The Secret Conspiracy of Everyday Life:
an experiment in re-covering the secrecy underlying urban experience

We dance round in a ring and suppose,       
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
 —Robert Frost, A Witness Tree

To children, secrets seem simple: a diary with a lock—which any generic key small enough can open—is all that is required to tangibly procure and safeguard one’s own. However, the process of making and maintaining secrets is never quite that straightforward, given that it finds itself tangled up in the complexities broadly categorized for children by older others as matters of “growing up.” The two activities are very much integral to one another: creating secrets allows children to feel grown up—and to feel the expressions of growing up—while growing up in turn compels them to create secrets around its intricacies. Secrets take on affective force as they function much like a rite of passage, propelling their bearer through time, from childhood through one’s teenage years to adulthood; and through experiences labeled plainly and hastily, and at times problematically, as pain, pleasure, shock, fun, doubt, fear, etc.—i.e., common experiences closely tied to certain emotions which many cultures have riddled with shame. These allow for an understanding of a shared intersubjectivity in which said cultures’ subjects participate in and are privy to, albeit in an individualized, exclusive, and unspoken manner. And while the secret must remain unspoken to stay intact, it cannot veer into the realm of the unspeakable, where it would vanish without a trace, as though it had never existed: the secret must dwell on the borders of speakability.

Secrets resonate in bodies, perform power, and index the other. They must steadily ensure their own existence by producing practices that permit their bearers to “dance round” them—which we do, despite their artifice and their abstract means of structuring a space in and around themselves, because secrets conjure in us a sense of responsibility due to their inherent vulnerability. As affective charges, secrets fill us out while simultaneously leaving gaps within us in their wake. They taunt and haunt us with the possibility of their revelation and the obstruction of the bubble built about them. They tease us with the possibility of becoming bodies without organs, de-organ-ized bodies through which they can come to pass again and again, concurrently reordering us with each crossing. In effect, secrets must always remain in flux and never be left to settle as sediment. As a secret passes through us, it also becomes a part of us, and hence it becomes as impossible to stand outside it as to stand outside our own bodies: secrets are infused with subjectivity and never inert, material objects. Secrets are a window to viewing every “thing”—which, to borrow Brian Massumi’s take on Sheryl Crow’s song lyric “concrete is as concrete doesn’t,” is “when it isn’t doing”—as a slow event, and as such comprised of two vectors. One points to a corporeal dimension that we can find ourselves dancing around in circles, while the other leads us to an incorporeal one that permits us to hold strong to a supposition of knowledgeability in the face of unresolvable paradox. Secrets must be known in order to exist and yet their existence depends very much on their denial, the invisibility of their visibility—secrets belong to nowhere, their lack of proper place allowing for the flourishing of the de Certeauvian notion of tactical power subversion. All the abovementioned practices, contained under the umbrella term “secrecy,” are tedious to be sure, but it is through them that we become aware of this clandestine force’s potency: the decision to withhold information from a general audience brandishes value where it never before existed, while the public feeling it experientially evokes makes its owner and cohabitants privy to an embodied epistemology barred off to those they consider estranged. The other is thus the one who cannot come to know the unknowability of her unknown. The other is indexed through the secret; power is performed through its spatial lack-of-belonging; and bodies echo in the distances it rifts and bridges.

In the context of the everyday, secrets appear in various forms of concealment. White lies serve to hide away one’s actual feelings in order to protect another’s that lies at the risk of getting hurt. Prudent politics are encouraged in work environments where one’s uncensored thoughts can prove controversial. And in a surveillance society—which Michel Foucault qualified as a space where “visibility is a trap”—even one’s gestures might need to be controlled in order to assure their legibility and compliance with a preconceived set of norms. If the practice of secrecy connotes a tactical space of everyday empowerment for the marginalized populations that Michel de Certeau dubs “the weak,” then secrets themselves can be read as everyday survival tactics; and according to Kathleen Stewart, “just about everyone is part of the secret conspiracy of everyday life to get what you can out of it.” According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a secret is “something kept hidden or unexplained,” “something kept from the knowledge of others.” Curiously, while a secret shows the markings of a solitary act and separateness, a conspiracy implies togetherness—it is “the act of conspiring together,” or, a secret plan devised by a group. What then is the secret conspiracy of everyday life? Is it to bring everyone together, to keep everyone out, or to navigate both—whom does “just about everyone” exclude? Does the secret conspiracy belong to everyday life or does everyday life find itself caught in its trenches? Who is the “you” Stewart addresses, and what role does this interlocutor play? Does the secret conspiracy belong to her? Is it hers, is it for her benefit, is it an excavation of everyday life of just about everyone that would lower the most she can get out of it? And if so…the most what?

