I went to Switzerland and Learned about Transparency

I was very lucky to visit Switzerland last week for the first time. I have a lot of positive things to say about the country (pluses for me: mountains, cheese, beer, and the SBB transit app), but I want to focus here on the intellectual content of my trip, which was to attend a two day conference on the concept of transparency organized by Filipe Calvao at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

Geneva was lovely. The weather was perfect (too hot for fondue, but perfect for aperol), and the venue was in the middle of a park, so we could sit outside in the sun and read and discuss our papers in a friendly and leisurely manner. At first I felt it might be a bit too leisurely for my taste, but then I realized two things. First, I am just a very intense person and need to calm down so other people around me can feel comfortable. And second, when you don’t live near the equator, there are five extra hours of daytime to get work done in the summer!

I won’t comment too much on the papers we discussed since they are still in process, but I did want to vaguebook a little about the concept of transparency. I don’t actually study transparency, so experts might find these remarks obvious, but writing them will help clarify things for me, and might be interesting to others who are, like myself, non-initiates.

First, I was struck by the way that ‘transparency’ is a coherent cultural syndrome or culture trait — there is clearly out there called ‘transparency ideology’. This term was coined by Andrea Ballestero in her special issue on transparency, and connects well with other similar ideas like language ideology and semiotic ideology. This is ‘transparency’ in a narrow sense: a reflexive project of actors (typically the governing and bureaucratic sort) which aims to gain accurate and complete knowledge of some state of affairs in order to better govern or monitor them. Think sustainability reports in the mining industry or companies hiring consultants to demonstrate to outsiders that they don’t have child slaves making their tennis shoes.

Much of the literature I read in preparation for the conference gave several reasons to be critical of the concept of transparency. First, many authors criticised the coercive nature of transparency claims. Because transparency is supposed to be a good thing, you can’t argue with anyone who claims to be doing it — even if what they are doing is not good. The hegemonic, bludgeoning force of transparency was something that many people complained about.

At the same time (second) there are a lot of people who have been successfully critical of transparency discourse. So if someone argued that you can’t argue with transparency, I’d recommend they look at this work. Rachel Hall’s critique of airport checkpoints convincingly shows us how our democratic rights as citizens are transformed into temporary freedom of movement after we have submitted to transparency. Journalists who protect their sources are both opposed to transparency and in the right. Indigenous people who object to the depiction of private information in ethnographies are opponents of transparency, and rightly so. In fact, any sort of discourse of privacy is an anti-transparency discourse. So I think in the branding war against transparency there are a lot of allies and a lot of good criticisms of bad transparency. Most of us don’t think of doxxing as a brave act of transparency.

Third, I was struck by the suppression of ambivalence that accompanies transparency. Transparency projects often spend lots of time and money compiling massive amounts of documents, but the rhetoric of transparency is that it can ‘see through’ obstructions to the unmediated truth. Somehow all those documents, all those mediations, disappear. Much of the literature on mediation has noticed the ironies, silences, and disavowals that these sorts of transparency projects require, the unintended consequences they raise, the harm they do by claiming to do good etc. — call it the Kafka critique of transparency.

Fourth, Transparency thus strikes me as a very ‘sincere’ cultural project, in Seligmann et. al.’s terms: a kinds of cultural system that has trouble admitting that there is always more than one way of doing things. It seems a very Protestant system to me, in the sense that Keane describes Protestantism as a project of sincerity and authenticity that both inevitable requires representation, but also wishes it didn’t. I’m reminded here, for instance, of Fielgelman’s book Declaring Independence which opens with a description of Thomas Jefferson practicing sounding natural when he reads the Declaration of Independence. Practicing sounding natural: that’s the pairing of rhetoric and logic that transparency wants to unburden itself of. It also reminded me of the line from The Importance of Being Earnest to the effect of ‘being spontaneous is so exhausting’ but of course now I can’t find that quote. Ultimately, transparency is a semiotic ideology in Keane’s sense, and as Mazarella’s excellent article on mediation (which I’ve only just now gotten around to reading) demonstrates, this ambivalence about mediation is not just something linked with Protestantism, but a central part of semiosis and something which all cultures have to deal with (in saying this, Mazzarella is making an argument similar to Seligman).

