Welcome to the age of mystery. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

May 8, 2023   7 mins

My first political memory was an epochal one: the fall of the Berlin Wall. The grainy footage of East and West Berliners in stone-washed denim, hammering at the graffitied concrete that had so long separated them, and pouring through breaches in Die Mauer to embrace one another, still chokes me up.

That astonishing moment stood, and still stands, as a governing metaphor for the age that followed: one which seemed to be all about breaking down walls, and opening everything up. Think of all the nice liberals celebrating “open” societies and tutting at “closed” ones; NGOs such as Open Democracy and Open Society; the respectively positive and negative connotations of “inclusion”, and “exclusion”. Opening, expanding, breaking down borders and boundaries is always better than the inverse. Isn’t it?

I wonder if the first British monarch to be crowned in more than seven decades will register on a similar level for my daughter. We’ll view it on a screen, captured by cameras, in full glare of public and mediated view. It’s a form of scrutiny that has been at the heart of disagreements within and about the Royals since Diana’s notorious interview with Martin Bashir: how open should this institution be? Should everything be on display?

At one pole, we find Diana’s younger son hard at work today, continuing her faith in the beneficial power of openness, with a memoir that includes (among other revelations) a startlingly open description of his frostbitten penis. But if Harry’s life to date has comprised a love/hate relationship with cameras and screens, Charles’ coronation today will centre on another, older form of screen: one whose role is not to reveal, but to conceal.

The most mysterious and sacred centre of Charles’ coronation is the Anointing. In this ceremony, which dates back to the Old Testament, Charles will remove his robes of state. Dressed in a simple white shirt, he will be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury with oil of chrism, made on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and blessed in a special ceremony by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The millions watching the Coronation won’t see any of this. Our screens will see only the anointing screen: an elaborate tapestry embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework, depicting every nation in the Commonwealth as leaves on a tree. Behind this, the Archbishop will pour the oil into an ornate silver-gilt spoon, the only surviving relic of the pre-Civil War coronation regalia, and anoint Charles on the hands, chest and head: a moment traditionally seen as between the sovereign and God, and thus closed to public view.

And in screening this moment from the view of public and cameras alike, Charles makes ceremonial acknowledgement of a truth with both personal and political significance, and profound countercultural power: that some things are not, and never will be, open to all.

In an age when the online competition for attention incentivises the disclosure of intimacies of every kind, from intense emotion to sexual transport and frostbitten genitalia, it’s easy to see how some might suggest Charles lean all the way into disclosure. But those most at ease in our digital-first culture already understand intuitively the two-sided nature of screens — and, in the age of large language models, the vital role played by the obscure, the gatekept, the subtextual and esoteric.

Perhaps in response to those who sympathise more with the Harry/Diana relationship to screens, Camilla, the Queen Consort, will be the first Royal ever anointed in view of the cameras. But despite brief speculation that Charles might do the same, he will have his moment with God on-screen, but screened. And in thus resisting the siren song of openness, Charles reveals himself not as a reactionary holdout, but strikingly in tune with the times.

For the Carolean age is already one of screens that conceal, as well as of screens that reveal. Our official culture still pays lip service to openness, whether of borders, gender categories, flows of capital, the political process, or whatever. But the contemporary macro- and micro-trend is not toward but away from openness. This has been especially marked since 2016, the year our Moral Betters became uncomfortably aware that getting everyone online meant getting everyone online – including people whose opinions they didn’t like. And this in turn raised questions about how ineluctable the march of democratic progress could be made to appear, when that march seemed to be at odds with electoral will.

It has tacitly always been the case that just because something is a majority view doesn’t mean it gets enacted. Capital punishment, for example, has been suspended in Britain since 1965, despite the fact that polls repeatedly show a majority of Britons would support execution for the worst crimes. But in 2016, the tension between progressives’ erstwhile faith that “digital democracy” would inevitably drive further openness and progress collided with the reality that most people, given an open opportunity to voice their opinions, don’t express the desire to live in a world of maximum openness after all. Quite the contrary: Brexit and the Orange Man revealed to our appalled Moral Betters that there is no axiomatic relationship whatsoever, between internet-enabled discursive openness and the overall progressive project.

Since that moment, the consensus has begun to shift. Before the fall of Die Mauer, tech optimists were already declaring that “Information wants to be free”. Today, though, promoters of the “open society” are more likely to tell you that what wants to be free — and must at all costs be contained — is misinformation. Accordingly, supporting “openness” now means censorship, and (notably since Covid) an increasingly muscular politics of attention, that seeks to manage what is more or less noticeable. With this, too, comes an increasingly (sorry) open acknowledgement that “democracy” in the age of mass digital communications doesn’t mean anything even remotely majoritarian, or even very strongly connected to what electorates say they want.

