So what are we trying to hide? And what are we trying to find out about others? Practicing psychoanalyst and professor of literature Josh Cohen tackles those questions in his study of privacy and personality, the “most vulnerable and indestructible region of your self.” Using Sigmund Freud’s theories on identity and the ego as a foundation, Cohen weaves through time and place to study an extensive variety of people who unearthed and revealed the rawest form of their selves. From Adam and Eve to the ballerinas in the hit 2010 film Black Swan, from Hester Prynne to British celebrity Katie Price, Cohen finds Freud’s ideas in both fiction and reality alike.
Yet even with all the times that we’ve exposed the inner workings of our psyches, Cohen is sure to emphasize that some part of every individual will always remain hidden. Like Freud once wrote, “The ego is not master in its own house.” In a culture that floods our lives with light, how is it that we remain so helplessly in the dark?
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I’m in the sparsely populated carriage of an Overground train. As we crawl into Euston, the realization that I’m the sole audience to a woman a few seats in front, tearfully berating a man on her mobile phone, tears me out of my reverie. ‘It’s over,’ she tells him through heaving sobs. ‘Don’t you fucking talk to me. I fucking hate you. Why? Don’t you fucking give me why, you stinking bastard. Don’t pretend you don’t know. Don’t pretend, don’t, don’t you fucking pretend.’ All her murderous despair throbs in her thumb as she terminates the call. She leans her head against the window, still volubly crying. I gaze out the opposite side, heat creeping up my face. I tell myself I’m an involuntary witness to another’s lack of emotional inhibition, conveniently passing over my own rapt interest in the scene.
Several minutes later I’m hovering in front of the magazine racks in Smith’s. I stare glassily at the covers of Heat, Closer, Reveal, the titles amplifying the promise of furtive proximity intimated in the hazy shots below. An arrow tagged Serious tummy! points to the slack flesh spilling over the bikini bottom of a soap actress hunched on the edge of a sun lounger. Another, aimed at the ribcage pressing through the skin of a bikini-clad TV presenter, asks Dangerously skinny?! Something about the distracted obliviousness of their postures and expressions seems more obscene than anything the dead-eyed glamour models nearby can conjure. Too self-conscious to browse, I shuffle out, taking with me only my mild shame.
These unexceptional few moments have revealed to me my participation, at once resentful and willing, in a culture of intrusion, held together by the unholy alliance of voyeurism and exhibitionism. The first principle of this culture, upheld by wire taps and telephoto lenses on the one hand and by the pervasive casual display of personal intimacies on the other, is that I should know everything. Nothing, from the near side to the furthest reaches of bodily and emotional experience, should be kept from view. As those few minutes showed me, it’s hard to opt out of this culture and the malevolent excitement it stirs up.
Many celebrities and other public figures rightly protest against this culture, but their lamentations for their lost privacy only feed the spectacle they want to escape. Nothing seems better calculated to provoke an assault on privacy than the plea to respect it.
What accounts for this relentless war on our own and others’ privacy? What, exactly, are we attacking?
Table of Contents
1 The Voice in the Dark 1
2 'Everything is public' 27
3 Not at Home 51
4 Mysterious Parts Concealed 77
5 Cancelling Yourself Out 101
6 'A confessing animal' 123
7 'A dark and truncated language' 153
8 The Disgrace of Being Human 181