Tita Chico on McKeon’s notion of “privacy”

[I am posting this on behalf of Tita Chico–DM]

I’m traveling this week (recruiting grad students for the University of Maryland—please encourage your interested undergraduates!) and won’t be free to participate in the collective reading as it happens. So following Dave’s suggestion, I’m offering these thoughts and questions ahead of time, by way of opening up conversation on McKeon’s very engaging book. I’m particularly interested in how McKeon conceptualizes, through definition, argument, and example, “private” throughout The Secret History.

It seems to me that McKeon, of course, leans on Habermas’s division for insight, but that in so doing, he also replicates some of the same problems. While acknowledging, repeatedly, that the public and private emerge dialectically, McKeon states that the antithesis between them is the key precondition for modernity, suggesting that the public and the private have an “interpenetrative conflation” (48)—a qualification, I believe, of the precise nature of the dialectic that Habermas charts. I also think that McKeon is right to suggest that Habermas alludes to but does not analyze what McKeon discusses as an “intimate sphere” in both conceptual and architectural terms. But it is here that McKeon’s notion of privacy begins to confuse. For all of the emphasis on dialectical emergence (and allowance for “interpenetrative conflation”), there seems to be lingering a presupposition of “authenticity” with this intimate sphere, whether he sets up an implicit opposition between “sacrificing the private to the public” and “bringing the private into public discourse” (109) or establishes the key binaristic terms of the book more generally in the introduction by suggesting that privacy is a “movement ‘inward’” that becomes associated with “’the people,’ the family, women, the individual, personal identity, and the absolute subject” (xxii).

Why, in an argument designed to articulate the emergence of “privacy” as opposed to the public, is there an assumption of authenticity associated with the private, when so much work in the field suggests that this gesture to “the private”—whether conceptual or spatial—is not a site of essential authenticity? I’m here thinking of a variety of scholars. Norbert Elias argues that there is a foundational association between “alienation and the increase in consciousness, the ascent to a new level on the spiral staircase of consciousness” (The Court Society, 245-6, 250). For Elias, modern individuals (in the French court) self-consciously insert a gap between “the affective, spontaneous impulse to act and the actual performance of the action in word or deed” (243). Or Francis Barker’s earlier The Tremulous Private Body, which opens with a reading of Pepys’s Diary that not only suggests that domestic spaces are shaped by reading, writing, and sexual desire, but that they are also scenes where authenticity is absolutely thwarted and resisted. Pepys’s Diary famously hides things within its secret, private pages, suggesting that privacy as authentic is itself illusory—is this instead a founding fiction of privacy? I’m thinking, too, of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” which constructs a sense of self (not an authentic claim of selfhood) in relation to others, and—of course, since I’ve written about it—the lady’s dressing room, deeply associated with theatricality, dissembling, and performance. So McKeon’s turn to domestic spaces (and plans) is likewise intriguing, but it seems here, too, to be an occasion to imagine them, at least sometimes, as stable signifiers of “privacy.” The example of Millimant’s marriage demands, for example (p. 226) (that she may “dine in my dressing room when I’m out of humour without giving a reason. To have my Closet Inviolate; to be sole Empress of my Tea-Table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave”) seems to be an indication not only that these were distinguished private spaces within the domestic architecture (McKeon’s point), but also that domestic spaces connoted a network of social relations, whether intimate, commercial, erotic, or what have you. I think that Amanda Vickery’s work is helpful in this way, too, pointing out the specific connections between the so-called domestic household and women’s engagement with commercial institutions, for example. Ok, I’ll leave off here, but am intrigued by what I’ve gotten as a kind of privileging of “the private” with the authentic, and the ways that this seems simultaneously to explain some things and to foreclose others.

