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So many, well trained, vigilant people only NOW paying attention to Ebola

There is a brutal ‘inside truth’ of the news business that a former colleague once shared with me that burned partly because of the inhumanity of its indifference and the stark reality of its evidence on the making and receiving end; in the news business ‘one dead local white kid is wroth a 1000 dead Ethiopians.’

There are many wicked painful realities that face the world, the whole world, on a regular basis. Sometimes it hard to filter which ones are the most pressing. Perhaps its that we employ a pond ripple approach, the closer we are to the rock that hits the water, the more the ripple moves us directly. This seems to be the case with the increasing spread of Ebola.

A brutal and unforgiving disease, it only seemed to matter regionally here, even as it grew and spread in Africa during the current outbreak. Available for consideration for those of us ‘comfortably away’ but the cause of a few dead others that my colleague described, not yet worthy of concern.

Now that a couple of nurses in Dallas were diagnosed, a few in Spain, and others in various countries outside of the initial zone, the various cracks in what is assumed to be an ‘advanced healthcare system’ and system of people flows is being painfully exposed.

But were these cracks always there?

Why did we not see them until faced with our own mortality?

Are there things that exist in invisibility in perpetuity that we can never see until or unless the circumstances are right, or do they not come into existence expect out of the elements that assemble in invisibility but that require external intervention to be stirred together to create anew?

I’ve been thinking about systems and cracks today.

I looked up a few different Coroner’s and Provincial Inquest findings – it’s amazing how many cracks there are and how many egregious things occur right before our very eyes – eyes bounded by rules, responsibility limits, and liability versus morality conditions.

I have a friend, a nurse, who left the comfort of his home and the love of his wife and 3 small children, and went off to Africa to help in the Ebola impact zone. It is my hope that he sees these cracks and is able to take the care needed to help himself and that will allow him to continue to help others.

The life and death of conflicting invisibilities

I listened to a sad but fascinating story on the CBC Radio program White Coat, Black Art this morning (a rebroadcast of a show from one year ago today). The host, Dr. Brian Goldman, interviewed Dr. Maria Anderson DeCoteau about her father’s experience of care after having a heart attack.

The story included a confluence of invisibility factors; racism, professional vs. lay knowledge, insider/outsider treatment, advocacy, ‘proper channels’, and ‘voice’ in the face of ‘power.’

Presenting with a heart attack, her father was deemed to be the stereotype of a ‘drunken Aboriginal’ person – by assumption not by evidence. This lead to a series of ‘othering’ that created and continues to create differential spaces of invisibility where some people get care and other people get ‘proper care.’ In the end, thankfully, Dr. DeCoteau’s father received the right kind of care to sustain his health, but not until she was able to step in and help guide the situation.

What this suggests is that a construct of invisibility isn’t just useful for thinking about things, but that it can and must also be operationalized as a remedial tool. When one looks for ‘invisibility’ gaps, one can often find ways in which to intervene in broken systems and disordered thinking – taking us from unconscious incompetence through to conscious incompetence, conscious competence and finally to the ultimate goal of ordinary ‘unconscious competence’ – doing it because it’s just what we do in order to treat everyone equally and well.

Sewing a new seed of thinking

For over a year now I’ve been struggling to figure out how to publish work about invisibility. At first I fell prey to one of the very fallacies of invisibility that I’ve been thinking about – the ‘straw man.’

As you might know, the ‘straw man’ is a construction of logic that allows us to create a fake or invisible boogie man in whom we can invest myriad of contradictions or justifications for our own behaviour. For example, ‘if they would only do such and such, things would be better,’ or ‘I would have won but …’ Absovling ourselves of any culpability in our own deficiencies or allaying our self-constructed fears.

The straw man allows us to craft our own false rationalizations and manifest them in an unreal but acceptable foil for our own short comings.

For me, my straw man has been that ‘they just aren’t interested in the theory of invisibility because it doesn’t fit their narrow definitions making it hard to get published.’

Then it dawned on me, I was missing a thread … figuratively at least.

A thread is a simple device that carries disparate evidence but weaves it together into a patchwork that makes sense. While we hardly notice thread, without it a quilt is just a mishmash of unrelated scraps.

That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time. Collecting clever but disparate scraps.

I’ve found a thread. Several actually.

This happened after a rather energizing series of exchanges at a recent conference. I met a lot of interesting and encouraging people who were very enthusiastic about my ideas, more than ever before, but mostly because the presentation I gave was in the form of an easy to follow story that had an evocative thread (I’ll do a video and post that another time).

The first piece of hopefully-to-be-published writing using this thread I found will be for the journal from the society that hosted the conference. It will be about the uses of a construct of invisibility in the practice of visual sociology – that is I found a ‘so what’ kind of thread.

