Monday, August 17, 2015

Public and private


Recently I have read Event. Philosophy in Transit by Slavoj Žižek (Penguin Books, London etc. , 2014). I have some doubts about the book, but I’ll not write a review. Here I want to limit myself to discussing a passage that casts an interesting light on modern society. In this passage Žižek points to the changing status of public space: “ ‘[The] street is an intensively private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense.’ ... [B]eing in a public space does not entail only being together with other unknown people – in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.” (p. 176; the first sentence is a quotation from the Chinese People’s Daily)
According to Žižek the public space is becoming smaller while the private space is growing: Actions performed only at home in the past, or in places where they couldn’t be observed by others now often take place also “in the street” without the feeling of any shame that everybody can see them. Indeed, I can remember that when I was a child, kissing in public between lovers “was not done”. Now nobody cares. Today, it even happens sometimes, so Žižek, that fully erotic games take place in “heavily public places” like beaches, trains, railway stations, shopping malls, and the like, and most people passing by do as if they don’t see it. In other words, the private intrudes the public. People check themselves only when surveillance cameras are present, and this is not so, I think – Žižek doesn’t explain it – because people can be seen, for in public spaces people can always be seen, but it is because they can be punished for what they do. Only Big Brother can make that people behave themselves, or so it seems.
How about the private space? Does it become larger, because it simply absorbs parts of the public space? This would fit into the modern trend of increasing individualism. Žižek seems to think it does: “It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others” (pp. 178-9; italics Žižek).
Although this is true as such, I doubt whether it is only the private space that extends at the cost of the public space. It’s not a development only in one direction. For why else, for instance, are we advised to cover the webcam of our laptops or PCs? Just because otherwise our private actions can become public we are said to do so. Or take the activities of the secret services that try to find out what government leaders do, but also the laws that prescribe that data once considered private, like e-mail data, calling behaviour and data on other activities you do via the  modern media are collected and stored. I can see this only as an intrusion of the public into the private, and so do national committees that have been established by governments (!) for protecting the private. And once people become aware that their private behaviour can be seen by public agencies, albeit secret public agencies, it’s quite well possible that they are going to behave accordingly, so that they restrain themselves in what they say and do on line (like people in a dictatorship do).
What we see here then is both an extension of the private at the cost of the public and an extension of the public at the cost of the private. The development is not one-sided, as Žižek seems to suggest. Even more, I think that the idea that there is a distinction between the public and the private is at stake. Rather than that one sphere of society intrudes the other, or that one (the private) expands itself at the cost of the other, maybe it will be so that the separation of the private and the public will fade away and that both will mingle so that we’ll gradually get one single common sphere with more public and more private corners at most. Will it be worrying? Given our present way of life it will. Nevertheless, such a mixture of spheres is not new. It’s what you find in small isolated societies and, I guess, what you found in “primitive” prehistoric societies, so in societies where more or less direct relations prevailed. But just that is a reason to be worried, for nowadays we do not live any longer in such small-scale societies but in mass societies. Just in mass societies, in which direct relations are mainly absent, keeping the two spheres apart is important for protecting us against the arbitrariness of Big Brother and our fellow man.

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