Tita Chico

[Though Tita will be out of town for the next few days, feel free to post your comments or suggestions on this, since the rest of us would like to hear your responses. Thanks, DM]


9 responses to “Tita Chico on McKeon’s notion of “privacy”

  1. Michael McKeon

    A brief correction of a misunderstanding in Tita Chico’s commentary on my book. I believe you’ve confused my account of how people came generally to understand the realm of privacy as it emerges in the 18th century–as the realm of authenticity and inwardness–with my own convictions about its nature. I don’t claim that (e.g.) domestic spaces are “stable signifiers” of privacy. I claim that this becomes a common way of thinking about the private realm. But throughout the book I also point out many instances where this most common viewpoint is complicated by implications that privacy is only a subset of publicity and that privacy encloses publicity within itself. These complications wouldn’t be intelligible as such were there not a more general view that privacy is coextensive with qualities of essential and authentic inwardness that are deemed antithetical to publicity

  2. Michael,

    So, for instance, the emergence of pornography becomes one of your key examples of this dialectical interplay of privacy and publicity? The most “inward” or “private” activity goes public in the most open and commercialized way?

    This was one of the more interesting threads that you trace in the book, because your adumbration of the private/public difference across the length of the book seemed to illuminate pornography’s historic relation to earlier genres and to topics like libertinism.

    Any ideas why topics like pornography and prostitution ended up playing such a prominent role in your secret history of domesticity? Are they simply the secret that gets left out of more conventional histories?


  3. Michael McKeon


    Yes, pronography is a good example of this dialectic, since the separation out of “sex” as such is coextensive with its coming to be understood as a deeply interior and private realm that becomes publicized through its publication. I argue that in this respect the form pornography is analogous to the domestic novel in that they emerge at the same time as entities that have been separated out, as “private,” from grounds in which they’re traditionally embedded as inseparable parts of greater social practices. I.e., pornography becomes “pornography” when sex is disengaged from its traditional status as the means to the greater “public” end of procreation and becomes for modern culture an end in itself. Similarly, the (domestic) novel coheres as a “secret history” that is no longer subservient to the end of disclosing public, political secrets because it has a seriousness sufficient to motivate the notion that the public disclosure of private histories is a self-justifying end.

    So the dialectic you speak of takes different forms depending on the nature and context of the private entity under study. Unlike pornography, prostitution is a traditional activity that long pre-exists the modern divisions of knowledge and labor. But the separation out of sex as such, along with other factors, like the privatization of housework as private because non-productive through the emergent criterion of market exchange, makes prostitution newly paradoxical. It becomes interesting as a productive mode of female labor defined by its crucial non-productivity in procreative terms, and it becomes a troubling foil for the private role of the housewife, which now can be and is argued to be publicly productive not by the evidence of housework’s marketability but by reference to the payment for sex that marriage itself and its financial arrangements provides (“how different *is* the prostitute from the housewife?”).

    A different sort of example of how this dialectic of the public and the private works: the home itself becomes a private space, but one that encloses the respectively public and private functions of the husband and the wife. By the same token, the role of wife and mother is metaphorically associated with the “public” activity of “governor” or “manager,” especially in so far as she performs metonymically the public role of educating children who thereby become public citizens.


  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,

    I took the significance of pornography to be, at least in part, its particular separation out as a genre from an earlier embeddedness in other culture forms and discourse–Lynn Hunt, for example, writes about how before the 18th century “pornography” was always part of some larger project, usually political. To me this related to the bigger picture of the book, which seemed to be about many kinds of fragmentation, separation, and disembedding that characterize modernity. Pornography is particularly interesting in this history because it embodies, as I think you (Dave) are suggesting, the shock of violating the public/private boundaries, but you can only be shocked in this particular way if the division exists in some form. Prostitution is another case of constant tension between the “public” and the “private,” although I think in different ways from pornography. It too changes significantly in the transition from “early modern” to “modern,” as Secret History touches on. But they are good examples because their scandal is related to this never-resolved tension, and (I agree) a particularly interesting thread in the book.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    In continuation after reading Michael’s recent post…

    Prostitution is indeed a traditional activity, but I think it changes quite a bit in the 18th century. It indeed becomes in fiction an uncomfortable counterpoint to the domestic woman (see also Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations on this point), but I also think its consistencies with other forms of commodified labor become recognized as well–which is why I appreciated seeing discussions of prostitution in both the sections on “sex” and on “work” in Secret History.

