Secrecy, according to sociologist Edward Shils, (1911–1995) is a form of concealment reinforced by sanctions against disclosure and differs from privacy in its non-voluntary character. In some societies, secrecy is concealment enforced by tacit and often religious proscriptions or taboos. In other societies, laws and statutes secure secrets and privileges for those who possess them. Regardless of how it is regulated, secrecy is implicated in the maintenance of religious or political hierarchies. Secrecy also plays an essential role in the internal division of groups by limiting access to knowledge.
In many instances, access to knowledge is regulated by membership associations or “secret societies.” Secret societies have been significant institutions in virtually all political cultures. For example, among the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast of North America, secret societies provided certain members of hereditary clans exclusive access to mythic, ritual, and political knowledge, which secured them against opposition from other clan members. Among many societies in Australia and Oceania, secret societies are associated with age grades and adult masculinity. Even when secret societies are open to all males, the societies must be entered through elaborate rites of initiation. Membership in such groups may then confer political and economic rights, as well as access to sacred or private historical knowledge.
In China, secret societies often emerged from mutual aid organizations, which represented and protected the interests of particular classes (peasant or aristocrat). Among the Straits Chinese in Southeast Asia, secret societies often worked to preserve language-based cultural traditions and mediated between diasporic and mainland groups, channeling resources and information between the groups. At various times, including revolutionary nationalist and communist wars, secret societies have provided crucial structures for organizing political activity.
Secret societies are associated both with the maintenance of legitimate power and the organization of oppositional movements. Insofar as secrecy is a principle that protects power, secrecy must both display itself and conceal the true nature of power’s exclusivity. In other words, political secrecy is public secrecy; people must be led to believe that there is something that they do not know, and that this something underwrites others’ power. Hence, secrecy is often associated with elaborate rituals and formalized communicational codes. This is true not only for the infamous sects of esoteric knowledge—such as the cults of Mithra in ancient Greece and the Rosicrucians and Masons or Opus Dei in the Christian tradition—but it also characterizes membership in contemporary political parties and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
The development of secrecy is intensified and accelerated in the context of the state, both in its pre-modern and its modern, bureaucratic forms. The idea that states should withhold knowledge from subjects on the grounds that it would harm them has a long history. This idea can be found in Plato’s Republic, book 2, where it is suggested that tales of gods warring with gods or performing immoral acts ought to be banned as the subject of poetry, lest these acts encourage similar behavior in humans. In City of God book 2, Augustine appraised the Christian church over the Pagan religions precisely because it claimed to oppose a politics of secrecy with a doctrine of universal truth. Nonetheless, state officials within the nations influenced by Christianity never relinquished the practice of secrecy as the basis of power—any more than did those inspired by other theologies.
Both the nature and theory of secrecy received impetus from the institutional and technological developments of modernity. In the nineteenth century, secrecy came to be thought of not only as a phenomenon within society but as an essential principle of social groups in general. German social theorist Georg Simmel (1858–1916) referred to secrecy as one of humanity’s “greatest achievements.” Simmel’s concept, on which Shils built his more elaborate definition, emphasized purposive aggression against a third person. According to Simmel, the concept and phenomenon of secrecy revealed society to be a formation based not on dyadic relations but on the spectral presence of the “third person.” By third person, he meant to encompass the total social formation, beyond those with whom one might have dialogic relations—including all those who precede one in history, and all who may come after, but especially those against whom one might forge an oppositional solidarity.
From Simmel’s perspective, the value of the secret is intensified by the possibility of its betrayal or revelation. Simmel also remarked that as societies become more complex, what is “public becomes ever more public, and what is private becomes ever more private.” A crucial development in this perspective is the emergence of writing and, more specifically, the epistolary form of letter writing, in which writing is linked to the idea of privacy. In the letter, the exclusion of others is simultaneously bureaucratized and made to appear as a necessary condition of interpersonal intimacy.
In German political economist and sociologist, Max Weber’s (1864–1920) writings, the link between bureaucracy and secrecy is both explicit and mutually sustaining. According to Weber, bureaucracies produce their relative superiority and claims on professional exclusivity by developing secret knowledge. Hence, while democratic capitalist societies generally presume and espouse the value of openness and transparency, they are increasingly subject to the force of secrecy. In his magisterial work, Economy and Society, Weber went so far as to claim that “‘the official secret’ is the specific invention of bureaucracy.” Weber also claimed that secrecy was doomed to fail, as the expert knowledge of private economic interest groups would ultimately come to supplant that of governmental elites.
