Transparency: Thinking the Terms of Reparation and Progress

"One of the key issues in the process of re-imagining identities within global/local relations is the use of language, concepts and images. The very same language, concepts and images that are used by activists to try and preserve the ozone layer and prevent environmental catastrophe are employed by multinational corporations to promote images of global responsibility. One of the more frustrating problems faced by advocacy groups, like Oxfam and Greenpeace is that the language and concepts they deploy in their work are rapidly recolonized by others with quite different aims and agendas.Henrietta L. Moore (2004: 83)

"But I do have recommendations for multinational representatives and their supporters when seeking to engage in good faith with civil society … don't use the non-ideological language of inclusivity to further a narrow policy agenda." Jonathan Glennie for the Guardian, 2014

The assertion that we are currently living in an “Age of Transparency” is as much of a cliché as it is an invocation. As Costas Douzinas (2013) states, mainstream economics and its paraphernalia of graphs, figures and repetitive clichés act as the “reality principle” of our age – a “regulatory” benchmark for governing seemingly conscious and strategic behaviors on an individual and institutional level.

“Transparency” (and its associated graphs, figures and clichés) does indeed appear to have become a powerful contemporary organizing principle of sorts. However, Transparency is not merely a popularized word now permeating, and apparently organizing, mainstream economic, political and corporate language (if not behavior), but it also functions as a pertinent example of the “rapidly recolonized” language and concept as described by Henrietta L. Moore (2004: 83). Where activist groups and NGOs initiated demands for greater transparency in business dealings, financial operations, tax arrangements etc., Transparency has now become the buzzword of neo-liberal governments and multinational corporations alike (Birchall 2011a). What appears to have taken place is a slippage whereby concrete meaning has proven itself unstable in the face of a highly political but seemingly smooth acquisition of the word by the very parties it was supposed to be holding to account.

Drawing on Moore’s paper “Global Anxieties” (2004) we bring attention to the “concept-metaphor” as a space of theoretical abstraction which allows for a maintained ambiguity and a “productive tension” between universal claims and specific contexts. Moore argues the necessity for scholars – social scientists and scientists – to utilize this productive theoretical space with a high degree of critical rigor and well defined concrete referents, which must be applied, as they can never be considered inherent (Moore 2004: 73). This can then allow the concept-metaphor to become a fertile “container” for thought and future thinking.

There is considerable mileage in treating Transparency as a form of concept-metaphor whose dominance has thus far existed perilously outside of the space of critical thought. This is compounded by the tendency of academia, and in particular of critical theory, to assume transparency as a form of self-description (this is also true but, for different reasons, of the media). Post-Frankfurt School, post-psychoanalytic critical thought takes its task to be that of analytical, cultural, linguistic detective: disclosing what was hidden, casting light into shadows; rendering transparent the obscure so that even critical theory has not given enough truly critical thought to the matter. In this context the concept-metaphor (namely Transparency) can in fact, conversely, provide sterile conditions, where thinking is discouraged because the label’s ambiguity lends itself to the very slippage described above. As Slavoj Žižek put it in a 2012 Guardian article on Occupy Wall Street: “…all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict … are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it” (Žižek 2012). Within this ‘unthinking’ space, the language we use to articulate our conflicts and crises may carefully maintain various political agendas. For example it has been argued that anti-corruption Transparency discourses (and of course there are many other Transparency discourses not directly linked to corruption or fraud) have acquired the identity of civilized democracy whose western perspective posits corruption as an attribute of the non-western Other (Lennerfors 2008).

If Transparency’s dominant (vagueness of) meaning in economic, corporate and political language – and therefore within the daily practices of people’s lives – is centered on its very lack of precise meaning or referent, then the profound irony of this specific circumstance must not be ignored. That Transparency discourse may have become a potent smoke-screen punctuating contemporary socio-political culture is not only the ironic circumstance par excellence it is also the sort of problem whose double binds maintain a chokehold, uphold the impasse and perpetuate the status quo. We propose that a rigorous critique of contemporary western “ideologies of openness” is a vital counterforce to this situation. Analytical and reflexively critical engagement must be employed to pries open the “thought and future thinking” containing-capacities of Transparency as a cultural concept. Here we return to the “concept metaphor” which opens the space not only for “future thinking” but also for “practical action”.