Now, I don’t want to essentialism Protestantism or transparency. These are big labels and there are lots of different versions and variations of these things. In fact, I was struck by how some of the papers at the conference didn’t seem to be about transparency projects and transparency ideology at all.

For instance, first, some criticise transparency projects because they focus on one thing and not something else. Thus they can ignore the things that you wish they would focus on. But this isn’t really a critique of transparency projects in particular, it’s a critique that could be levelled at all cultural projects, since they are all inevitably selective and omitive. This is, to me, a Neokantian or Weberian point.

Second, just because transparency is all about visibility doesn’t mean that all visibility is about transparency. Nor are all concealments and secrecies about transparency. I feel like it is important to distinguish between the particular cultural project of transparency and other things which seem vaguely connected to it because they revolved around secrecy and openness. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be considered alongside transparency, but that the true value of a wider or metaphorical use of the concept of transparency is that it should be able to show us connections and the disconnections between these different projects.

Third, (and this was the topic of my own paper) we need to be a little reflexive when it comes to critiquing transparency. Much of the literature I’ve read on transparency seems very sure of its ability to know the truth… about how transparency projects don’t know as much as they think they do. Critiques of transparency should be subtle and reflexive, or else they end up replicating the false omniscience they denounce. Luckily, as anthropologists we’re good at ‘doing reflexivity’ so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for us.

Fourth, and finally, much of the literature on transparency that I’ve read doesn’t like transparency because it has been used to do evil. This is doubtless true in many cases, but it’s not a criticism of transparency ideology itself. Sadly, there is no concept or idea that has not been used for evil at some point or another in world history. Love, compassion, hope, solidarity, empathy — all have been used to justify the worst excesses of human nature at some point or another. For instance: We love our children, which is why we must eradicate the Jews who seek to prey on them. Ultimately, we need to be clear that when we dislike transparency projects, it is because we dislike the broader political project which has pressed it into service. We should also be clear about why and how much we dislike these projects. I’m very cynical about the success of these projects in the mining industry, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that I’d prefer to have an industry that is completely unregulated and unmonitored. Norms are at the core of many of our concerns about transparency, and we should be honest about that.

In closing:

A few more notes about Switzerland. I was also able to get out to Lucerne to visit Bettina Beer’s group there which studies mining in Papua New Guinea — thanks to all of them for their hospitality and especially to Tobias Schwoerer who helped organize my stay. I didn’t get a chance to sight-see much on my trips. However, I did get a chance to see the Musée Barbier-Muller in Geneva and the Ethnographic Museum in Basel (and, as a result, Basel’s lovely historic downtown). The former had a small collection of beautiful pieces displayed in a pretty traditional ‘arts premiers’ way. The latter had a fantastic 3 story high entrance to a Sepik men’s house, along with strong collections from the Sepik and New Ireland (among other places). There were a couple of installations there or in-process when I visited so I couldn’t see all of the museum, but I was intrigued to see how Basel solved the perennial problem of ethnographic museums: How to display a collection gathered under one out-moded premise (natural history of ‘primitive’ people). Their solution was to have each of the floors of the museum dedicated to a different dimension of the human experience: agency, ‘bigness’ (space, extension, and volume), and so forth. Or at least this is what I gathered — one thing I confirmed on this trip was precisely how little German I spoke. I liked the idea of addressing the Human Condition, but of course this also led to very little contextualization of the objects from PNG. And, if I may so, I was a bit shocked at the number of skulls on display. I think in the US displaying human remains is not the done thing anymore.

One final thing: if you’re into iconoclasm, I highly recommend the cathedral in Geneva. It’s remarkable how unadorned a cathedral can be! I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the town John Calvin called home.

Overall, I had a great time in Switzerland and it was well worth the twenty frickin’ hours it took to get there. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and made my trip possible — it is much appreciated!