Weber’s sense that government secrecy would ultimately give way to the regime of expert knowledge and, hence, corporate trade secrets has in some senses been realized to the extent that copyright and patent laws dominate the landscape of secrecy legislation. However, in recent years practices of state secrecy have expanded rather than diminished in the United States—despite the anticipation of state secrecy declining following the end of the cold war. (Similar developments have also been seen elsewhere.) According to the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office, acts of original classification (the secreting of primary documents, including “top secret,” “secret,” and “confidential” materials) decreased in 1995 by more than 36,000 to 167,840. However, that number increased to 258,633 by 2005. Moreover, derivative classifications, materials classified because they include citations of, or reference to, classified documents, increased at an even greater rate. In 1995, reported derivative classifications had decreased by almost 1.2 million to 3,411,665. In 2005, derivative classifications had grown to 13,948,140.
These figures reveal a general trend in the early twenty-first century of an increase in the production of state secrets and an expansion of their sphere of circulation. The latter fact, which derives largely from new digital technologies, enhances the aura of secrecy while the former consolidates the power derived from it.
The result is a doubled development. On the one hand, there are more secrets and more people who are aware that there are more secrets. On the other, fewer and fewer people are authorized to know the content of those secrets. Thus, in the United States, for example, the number of people who are authorized to know and determine the status of government knowledge decreased in the decade between 1995 and 2005 by about 26 percent.
Mitigating the U.S. trends of expanding state secrets are constitutionally authorized mechanisms for accessing information. These mechanisms include acts and procedures gathered together under the title of “Freedom of Information,” by which the press and members of the public are entitled to petition for the declassification of documents. The United States also legislates the mandatory termination of classificatory protections, through statutes of limitations on copyrights and patents, as well as limits on government classifications. The 1997 U.S. Senate’s Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy termed this built-in obsolescence of government secrecy the “life-cycle” of classification.
However, the legislated dissipation of secrecy protections is different from the mutual entailment of secrecy and revelation that Simmel had observed. Simmel was referring to the intensification of secrecy that comes about through the risk of its revelation. Such a logic can be seen in the transformation of military policies since 1993, when President William Jefferson Clinton signed Public Law 103–160, commonly known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This law promised to limit surveillance activities directed against gays and lesbians in the U.S. armed forces, but it also prohibited people who have same-sex relations from serving in the military. The law also proscribes homosexual and bisexual people who are in the military from revealing their sexual orientation. In 1994 the policies emanating from the law resulted in 617 discharges. That number increased steadily, and in 2001, 1,273 people were dismissed from the armed services. Although dismissals on the basis of sexuality dropped as the U.S. government commenced war after 9/11, dismissals rose again in 2005.
Shils’s notion of the enforced secret reaches its apogee in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. Moreover, the demand for the secreting of homosexuality in the military runs directly counter to the achievements of social movements over the course of the late twentieth century, at least in the Western nations. These movements had made sexual self-disclosure a foundational moment of self-liberation. Such achievements may have limited relevance in societies beyond the West. In the United States however, the logic of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” appears to confirm Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s thesis, as articulated in The Epistemology of the Closet. Sedgwick states that in modern Western societies the epistemological basis of power operates, as it does elsewhere, in the vacillation between secrecy and revelation but in modernity becomes increasingly focused on questions of sexuality and, more specifically, on the differentiation of populations into hetero and homosexual types.
Inverting the historical relationship between secrecy and power, the “epistemology of the closet” and the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” makes the possession of a secret (homosexuality) a risk and a source of disenfranchisement. That this inversion takes place while older systems linking secrecy and power are extended and intensified by new technologies of encryption, duplication, and dissimulation, reveals that the classical theories of secrecy are themselves in need of transformation.
SEE ALSO Bureaucracy; Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.; Cold War; Corruption; Freedom of Information Act; Hot Money; Illuminati, The; Ku Klux Klan; National Security; Plato; Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual; Power; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Sexuality; Weber, Max; Whistle-blowers
Augustine. [c. 419] 1972. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin.
