On private and public spaces

So, a little ramble through some stray thoughts: I've been reading Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays How To Be Alone and it struck me that the essay "Imperial Bedroom", his take on privacy written in 1998 amidst the heat of the Lewinsky scandals (how far away that seems!), still makes for relevant reading.

Franzen's point is that for all the wailing and gnashing of the intrusion onto privacy, modern life is actually much more private than it ever used to be: none of the social surveillance that pervades small towns. Instead, it's the public, not the private, sphere that is under threat, in that the things which used to be purely private - health, sexual histories - seems to be readily spilled out into public, thereby spoiling (for Franzen) the genuine public spaces, where "every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted". (Of course, this is from the American perspective - any anyone who's spent time in America soon realises that Americans are often wont to tell you details of their medical history within 2 hours of meeting them...)

The interesting example for me was on how there is actually not only a sense of privacy but a sense of what is public - Franzen noted how one gets offended by a flasher, and points out that when you think about it, the flasher is the one who's losing his privacy, and the injury to us is because it offends our sense of what should be public.

Part of Franzen's rage against the blending of the private/public spheres seems to more be about the loss of formality: the creation of casual Fridays, where home clothes intrude upon the public life; how one needs to dress up before going out... And of course blogging (unknown back in 1998) is the epitome of the extrusion of one's private life into public spaces: in a few keystrokes, one can find out what random people had for lunch, how good their lovers were in bed, how awful a boss they have. Which can be interesting from a social scientist's point of view - future anthropologists could probably reconstruct fin de siecle life in the 2000s from blog entries - but sometimes one tires of the endless flow of details, details:
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
- T.S. Eliot, "The Rock"
And then there's the assumption that one's life as viewed through the lens of is equivalent to one's full life: that everything flows through, unfiltered, unvarnished; the effluvia of one's life flowing through the cloaca of the blog. I don't know - as I said when I spoke to Ngee Ann Poly, I like to maintain a certain separation of church and state and I like to think I have spheres that remain mine and to do that, some things - career, love - remain off-blog.

Which leads me to quoting Nick Hornby's High Fidelity yet again:
And then I go to the bathroom, and clean my teeth; and then I come back; and then we make love; and then we talk for a bit; and then we turn the light out, and that's it. I'm not going into all that other stuff, the who-did-what-to-whom stuff. You know 'Behind Closed Doors' by Charlie Rich? That's one of my favorite songs.
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Laughingcow said…
Interesting ideas. Now you've made me want to pick up the book. :p I guess the trouble is that everyone wants to lay claim to some part of this "public sphere," in which case a "genuine public space" might not even exist.
Anonymous said…
i read that book 3 years ago and its amazing. i loved his "the corrections" too. i thought that was one of the best books ever written. i remember imperial bedroom. somehow that stuck in my head the most
7-8 said…
I have a spare copy of "How to Be Alone" and it's available to anybody who emails me at metalconduit at yahoo.com.sg.

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