These provocations served as the meditative kernel for this project, which gradually took shape around the urban lifestyles I have encountered on a daily basis, and continue to do so as a perpetual city-dweller, most recently of New York City. The effort of the larger project at hand, on which this experimental essay is predicated, was to peer closer at the role of secrets in everyday interactions among the urban populations of today’s oft-(cynically-)called modern, globalized world. Using various performance techniques geared to encourage New Yorkers to anonymously share their secrets and the ways in which they participate in lending vitality to the “secret conspiracy,” I acquired working material that I then incorporated into my writing and theory-making.[1] Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse ([1977] 1978) is the model upon which this written piece is based; for it too, like the language shared between lovers throughout time and space, speaks not just to the wounds and gaps which bind us all in a common—often non-discursive—language, but also because in its very structuring it manages to convey the fragmented nature of selves comparable to that of texts. This fragmentation is not merely considered a characteristic quality of the urban subject; cultural studies scholars have critiqued it as a negative quality that further alienates her. While I do not subscribe to such a conviction, I investigate here the subject at hand from a variety of angles and intersperse my analyses with a variety of voices. The vignettes presented express sentiments that I was lucky to poach on through the generosity of secret-sharers, while also (narcissistically) telling of my own opinions. These short evocations are peppered here and there with the literary writing of those authors interested in the ontology of secret-making and secret-keeping—Robert Frost, Italo Calvino, Oscar Wilde, Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood, among others; and bound together by theories of everyday living as put forth in the works of Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, Kathleen Stewart, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Brian Massumi, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gaston Bachelard, Karl Marx, Jean-Luc Nancy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Henri Lefebvre, Leonard Lawlord, Caroline Lasjak, Steven Connor, and, as previously mentioned, Roland Barthes.

When writing A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes pronounced its necessity as one to be found in the “extreme solitude” (1) engulfing the lover’s discourse—spoken by thousands, yet warranted by no one. This symptom is not exclusive to the lover, and the intimacy crowding the commonly one-way discursive corridor of amorous expressions creeps around the corner into that of the discourse surrounding secrets as well. Secrets too are “forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority.” As mechanisms of authority, the sciences seek to contain and reveal secrets, techniques seek to obtain mastery over them, while the arts cover and recover themselves in them; all so secrets can be left out of the equation, dispossessed of their magic abilities in building bonds and forming frames around those collectives upholding their contents. Collectives comprised of one or many subjects; the subject of the secretive discourse is its fundamental person, the I, the one who—like the lover—is needed “to stage an utterance, not an analysis”; the one who “speaks inside herself, [secretively], confronting the other (the [hidden] object), [the secret] that does not speak.” The secret avoids confrontation, resists it, facing away and wrecking havoc upon the keeper tempted to unleash it. The secret is the storm, forcing its keeper to turn his back like Paul Kleé’s Angelus Novel, cast by Walter Benjamin in the role of the Angel of History, “looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” The secret-holder too stands facing the past, unable to perceive a chain of events, instead seeing

one single catastrophe[—the secret—]which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurl[ing] it in front of his feet. The angel[—the secret holder—]would like to stay, awaken the [secret], and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in [her] wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels [her] into the future [already haunted by the secret] to which [her] back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

For Benjamin, this storm was what he called progress. For this project, this storm is what I call secrets, propelling both themselves and their keepers into hidden land enclosed by its softly-spoken discourse. And, “[o]nce a discourse is thus driven by its own momentum into the backwater of the ‘unreal,’ exiled from all gregarity, it has no recourse but to become the site, however exiguous, of an affirmation.” For Barthes, it was this affirmation that incited the subject of his fragmented book. It is this same—but of course different—affirmation that incites the pages to follow.
            So it is a secret, which, if ever spoken, says:

“I want the beginning.”
“I need to know… who are you?”
“A creature of habit.”
“Where are you from?”
“The fall.”
“When were you born?”
“In Jupiter’s glow, between fire and water.”
“What do you want?”
“The beginning.”

The beginning, then.