But along with this public turn toward a new regime of (at best) heavily qualified political openness has come a more private turn, away from the screen that reveals towards the one that conceals. Understandably so: Harry’s woes ought to make it clear to all of us that radical openness takes us nowhere very good or enriching. The perverse incentive toward ever-greater online self-disclosure, for example, whether by princes or regular celebrities, turns the world of letters into a pornography of the self. And this is in turn degrading what’s left of our cultural landscape into a parade of grotesques to be endlessly recycled by pattern-recognising machines.

Very little can be gleaned from this age of human centipede culture that feels nourishing, inspiring or truthful. And in response, new allusive and esoteric aesthetics are emerging from the bottom up. For it’s not just that, as Carl Schmitt once said, “the machine has no tradition”. The machine — the pattern-recognising one — also has no subtext. An AI has no interiority. With such a machine, there is only the screen that reveals.

Seeking, perhaps, to bring us up to this standard of radical transparency, the mercurial stuff of interiority itself is increasingly a matter for compulsory disclosure. In some circles, should I feel ambivalent about the social norms associated with my sex, I’m no longer allowed to keep this to myself (any more than I may conceal my deepest erotic fantasies) but must instead choose a set of pronouns that others will use to address or refer to me, that “aligns” these personal reflections with the way I appear in others’ speech.

Against this tyrannical and increasingly bot-generated anti-culture, those voices most able to distinguish themselves as human — and thus to survive as voices — will be those most skilled in working creatively with what’s not said. But this doesn’t just go for artists of allusions meme and Straussian esoterica. Looking around at those least deranged by the glare of total transparency, it’s clear that those best-placed to survive the digital revolution with a measure of sanity are those most deliberate about keeping themselves partly or wholly hidden from the networked eye of Sauron.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the online litany of inducements to “bare everything” (especially if you’re young, hot and female) has been paralleled by an offline proliferation of long-sleeved dresses, of a cut that a religious conservative might have worn 100 years ago without blushing. In an age of pervasive pornification and compulsory regime-endorsed taboo-smashing, sexual reticence – even repression – feels not just like the last hiding-place of eros but an act of political resistance. On the male side, we see a similar via negativa resistance to the economy of sexposure in the NoFap movement, in which (almost always) men support one another to beat porn addiction.

Hidden-ness also, often, has a more straightforwardly political purpose. For as the public regime of theoretical openness plus intensifying censorship has grown more palpable, so too nonstandard opinions have withdrawn from the once-mainstream presumption that all conversations can and should be conducted in the open. Real-world consequences for having the wrong opinion grow more palpable every year. Faced with this re-convergence of piety and power, frank and open discourse has retreated into a vast, hidden substrate of carefully gatekept group chats, convened on assorted encrypted messaging platforms. The embroidered screens are up; no one speaks frankly in public any more.

And even on the technological front, recognition is growing (at least among elites) that there can and should be limits to our openness. Many in Silicon Valley now screen their kids’ access to screens – a trend that’s prompted a new wave of ‘dumb phones’ with all the modern looks but no social media functionality, such as New Zealand’s BoringPhone or America’s Gabb.

Those who remain devoted to radical revelation may see this emerging 21st-century politics and aesthetics of hidden-ness as an unqualified disaster. I’m ambivalent about its manifestation at scale, within our ever more frankly post-democratic political process. I also find troubling the fact that this occlusion of power in practice operates in tandem with an official embrace of ever-more-oppressive technologies of total transparency, such as vaccine passports and the facial recognition technology being used to scan crowds tomorrow. But the re-emergence of regimes of the hidden also affords, perhaps, a possibility for cultural renewal, in the terrain (still mostly hidden, save to initiates) on the other side of total exposure.

So when King Charles III is anointed, on-screen yet behind a screen, we should rejoice in being excluded from that sacred moment, and in the defence Charles has offered on all our behalves of that which cannot be mediated. In holding out against total transparency Charles has taken up, for the 21st century, a role as profoundly important as that occupied by constitutional monarchs since the Glorious Revolution. For throughout modernity our kings and queens served as the kernel of authoritarianism that sustained democracy. And now, for post-modernity, Charles III stands for and sanctifies an irreplaceable, un-digitisable kernel of IRL that the virtual world can never represent or mediate, let alone replace.

We should follow his wise example. You may or may not like the exoteric Carolean aesthetic, with its vaguely garden-centre-meets-William-Morris vibe. But we should all embrace the esoteric one: Charles’ understated celebration of hidden-ness, today more than ever a vital precondition for cultural, artistic, creative and philosophical flourishing, under the tyranny of total digital disclosure.

All hail, then, to our new King, and to the Neo-Carolean aesthetic of occlusion. I will be celebrating IRL. Don’t expect me to post about it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.