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François Hollande's privacy plea and our relentless spirit of self-display | Josh Cohen In promoting total and permanent visibility, our culture closes down all the spaces in which the private self can flourish"Each of us in our personal lives can go through difficult periods and that is so in our case," said Franí§ois Hollande earlier this week, responding to a journalist's question as to whether his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, remained first lady of France in the light of his alleged affair with Julie Gayet. "But," the French president went on, "private matters should be dealt with privately and this is neither the time nor the place to do so."Amid the chorus of columnists, the flashguns of Closer magazine, and the high drama of Trierweiler's emotional collapse, who is listening to Hollande's solemnly understated appeals to privacy? In today's culture of permanent visibility, the plea of celebrities or politicians to respect their privacy becomes little more than an emptily ritualised scene in the unfolding farce.This is a shame, for there's something in Hollande's insistence that "private matters should be dealt with in private" that, for all its tone of evasive officiousness, is worth a little reflection. That private matters belong in private is a truism that appears to have lost its self-evidence. We live in a culture that asks us to share our deepest intimacies, from sex to grief, on social media; that encourages us to create and broadcast "lifelogs" displaying anything from our cholesterol intake and mood swings to our entire lives. The world morphs into an unending reality TV show, in which we abandon the sheltering anonymity of ordinary life for the incessant glare of the camera and its audience.To speak up for privacy in this brave new world is rather like appealing for temperance in a City wine bar – a futile attempt to convey the one message the crowd won't hear or understand. Hollande's insistence on a private life that needs to remain such makes sense only if we assume a shared notion of selfhood – essentially, that a public, perceptible face conceals a private, imperceptible self. Only, that is, if we take for granted that even when fully visible to the world, we remain at heart invisible, in the dark.In a culture of permanent visibility this version of the self is no longer a given. Individuals are reduced to the pictures we can take and the stories we can tell of them, at the cost of their singularity and complexity. Of course, you may have an inner life, but the increasingly common assumption is that it should be shared, dragged into the light. If this is my conception of the self, any claim the other makes for the shelter of privacy will in effect be meaningless, a line in a tired and cheesily predictable script. I won't recognise your feelings of intrusion, because I won't recognise that there's anything to intrude upon. If I can intuit nothing in you beyond the self you show the world, your objection to the cameras in your face, or your bedroom, is incomprehensible.Perhaps this culture of full personal disclosure heralds a new and welcome openness to self-expression, a benign antidote to the buttoned-up repression of preceding generations. In making our bodies and souls available to the world's inspection, we shine a light into the darkness of our private lives. But it's here that we stumble on a basic contradiction: exposed to the light, the private is no longer private. The more we drag private experience into public visibility, the more our emotional lives – our relationships to ourselves and to others – threaten to descend into a kind of shrill and unconvincing mimicry of real feelings. All we can see and hear in the latest political sex scandal is another compulsive repetition of the same old farce, with new actors in the old roles.The assumption underlying the drive to full disclosure of our own and others' inner lives is that we should know everything. Nothing from the near side of our lives to the furthest reaches should be kept from view. There's an unmistakable aggression lurking in this conviction that was made fully audible at the Leveson inquiry in the brutal makeshift slogan of visibility culture's unofficial spokesman, the tabloid journalist Paul McMullan: "Privacy is for paedos."What's the real object of this aggression? Perhaps what drives the unholy alliance of voyeurism and exhibitionism – the frenzied intrusions of the media as much as the relentless spirit of self-display – is the suspicion that there are places in the self where no telephoto lens or bugging device can reach. In other words, it's less the wish to know that fuels the ongoing assault of the televisual, personal or surveillance cameras than the rage against what remains unknown, in the dark. For human beings, Freud insisted, the suggestion that our knowledge of our own and others' inner lives must be scanty and uncertain can only be experienced as an enraging humiliation.There may be some explanation here as to why public protest following revelations of the scope of state and corporate surveillance has been so muted and uncertain. These offences against our privacy are all too continuous with the intrusive culture we live and breathe. It's hard to generate real outrage against a phenomenon with which we continue to be so complicit.From this perspective, the significance of the recent petition against mass surveillance by more than 500 writers lies in reminding us that the stakes of this debate are as much imaginative as legal, as much about what we are as what we own. "Surveillance is theft", the petition proclaims, referring not only to our personal data but to our rights over our inner lives.The British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott speaks of an obscure yet essential region in us that can survive only by remaining hidden, and whose natural elements are darkness and silence. This hidden spot is the source of our uniqueness and singularity, a fact authoritarian regimes know only too well, which is no doubt why they make such a priority of closing down all those spaces in which the private self can flourish. To attack privacy is to attack the very source of creative and imaginative life. In flooding us with light, in promoting our permanent and total visibility, our culture threatens to turn personal violation into an unnoticed fact of our daily lives.PrivacySurveillanceFraní§ois HollandePsychologyCelebrityFranceEuropeJosh © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
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