Openness, record-keeping, the trace, and modern life.

In this post I will outline some objects I want to position so as to highlight their connectedness. They are the issues of being remembered, or what Derrida has referred to as ‘leaving a trace’; political caution regarding keeping a record of one’s life, and here I point to the life story of Samuel Pepys; the modern shape of how one writes a biography, here I use Erving Goffman; and finally the very recent disclosure in New Zealand of how the Government of the day has been spying on its citizens, and New Zealand is not alone in this, America has also been in the lime light over how it too has been spying on American citizens. I will lens these three objects of the trace, the biography, and the gaze of the modern state, through the window of sexual identity, in particular the sexual identity that is marginal, and for some completely other.

What launched me into this line of thought was a friend giving me a birthday present (it came early as my birthday is in August)  – a biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. I admire Derrida and perhaps understand his texts better now than I used to. Derrida offers texts that are sometimes difficult to enter.

Some time ago, when in Bangkok, I read a comment about him that I found noteworthy, and again that same point is offered in the opening pages of Benoit’s book. It concerns record keeping and my mind draws links to different people and different texts.

I begin my reflections with Derrida and how he kept everything he ever wrote. Peeters lets us know Derrida was “obsessed by the structure of survival [la structure survivante] of each of these bits of paper, these traces.” It is my view Derrida was doing what he has always argued for, giving people the chance to be unsure, wanting to show just how certitude about life, about anything, is likely to be the wrong way to grasp life. By leaving all these life fragments, by keeping endless traces of what he wrote down, he has setup a situation where any biographer is likely to find his or her view of Derrida at some time challenged by another person who says, look you say one thing about Derrida and this thought, but actually I have other things he wrote that argue for something else, perhaps even the opposite of what you argue for.

Next I consider how, on my return to New Zealand, one of the first books I read was “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self “ by Clair Tomalin. Pepys, like Derrida, wrestled with note-taking. He kept a diary of his life and thoughts. Pepys was deeply concerned by the issue of where to keep his diary, and who should and who should not have access to it. Samuel Pepys saw it as a matter of survival that access to his diary had to be restricted.

Finally my mind considers Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. He offers the observation that modern societies seek out those bits of our past that are difficult as part of drafting a biographical image of who we are. Western society and culture, reflecting a shift in our concerns, insists on knowing the difficult bits, and that where we seek to mask or hide those difficult bits, such behaviour is viewed as a reason for suspicion. In my lifetime I feel a greater push in the direction of Samuel Pypes than a push to follow Derrida.

Sexuality and sexual identities have in my lifetime come to play a significant role in many people’s lives. The two identities of the homosexual man and the pedophile show an interesting set of social and cultural changes.  In the beginning of my life, 1950s New Zealand, homosexual identity was deeply problematic. Now in 2013 that identity is positioned very differently. New Zealand attitudes are inspired by a tolerance to gay marriage and the adoption of children, a point of view that is seen as confirmation of a post-Enlightment understanding of the individual. To be prejudiced against the gay man in 2013 is a measure of how a person might fail to fit in regarding social norms. One observes that what the homosexual man used to be positioned as in the 1950s is now the lot of the pedophile – the pervert, the dangerous individual, the incurable social threat.

When I read recent New Zealand media articles about proposed new legislation of our GCSB, America’s NSA and projects like PRISM are distant images of what we are in the process of becoming. Our modern governments are reading our emails, listening in on our phone conversations, spying on us and making no apologies for doing so. Some people here in New Zealand are concerned but if public reaction is anything to go by the message seems to be ‘get over it and move on.’

I admire Derrida, and I want to be influenced by what he has done. I read, I write, but I do not dare to keep everything I write for others to view. That move to keep everything I write, given local and international politics, would seem plain foolish. A part of me wants to believe that to do as Derrida has done is the ethically noble way to live, and so I ask myself, maybe I have misread him.

Other people’s texts can be plain seductive. As if to offer me a link to Derrida that reaches across this riddle about record keeping, a quote Peeters offers maybe a point to a compromise. When discussing the fragile divide between the public and the private Derrida is sighted as saying:

At a certain moment in the life and career of a public man, of what is called – following pretty hazy criteria – a public man, any private archive, supposing that this isn’t a contradiction in terms, is destined to become a public archive if it isn’t immediately burned (and even then, on condition that, once burned it does not leave behind it the speaking and burning ash of various symptoms archivable by interpretation or public rumour).

As well as Derrida’s obsession with the structure of his survival, his willingness to allow people to look over all his notes and thoughts, perhaps he does understand that this process is far from straight forward. For myself and for Derrida the notion ‘private’ can and does play a role.

Those who inhabit the profiles of sexual minorities know all too well the political and social potency of the trace and the biography. Our modernity, with its post-modern philosophies, is being shaped and defined by governments spying on their citizens, there is much reflection to be done as to how to live one’s life. Keep this thought in your mind: there is no them; there is only us.