Live Unknown

Live Unknown

Steven Connor

I think this must have been written around 2001.

My title is not wholly in my keeping. It quotes Plutarch’s quotation of the slogan of Epicurus which was famous in the ancient world: lathe biosas. Plutarch never sounds so modern as in his blistering scorn for Epicurus’s advice. How can the lover love, the judge judge, the teacher teach, the general generalise, if they obey the injunction not to be known, to come visibly into their being? To live unknown is to prefer the dark incuriousness of night to the glories of light. Man’s nature is to be, to come to light. `Life, and in general birth and participation in the world of becoming, was, I believe, given to man by god for him to be known. Man remains unknown and unseen as long as he moves, a scattering of tiny particles, through the vast universe; but, once born, he comes together, acquires dimension, and is revealed; the unseen is seen, the hidden is made plain.’ (Plutarch 1993, 123).

In our world, the imperative to be known has become absolute, because being has become identical with publicity. Bourgeois ideology is supposed to have invented a distinction between the public and the private. This distinction has lost its relevance, when the private has become simply a special case of the public. The operative distinction now is between the publicised and the unpublicised. The home – the traditional sanctuary from the heat and dust of public life – has been replaced by the home page. When everything can be represented, recorded, proclaimed, brought to light, obscurity is the choice of, or involuntary subjection to unbeing. Because everything can be known, being known becomes a scarce and valuable resource; because everything can be known, only a tiny proportion of what is known can be properly, which is to say publically known. The excess of representations produces a scarcity of representations. When everyone can see everyone else, the result is a desperate struggle for visibility. You must be seen to be a Jew, an Asian, a punk, a believer in God, a good parent, a racist, a woman, an old man, an active researcher. You must get publicity. Nothing else has any meaning. All our communicative and representational media function not to transmit but to make visible: to expose to view. Privacy laws make no sense in a world in which the lust to be exposed is so consuming.

Contemporary performance artists have acted out versions of some of the conundrums which this compulsory publicity brings about. If art is the opposite of life, then art will have to find ways of vanishing indistinguishably into life. In a world in which the everyday has been transformed into spectacle and self-knowledge, art will have to play the part of unconsciousness and nonentity. Hence the interest among many artists in exploring certain unknwon or secret rituals. But we must know about these things: we must know at the very least that they may be happening, unknown to us.

I offer, though not as any principle of resistance, or even survival, not, in other words, as a principle of publicity, the proposal that there is merit in defection from this universal drive to become known.

One of the pleasing things about being an alleged man in the epoch of masculinity studies, for example, is that there are so many opportunities for stubborn, clandestine non-compliance with masculinity. The more studies of masculinity there are, the more that masculinity is disclosed into the genial light of understanding, the more cracks and crannies of omission, inattention or misrecognition there are for we unmetamorphosed insects to scurry into. The more default masculinity there is, the more chances of defection we get. The more I read about masculinity, the safer I feel, since none of this seems to come close to describing anything at all about what so-called life as a so-called man involves. I am, of course, in denial. That is the very last thing I would deny. Denial is human as far as I can see. Acquiescence is for the birds. ‘The little murmur of unconsenting man, to murmur what it is their humanity stifles’, that would do very nicely for me, for now.


Plutarch (1993). Selected Essays and Dialogues. Trans. Donald Russell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.