Prof. Stefanos Geroulanos, European intellectual history, New York University, provided a skeptical analysis of the concept of transparency in a lecture Tuesday evening.
Geroulanos said the concept of transparency has a “phantom-like quality” — nobody defines the word and yet everybody feels that they know what it means. Through an analysis of contemporary French theory, a branch of 20th and 21st century contemporary philosophy, Geroulanos argued that the widely praised ideal of transparency needs to be viewed through a more critical lens.
Several modern states strove towards transparency in the post-war era. Some examples include the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., glasnost in the USSR and anti-corruption laws in present-day Germany. But while it has often been praised, the the ideal of transparency is an “empty slogan” that does not actually make a government more accountable, Geroulanos argued.
“It works very much to the advantage of someone like Trump, who will then pretend they are the most transparent or whatever, and what it doesn’t do … it doesn’t give the government a chance to do something to plan ahead with several years and suggest why it is, that in a direct fashion, things are going to be better,” he told The Sun.
“Hence, we can’t actually look at this anticipation of this future, we can’t have an expectation of how things are going to change for the better because of a particular government and instead it becomes this daily ‘who does what, how, where and in what fashion’ which I think is paralyzing toward having ideals,” he continued. “I think that’s a real problem that’s not easy to escape.”
Geroulanos traced how the concept of transparency manifested in the works of three French theorists: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and André Leroi-Gourhan.
“He’s seeing all three of them as basically very much criticizing transparency as it has been used, but then also advocating a kind of truly new order of knowledge at the end of their books that would be inaugurated through this theory of transparency,” said Camille Robcis, director of French Studies and one of the organizers of the event.
Geroulanos described how these postwar French interpretations of the term transparency were very different from the Christian and Enlightenment traditions that advocated for a transparent society.
“By comparison to all those celebrations, the post-war French use of the term transparency spiraled around the deep suspicion that transparency was philosophically violent and distortive, politically perilous and ethically misguided,” he said.
Robcis told The Sun that she thought that it was particularly interesting how Geroulanos traced the concept of transparency in terms of its uses.
“I think methodologically he’s trying to do something really innovative in terms of intellectual history,” she said. “He’s interested in tracing a concept not necessarily in terms of its meaning but in terms of its uses and how these uses in a particular moment in French history but not necessarily in terms of how these meanings have changed but how the uses have evolved.”
“Today as well, the certain promise and ideal of transparency is mutating, thinning out, just as it is becoming ever present,” Geroulanos said. “It is difficult nonetheless to see outside of the promise of transparency … and it’s just as difficult to reject transparency even if we look agree if there is something inherently pernicious encompassed.”