 

“I want you to know that I am hiding something from you…”
The paradox

 

The beauty of a mystery is not in the truth it conceals, but rather, in the secret it enshrines. Before its beauty can reveal itself to the eye of the beholder—where beauty has been declared to reside—the heart must be made aware of its existence, so it can give the secret’s content—unknown and unknowable—a place in memory, a place to belong, along with the life-blood it needs to survive.

 

 

1. In the beginning, there were lovers: Adam, Eve; Orpheus, Eurydice; Apollo, Daphne; Majnoon, Leyli; Cleopatra, Mark Antony; Romeo, Juliet; Rhett, Scarlett; Pierrot, Pierrette; Werther and Charlotte. Lovers, perpetual poles now near, the following moment far; attracting and repelling each other, trapped in the trenches of their turbulent passions. Lovers, paralyzed now and again as they switch roles; passing from being the desired one to becoming the desiring one, fearing the unknowable future to come, yet knowing that much like the game of life, the love “game is only worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.”[2] Like dreams, like Marco Polo’s cities, lovers “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”[3]

2. The Great Khan has dreamt of a city. After hearing him describe the city of his dreams, where “farewells take place in silence, but with tears,” Marco Polo yields not to the khan’s desire. The daring discoverer dismisses the request to go searching for the oneiric city that the khan demands of him so the ruler can attain a description against which to measure the validity of his dreamscape. The reality is that this mysterious city is anything but a dream: it is none other than the one the ruler lives in but is blind to. Promising the khan that it does in fact exists, and that he, Marco Polo, would sooner or later depart from its cold, dark dock; he also confides that he could not come back after having left. Almost apologetically, he shares the secret of the city: “it knows only departures, not returns.”[4]

3. What happens to a city to which no one returns? If no one calls on it and it has no one to speak to, does the space disappear, become secret? Who is the bearer of this secret then, this nowhere? At first glance, the answer is the dearly departed who carry away the old city in their memory. But linger a second longer before departure, and the dearly departed shifts from being those embarking on a one-way journey to the only one perpetually left behind: the city. The city is left aside, separated apart, secreted of and from its inhabitants. The city is both secret and secret-holder. And if, as Gaston Bachelard posits, “what is secret never has total objectivity,” if  “all we communicate to others is an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively”—that is, if we can no more stand outside a secret which has passed through us than we can our own bodies—then it should come as no surprise that the city, like the secret it enshrines, is both object and subject.[5]

4. All cities know only departures, not returns. The departures delimit their temporality, while their bounded space, predefined by “official” geographies, announces these departures every day: there is no promise of an eternal return for cities. If neither time nor space is infinite for a cityscape, then mathematics fails to ratify Friedrich Nietzsche’s means to the ultimate affirmation of life—the eternal return—for it.[6] But not all is lost in this restricted geographical moment; we can instead claim the essence of secrecy for all cities. Aren’t all cities evacuated by certain some-ones that never return? What happens to that “point” of the city remarkable only through the body that had once occupied it—does that one coordinate not become secret and secret-holder, a visible spot now identifiable through the glaring invisibility of a subject gone? Aren’t all cities, like secrets, subject and objects, whole bodies on account of their holey-ness? With this duality, Brian Massumi would agree: a city is nondecomposable, a dynamic unity, its becomings constantly interrupting its states of being (“a thing is when it isn’t doing”). Whether object or subject, the city brings to mind the path on which Zeno’s philosophical arrow traversed the paradox of movement.[7]

5. Cities have beginnings; cities have ends. A city lacks infinite time and space, but it overbrims with infinity in the form of the bodies masquerading as “points” on its path. It resides in none of these somas, but encompasses them all as it moves through them: paradox? Massumi writes of the continuity of movement as a way to resolve this paradox: “A path is not composed of positions. It is nondecomposable: a dynamic unity.” That is, if Zeno’s “arrow moved it was because it was never in any point. It was in passage across them all”; it was nowhere and everywhere. Cities and secrets share this paradoxical relationship with their inhabitants, because while their inhabitants, their guardian citizens, provided them everyday “points” upon which to declare their existence, their being depends on their movement across these protector bodies—some of which they course within, others whom they can’t permeate (one impermeable group, they purposefully avoid, while another group resists their flow, impervious to their allure, unimpressed by their promise of belonging). Despite this lack of associative desire by the latter variety, it is precisely by coming together as nondecomposable components within a city’s network of outsiders and insiders that these bodies, just like the former, navigate the doing and undoing—the events—of their everyday lives.[8]

