Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In post-authoritarian contexts, transparency appears the key to both democratic governance in the present and overcoming the injustices of recent history. The desire for ignorance, in contrast, seems to indicate a dangerous refusal to face the past.
But spectacles of revelation may obscure as much as they illuminate, and thus impede knowledge of the past as much as they enable it. In Hungary, where access to the communist state security files is still limited, information about the past regime’s informers has trickled out only gradually over the past decades, in the form of media scandals that primarily serve to fuel contemporary political conflicts. These spectacles of individual blame and responsibility create new forms of opacity, by deflecting examination of the very system that demanded the informers’ participation. Moreover, each new discovery of intimate betrayals only sparks the suspicion that there are yet more secrets to be revealed.
As a result, while many Hungarians support full access to the communist state security files, they are nonetheless skeptical of the ethos of transparency as the condition for overcoming the recent past. They argue that knowledge becomes a burden when its revelation fails to produce historical catharsis, political justice, or personal clarity. Paradoxically, the frustrations of achieving full access to the files have thus generated both the demand for transparency and the longing to avoid its revelations: here, the wills to knowledge and ignorance are not opposed but mutually reinforcing.