The (working) Theory

This model is still a work in progress but below you’ll find my ‘spitball’ of ideas.

There are several basic pilars of my model.

1. Invisibility is not always absence
2. Invisibility is not binaristic
3. Invisibility is multidimensional
4. Invisibility is a state & a process; being invisible is an outcome


1. Invisibility is not always absence

Thinking about invisibility as absence presuposes the dominance of vision as the sole arbiter of sense making. If something is not seen it is invisible. But do not confuse the invisible with the state or process (see #4) of invisibility.

Invisibility can be a purposeful form of presence. Take, for instance, surveillance. For it to ‘work’ one must remain hidden, unseen, invisible. The power of surveillance is in catching the ‘natural’ course of things rather than tainting behaviour based on self-correction in the face of being seen. In research methodology this is called the Hawthorne Effect – changing the behaviours of the observed because they are aware of surveillance.

There are other forms of occupying the state of invisibility as a form of presence. I posted something earlier about masks and hiding so as to be seen without being seen.

The same, too, can be said for magic. Tricks work because we suspend our disbelief that they cannot. Invisibility in magic is not because the rabit does appear out of the hat but because we allow ourselves to believe that it could by refusing the imposibility that our sight prefers.

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2. Invisibility is not binaristic

Taken in its simplist form, invisibility is the negation of seeing, corporeal concealment. In nature this binary can be observed in the use of camoflauge by various types of animals.

This binary, even in nature, is turned on its head when you consider the question of why and not just what. The reason that predators use camoflauge is similar to the reason that prey uses camoflauge, to hide. But hiding does not consist solely of concealment. It works in multiple dimensions (see #3) of which seeing is but one.

Considering invisibility as a state and process as the negation of seeing forgets that one can be seen and still be invisible. This means that the binary of visible/invisible is too limiting. To get to a deeper understanding one needs to consider how the seen can become the unseeable; how the visible can be dampened, silenced, forgotten.

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3. Invisibility is multidimensional

The model I’m working on suggests that invisibility has at least 4 dimensions: the corporeal (seeing), the ephemeral (hearing), the agential (power), and the affective (emotion).

It is important to consider invisiblity as the intersection of at least three of these dimensions as layed out on the ground that is the fourth of the dimensions. Of the many ideas with which I’ve been playing, most end up being an intersection of seeing, hearing, and power as played out on the level of emotion. There are other examples that work differently and each element has more or less importance depending on the substance of the object/subject under consideration.

The way that I’ve been thinking about invisibility, each dimension occurs on a scale from 0 to 100 (for example, 0 seeing means completely unseen). Each dimension occurs on their own scale that, when put together, equal a location in a 3 dimensional dynamic that is played out on the ground of the fourth dimension.

When you think about invisibility this way you can see how it can be a form of presence as much as an absence (see #1). Those who have a high value in terms of power and voice but a low score in seeing might, in a traditional binary, be considered as ‘invisible’ but they may be able to pull on your heart strings nonetheless. For example, think about how unseen is the policy advisor who uses his/her voice (writing) to craft a vision of how things should work (power) and produces a sense of order. This person might be invisible but only in terms of seeing.

While this may seem to be more a question of visibility or lack thereof, I argue and will continue to argue that invisibility is the context without which visibility could not be possible.

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4. Invisibility is a state & a process; being invisible is an outcome

Part of the reason that I think people might be confused into thinking that invisibility is the bianry opposite to visibility is because there is a difference between invisible and invisibility.

Invisibility is a process that produces an outcome; being invisible. It can also be thought of as a state in which its occupants are invisible. Invisibility is not a simply negation of the visible, but is, instead, a complex process of dynamic interaction. Understanding how these dimensions play out in different arenas is fundamentally important.

Looking back at the work of Erving Goffman and Mauriece Merleau-Ponty, invisibility should be thought of as the state and process of context. Invisibility provides the backdrop for the visible, always and without exception. Take the camera, for example. A picture is often seeable and metaphorically assumed to be worth a thousand words. But what a camera does is pluck an object out of the world and artifically imposes a degree of certainty on it that is both false and a-contextual. Moving the frame in or out changes every picture. Cropping cuts out detail and produces a hyper real point of focus. Going wider provides more detail and context but can never negate the invisibility of the totallity of context if only because photographs become fixed when taking photographs is an act that occurs in a fleeting moment that, as Roland Barthes argues, once captured, dies and is never more.

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