The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. 1997. Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Senate Document 105–2. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
National Security Oversight Office. 1996. 1995 Report to the President. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration
Plato. [c. 360 BCE] 1930. The Republic. Trans. Paul Shorey, ed. G.P. Goold, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shils, Edward A. 1956, reissued 1996. The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Simmel, Georg, 1950. Secrecy and the Secret Society. In The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. Kurt H. Wolff, 330–344, and 345–376. New York: Free Press.
Weber, Max. Bureaucracy, from Economy and Society [Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft], part III, pp. 650–678. Excerpted in Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1964, pp.196–244.
Rosalind C. Morris
A secret is a form of hidden knowledge. The word is etymologically related to excrement and seduction. Secret and excrement are both derived from the Latin verb cernere (crevi, cretum ) which means: 1) to sift, to separate, to sort; 2) to discern or distinguish an object from a distance. The prefix "ex" relates to the idea of evacuation by sifting (excrement), the prefix "se" to the idea of separation, setting aside, and preserving (secretion, secret).
The secret has a positive, necessary side and a negative, destructive side. Freud referred to it periodically throughout his work, but gave it a central place that anticipated his later research in "The Uncanny" (1919h). In 1892 the term appeared in his writings with an anal connotation whenever it brought to mind "foul words, those secrets we all know, knowledge of which we force ourselves to hide from others" ("A Case of Successful Treatment by Hypnotism" (1892-93a)). The secret was then associated with unhealthy obsessions in the neuro-psychoses of defense (1894a). In 1900, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud interpreted dreams of exhibitionism as a desire to "keep a secret."
In his discussion of Dora's secret, masturbation, Freud wrote, "He who has eyes to see and ears to hear knows that mortals cannot keep any secret" (1905e ). In 1906, in "Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of Facts in Legal Proceedings," (1906c), Freud distinguished the criminal's conscious secret from the unconscious secret of the hysteric. In "Infantile Sexual Theories" (1908c), he demonstrated the importance of the parents' lying and secrecy regarding the question of the child's origins, which allows the infant to access the secret in turn. "Children, once they have been deceived (the stork theory) . . . begin to suspect that there is something hidden that grownups keep for themselves and for this reason they surround their later research in secrecy." The parents' secret is an enigmatic message triggering the birth of thinking in the infant.
In 1919, in his article "The Uncanny" (1919h), Freud gave considerable space to secrets and their transmission. He discussed the various meanings of the secret and its connections with the familiar, meetings, love affairs, sin, intimate organs, commodes, and oubliettes. He also quotes Friedrich Schelling, who writes: "'We call unheimlich anything that must remain secret and which becomes manifest.' Heimlich also designates a 'place without a ghost.'" Freud goes on to study the theme of the double, and its analysis strangely anticipates the ideas of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok on the phantom, the crypt, and the intrapsychic cave, and all the later work on the transmission of the secret across generations: "Doubling of the ego, splitting of the ego, substitution of the ego—the constant return of the similar, repetition of the same traits, characteristics, criminal acts, even the same names in several successive generations."
Abraham and Torok make an analogy between the work of the phantom and the work of the death drive, both working in silence without being mediated in words. In their article, "De la topic réalitaire: Notations sur une métapsychologie du secret," they define the phantom as "a formation of the unconscious that is unique in never having been conscious. It is a result of the transition, whose method remains to be determined, from the parents' unconscious to the child's unconscious." They add that the phantom is the "work in the unconscious of another's inadmissible secret." The phantoms that haunt the living are "the holes left in us by the secrets of others." For these authors the phantom is associated with a preservative repression that fixes, immobilizes, and "the present past forms a block of buried reality, incapable of coming back to life without crumbling into dust."
After 1970 research on the role of the secret and non-symbolization in alienating transgenerational transmission increased. Clinical work increasingly helped illuminate concepts such as non-transmission, the transmission of the inert (with Micheline Enriquez and the heritage of psychosis), the leaping of generations and alienating unconscious identification (Alain de Mijolla, Haydée Faimberg), and failed blocked mourning (Jean Cournut). Incorporation, encryption, psychic fossilization, and unfulfilled mourning are reflections of the work of the negative that is active in the transmission of secrets across several generations. The work of Daniel Stern on affective tuning may, perhaps, serve as an explanatory link to account for this intergenerational psychic transmission, which continues to remain enigmatic.