6. The secret does and undoes: as an affective charge, it fill us out while simultaneously leaving gaps within us in its wake, haunting us, taunting us with the possibility of its revelation and the obstruction of the precarious bubble built about it, with the possibility of becoming Deleuzian bodies without organs.[9] De-organ-ized bodies, through which affective flows pass not entirely freely, but with less resistance; where secrets are shared in passing, without ever settling down as sediment. As secrets course through us, they become (a part of) us: infused with subjectivity and never merely inert, material objects. Their embodiment makes evident the incorporeal component of the body’s corporeality that Massumi strives to make clear through his study of affect as an everyday intensity which “is unqualifiable,” and therefore “not ownable or recognizable and is thus resistant to critique.”[10] The slipperiness of affect reflects back on the surface of the secret in turn, its gloss rendering it critique-resistant too: the secret must be known in order to exist, and yet its existence depends very much on its concealment, the invisibility of its visibility—secrets are everywhere, but belong to nowhere.

7. But, circling around nowhere and everywhere—what of our lovers? They belong. And not just to our stories, but to each other. Like cities, they have ends; they can’t serve as the ultimate affirmation of life. But if we accept that as Foucault said, writing, the love relationship, and life are games only “worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end,” then they can present us with an important avowal of life—a mortal and bounded life, but still a life—in that similarity. Lovers live inside one another, finding home within the body they desire most, and hence most fear losing. They dwell in the hearts of their beloved, for the heart is a place; one whose nuances Jacques Derrida exploits.[11] It is a place of memory, and can give content—known or unknown, secret or not—a place to reside in memory. Furthermore, for Derrida, “the heart is a crypt, a place of death and mourning.”[12] What happens when the heart you lived not with, but in, dies? “As the place of death—the heart beats, after all, and there is an interruption in the flow of blood, like death—the heart can be faulty. The heart can betray you; it can perjure itself (de parjurer).”[13] Paradox: the crypt-keeper, the lover holding your heart, is also the revealer of your secret. Once gone, once departed, the being you thought your lover becomes the revelation of your secret—the body which gestures its leaving is thus the body which silently speaks your secret.

8. Perhaps this is why secret-lover and portrait-painter, Basil Hallward, kept to himself the names of people he liked immensely. He enshrined his secret ardor within imaginative riddles and mysteries, and ultimately, the picture of Dorian Gray; hiding the name and image of the bearer of the heart that he loved, the heart that could guarantee his secret existence inside of it. He grew to love secrecy, stating—almost wistfully—that somehow, “it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life.”


“The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it…”[14] (Oscar Wilde)
The fetish

 

“Primitive” humans stayed safe with their fetishes—inanimate objects believed by them to have magical powers, secret in nature. Their modern counterpart, however, animates her secrets by safely storing them in objects of her creation. In this way, it becomes clear that the fetish possesses a double secret. Once revealed, a secret is no more than a demystified fetish. Yet no fetish object can ever have both its secrets revealed: for one holds the mystery of presence. The enigma: How is presence produced? How is there something—how is there not nothing?

 

 

1. The heart is not the only organ that has the seemingly paradoxical features allowing it to both conceal and reveal secrets. Not to be forgotten is the largest one: on the surface there is skin—what we show of ourselves and see of others, how we know and come to be known. Skin is what we offer to each other to bury secrets in and under: the pains and pleasures of secrecy are etched onto bodies. Lacerating and diminishing the surface, the painful ones can leave tangible the memory of wounds that need be forgotten, while simultaneously making visible the wounds of memory. But secrecy can also add extensions to the skin, resulting in “a sea of sediment over sediment.”[15] Secrets as affective charges do not settle down as sediment; but the emotions they arouse within us can stay and serve as a palpable reminder of revelations that we come into possession and guardianship of over a lifetime. Emotions, sentiments, those “qualified intensit[ies], the conventional, consensual point[s] of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning [, are] intensity owned and recognized.”[16] The same sediments—and sentiments—that layer and conceal serve as surfaces that reveal another one of the deceptive mechanisms through which bodies enact betrayal.

