September 7, 2016

Can We Have Some Privacy? (Scott Horton and Tom Keenan)

An excerpt from, "Privacy: Six Questions for Garret Keizer" by Scott Horton, Harper's Magazine, August 22, 2012:
I locate the idea of privacy—what Louis Brandeis called “the right to be let alone”—in our creaturely resistance to being interfered with, used, or penetrated against our will. For me, the roots of privacy are as much in our physical bodies as in our legal traditions, and I see those roots intertwined with the human capacity to resist. The fiercest kinds of resistance, be they personal or national, are always in response to forced occupation. It is no surprise that all imperial projects, be they totalitarian regimes, abusive households, or authoritarian institutions, strive to reduce the privacy of their subordinate members. Hand me that diary right now, missy! Bend from the waist and spread your cheeks, prisoner! Such demands are not made solely to discover an intention to resist; they are also made to destroy the will to resist. Strip someone of all his privacy and you have as good as stripped him of his sense of agency.

As for your question of “how” our willingness to resist the invasion of our privacy is being worn down, I would say first of all that the erosion encompasses more than our loss of privacy. The erosion of private life (your boss requires you to have your cell phone on at all times), the erosion of the legacy of organized labor—these are parts of the same whole. The “how” is perhaps best understood by contemplating how one tames an animal: through a mixture of fear and irresistible convenience. Here is the whip, and here is all this nice grain in the trough. For fear, we have the threat of terrorism, the shaky economy—all real enough. For convenience, we have an array of gadgets that offer a fussy kind of privacy (no need to ask directions of lowly gas-station attendants if you have a GPS) even as they make surveillance of us easier. For absurdity, we have the notion that the best way to combat “terrorist threats from within and without” is to turn citizens into sheep.
Video Title: Conference: Can We Have Some Privacy? Source: ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. Date Published: June 10, 2015. Description:
Can We Have Some Privacy?
Scott Horton and Tom Keenan
May 7, 2015

Privacy, as its English usage suggests, is a place and a possession as much as an idea or abstract right—a physical realm supposedly separate from public view. In a world in which technology permeates the personal, the everyday, the intimate, what meaning does this value have? Where privacy is voluntarily surrendered, what is it worth to individuals? And where the internet makes possible mass surveillance, what protections are there for the space, and the experience, of privacy? This conference examines not only the legal arrangements affecting privacy—and the time-lag between law and technological advance—but privacy as a philosophical concept and a cultural tenet. What divisions of activity and status created the idea of “privacy” in the first instance? Is it a disappearing value, or is its erosion a source of crisis? Does the sheer extensiveness of the surveillance enabled by technologies of communication cancel the significance of such monitoring, or generate new forms of persecution?

The international conference was a cooperation between Bard College Berlin - A Liberal Arts University, the Center for Civic Engagement, the ICI Berlin, and the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in New York. With support from the Zeit-Stiftung.
Watch the full video here.