Systemic family therapy is also relevant to secrets and their relation to family myths. The oedipal myth is already a history of a family secret. In families it is guilt that creates secrets and all the pathogenic rules that follow from them. Many American family therapists have shown that family secrets (divorce, suicide, madness, incest) can mask an implicit narcissistic wound, a devaluation of self image and family image leading to abnormal behavior in a descendant.
We must not forget that our psychic life can only develop against a background that remains silent, secret—the secret Self of which Winnicott speaks. And along with negative and positive secrets, living transmissions exist alongside deadly transmissions of the secret.
See also: Boundary violations; Cultural transmission; Free association; Ideational representation; Intergenerational; Phantom; Psychoanalytic treatment; Secret Committee; Thing, the; Truth; "'Uncanny, ' The."
Abraham, Nicolas, and Torok, Maria. (1994). The shell and the kernel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1971)
Faimberg, Haydeée. (1988).Á l'écoute du télescopage des generations: pertinence psychanalytique du concept. Topique, 42, 223-238.
Freud, Sigmund. (1919h). The "uncanny." SE, 17: 217-256.
Kaës, René. (1993). "Introduction au concept de la transmission psychique dans la pensée de Freud," in R. Kaës et al., Transmission de la vie psychique entre générations, Paris: Dunod.
Mijolla, Alain de. (1982). En guise d'ouverture . . . In Psychanalyse et musique, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
——. (1987). Unconscious identification fantasies and family prehistory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 68, 397-403.
se·cret / ˈsēkrit/ • adj. not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others: how did you guess I had a secret plan? the resupply effort was probably kept secret from Congress. ∎ not meant to be known as such by others: a secret drinker. ∎ fond of or good at keeping things about oneself unknown: he can be the most secret man. ∎ (of information or documents) given the security classification above confidential and below top secret.• n. something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others: a state secret at first I tried to keep it a secret from my wife. ∎ something that is not properly understood; a mystery: I'm not trying to explain the secrets of the universe in this book. ∎ a valid but not commonly known or recognized method of achieving or maintaining something: the secret of a happy marriage is compromise. ∎ formerly, the name of a prayer said by the priest in a low voice after the offertory in a Roman Catholic Mass.PHRASES: be in on the secret be among the few people who know something.in secret without others knowing.make no secret of something make something perfectly clear.DERIVATIVES: se·cret·ly adv.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French, from Latin secretus (adjective) ‘separate, set apart,’ from the verb secernere, from se- ‘apart’ + cernere ‘sift.’
119. Concealment (See also Refuge.)
- Ali Baba 40 thieves concealed in oil jars. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights ]
- ark of bulrushes Moses hidden in basket to escape infanticide. [O.T.: Exodus 2:1–6]
- Holgrave hides his identity as the builder’s descendant and finds the concealed deed to the land. [Am. Lit.: Hawthorne The House of the Seven Gables ]
- Hooper, Parson wears a black veil as a symbol of secret sorrow and sin. [Am. Lit.: Hawthorne “The Minister’s Black Veil” in Benét, 672]
- Inigo and Gonsalve Concepción’s would-be lovers; hides them in her husband’s clocks. [Fr. Opera: Ravel, The Spanish Hour, Westerman, 198]
- Man in the Iron Mask forced to perpetually wear an iron mask to conceal his indentity. [Br. Lit. and Fr. Hist.: Benét 628]
- Polonius Hamlet stabs him through the arras. [Br. Lit.: Hamlet ]
- sealed book symbolic of impenetrable secrets. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 13]
- veil of Isis never lifted to reveal the face of the goddess. [Anc. Egypt. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary 492]
- wilderness of Maon where David sought refuge from Saul’s pursuit. [O. T.: I Samuel 23:25–29]
- wilderness of Ziph where David hid to escape Saul’s search. [O.T.: I Samuel 23:14]
See also take the secret to the grave, three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
se·cre·cy / ˈsēkrəsē/ • n. the action of keeping something secret or the state of being kept secret: the bidding is conducted in secrecy.
1. Intimate, privy, remote, secluded, so a private retiring-room.
2. Concealed gutter.
3. Stair, often for servants, to provide discreet access.
4. Chamber in a temple, e.g. adytum.