2. The skin, of course, does more than surface, show, and betray. It offers the possibility of touch—of the tangible experience of presence through touching, even if only for a moment. Importantly, the excessive obsession and fetishization of skin in our moment should not be attributed merely to the steady increase of its visible presence in social representations; rather, its prominence is due to “the multiplication of skin-surfaces… [and] signifying screens.”[17] Or, said otherwise, it is not the visibility of skin that feeds our fixation on it; rather, it is the everyday promise of a possibility—that of touching presence, of feeling being—encapsulated and permitted within it that fascinates. It is the sheer exhilaration of coming into contact with the secret of production—which happens to be the second, lesser acknowledged secret of the fetish—by focusing on “not just how a product is made present, but also how is a presence produced.”[18]

3. But first, the first, better known secret of the fetish—the post-Marxian fetish, the fetish always already bound to one common commodity or other. “[A] very queer thing” for Karl Marx, this commodity is characterized by an enigma latent in its very form as a product of labor: it is “a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product.”[19] Commodities, objects that are the product of human labor, hold value not on account of the creative capital invested in their production, but rather due to their exchangeability, their use value in a given sociotechnical context. It logically follows that people's labor too becomes a commodity, as it is “presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor.”[20] The first secret is thus the masking of the absolute value—the creative, artificial labor value—of the commodified object. This secret, always already revealed in our post-Marxian moment, is itself a masquerade drawing away attention from a second one “that perhaps will never be revealed absolutely.” Knowledge of the incommensurability of “the living humanity inscribed in a work” in no way facilitates the more enigmatic knowledge of “the nature of production.” For Jean-Luc Nancy, it is “the very presence of the thing […,] brought forward in the strange element of presence in and for itself” that remains sheltered as an undisclosed secret in the word “fetish”: this word “fetishizes itself,” much like “other words that speak of the false, the phony, […] the artful, and of course the simulacrum of art.” The question then, when it comes to the artificial brandishing of value, should never be “why is there something and not nothing?”; rather, what we really mean to be—or in any event need to be—asking is “how is there something?”[21]

4. The intensity of presence persists. The object, the thing, the fetishized commodity, has a secret: as a presence, it retains a secret; and its presence—its power of being-present—is dependent on keeping this secret. The alignment between commodity and fetish, the stamping which Marx branded, meant that when “the essence of the commodity [was] revealed as fetish, […] the fetish character would remain once the approach was shifted or the ‘secret’ of its ‘mystical character’ was revealed.”[22] Marx’s critique is in fact responsible for welding together the commodity and the fetish, and his theorization—based on the ethics of a market economy—lent to the foreclosure of other modes of engagement with objects that preclude possession. But what of other economies, such as those of excess, of pleasure, or a queer economy which problematizes our relationship to the normative? If we can fantasize of commodity objects that have a second secret—one that will never be absolutely revealed, as Nancy permits us to—can we imagine an economy of secrets, of (affective) intensities? If the secret does and undoes, and if we are made and unmade by economy, can we use the liminal space of the economy of secrets to reconfigure our desire for value, or reconfigure value as desire—as we reach out to touch presence, to touch the secret we can’t know, to touch the nothing that we’ve come to recognize as something?

5. Perhaps foolishly, quite ambitiously, falling into place behind a breed of collectors before me, I propose that this can be done. That is, that we can reimagine our relationship to commodities, introducing one that bypasses the binarism of use- versus exchange-value and plants itself in a non-utilitarian form; and in so doing we can transcend “the nausea of the replica,” making “no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object,” because we can indulge in “more ingenious pleasure.”[23] To devise this form of luxury, we can turn to a practice often linked to lifestyles of the luxurious: i.e., collecting. Collecting, as a doing, can offer an alternative configuration to the dialectical position of being in possession of, or possessed by, commodified objects. Verily, “the very form of collecting serves both as a recognition of the temptations of commodity fetishism and as a resistance to it,” because it “refuses any recourse to an over-valuation or simplification of use-value in opposition to exchange-value.”[24] Collected objects are after all “possess[ed] in a rare way,”[25] and therefore can escape valorization on the basis of mere utility—it is in this way that the integrity of these objects is maintained, and an intimate relationship with them is made possible. So intimate is this material wholeness in fact, that Walter Benjamin, in unpacking his library, purported that for “a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them”—a proposal he makes right before he proceeds to “disappear” inside the shelter of his object of desire: books.[26] Benjamin highlights the potentialities abiding in the possible consideration of collected objects as not-not-commodities, as vessels that can be inhabited—by subjects or memories, his own or those of the objects’ past lives. For him, as for the renowned collector who preceded him in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility”[27]: collections are assumed and then subsumed, never consumed. Collected objects are, more to the point, secrets in and of themselves; they become so the moment they are taken out of circulation.