Following Moore’s line of argument what must be done is twofold: firstly, there needs to be a rigorous, critical approach to opening up thought on Transparency as a cultural, linguistic, psychoanalytic problem; secondly, there must be a precise defining of concrete referents. That is to say that Transparency as practice, as regulatory, legal, operational and governance (including corporate culture) processes must be properly delineated and probably cannot sit effectively or ethically within a rhetorical catch-all term.

Julie Scrase and Nikolay Mintchev for Zamyn

Adams, Susan. 2013. “New Study: Trust in both Business and Corporate Leaders Plummets.” Forbes,November1. in-both-business-and-corporate-leaders-plummets/.
Birchall, Clare. 2011a. “Introduction to ‘Secrecy and Transparency’: The Politics of Opacity and Openness.” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (7-8): 7–25.
———. 2011b. “Transparency, Interrupted: Secrets of the Left.” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (7-8): 60–84.
Bull, Malcolm. 2012. “What is the rational response?” London Review of Books 34 (10): 3-6
Calhoun, Craig. 1992. "The Infrastructure of Modernity: Indirect Relationships, Information Technology, and Social Integration," in H. Haferkamp and N.J. Smelser, eds.: Social Change and Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 205-236.
______. 1993. “Civil Society and the Public Sphere.” Public Culture 5: 267–80.
———. 1999. “Nationalism, Political Community and the Representation of Society: Or, Why Feeling at Home Is Not a Substitute for Public Space.” European Journal of Social Theory 2 (2): 217–39.
Carney, Mark. 2013. “Rebuilding Trust in Global Banking”. Presented at the 7th Annual Thomas d’Aquino Lecture on Leadership, Western University, London, Ontario, February 25.
Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2011. “Trust in Anthropology.” Anthropological Theory 11 (2): 177– 96.
Douzinas, Costas. 2013. Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe. Cambridge: Polity.
Draper, Emma. 2012. “Secrecy, Privacy and Transparency: The Balance between State Responsibilities and Human Rights”. Transparency International. http://
Fenster, Mark. 2010. “Seeing the State: Transparency as Metaphor.” Administrative Law Review 62 (3): 617–72.
Glennie, Jonathan. 2014. “How Silver-Tongued Multinationals Can Win Trust in Development Circles.” The Guardian, April 29. matters/2014/apr/29/multinationals-business-global-development-regulation.
Khodyakov, Dmitry. 2007. “Trust as a Process: A Three-Dimensional Approach” Sociology 41(1): 115–134
Leith, Sam. 2014. “How to Do Folksy like Warren Buffett.” Financial Times, April 28.
Lennerfors, Thomas. 2010. “The Sublime Object of Corruption : Exploring the Relevance of a Psychoanalytical Two-Bodies Doctrine for Understanding Corruption.” In Ethics and Organizational Practice: Questioning the Moral Foundations of Management, edited by Sara Muhr, Bent Sørensen, and Steen Vallentin, 199–213. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Mayo, Ed, and Henrietta Moore. 2001. “The Mutual State: How Local Communities Can Run Public Services”. New Economic Foundation.
Moore, Henrietta. 2004. “Global Anxieties: Concept-Metaphors and Pre-Theoretical Commit ments in Anthropology.” Anthropological Theory 4 (1): 71–88.
———. 2011. Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. Cambridge: Polity.
Salecl, Renata. 2002. “The Exposure of Privacy in Today’s Culture.” Social Research 69 (1):
———. 2004. On Anxiety. London: Routledge.
———. 2013. “Our Unhealthy Obsession with Choice”. Presented at the TEDGlobal.
Sennett, Richard. 2000. The Corrosion of Character. New York: Norton.
Shapiro, Susan. 1987. “The Social Control of Impersonal Trust.” American Journal of Sociology 93 (3): 623–58.
Tett, Gillian. 2012. “Don’t Just Say Sorry Bob, Act like a Steward.” Financial Times, July 2.
Wolf, Martin. 2014. “Financial reform: Call to arms.” Financial Times, September 3. 00144feabdc0.html#axzz3M4Z1lZxA
Žižek, Slavoj. 2012. “Occupy Wall Street: What Is to Be Done Next?” The Guardian, April24.