The Life and Death of Privacy in the West: the Ethnography of a Social and Aesthetic Concept


Roth, Marty


Ph.D University of Chicago, Professor, D/English University of Minnesota. Author of CULTURES OF MEMORY (Bethesda, Academica Press, 2011)

The Life and Death of Privacy in the West consists of four chapters: Privacy and the Private, Public and Private, Invasions of Privacy: Surveillance and Voyeurism, and the Erosion of Privacy. The first chapter tries to locate this entity (“What is privacy and why does it belong to us? Is it an enclosure, an order of things?”), recounts its history, and follows its trails of meaning under three categories: the contents of the self, the shameful private, and “in private.” It goes on to trace the dialectic between privacy and publication and explores the paradoxes of publication, among other things. The second chapter surveys the oppositions and exchanges in what Pierre Bourdieu has called one of the most fundamental inscriptions made on space, the division of the world into public and private. Again, it explores the history of the division and goes on to discuss the public sphere models of Jürgen Habermas (and the many critiques of his model that followed), Philippe Ariès, and Roger Chartier.

Chapter three looks at the other side of things, the invasion of privacy which it details under two heads: surveillance and voyeurism. Beginning with the phenomena of epistemophilia (an immoderate love of knowlege), curiosity, it moves on to theories of the gaze in René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Laura Mulvey, and settles down to lay out Michel Foucault’s panoptic account of the early modern and modern ages (followed by Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “society of control” and Jacques Donzelot’s theory of the “social”). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of the focus of the nineteenth-century British novel (Robinson Crusoe, Caleb Williams, etc.) on surveillance and the nineteenth-century American Romance (Poe’s tales, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, etc.) on voyeurism.

The final chapter looks at the currently hot topic of the total governmental, business, and medical surveillance of our lives: “‘You already have zero privacy--get over it,’ a CEO announced at the launch of his company's networking software in 1999.” Initially the Western democracies defined themselves in opposition to the totalitarian states of the twentieth-century as they were turning themselves into the same type of surveillance state. At the end of the book Dr Roth turns a sharp corner to deal with surveillance and the loss of privacy as a pleasure, as this is manifested in reality TV, TV talk shows, cell phones, Facebook, and our compulsive celebrity culture, i.e. Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism.”

Concept of Privacy, Social and Public Theory of interaction, Privacy in Western Literature, Aesthetics of Privacy, Voyeurism, Surveillance, Decartes, Sarte, Lacan, Bourdieu, Habermas, Foucault, Deleuze, Narcissism and Celebrity in popular culture, Hawthorne on voyeurism
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