[the open secret is] a way of imparting knowledge such that it cannot be claimed and acted on.
— François (1999)
Homophobia often insists on knowing rather than refusing to know about the sexuality of gay people.
— de Villier (2012)
Linking the stutter and the unspeakable are logics of subterfuge, to be sure, but I find that Sedgwick’s construction of the “open secret” more closely relates to the kind of secrets that animate stuttering. The open secret is a form of coded disclosure that Sedgwick links to the closet, and it mobilizes language around the secret in order to disclose only to those in the know and hide from those on the outside. Anne-Lise Francois describes it as “a way of imparting knowledge such that it cannot be claimed and acted on.” The open secret is that which everyone knows but cannot discuss. I select this construction for the stutter because, while some stutterers can and do pass as fluent and come out of the closet by a discursive disclosure like “I stutter,” more often, the stuttered voice betrays her before any such disclosure can be made, and knowledge of the stutter is created without being acted upon or acknowledged. The stutter’s unspeakability is subtended by its audibility and uncontrollability. Sedgwick’s example of the open secret actually comes from a text featuring a stutterer, Herman Melville’s short story, Billy Budd. However, it is not the eponymous character’s stutter that reveals the structure of the open secret for Sedgwick but rather the possibility of mutiny onboard the ship on which Billy is impressed.
Like queerness, certain forms of discrimination against stutterers or unwanted social interactions often express themselves through a desire to know, and to know it as a symptom. Nicholas de Villier in The Opacity of the Closet argues that it is important to pay attention to the ways that “homophobia often insists on knowing rather than refusing to know about the sexuality of gay people.” Similarly, stutterers often encounter the diagnostic desires of others, the desire to know why and from whence. An example from my childhood: I was at summer camp and sitting in the camp nurse’s office for something mild. The nurse asked me questions about myself and I answered. Then we changed topics and I talked to her about my brother. She interrupted me and said, “did you know you only stuttered when you were talking about yourself, not your brother?” The nurse created her own interruption in my speech as if to master my stutter with her own impediment, and sought to psychologize the root of it as a symptom. This diagnostic desire is a practice of what Sedgwick calls, in a different work, paranoid reading, a kind of analytic reading that seeks to treat the text as a puzzle or stratagem to be untangled. Stuttering attracts this desire to know, in part, because it is an exemplary object of non-knowing. No one knows why people stutter. The stutter speaks to a great opacity within us, and that opacity might be productive of a different way of understanding the self and its relations to others.
Society will not tolerate… that I should be… nothing, or, more precisely, that the something I am should be openly expressed as provisional, revocable, insignificant, inessential, in a word, irrelevant.
— Barthes (1981)