Is this the Age of Transparency? 

Guest post written by Paula Martín-Salván, co-editor of The Politics of Transparency in Modern American Fiction

We started our Politics of Transparency project in Spring 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Strict lockdown was over in most places, but meetings, conferences and classes were still online, and most human interaction was contactless. The living conditions imposed by the pandemic, including the massive use of screens and the circulation of news about the situation worldwide, prompted concerns about mediation, authenticity and access to information. Reflection on transparency and opacity in all spheres of life was the Zeitgeist, and transparency seemed the buzzword used to define the present.  

And yet, when we started thinking about the relevance of transparency as a concept shaping both literary form and political concerns expressed in American fiction, we knew we wanted to avoid presentism. The more we thought about it, the more we realized the contradictions and paradoxes that the idea of transparency seemed to incur into were intrinsic to the concept itself. We recalled how Puritan communities in colonial America obsessed over the “wonders of the invisible world”, as Cotton Mather called the diabolic threat to New England Puritans. We considered how fundamental American writers like Hawthorne or Melville had written precisely on the balance between what fiction could and could not tell about human interiority. And of course, we realized that the tension between transparency/authenticity and secrecy/privacy was at the heart of a good number of American classics like Leaves of Grass, Invisible Man and Paradise

As it progressed, the book gathered scholarly work on a great variety of American authors and texts, from the 19th to the 21st centuries, including Walt Whitman, Henry James, F.O. Matthiessen, Henry Blake Fuller, Mart Crowley, Ralph Ellison, George Schuyler, Philip Roth, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Toni Morrison, Karen Tei Yamashita, Thomas Pynchon, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Kiley Reid, Megan Angelo and Patricia Lockwood. The fourteen contributors to this collection hail from twelve different European countries. As a whole, they provide a European take on American literature, but individually they speak from a variety of different cultural backgrounds and contexts. 

Our book engages in current debates in the emerging academic field of Critical Transparency Studies, about the interplay between transparency, exposure, fear, secrecy, security, surveillance, information and disinformation. As scholars working in this field, we share both the premise that transparency is omnipresent in the contemporary world and the critical interrogation of the concept and its ideological implications. We point to how transparency may be both a dream and a nightmare, thus underscoring its paradoxical nature. A call for secrecy as a tool for resistance against hegemonic discourses on transparency is often articulated by key scholars like Clare Birchall, Emmanuel Alloa or Jeremy Gilbert, among others. 

Literature is often identified in Critical Transparency Studies as the realm in which resistance to transparency is deployed creatively, yet critics do not often explore actual literary texts which enact it. The Politics of Transparency redresses that by focusing on literary texts written in an American cultural tradition in which the tension between secrecy and transparency has long played a determinant role in shaping cultural identities. Our essays engage in the contemporary debates on the politics of transparency and yet interrogate the premise that the prevalence of such debates is unique to the contemporary world.  

As I write this, Julian Assange flies back home to Australia, a free man after reaching an agreement with US authorities to plead guilty on espionage charges. It’s been 18 years since Wikileaks started as a repository to publish restricted official documents anonymously. In what was probably one of the greatest breaches of classified material in American history, the line separating the arcana imperii from freedom of the press came to be questioned. The Wikileaks case evinces the many edges of transparency and underscores its often paradoxical deployment in political life. This may indeed be the age of transparency, but what transparency may bring is yet undecided. 

PAULA MARTÍN-SALVÁN is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Córdoba, Spain.

The Politics of Transparency in Modern American Fiction: Fear, Secrecy, and Exposure, edited by Paula Martín-Salván and Sascha Pöhlmann, is out in September 2024. 

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