6. Taking a commodity out of circulation is an act of secret-making. To make discrete, to set apart, to declare a peculiar sort of ownership which has intimacy preconfigured into it, the sort that recalls “childhood modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names.”[28] When an object is stripped of its exchange value, the how-ness of its “being something” can be addressed: the tangibility of presence pushes to the forefront, becoming the only secret that remains, overdetermined no more by that of the commodity fetish. Here, a different sort of artifice is invoked, one whose pleasure-production relies chiefly on a naïve paradox—that of campiness in its purest form and least intentional state. Camp permits an acquirement of good taste for the bad, the awful, the marginal. It’s a wholly aesthetic sensibility that is “generous” and “wants to enjoy.” The counterpoint to the fetishized object caught in the circle of exchange and consumption—which is powerless in reflecting the “living humanity inscribed” within it—the object of camp’s affection is “the love that has gone into certain objects,” and not the object itself, which it then takes off-market. Camp is “a tender feeling” for Sontag, a sensibility that is in effect “a kind of love, love for human nature.”[29] The collector has a profound understanding of this tenderness; it is, to borrow again from Massumi’s register of sentiments, “an intensity owned and recognized.” The collector of the object seeks out this rare form of possession, this intimate ownership, in order to find a proper space in which he can reside. To repeat myself and Benjamin, it’s not that objects “come alive in him; it is he who [having discovered the presence of love within it, a sure sign of a hospitable environment,] lives in them.”

7. Like our lovers of times past, the collector penetrates the skin in order to get to the heart, to the place of love, death, and mourning. This practice, this drive to seek out safety within the confines of a space, is not irrelevant to the “tactical instinct” they have sharpened and honed in pursuit of their objects of desire, while perusing the unfamiliar streets of a new city: “Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experiences teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position.”[30] For a collector like Benjamin, the city holds a secret insofar as it holds his object of desire—“How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books![31] is the excited proclamation of discovery that we encounter in reading his notes. Benjamin understood deeply the secret of the cities he visited, the departure that awaited him, and the little disappearance that his pass through the city would cause; his memories of the cities are jotted down only in his musings about the things he came to find in each, and consequently, the things he took away from each. While he stole from the city, he knew that ultimately it was the city, as secret and secret-holder, who would reap the most from his stay.

8. Cities too are collectors, and the urban landscape lives not just within its people, but also in its things. When a sympathetic collector salvages a cherished and cherishable object, something of the city is discovered and lost. The city is confounding, as space, as time—always slipping between discovery and loss, artfully occupying the distance between concealment and revelation—recognizable as secret and maintainable as such: “so many manifestations of this that there is nothing to reveal, and also of the fact that the secret consists in not revealing anything. This is the very art of art or the very art of life.”[32] In this way, cities live and live on, dissolving as we’ve come to accept—after the great city in the Great Khan’s dream—they do. In this way, they overcome the paradox of movement, burst out of their own skins as their ashes settle on the surface of their floating persons and their floating objects, all their things, all their events slow and fast. In this way, they travel.

 

“Secrets save me from dissolving...”[33] (Anne Carson)
The wall

 

The paradoxes persist. We think the secret needs shelter, needs our protection. When it’s just as—if not more—possible that our secrets are our way of protecting ourselves. That is, we think we build our walls to keep in our secrets, whereas our secrets are really the walls that contain us. Whether we intentionally partake in this form of self-conservation by giving birth to secrets, or whether this is a transmogrification that takes place postpartum we can’t know. What we can surmise is that we need our secrets just as much as they need us.

