat what I here call a “minor” or “phantom” concept as mutually exclusive with “prevailing” ones, even as Koselleck focused on major and almost always famous concepts. That transparency should not be conceived of as a “major” concept (Grundbegriff) is suggested by its absence from Lalande’s Vocabulaire technique (Lalande 1923) as well as from Cassin 2004 and Worms 2016.

49. On historical epistemology, see Rheinberger 2010; Daston 1991; Davidson 2002.

50. This group includes—to name just a few of the more important—Giuseppe Bianco (2015), Julian Bourg (2007), Ethan Kleinberg (2005), Samuel Moyn (2004, 2005, 2012a, 2012b), Knox Peden (2014), Camille Robcis (2013), Judith Surkis (2012).

51. Jay 1993. I have been repeatedly and correctly advised to contend with Jay’s book explicitly, but to do so I would have to contend with it at inordinate length; here I prefer to express my debt to it and indicate the broad difference of argument, theme, subject matter, and method.

52. Glissant 2006: 189.

53. A story similar to the one I offer here might be told from the perspective of other concepts, including some of those discussed in this book. But these concepts (e.g., norm and other) do not, of their own, imply each other, whereas the critique of transparency does tie them together. Perhaps this is because transparency was a relatively minor concept in relation to them and remained one of those notions that are not elaborated upon but are taken for granted, ligaments in the body of discourse without an always obvious role.

54. Geertz 1973: 5.

55. I should note at this point that I find Blumenberg’s (2010: 1–5) mistrust of the self-sufficiency of concepts useful. At the same time the trickiness of distinguishing between concept and metaphor in the uses of transparency seems to me intellectually compelling: these uses bridged the gap between the two, and the ensuing ambiguity imposes the approach I’m following here.

56. This entire section is intended as a critique of Koselleck 2004: 75–92.

57. Besides Obama’s memorandum cited in n. 29 above, see also David Cameron’s pledge (“Open Government Partnership,” (accessed January 10, 2017) to make the British government “the most open and transparent in the world.”

58. See the discussion in Harcourt 2015, and also the essays in Levin et al. 2002.

59. On the notion of history of the present, see DP 23, 30, 31; Canguilhem 2012: 12–13; Leys 2010; Scott 2007b.

60. A case in point is Manfred Schneider’s highly interesting Transparenztraum (2013), which is critical of the fantasy of transparency but is itself too linear and seems largely unaware of traditions (including the one described here) in which the refusal of transparency dominated.

61. E.g., Christie and Tansey 1998. Among more recent critical historical and conceptual studies of current positivistic fetishisms of the “openness” and “visibility” of data, thanks to which data “are not only taken to be unobstructed and accessible but are also conceptualized as discrete units that can be easily identifiable, are stable in their format and content, and can be moved across a range of contexts,” see Leonelli, Rappert, and Davies 2017 (quotation from 191).

62. Vattimo 1992.

63. Han 2013.

64. Butler 2005: 42.