Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tita Chico on McKeon's notion of "privacy"

[I am posting this on behalf of Tita Chico--DM]

I’m traveling this week (recruiting grad students for the University of Maryland—please encourage your interested undergraduates!) and won’t be free to participate in the collective reading as it happens. So following Dave’s suggestion, I’m offering these thoughts and questions ahead of time, by way of opening up conversation on McKeon’s very engaging book. I’m particularly interested in how McKeon conceptualizes, through definition, argument, and example, “private” throughout The Secret History.

It seems to me that McKeon, of course, leans on Habermas’s division for insight, but that in so doing, he also replicates some of the same problems. While acknowledging, repeatedly, that the public and private emerge dialectically, McKeon states that the antithesis between them is the key precondition for modernity, suggesting that the public and the private have an “interpenetrative conflation” (48)—a qualification, I believe, of the precise nature of the dialectic that Habermas charts. I also think that McKeon is right to suggest that Habermas alludes to but does not analyze what McKeon discusses as an “intimate sphere” in both conceptual and architectural terms. But it is here that McKeon’s notion of privacy begins to confuse. For all of the emphasis on dialectical emergence (and allowance for “interpenetrative conflation”), there seems to be lingering a presupposition of “authenticity” with this intimate sphere, whether he sets up an implicit opposition between “sacrificing the private to the public” and “bringing the private into public discourse” (109) or establishes the key binaristic terms of the book more generally in the introduction by suggesting that privacy is a “movement ‘inward’” that becomes associated with “’the people,’ the family, women, the individual, personal identity, and the absolute subject” (xxii).

Why, in an argument designed to articulate the emergence of “privacy” as opposed to the public, is there an assumption of authenticity associated with the private, when so much work in the field suggests that this gesture to “the private”—whether conceptual or spatial—is not a site of essential authenticity? I’m here thinking of a variety of scholars. Norbert Elias argues that there is a foundational association between “alienation and the increase in consciousness, the ascent to a new level on the spiral staircase of consciousness” (The Court Society, 245-6, 250). For Elias, modern individuals (in the French court) self-consciously insert a gap between “the affective, spontaneous impulse to act and the actual performance of the action in word or deed” (243). Or Francis Barker’s earlier The Tremulous Private Body, which opens with a reading of Pepys’s Diary that not only suggests that domestic spaces are shaped by reading, writing, and sexual desire, but that they are also scenes where authenticity is absolutely thwarted and resisted. Pepys’s Diary famously hides things within its secret, private pages, suggesting that privacy as authentic is itself illusory—is this instead a founding fiction of privacy? I’m thinking, too, of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” which constructs a sense of self (not an authentic claim of selfhood) in relation to others, and—of course, since I’ve written about it—the lady’s dressing room, deeply associated with theatricality, dissembling, and performance. So McKeon’s turn to domestic spaces (and plans) is likewise intriguing, but it seems here, too, to be an occasion to imagine them, at least sometimes, as stable signifiers of “privacy.” The example of Millimant’s marriage demands, for example (p. 226) (that she may “dine in my dressing room when I’m out of humour without giving a reason. To have my Closet Inviolate; to be sole Empress of my Tea-Table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave”) seems to be an indication not only that these were distinguished private spaces within the domestic architecture (McKeon’s point), but also that domestic spaces connoted a network of social relations, whether intimate, commercial, erotic, or what have you. I think that Amanda Vickery’s work is helpful in this way, too, pointing out the specific connections between the so-called domestic household and women’s engagement with commercial institutions, for example. Ok, I’ll leave off here, but am intrigued by what I’ve gotten as a kind of privileging of “the private” with the authentic, and the ways that this seems simultaneously to explain some things and to foreclose others.

Tita Chico

[Though Tita will be out of town for the next few days, feel free to post your comments or suggestions on this, since the rest of us would like to hear your responses. Thanks, DM]