Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Our Secrets

Anyone who's ever read Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death, one of the greatest books ever on secrecy, has certainly had to grapple with the aporia of the secret. Of course, the "secret" of that text (such that there is one) is that there is no Secret. This is partly true because, structurally speaking, someone else must always know a secret--or, more accurately, it must be possible for someone else to know a secret-- in order for it to be a secret. But it is also true because, as Derrida illustrated in The Postcard, we can't ever determine in advance who the "others" are who will come to know it-- thus compromising the integrity of any secret as "secret."

I am fascinated with the secret. [Insert your own psychoanalytic interpretation here.] So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the PostSecret project. Frank Warren, the inventor of the project, invited people from all over the world to write down their secrets on a homemade postcard and mail it to him. He posts those anonymous, clandestine revelations every Sunday on his website, and has recently released A Lifetime of Secrets (the fourth in a series of books collecting the postcards he has received over the last three years).

Many of the secrets involve garden-variety social transgressions: infidelity, exhibitionism, addiction, familial irresponsibility. Some of the postcards record those fleeting, but joyous, personal epiphanies (e.g., "I know that I was placed in this world to achieve something great") that we only keep "secret" for fear that sharing them would involve displaying an otherwise unacceptable level of hubris. Others are attempts to recover some moment that should have been done differently, if only we could do those moments over.

There is something about the anonymity of these postcards that, in my mind, inspires compassion and empathy despite the often horrible secrets that are uncovered. I don't know why that is. In general, I think, we are less inclined to be compassionate when confronted with something that offends our conscience in a general way. That is, it seems to me that we usually require some personal contact with some person who has offended in order to assuage our repulsion at the offense. (For example, homophobes are much more inclined to be sympathetic to a homosexual whom they know.) But there is something about the absence of an author of the Postsecret secrets-- and, consequently, the absence of authority-- that mediates, universalizes, and somehow humanizes these revelations.

Is it nothing more than the fact that we all have "secrets"?


kgrady said...

I completely agree with you, Leigh, both about how great this project is (the results are so much better than the idea, I think!) and about the surprising sympathy that the postcard confessions inspire.

I have to say that I'm inclined to believe that it has something to do with the usually elaborate and sometimes clever presentation that surrounds the confessions themselves. When I read the postcards themselves, I feel for the person who took the care to produce such an elaborate message much more than I do for the people who add comments after them, even if they're confessing to more or less the same thing.

Also, I think that the sympathy I feel is in no way in tension with my repulsion at some of the acts confessed to. In other words, at least for me, the sympathy is related to the desire to share something, rather than to the commission of the unspeakable act. I think there's a kind of sympathy there that has nothing to do with forgiveness.

Anyway, thanks for another great post, you're quite the prolific blogger.

Doctor J said...

Thanks, Kyle... and, again, it's good to have you back.

So do you think this might be another case of the "sensus communis"?

Daniel said...

Quickly, here is a deconstruction (qua mockery) of PostSecret: