June 13, 2007

Lloyd and O'Brien on Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places

1. Spaces, Places, Sites/Sights of the Secret/Forbidden
Lloyd and O’Brien begin their introduction by noting that ‘the cartography of secret spaces and forbidden places extends far beyond physical locations and is present in realms as disparate as art, language, literature, philosophy, cinema, memory and social and political life’ (xv). The aim of their approach is ‘to uncover what has been hidden, displaced, repressed or suppressed in spaces of cultural and political history’ (xv). Space in this theorising can be ‘an interactive social sphere’, a site of power relations, in which different cultures negotiate to promote their own ‘presence’ (xv). Lloyd and O’Brien wonder how the secret and the forbidden have been manifested in different spaces. The essays included discuss ‘how the secret and forbidden intersect and are constructed through and against the regulatory social systems embedded in such accepted notions as: the public and private, the interior and exterior, and the male and female’ (xvi). It is Lloyd’s and O’Brien’s argument that the secret and the forbidden are especially relevant to ‘the formulation of our sense of belonging to a particular territory, whether a geographical space or a mental space’ (xvi).

Lloyd and O’Brien pause for a moment at this point to consider what the secret might mean; they suggest that it might refer to ‘the suppression of truth, the concealment of information or the preservation of desires or dark knowledge, whether by individuals, groups, or governments’ (xvi). The conclusion is that ‘the secret is both the space and the site through which, and upon which, the forbidden operates’, the two tending to co-exist (xvi).

But what about the forbidden? Lloyd and O’Brien see the forbidden working through ‘the symbolic orders of language, or the law of the father and/or nation’ and they suggest that ‘the forbidden excludes certain groupings or individuals, marked by difference’ (xvi). The forbidden is realised in ‘the refusal of entries into specific geographies or domains, the exile from designated spaces or sites/sights, or the taboos that create social or cultural prohibitions’ (xvi).

2. The Politics of Visibility
Visibility and invisibility are themes that are very relevant to the secret and the forbidden. Visibility can on the one hand indicate a physical embodiment of being, yet it can also signal the controlling gaze of ‘regulatory systems of power and knowledge which work differently both within and across the proscribed boundaries of different cultures and groupings’ (xvi). Similarly, invisibility has good and bad implications. While it implies in some cases being ‘absent in time and space, disenfranchised and disempowered’, Lloyd and O’Brien also recognise that, ‘in the face of a totalising system, a powerful elite, a patriarchal order or a potential attacker, invisibility may become a space of safety; a secret space that protects and obscures one from the controlling gaze, at home or abroad’ (xvii).

3.Inclusion and Exclusion
In keeping secrets, it is necessary for some to be excluded from the knowledge of an individual or group and Lloyd and O’Brien see emerging from this necessity, ‘the intriguing but frightening question of how reality may be constructed or manipulated’ (xviii). In the case of women, the interior secret space of domesticity and the private is now clearly being invaded by the public, while other ‘divisions’ are also being ‘transgressed’ in a similar fashion (xix).

Much has been written recently on the effects of displacement, of exile, and the crossing of cultural and territorial boundaries, and feminist theorists in particular have seen such ‘deterritorialisation’ as a potentially productive site for women artists and writers. Nevertheless, one does not have to leave one’s homeland to be displaced – practices of exclusion operate at all levels of society, including the personal. While exclusion may lead to alienation, marginality may […] be an important factor that enables self-discovery. (xx).

4. Bodies/Boundaries/Identities
The most important factor in thinking about the secret or forbidden, according to Lloyd and O’ Brien, is ‘the regulation of bodies of difference at the levels of the individual, the group and the nation’ (xx). Lloyd and O’ Brian add: ‘Gendered, sexed, raced, classed and ethnicised bodies are both the site/sight of the secret and forbidden, and the space of their embodiment and negotiation’ (xx). This regulation works through ‘an assumed set of values’ that are often unstable and secrets occasionally become legible (xx).

Secrets slip out, they cross boundaries, and what may be forbidden in one space or place may be permissible in another. More importantly, at certain key moments, before attempts to police and reinstate the status quo via surveillance of the public and private, bodies that have been excluded through the multiple and fractures lines of gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, generation or sexuality, have negotiated visibility. (xx).

However identity is often not simply defined by one factor:

Identities are not monolithic, uniformly constructed or reducible to singular categories, whether by religion, language, geography or gender. Like all identities, they are produced by the different ways in which the embodied subjects are positioned and position themselves along multiple lines, according to gender, race, religion, ethnicity, generation, sexuality (and so forth) at specific historical junctures. (xxi).

Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000.


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