I got the inspiration for this thread from the book I read during my 15 hours of travelling to get me home to Vancouver Island from Pittsburgh, where the conference was.

Rohinton Mistry, in his book Family Matters, has a lot of references to the power of invisibility – a whole chapter almost but I don’t think on purpose.

The thread, I’m getting to that:

first – “beliefs are more powerful than facts” – one article, not this one, pg. 149

second – “Amazing how photos show you something that your eyes forget to see … especially in a familiar place” pg 206 (this article) and then

… “you know, these pictures have shown me my loss” pg. 210 and

… “from these three pictures, so many memories. And this can happen with every single photo – each one conceals volumes. All you need is the right pair of eyes,’ he made a gesture of turning key, ‘to unlock the magic.” pg. 211

Hurray! This feels like a breakthrough.

Untold labour

As I sit watching spring unfold, flowers bloom, grass grow, I can’t help but notice how much microscopic work goes into this magnificent orchestra of pollen collection and distribution (that, by the way, is killing my sinuses and making me sneeze up fits to no end).

It’s no mystery that the world of beautiful plants involves untold exponential labour by countless unseen labourers – those with whom we have a tenuous relationship since, if they do their job and make plants bloom we love them but if they come into our houses we swat them and shriek. They perform the ‘back end’ without which the front end would be slightly less lovely.

I am reminded of many stories of other invisible labours that make our world function. From the work of watching TV to produce wealth for networks by learning what, when, and how to consume, to the more pernicious ‘underground’ economies of a scale that makes them foundational if murky.

Here I am thinking of the (admittedly anecdotal) stories I’ve heard about the backlash faced by undocumented workers in the US who are ‘taking away jobs from deserving Americans’ – but who do so at a level of compensation that let’s things stay falsely cheap – ‘back end’ workers, toiling away in invisibility, inexorably linked to the fabric of the front end final details of all that we experience
But whose labour is of no obviously perceivable definition outside of its outputs.

Labour is a funny thing – we don’t really ever award labour, just the value we place on the outputs of labour – making work always of invisibility. Like the end product, who cares what goes into making it, be it a little or a lot of effort. Labour is invisibility because we have learned that we would rather not know about it in order to enjoy what it produces.

Spend hours in your garden and have it be ugly while someone else does little and theirs is beautiful – you’ll see how little the labour is valued and how much you will see your own efforts as futile not for what you’ve done but for what you (don’t) have to show for it.

This disarticulation is only possible if labour is always a ‘regime of invisibility’ divorced from that which it produces.

Phantom limbs

A while back I had an email exchange with a ‘colleague’ (I use quotations because he’s a real guy – I think – but I’ve never met him in person and only corresponded by email). While we were talking about invisibility he told me about ‘phantom limb’ syndrome. 

A year earlier he lost a leg. How I don’t recall but I believe it was to illness. 

Still, he said, he felt it, regularly in the common phenomenon known as ‘phantom limb’ syndrome – or thinking that you feel the limb that you lost, as though it was still there. 

When one imagines ‘lost things’ as still being there are they ‘invisible’ or are they ‘not there’? I opt for invisibility as a question of voice on this matter. Things that aren’t there may still speak to you, not to remind you of their presence but to mask their absence. Phantom limbs are only phantom in that their physicality is removed from visibility but their memory remains and illusively promises their proclivity. There but not.

Many things that we lose live on – physical parts of us or emotionally connected parts of us. There are clothes and toys the loss of which I still lament, not to mention people I once knew and lost track of.

The fertility of their loss is remarkable in that they really never seem ‘gone’ – or at least not forgotten in that they ‘call out’ to me even though I cannot see them and touch them.

This I must explore more.

I’m back. Did you miss me?

It’s funny how writing for oneself without the expectation of anyone else reading it the pressure is off so you can say what you want … and the pressure is off so nobody asks you why you aren’t saying ANYTHING at all.

Well, I’m back to blogging. I hope. For now at least, while I spend my year-long research leave working on an invisibility book – not an invisible book, I have to have something tangible at the end to show my ‘boss,’ but a sole authored book on invisibility.

Do you want to publish it?

Come on, you know you want to.

I’m back. Did you miss me?

It’s funny how writing for oneself without the expectation of anyone else reading it the pressure is off so you can say what you want … and the pressure is off so nobody asks you why you aren’t saying ANYTHING at all.

Well, I’m back to blogging. I hope. For now at least, while I spend my year-long research leave working on an invisibility book – not an invisible book, I have to have something tangible at the end to show my ‘boss,’ but a sole authored book on invisibility.

Do you want to publish it?

Come on, you know you want to.

I’m back. Did you miss me? was originally published on Invisibility Research

How’s the view?

