In some of my current research, I’m looking at the concept of transparency, via Stefanos Geroulanos’s recent history of postwar France. Today, when we think of this idea, we might think of political transparency, in the sense of the availability of information, to the public, about political processes. That sort of availability, an access to information, is about the creation of checks on governing processes in order to limit the appeal of abusing power. At another level, a more abstract one, we might think of the “transparency” or not of mental processes – an epistemological notion. Of course, there is also the straightforward — transparent? — idea of material, visual transparency: glass, air, films, and filters. Transparency is clearly a metaphor that gets put into play in a number of ways, and not only in a visual sense, as the idea of availability shows. Sometimes it’s about access and proximity.
What’s interesting here is that transparency is a concept that is applied to various relations. Transparency exists between things. Subjects and their objects; states and societies; Expressions and their meanings; power and its subjects. So we tend to invoke transparency in the pursuit, or focus upon other things. A reflection (another related metaphor) on transparency, such as when we think about democratic processes, is a second-order type of reflection when we’re trying to clarify (there it is again) out practical processes, or thinking about something. One of the surprises of the book is just how often transparency is invoked in material familiar to me, though I’d rarely had occasion to focus on it. This is interesting because the prevalent yet off-centre nature of the concept suggests that slight changes in the meaning of the concept maps onto large-scale social, political, and epistemological changes while flying under the radar. Transparency, ironically, is hardly transparent. Or better, is a little too transparent; transparency is hiding in plain sight. Hence the nature of its appeal to an intellectual historian like Geroulanos.
All of which does underline Geroulanos’s cleverness and attention to his theme. It also makes for a very interesting set of methodological requirements. Given that transparency is prominently employed in the epistemological literature that is focused on, the genealogy that is presented is also methodological essay. We have a begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history), and a “history of the present”. But also as a variant of intellectual history, we are tracing the theoretical and reflective employment of transparency, rather than its fact in operation. That is to say that transparency is a metaphor that is employed in a loosely linked set of ways. A metaphor that when viewed as such destroys itself? Does the fact that transparency has crystalised enough for us to analyse it mean that it has become encrusted enough with debris that it is no longer living? On the other hand, have we lighted upon a critical tool to investigate and practically open up the the growing darkness of data, complex systems, and social polarities?