A Privileged Source of Information

Transparency: The Stranger in Our Midst

Eric Jarosinski


“Glass is strange”: With this statement, as seemingly mundane as it is illuminating, begins a recent attempt to write a “world history” of glass. Indeed one would say, but perhaps not entirely obvious. Glass is so omnipresent in our daily lives that it has become nearly invisible, taken for granted, but when we do take closer notice, it is hard to categorize, existing only as an in-between state of matter. “Glass is brittle, which is one of its weaknesses, but it is also enormously durable and flexible,” the history continues, “in the creative hands of an experienced and knowledgeable craftsman, it is almost infinitely malleable.” Fungible, too, is its use as a symbol and metaphor, particularly its quality of transparency, which though not new, has become increasingly important to a number of contemporary discourses.

One of the most interesting mobilizations of this metaphor can be found in contemporary politics in a countless number of international contexts.

It has been held up as an ideal of openness and access as well as serving as a rationale for everything from European Union accounting practices to American President George W. Bush’s program of “regime change” in (primarily oil-rich) countries lacking adequate “transparency.” In Germany, transparency has become a dominant metaphor shaping the government architecture of post-wall Berlin, with structures such as the glass cupola atop the Reichstag or the crystalline facades of the Federal Chancellery invoking a democracy engaged in a ritual cleansing of the shadowy ghosts of the past. (One of transparent architecture’s own ghosts is the role it played as the preferred aesthetic of Italian fascism.) Ascending the Reichstag cupola, the visitor is also witness to a transparency of another order, as the crystalline high-rises of nearby Potsdamer Platz lend architectural cachet to the corporate headquarters of Sony and Daimler-Chrysler. Intentionally or not, the beacon of democracy and triumphant signifier of global capitalism find themselves in conversation, begging the question of which, if either, has a legitimate claim to the transparency metaphor.

In the language of consumer anthropology – its lexicon driven by the ever more refined technologies of salesmanship – glass is crucial to resisting “threshold resistance,” a measure of obstacles preventing a passer-by from entering a “retail environment” and becoming a consumer. The complex mechanics of “window shopping” were perhaps first outlined by Walter Benjamin, whose monumental study of 19th-century Parisian arcades traces the complex reciprocal relations between architecture, commerce, dreams, and desires. For Benjamin, glass architecture and the reign of the transparent mark the putative end of the distinction between interior and exterior, a collapse whose consequences, he believed, would be as revolutionary as they were unpredictable for everything from politics and aesthetics to our very conceptual apparatus itself.

Take toasters, for instance: The American novelist Paul Auster has the protagonist of his 1999-work Timbuktu, a troubled and brilliant visionary by the name of Willy G. Christmas, ponder the mystery and magic of transparency’s revelations of the everyday world. “Why not expose the works, I said to myself, be able to watch the bread turn from white to golden brown, to see the metamorphosis with your own eyes? What good does it do to lock up the bread and hide it behind that ugly stainless steel?” Willy’s question, driven by a manic obsession with the senses, develops into a vision much larger than that of small-appliance design. “I’m talking about clear glass, with the orange coils glowing within. It would be a thing of beauty, a work of art in every kitchen […] Making toast would be turned into a religious act, an emanation of otherworldliness, a form of prayer.”

Here “exposing the works” to reveal the mystery, a new take on the theatrical “deus ex machina,” is in this instance less a moment of demystification than its opposite. The electrical mechanics spark associations with the ethereal through the act of witnessing. To see is a gift, which, it would seem, can only come from on high. Anyone who has spent time in an American shopping mall, with its cathedral ceilings, open floor plan, glass and marble surfaces, fountains, and dramatic lighting, is aware of the highly profitable melding of the sacral, technological, and commercial. The power of the combination has not been lost on politicians. A telling example was President Bush’s advice to troubled Americans immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there is a tradition of presidents urging the distraught to seek comfort in prayer, the avowed Christian fundamentalist advised citizens to go shopping.

To return to the Reichstag cupola in Berlin, it is evident that even the Enlightenment secularists of “Old Europe” are not immune to the allure of the secular religiosity invoked by the experience of transparency. The visitor to the cupola is most likely fully aware that s/he is not being granted any meaningful behind the scenes access to the workings of political power, yet often reports being positively impressed, awed, even stunned by the experience nonetheless,

as the equation of transparency with democracy becomes more a structure of belief than of knowledge. It is perhaps no coincidence that descriptions of contemporary glass structures (hotels, train stations, government ministries, shopping centers) as “temples,” “shrines” or “cathedrals” are so often inflected by a discourse of the spiritual. Here the original modernist promise of glass architecture offering revelation through highly rational and technological means reverts very much to myth, a movement few have traced with more foreboding than the German-Jewish philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Adorno, who fiercely upheld the principle of non-identity, based his mode of negative and immanent critique on tracing the cracks within “the cellophane of modernity,” a deceptive sense of clarity within a society characterized by reified relations and the coercion resulting from the domination of nature. For him, “society’s crystal-clear order” offers a promise of insight that fails to deliver anything more than ready-made enlightenment, blocking out a more engaging vision of change that is still to come. The urgent task of critical thought is to question the authenticity of that which might seem the most self-apparent and natural. This is a moment of resistance to a “society of glass houses where every hiding place has been smoked out” and a departure from the belief that insight is to be found in the absence of mediation – the truth claim of the conventionally transparent; rather, insight is to be found in an examination of mediation itself. In offering his own reflections in Minima Moralia, Adorno offers us a model of perception and critical reflection that departs from the “cellophane shamelessness” of a valorization of immediacy in favor of a radical reassessment of the incomprehensible.

An ideal place to ponder these ideas is at the monument erected in Frankfurt in September 2003 to mark the centennial of Theodor W. Adorno’s birth. The installation consists of a transparent glass cube housing a representation of Adorno’s study, including a section of wooden flooring, a chair, and a heavy wooden desk, upon which lie an early edition of Negative Dialectics and several corrected manuscript pages. While its designer intended the transparency of the work to mark the dissolution of borders and the extension of his work into the public sphere, it has been read by some as quite the opposite; they view the 350-kilo, two-centimeter thick sheets of glass surrounding Adorno’s office as more indicative of a barrier or hermetic seal, as they have become the target of both critics’ complaints and vandals’ stones. In the end, an installation which sought to mobilize the aesthetic of transparency in the name of openness and access will in fact contribute to tighter control and monitoring of public space as security measures are increased to protect it. For Adorno, an astute critic of art’s complex relations to society, perhaps nothing could be more fitting than such a dialectical reversal, whereby the intentions and practical effects of an aesthetic are so squarely at odds. Glass is indeed strange, but transparency is stranger still.


Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, Glass: A World History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002

Paul Auster, Timbuktu. New York: Picador, 1999