(Dalkey Archive, 2012)
The renowned Polish writer, translator, and historian Marek Bieńczyk is a subtle thinker who persistently probes the ineffable and revelatory in human perception and experience. Transparency, his second book to be published in English after Tworki (Northwestern University Press, 2008), is a blend of essay, cultural criticism, and metaphysical fiction. Drawing on a spectrum of sources from Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Nabokov to Aristotle, Descartes, Benjamin, and Barthes, the book is both an investigation into a personal obsession and a treatise on an archetype uniting a world of disparate phenomena as manifested in poetry, modernism, contemporary politics, and architecture:
I have wanted to write a page or two about transparency and translucency for some time… Transparency, I told myself, is summoning me, digging into me like a probe: it is mine. In foreign cities, I chose to lunch in restaurants with panoramic views; evenings I would stop in front of illuminated shop windows, and my friends started to make fun, to buy me glass balls as gifts…Working on some text, I would unwittingly thin out the concreteness of meanings, the words would flee their sense, metaphors lost track of their ideas, everything inevitably tended toward abstraction: a whiteness shone out from behind the sentences.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s symbiotic connection to the people around him was cruelly broken the day he was accused of a childhood misdemeanor he did not commit. Beginning with Rousseau’s political philosophy, Bieńczyk traces the idea of transparency in human intention and behavior and its place in concepts developed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for the ideal organization of society. Gradually, a Rousseauian belief in the heart’s intrinsic purity as the essential prerequisite to a good and just world was replaced with its inversion as the individual became subjected to increasing levels of transparency imposed from without.
To this purpose, the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon, a type of institutional building—a prison, hospital, or school—designed to facilitate the observation of its inhabitants from a central point as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” Conditioned by the knowledge of being visible at all times, inmates automatically monitored their own actions in what essentially became an internalized form of control. Originally intended as a means of improving behavior, Bentham’s vision of transparency helped lay the groundwork for the totalitarian state. It is interesting that while many post-Soviet societies have chosen democracy over a politically oppressive system in which the individual’s transparency ensures the government’s inscrutability, we inhabit a world in which widespread public surveillance is so commonplace that we hardly take notice of it.
Throughout this book, transparency is engaged in a struggle between utopia and dystopia. Among the many endeavors aimed at making the world more visible, Bieńczyk devotes considerable attention to transparency in modern architecture. Profoundly influenced by the experiences of two world wars and the collapse of the social orders that accompanied them, the construction of large, airy spaces and a predominance of glass embodied a redefinition of values that would help bring about a new society. This visionary reorganization of public and private space was also the result of the advent of new technologies in glass manufacturing begun in the 18th century, which introduced large panes. Glass houses, crystal palaces, domes, and arcades appeared in anticipation of the plate-glass windows of our modern-day consumer society; an era of peeping and voyeurism commenced as interiors were exposed to the outside and the people in them to the public gaze.
This gaze would also turn inward. A long path led from Rousseau’s vision of the transparent human heart—and its natural instinct for moral goodness—to the discovery of the hidden depths of the subconscious and the triumph of psychoanalysis, which identified entire regions of the psyche not immediately accessible to rational understanding. As psychology and philosophy became dominated by the concept of the subject’s essential non-transparency, the systematic study of human motivation and its many contradictions made notions of purity and innocence seem increasingly naïve. Evasion, suppression, and subterfuge emerged as the internal forces embroiled in a drama of injury and trauma, while clarity and opacity were revealed as components of a complex dialectic. Faced with the painstaking task of achieving self-awareness, the subject was now forced to realize that “it’s still a long way to the self, that a vast distance stretches between ‘I’ and ‘I,’ that one is quite the opposite of the person he believed himself to be.”
And so, transparency is also a state of perception; it is both the intangible membrane separating the subject from the self and the lens through which a person communicates intentions and comprehends the intentions of others. It is the awareness that something must happen to allow understanding to take place, to transgress the boundary between the self and the other. It is the window through which light enters the room, a light perceived in terms of its absence and defined in contrast to its shadow—for a dynamic exists between transparency and non-transparency, and it is this dynamic that Bieńczyk detects in an array of sources. For instance, contemporary politics and its repeated assurances that an investigation, election, parliamentary debate, etc. will take place in full public view, while what this much-touted transparency in fact does is render this behavior virtually invisible by creating the illusion that incompetence, corruption, or poor legislation will be automatically expunged or corrected. Here, in a paradoxical inversion, transparency no longer serves the improvement of society, but protects the powers that be and ensures their survival.
Whether or not one agrees with Bieńczyk’s overarching thesis that transparency has become modernity’s ambiguous successor, this inspired book connects a broad range of observations. Yet in the bustling reality of the modern city, an architecture of transparency is also an architecture of reflection, a narcissistic labyrinth of mirrors in which people are turned back upon themselves; it seems odd that Bieńczyk omits this. Equally odd is his omission of the price of social media—which requires consent to personal transparency—particularly considering its long-term political ramifications. While Bieńczyk connects the dots of his fragmentary narrative in surprising and illuminating ways, he is at his most convincing when he explores his obsession on an individual, existential level, at the degree zero of perception, of poetry, and of language.
Whichever side we happen to be standing on, whether staring into the rooms, foyers, and halls held behind the glass or the other way around, staring out from their interiors at the streets, houses, or sky, a vague longing awaits us, either a longing for life, which is still going on at any given moment, so very near to time that it brushes up against it and tears at its seams, for here is a scrap of paper in a book, an open letter, a raised cup, a folder taken out of a drawer—or else a longing for stillness, unaffected by time, pilfered from the interiors of our rooms, calling out to the afternoon light, to neon signs in the evening, and covering the nervous bustle of the day in a transparent silence.
Transparency is Bieńczyk’s earliest conscious memory, a moment of insight, a profound experience of existence manifested in a patch of sunlight on a wall with “quivering bits of dust, so pure and full in that light that it seemed its interior had been revealed.” It is a “self-evident sense of being, in which there were no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood”; the crystalline meaning of a sentence that conveys a “complete and lucid whole”; the invisible boundary between life and death. It is the thin veneer of the present through which the past and sometimes the future can be read. Its absence is the agony of existence as a separate being, discontinuous from the people we love most; its opposite is not opacity, not darkness or mystery, but hysteria.