On on of the academic fora I read there is a phrase that describes ‘rural’ communities as ‘fly over country.’ These are the kinds of places you see out of your airplane window on your way between interesting point of origin and interesting destination.

I don’t quite live in ‘fly over country,’ not at least in the summer. For people who don’t live here it’s an ‘interesting destination’ during the summer. And, yes, it’s almost tourist season. I am amazed at the numbers of people who flock here and take in the vistas and bring with them beach volleyball and ‘what happens on vacation, stay’s on vacation’ attitudes. It’s not quite Daytona or crazy, there are too many codgerly old people here to let that happen, but it’s a different place in the summer.

But what is it that they see? Or what is it that they don’t see I suspect is my question? 

Before I lived here I often wondered about those little towns that were attached to the services advertised on the highway – the places that host the gas station, restaurant, hotel you need when you’re on a long road trip. You know, those ‘off ramp towns’ in-between where you are and where you’re going. I live in one of those towns now.

It’s beautiful here, if all you’re doing is looking at things. They don’t see what I see. They don’t feel what I feel. How is it that I can feel stifled in this place that they seem to enjoy, indeed love, for the moment that they are here? 

I think it’s like the saying goes, it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. And why? It’s likely because living somewhere requires you to know a little bit about what you need in order to feel at home where you live. There are elements of belonging that can’t be accounted for in beautiful vistas and careful gardens. 

People need to fit where they find themselves in order to feel at home. This is a more complex process of visual cues to belonging, attached to a feeling of connection, a sense of efficacy in relation to others, and a sense of being heard or taken seriously. I haven’t ever quite felt that here – which makes the sense of fit that much more complicated because I am here because this is where I work, not because this is where I feel at home. 

I wonder if they felt what I feel if they would see what I see or would they continue to be caught up in the beautiful vistas?

Slipping through the cracks

This morning I was thinking about what it means when something slips through the cracks. What are these cracks people speak of?

The reason I was thinking about it is because my daughter was bitten by a dog – not pleasant and nothing to take lightly, but nothing super serious in the end. I got to thinking about ‘cracks’ insofar as we had to figure out a few different things in order to determine what to do.

I’ll list the various cracks I noticed in this whole enterprise.

1. We live in a place where healthcare is at a premium, mostly in terms of access. While there is a weekend ‘walk-in’ clinic in town the closet hospitals are 35minutes, 45minutes and 40 minutes (but that’s deceiving because it’s over a mountain and through traffic since tourist season is upon us now) and mostly understaffed and less than ideal when you have a 10 year old who has a relatively minor injury. Finding a doctor on a Sunday is no small task.

2. We had to rely on the owners of the dog in question for information – incomplete and as ‘up to date’ as could be; worsened by the fact that they are friends so it’s a delicate matter even if one is forthright and non-accusatory.

3. We had to rely on our various forms of collective memory – paper forms, demographic probabilities (her age relative to what shots she should already have, etc.), personal recollection, etc. to figure out if she was already inoculated.

4. We needed to deduce what we could from the clues we had available; testimony from a 10 year old who was naturally upset and guarded about getting her friend and the dog in trouble; the wound itself; the lack of destruction evident on the clothing; the physiological presentation of her body.

So how does this all lead to me wondering about cracks?

At various stages along the way there were things we could see and there were things we couldn’t. We could infer somethings from what we saw and we could infer things from what we didn’t. These conclusions could have gone in any direction. In the end, we have to make choices based on imperfect information and base our actions accordingly … for which there are no ‘right’ answers.

Should she be fine as a result of what actions we took then maybe we stopped up the cracks necessary. Should we have stopped up what cracks we perceived but something goes awry then there is a crack we missed. It’s a maddening situation because questions will always linger in our minds whichever way we proceed. 

There are plenty of situations where cracks and fissures define outcomes; most often retrospectively. But how does something become a crack and is it always a crack or is that concept a coping mechanism to redress poor observation and bad judgement? Are cracks always there or are they a manifestation of invisibility that we will into existence to justify that which we were incapable of seeing?

Cracks are invisibility retrograde.

The fifth element, wuji

I must start by admitting that I know little about Japanese philosophy.

With that said I recently encountered a principle in Japanese philosophy that defines one more essential element of life that isn’t so neatly addressed in ‘Western philosophy,’ wuji or the void which is loosely defined as the infinite, limitless, eternal. The void represents an interesting perspective on the visual world we inhabit because it recognizes that there are things beyond our grasp, things that just are because they are not. It’s Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns – for which he was made out to be a fool or a PR baffoon but with which I think he was on to something.

It seems necessary to consider why almost all philosophical traditions address the indiscernible and also to consider why the indiscernible is categorically distinct and not an overlapping element of everything. I suspect that if we consider the notion of wuji which I have yet to fully appreciate, it is a part of everything just as are the other elements.