Transparent. A phony-baloney ideal.

Essay by Wilfred M. McCla: ““I’m looking through you,” sang Paul McCartney, “where did you go?”

Ah, yes. People of a certain age will recognize these lyrics from a bittersweet song of the sixties about the optics of fading love. (Poor Jane Asher, where did she go?) But more than that, the song also gives us a neat summation of what might be called, with apologies to Kant, the antinomies of pure transparency.

Let me explain. I am sure you have noticed that the adjective transparent has undergone an overhaul in recent years. For one thing, it is suddenly everywhere. It used to be employed narrowly, mainly to describe the neutral quality we expect to find in a window: the capacity to allow the unhindered passage of light. Or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible.” The point was not the window, but the thing the window enabled us to see.

The word has also enjoyed figurative usages, as in the beauty of the “transparent Helena” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in George Orwell’s admonition that “good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” Or in the ecstatic visions of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who experienced unmediated nature as if he were “a transparent eye-ball,” able to “see all” and feel “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” Or less grandly, the word is often used as a negative intensifier, as in the term “transparent liar,” which is used so frequently that it has a Twitter hashtag. In every instance, the general sense of being “completely visible” is paramount.

In recent years, by contrast, transparent has become one of the staples of our commercial discourse, a form of bureaucratic-corporate-therapeutic-speak that, like all such language, is designed to conceal more than it reveals and defeat its challengers by the abstract elusiveness of its meaning. Its promiscuous use is an unfortunate development. In practice, it generally means the opposite of what it promises; transparency would mean irreproachable openness, guilelessness, simplicity, “nothing to hide.” But when today’s T-shirt–clad executives and open-collar politicians assure us, at the beginning of their remarks, that “we want to be completely transparent,” it is time to watch out. They are making a statement about themselves, about what good and generous and open and kind folks they are, and why you should therefore trust them. They are signaling their personal virtue. They are not talking about the general accessibility of their account books and board minutes and confidential personnel records…(More)”.