We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
If you were my downstairs neighbour and I put my stereo speakers on the floor, cones down, and pumped up “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you could call the police and I could get a ticket.
If we were at a restaurant, together in the room but not “together,” and I was wearing too much cologne, there would be no similar recourse that I know of. Why not?
Like music, scents can invade one’s personal space. Although you might not especially want your perfume or cologne to be smelled by everyone, most scents are intensified by synthetic chemicals so that many people can smell them whether or not they are your intimates. Perfume and cologne can expand the wearer’s personal space. They are on clothes, hair, and especially skin, and suddenly the skin can often be detected anywhere in the room. By phenomenological magic, they make the wearer a giant. They are a claim on space. As with a flag planted on a hilltop, a scent says, “You will always be able to notice me.” Unlike the flag, the person wearing the scent doesn’t have to be seen to be noticed. It’s a sign that can point at (seemingly) nothing, so, in the hallways on campus or in office buildings, I can routinely smell fragrances worn by people who are no longer there. Unlike music, a fragrance can trigger asthma attacks, headaches, and dizziness (“Go” par. 7). In my view, or in my nose, it is a bad sign.
Except when used sparingly, perfumes and colognes redefine public space. You can’t look away from them. They replace the discourse of speakers and listeners with nonverbal messages, each one loud, like a cry. In an Althusserian sense, it is a hail that provokes an ideological recognition or compliance. I’m serious; like a person’s fashion and couture, a fragrance has meanings related to peer groups, cultural influences, and identity politics. One way of reading the bad sign as an ideological message is that any space is or was open to colonization (a message we descendants of settlers in the West recognize instantly, if not consciously); even the air can be commodified with a branded fragrance such as “Obsession” or “Chanel no. 5.”
Whatever the nuance of a perfume or cologne, it always says, “smell me.” But it’s very different from the scents in Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” In this poem, the intoxicating and sensual smells evoked are only in the imagination. They are erotic because you can’t touch the body in the poem. In real life, fragrances often over-deliver. I have been turned on by the occasional perfume, if it teases. But fragrances are often just constantly in your face. Even if you can’t touch the body, you can become numb to its attractions, and your other senses can be overwhelmed—especially taste, which relies so much on smell.
Last week, I was in Montreal again, and we splurged to go to my favourite restaurant, P’tit Plateau—but the experience was not what it could have been. It was not because of the food, which was excellent as always. It was not because of the company at our table, because everyone was wonderful even when I became a grump. The problem was with some of the other company at a different table, specifically a guy who came in with his girlfriend and promptly stunk up the place.
My train of thought went like this:
1. If my evil eye could kill, he’d be dead right now.
2. Relax, the scent is already gone—no, it’s back.
3. I can’t taste the celeriac. My wine is not from Cologne.
4. Maybe I could ask the waiter to talk to him.
5. Maybe I could leave with a doggy bag of food.
I stayed, but I quietly complained to my friends. Later, on the street after having chugged some more wine, I was more vocal. My friends, one who is Parisienne—the French being associated with the finest perfumes—and one who loves his cologne, objected. So did my partner. These were their reasons:
1. Your nose is sensitive. We couldn’t smell him much.
2. He might have put on too much without time to clean up.
3. We have to tolerate people’s differences in public.
I’m not certain that I recall #3 exactly, but it was a message of tolerance, and I accept that. Mostly. I do, however, believe we are justified to be intolerant of harmful behaviours. (How intolerant? Possibly more so than I was, given that I stayed and didn't say anything to the waiter or the cologne-wearer.) People who smell a little like the type of food that they eat should be tolerated, because food is necessary and nutritious (other edibles being worthy of disqualification as food, according to Michael Pollan). People who smell like gasoline because they work at a gas station should be tolerated because they need to work for a living. (My grandfather sometimes smelled of engine oil—and the tobacco that he called “snuff.”) I wouldn’t be bothered if they cleaned up before going fine dining, though.