 

 

1. But what is the secret, the need for walls, in the context of the everyday? We abuse white lies to hide away our actual feelings, justifying it as a need to protect another’s that lie at the risk of getting hurt. Prudent politics are encouraged in work environments, lest our uncensored thoughts prove controversial. We tell tall tales to delight, because we want badly to believe that everyone would concede “it is absurd to divide people into good and bad,” and as Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington pointed out, “people are either charming or tedious,” and it would be a sin to be the latter in an age where new enchantments abound.[34] And in our modern-day surveillance society—Michel Foucault best qualified it as that space where “visibility is a trap”[35]—even our gestures run the risk of relenting to be controlled in order to assure their legibility and compliance with a preconceived set of norms. If the practice of secrecy connotes a tactical space of everyday empowerment for marginalized populations—Michel de Certeau’s “the weak”—then secrets themselves can be read as everyday survival tactics.[36] And, according to Kathleen Stewart, “just about everyone is part of the secret conspiracy of everyday life to get what you can out of it.”[37] Do we build our walls to get what we can out of it, or are our mounted walls all that we can get out of it?

2. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a secret is “something kept hidden or unexplained,” “something kept from the knowledge of others.” What’s curious is that while a secret is worded to imply a solitary act and separateness, a conspiracy insinuates togetherness—it is “the act of conspiring together,” or, a secret plan devised by “a group.” What then is the secret conspiracy of everyday life? Is it to bring everyone together in a collective fortress, to keep everyone out of a solitary watchtower, or to navigate both—whom does “just about everyone” exclude? Does the secret conspiracy belong to everyday life or does everyday life find itself caught in its trenches? Who is the “you” Stewart addresses, and what role does this interlocutor play? Does the secret conspiracy belong to her? Is it hers, is it for her benefit, is it an excavation of everyday life of just about everyone that would lower the most she can get out of it? And if so…the most what?

3. Let us say: the most pleasure. We can do so by claiming that the “you” she addresses is Stewart herself, who attests elsewhere that “there’s pleasure in conspiracy theory.” Conspiracy theory is where she agrees with Foucault, articulating as it does the “widely shared sensibility of being controlled by an all-pervasive something,” and taking “for granted that the powers that be are functionaries of the opposing camp; that the problem is structural, and that social structures are mysterious, motivated, intentional, and often malevolent.” Where pleasure comes in is conspiracy theory’s nod “to an ordinary that is already mixed up in all of this,” yet empowering because of its open call “to a reversal or a return as if a sudden magical jolt could turn things around or something.”[38] If “just about everyone is part of the secret conspiracy of everyday life to get what [she] can out of it,” could it possibly be that what she’s out to get is more conspiracy to keep alive the dream of abounding conspiracy theories and to keep thriving the small, inventive interpretive practices involved in their uncovering? Dirt, anthropologist Mary Douglas observed long ago, is merely “matter out of place.”[39] Is a conspiracy, its heavy connotations bearing strong, anything but a secret scattered out of place?

The most what? Let us say: the most secrets.

4. The more secrets, the less the likelihood of dissolution. But what would it feel like to dissolve? And what sort of affective economy does dissolution entail? If Anne Carson contends in her (most probably?) hoax interviews with Mimnermos—the seventh-century-BC Greek poet—that his secrets keep him from dissolving, how does she expect us to react in the face of this statement? Are we to commiserate? Is the dissolving being discussed a disappearance, or is it disintegration—a gentle mixing, a slow shift in the material speed of the molecular structure of our bodies in order for them to be better attuned to their surroundings, to vibrate on the same wavelengths as the everyday objects they stumble into and upon? Surely this can’t be unsafe (and yet becoming always needs to be “in doses […,] injections of caution” as Deleuze and Guattari heed experimenters of de-organ-ization[40]). Perhaps what we’re supposed to find most perilous is rhythms’ ability to make us aware of one of the basic tenets of rhythmanalysis as put forth by Henri Lefebvre: “time is not set aside” for us, the subjects, and objects are “not inert.”[41] Once again, we’re reminded of our porousness, of our innate faculty to disintegrate, of the shifting boundary between subjectivity and objectivity. Rhythms are many and in their ubiquity, remind us of our own diversity, of our ability to disintegrate into fragments if and when we let ourselves feel too much. “We contain ourselves by concealing the diversity of our rhythms: to ourselves, body and flesh, we are almost objects. Not completely, however.”[42] We contain ourselves in our walls and our secrets, bar off a surrounding perimeter as personal space, only to experience frustration at how long it takes to know someone from a distance. When seal ourselves off from infectious rhythms, only to realize we have instead become infected with adronitis.

5.         adronitis.

