Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Right of Obscurity Must Be Respected

Chela Sandoval, in her book Methodology of the Oppressed, points out that the problems of the postmodern world--problems of fragmented identities and diffusions of self--are problems that have been confronted and theorized by Women of Color. I think about this as I read about California having passed a bill that will give minors the right to delete, or erase, their online history. This seems to be a small step of our own, American version of the le droit √† l’oubli, the right to oblivion or the right to be forgotten. But just like fragmented identities were already being theorized by Women of Color, the right to oblivion already has a theoretical history in minoritarian thought.

Perhaps ground zero for such thinking is Edouard Glissant's amazing book, The Poetics of Relation. In that book, Glissant develops the theoretical concept that you can find throughout his work, namely, the right of opacity. The right of opacity is more foundational than the right to difference (because, indeed, the right of opacity is foundational for the right of difference). As Glissant makes clear, the right of opacity is first a right against the slave master's push of transparency against the enslaved people. It is also a right of the dominated not to replicate the colonial people's displays of ostentation. But the right of opacity goes further. It becomes a right of language and culture, and it goes further still. The right of opacity becomes the right not the be understood, not to be reduced to epistemic violence of comprehension and judgement. Or, colloquially, "You don't know me; don't pretend that you know me".
As Saidiya Hartman furthers this analysis, and provides the title of this blog post, in Scenes of Subjection:
Rather than consider black song as an index or mirror of the slave condition, this examination emphasizes the significance of opacity as precisely that which enables something in excess of the orchestrated amusements of the enslaved and which similarly troubles distinctions between joy and sorrow and toil and leisure. For this opacity, the subterranean and veiled character of slave song must be considered in relation to the dominative imposition of transparency and the degrading hypervisibility of the enslaved, and therefore, by the same token, such concealment should be considered a form of resistance. Furthermore, as Glissant advises, "the attempt to approach a reality so hidden from view cannot be organized in terms of a series of clarifications. " The right to obscurity must be respected, for the "accumulated hurt," the "rasping whispers deep in the throat," the wild notes, and the screams lodged deep within confound simple expression and, likewise, withstand the prevailing ascriptions of black enjoyment. (p. 36)

Fred Moten, in an interview published in his B. Jenkins, riffs on Hartman's analysis:
In the end, however, as Saidiya Hartman says, “the right to obscurity must be respected.” This is a political imperative that infuses the unfinished project of emancipation as well as any number of other transitions or crossings in progress. It corresponds to the need for the fugitive, the immigrant and the new (and newly constrained) citizen to hold something in reserve, to keep a secret. The history of Afro-diasporic art, especially music, is, it seems to me, the history of the keeping of this secret even in the midst of its intensely public and highly commodified dissemination. These secrets are relayed and miscommunicated, misheard, and overheard, often all at once, in words and in the bending of words, in whispers and screams, in broken sentences, in the names of people you’ll never know. (p. 105). 

The issues that we presently face ourselves with, surveillance in the age of the internet of things, NSA spying and the secret holders that believe only they have a right to secrets, are not fundamentally new issues, but rather new manifestations of very old issues. The right to opacity is, without a doubt, a right to see a stranger as a stranger, and the right to have secrets (the right to all be Geheimnisträger). Thus, Hartman quotes Paul Gilroy, from his The Black Atlantic, there exists "politics ... on a lower frequency." This politics exists because words will never be enough to "communicate its unsayable claims to truth" (p. 37).

Therefore, as James C. Scott and Robin D. G. Kelley have shown, there exists an infra-politics of hidden transcripts.  As Maria Lugones has argued, these infra-politics should be understood in opposition to the Habermasian notion of the counter-public. The politics and ethics of these unsayable claims to truth cannot be understood through more transparency, publicity, and comprehension. Rather, we have to conceive of a networked world of relations that take seriously the right of opacity.

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.
- Nicanor Parra