I’ve already suggested how, in theory, wearing a scent can be harmful, but I would like to substantiate it so that I don’t appear to be sticking my nose in other people’s business for no reason. First, let’s consider the potential scope of the harm. When I talk about scents, I mean not only colognes and perfumes but also all the fragrances added to moisturizers, hairspray, aftershave, candles, anti-static sheets, soaps and detergents, deodorant (an ironic term if there ever was one), etc. They are everywhere, and that’s part of the problem.
Other people’s business. Here’s where perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances become really interesting. Yes, I admit that fragrances can be interesting on their own. Michelyn Camen of ÇaFleurBon blogged to lament the “repercussions of ‘anti-perfumism’ on our Art,” and while I hesitate to attribute the term “art” to everything, especially with a capital A, I have no doubt that some people—artisans, maybe even artists—can create remarkable and meaningful effects with fragrance. Mother nature does it too, and we can accentuate nature. I marvel at the complexity of coffee, which can be grown and cultivated to enhance its enjoyable qualities.
So, business. In Canada and the United States, if not elsewhere, fragrance is a big business. It’s pharmaceutical. As with any corporation that uses science to create proprietary formulas, fragrance manufacturers want to keep the secrets of their products. Governments have mainly allowed corporations to continue as is, despite the finding that a “typical fragrances can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients” (“Scents” par. 7). On these long lists are substances such as “carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants’ (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” (Steinemann par. 5). The Canadian Lung Association focuses on diethyl phthalate, which is an allergen and reproductive toxin. Anne Steinemann, contributing an essay to The David Suzuki Foundation, has expressed concern about the lack of regulation (par. 6). Why, if we are concerned about interactions of prescription drugs, are we not worried about fragrances, which are like drugs in that we ingest them through our noses and skin, and they modify our body chemistry (as food does, of course, but not harmfully)?
The situation is reminiscent of the governmental relationship with the tobacco industry before the widespread restriction of smoking in public, with the exception of course that fragrances have not been linked with millions of deaths. Cigarettes are obviously much worse. I remember coming home from the bar (where I was neither a smoker nor much of a drinker, in those days; I was designated driver), and my clothes would stink up the apartment and could transfer smells to the furniture and carpet. Those days are gone, here at least, though several of my older relatives have died or are sick because of their smoking. In our newly healthier environments, Marilee Nelson calls fragrance “the new secondhand smoke.” I would not be surprised if we can one day (if not already) correlate illnesses such as cancer with low dosage interactions between high numbers of chemicals, or simply with the carcinogens already proven to be in many fragrances.
When I expressed some of these concerns to the manager of health and safety at one of the universities where I worked previously, he said that he wouldn’t support a no-scents policy because fragrances don’t bioaccumulate and are therefore not harmful, and because some people like the smell. Yes, and some people like to smoke cigarettes. And, in fact, some chemicals in fragrances do bioaccumulate, according to research in the United States (re-reported by the DSF) that found that 70% of umbilical cords contain synthetic musks (“Go” par. 8) . In other words, we keep the synthetics in our bodies and can transfer them to our fetuses and children. They’re also building up in the Great Lakes and in the fish that live there.
If nature is the ultimate public space, we are marking it with scents as no other animal has ever done.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'Smell Me': Scents and Public Space.” Publicly Interested. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Should there be ads on a blog called “Publicly Interested”? The question started to nag me as soon as I decided to start a blog. I can imagine how bpNichol or another concrete poet might begin to approach it, before doing something way more creative:
I mean this in different ways. Ads on the web are a nagging presence, and, of course, they add up—to big numbers of ads, to big potential revenue, and to big distraction. I want this blog to be not only readable, with the zen of print, but also commercially neutral (not that print is). Sadly, I assume that eventually the nice folks at my web-hosting service are going to ask me to pay them to keep this blog free of ads.
My questions are about the extent of my right or privilege to keep it free. Is this blog mine? It’s free of both ads and costs at the moment, so was it a gift? Or is it a loan? Is it public or private space? Let’s say for a moment that it’s mine, as some of my private property is—perhaps not something I paid for, but something I made: not something I made on campus, but perhaps a painting or, better yet, a diary.