(n.) Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.[43]

6. How is building up mystery different from building up walls (through secret-building)? If we get to the heart of the matter first—our “deepest secrets”—do we dissolve? Perhaps in this way, we actually solidify alongside one another, sharing in a new form of intimacy, a different affective economy where we accept the porosity of our skins and move beyond the intoxication of (surface) touch. For this, we would need to redefine privacy, take conspiracy theory’s open call at face value, and fashion “a reversal or a return as if a sudden magical jolt could turn things around or something.” We can, as Miranda July is currently experimenting, embrace a different extreme by giving in to the evolving art of privacy brought about by the digital age: “radical self-exposure and classically manicured discretion can both be powerful, both be elegant”; [44] yet fewer people have been known to brave the former, to exploit the internet—a hot topic that to this day evokes a flurry of privacy concerns—to their advantage. Radical self-exposure crumbles walls, builds mysteries instead. It builds secrets from the outside in. But before it can do this, we have to weigh anchor and set sail into unknown territory. We have to buy into the conviction that we aren’t that different from cities—that once someone departs, they won’t return. So best secure a joint departure now, best to travel together—or is it?

7. This question is one Margaret Atwood’s protagonist forces us to consider before we romanticize mysteries over walls, exposure over privacy: “I wonder which is preferable,” the sci-fi novelist mused, “to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you're depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin—everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone—and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?”[45] The choices she offers, however, seem grim: either choose to be alone in and with your secrets, or float around aimlessly as an emptied out vessel, no different from a fetish demystified, or an invisible city even dreams appear blind to. It is precisely this conviction that I find myself resistant to: the urban subject as alienated and fragmented beyond hope for reparation and repatriation. As I have tried to hint at throughout, the performative writing of fragments can display, in its very structuring, the fragmented nature of selves, and ways in which these bits and pieces can be reconciled. Robert Frost would most likely agree that despite a series of unknowns and a sequence of disconnects, a link can always be formed. A circular ring at that, threading through us, through our beginnings and ends; making us realize that the secret, even if it knows exactly what it is we suppose, sitting as it does in at the wheel, is connected to us through spokes. We too turn the secret, each time we dance round the ring again. And so every beginning can serve as an ending. The beginning can always come at the end: we are both secret and secret-holder.  

8. We all dance round in a ring and suppose. The Secret sits in the middle and knows.

 


key:

[1] However, the breathe and depth of this essay does not allow me to share these written “secrets”—either jotted down in silent dialogue passed back and forth in local cafés, or else anonymously placed inside a “secret box” left on their tables with invitations for contribution—at this early stage.

[2] Foucault, Technologies of the Self, “Truth, Power, Self,” p. 9.

[3] Calvino, Invisible Cities, “Trade Cities 1.”

[4] Calvino, Invisible Cities, “Cities & Eyes 1.”

[5] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 13.

[6] The eternal return—the postulate that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to repeat itself in similar form (but with a difference) over infinite temporal and/or spatial planes—was first introduced into Nietzsche’s oeuvre in The Gay Science, and later served as the fundamental conception behind Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[7] Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p. 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 149–66.

[10] Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p. 28.

[11] Derrida, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy.

[12] Leonard Lawlor, Implications of Immanence, p. 28.

[13] Ibid, p. 29.

[14] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 3.

[15] Hasbun, “Artist Statement,” X post facto.

[16] Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, p. 28.

[17] Connor, “Mortification,” p. 36.

[18] Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish,” p. 6.

[19] Marx, “Commodity Fetishism,” p. 60.

[20] Ibid, p. 61.

[21] Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish,” p. 6.

[22] Ibid, p. 3.

[23] Sontag, “Some Notes on Camp,” p. 289.

[24] Lasjak, “Utopia, Use, and the Everyday,” p. 186.

[25] Sontag, “Some Notes on Camp,” p. 289.

[26] Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” p. 67.

[27] Ibid, p. 66.

[28] Ibid, p. 62.

[29] Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” pp. 291–2.

[30] Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” p. 63.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish,” p. 8.

[33] Carson, “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” p. 21.

[34] Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, p. 4.

[35] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.

[36] de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, p. 37.

[37] Stewart, Ordinary Affects, p. 41.

[38] Ibid, p. 89.

[39] Douglas, Purity and Danger, p. 41.

[40] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 150.

[41] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, p. 20.

[42] Ibid, p. 10.

[43] jkcreative, adronitis.

[44] July, We Think Alone.

[45] Atwood, The Blind Assassin, p. 448.

 


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