    (This is another thing we could talk about and one of my favorite points that Secret History makes: the critique of the model of civic humanism in the face of alienable labor and alienable land. How does this change the way we read things in the 18th century that seem to advocate [an anachronistic] civic humanism? It seems that the anachronism of civic humanism is not much accounted for.)

    In early modern writing (roughly speaking), there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a “whore” and a “prostitute” (sexually desiring women vs women [or men] who exchange commodified sexual labor.) In the 18th century, though, there is some effort to separate out these categories–women who enter the Magdalen Hospital are deemed worthy and reformable to the extent that they despised having sex with men (with the possible, but only possible, exception of a husband or husband figure). Earlier reformers, with the possible exception of John Dunton, (I’m thinking here of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners) assumed for the most part that “nightwalkers” were all lascivious and do not even seem to have assumed that they were all necessarily seeking payment.


  6. Michael:

    In this juncture, I thought your reading of Behn’s Love Letters and its proximity to pornography worked particularly well, because it crystallized for me the link between its “experimental” depictions of self-interested women (537) and its unstable vacillation between private, ethical signification and public world of political significance. I also liked the idea that this novel normalized the presence of personal interest and freely chosen love that would eventually find their way into the domestic novel.


    I agree that we could talk a lot more about the gender implications of the critique of civic humanism, especially in an era of alienable labor and alienable land. Do you have any thoughts about this?



  7. Hi everyone,

    Thanks to Michael for responding & to the continued conversation, which I’m happy to rejoin now that I’ve returned home. I certainly don’t mean to misunderstand the distinctions that you’re drawing throughout your book, which are valuable (I find ‘intimate sphere’ helpful language). I think that I’m responding to a larger critical difficulty I see in a lot of work to develop a vocabulary to reference not only spaces of privacy, but to name also the very conceptual underpinnings and relations to external networks that constitute–even if briefly–what readers in the eighteenth century were coming to view as private. In the case of the dressing room, which I know best, the large-scale anxiety that things were going on there undetected is often met with (by say Swift in “The Progress of Beauty”) a wish for an even more private–and isolated—sphere, and so on. So in this kind of satiric discourse, the very suggestion of privacy produces the imperative for an even greater privacy, offering a potentially endless chain not only of anxiety but also of fantasies of finally at last (though never fully) getting to the so-called authentic self that resides there. It’s a powerful sequence of associations that satire has allowed me, at least, to see as extraordinarily vexed.

    Finally—a word of thanks to Dave Mazella for getting this all together!


  8. Michael McKeon


    Thanks for your information about the distinction between the whore and the prostitute, which I hadn’t encountered.

    I think the inflation of the importance of civic humanism as an engine of discursive and social change has done a certain amount of damage in 18th-century studies–among them obscuring the emergence of proto-capitalist versions of public virtue long before the civic humanist outcry against imaginary value in the 1690s is claimed, by JGA Pocock and others, to have inaugurated the English interest in and understanding of the virtuality of exchange value and forced the elaboration of liberal notions of political economy.
    What’s buried by this reading is not only the importance of Lockeian natural rights theory (which political theory generally has recognized for many years) but also the central role played by Protestant thought in the development of what the civic humanist thesis would have is the strictly “secular” pre-history of modern liberalism.

  9. Michael McKeon


    Welcome back!

    Yes, I agree entirely on the way the instantiation of a deeply interior privacy entails an endless regress whereby yet deeper retreats must be disclosed. In fact, the very act of disclosure is tantamount to “publication” (thus the unconscious as predicated on the methodological ambition to make the latent manifest).

    At the same time, it seems important to distinguish between the private and the secret, which is a much older concept and plays a role in anchoring traditional “publics” (cf. the arcana imperii, esoteric books of secrets, guild and trade secrets, etc.). I’ve made a gesture toward this distinction (469-73) but not much more.

    Anyway, this sort of regress (or “dialectical recapitulation,” 323) seems to be the logic of privacy, maybe even of modernity as such along the diachronic rather than the vertical axis. I talk about the latter at some length in my anthology on theory of the novel under the aegis of the paradoxical “novel tradition.”