A diary is the epitome of a private text, but, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner observes that it does address a "partial stranger" (125): the diarist's future self, a future public. Interpreting a scene of totalitarian surveillance of a diarist in George Orwell's 1984, Warner also suggests that, in an era of social media, our privacy will ultimately be policed (127). The concern for me is not as it is in 1984, where government surveillance is a major problem. Although Orwell remains compelling, I worry more about corporate surveillance and the link between profit and privacy.
In my book on stardom in poetry (if you can believe it—I want to quote that phrase again: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”), I remarked upon an admittedly obvious tendency of celebrities to relinquish their privacy for the sake of gaining and maintaining a public, as many of us now do on social media such as this blog—arguably part of a trend toward diminishing privacy and increasing publicity.
Or you can think of it as the total opposite: not a drift to publicity but to privacy, if privacy is inseparable from the idea of private property.
Your privacy includes your own self and your own space, and in a capitalistic society it competes with the private sector: wanting a house to be your private space, you have to offer more than another person or corporation offers for it. You can also profit from it. Let’s think of that diary. It’s not for profit, unless you’re Elizabeth Smart publishing what Dee Horne calls a “novel-journal.” With By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in the 1940s, Smart effectively went public with her journal, which is what bloggers do today—but not necessarily with money involved.
Seemingly different from privacy, publicity is to some extent one’s publicness or condition of being public. In the sense of advertising, publicity is also the incursion of the private sector into public space, which is a space defined partly by its not-for-profit status. Ads on “my” not-for-profit blog would be publicity. As soon as we allow ourselves to talk about “privacy” and “the private sector” in the context of social media, privatization can overtake privacy. "My" privacy might be coterminous with someone else's profit.
An arising concern is that attempts to address and thereby create a public, which is the precondition that Warner explains in Publics and Counterpublics (82, 129), will become a privatized activity—very different from standing on a soapbox in a park (insofar as parks remain public), calling out to others with poems or slogans, or blogging. The difference is that the activity is, at least by proxy, selling something.
So I wonder if my web-hosting service would ever censor me for advising people not to look at or click on ads if this blog had them. Presumably the provider can take down a blog for any of the mutable reasons that it or its future parent company might dictate. In the future, “my” blog could be part of a sale, which suggests that my writing is a labour worth something to the provider, as it is to a publisher controlling a copyright.
The recognition of a "labour" involved is both a blessing and a curse. Its recognition as work or a work can be nice, but it means my writing is co-opted into a discourse in which we create property through labour, when I want it to be exist as something other than a commodity. Or, if it must, in addition to a commodity—there's the problem of the "add" again.
So, the fact that I wrote this blog is one explanation for why the provider gives or lends me this public-private space, free of ads. The content, however, is unimportant to the provider, because (in theory) the very fact of my writing is the advertisement. There's an emoticon for this: not knowing how to feel about it, but definitely not good.
Adding to this feeling, the commodity here, for you, as a public, is what Richard Posner calls the "credence good" (49) of informed opinion. A web-hosting service will care about that opinion only rarely, such as when it breaks a law or is somehow harmful to the company. Posner wouldn't care much either, partly because he thinks that this kind of public engagement lacks accountability (7) and quality control (2), in that I am my own editor and am basically just moonlighting from my job as a prof.
If this blog were mood lighting, it would be dark but not romantic.
The irony is that, as a prof, I am a professional writer, but at my publicly funded university (and at others) professors are increasingly expected to be publicly engaged beyond the public of the classroom—to help rationalize public funding of universities—and in so doing we might also engage in the private sector and thereby seem to justify Posner's market-based analysis of our own decline.
In effect, much of my work is also yours: your taxes (and tuition) help to fund my university, and my publications help the corporations that own presses and journals to make profit, very little of which comes to me directly. Whether I like it or not, this blog has a part in what is, in effect, the public-private partnership of today's university.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "No Ads on 'My' Blog." Publicly Interested. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.