(why) are we fascinated with invisibility?

There are two shows on North American television, one ended, the other just begun called Numbers and Touched that focus on informational patterns in the universe that are there but unseeable outside of mathematics. Patterns, the key to ‘the truth.’

Up until the enlightenment it was okay to say that those patterns were the behest of God. After it was more a matter of science and reasonable explanations. In any event it all comes down to seeing what we can’t, invisibility, for what it is – the key organizational principle of understanding and perhaps life. Bold? Sure but why not. Invisibility is that thing that explains what can’t be explained not for the sake of definition but for sake of acceptance. We don’t need to know why everything works the way it does and sometimes we should accept that any answers we find are co-constructed by the way we look for them. Invisibility can help us figure this out but I would hope not as conquerors but as thoughtful cohabitants.

Regimes of Invisibility

I was forwarded a CFP for a conference (American Anthropological Association) called ‘regimes of invisibility.’ Naturally I almost fell off my chair since it’s been a hard slog to find a venue for invisibility. More so, I was floored by the fact that Bruno Latour is thinking about invisibility, too. While he is not universally loved, he is prolific and has a range of thinking on the types of subjects to which this concept makes a lot of sense.

He uses an argument similar to the one I made about the veil of the visual as emerging from the context of invisibility. Helpfully, his work situates the notion of invisibility in a mechanistic construct – how it comes to life – within the term ‘regimes of invisibility.’ That notion of regimes is fascinating and represents a very helpful metaphorical tools for me to harness some of the as yet loose strands of my thinking.

Right now I’m persuaded by work on surveillance societies and also, in a much different way, by work on beauty, fashion, and fame. Each is its own regime of invisibility with very interesting overlaps though similar but radically different implications.

My thinking now is on cultures of surveillance and everyday acts of intra-familial spying as a way in which to condone a culture of more pernicious extra-subjective (often market) surveillance and ‘massaging conformity.’ In terms of fashion, beauty, and fame, thinking about them as regimes of invisibility helps solidify my belief that diversity isn’t a matter of visual presence within the same order or regime of invisibility that made diversity an absence in the first place. That regime, I think, is missing a paradigm of diversity of creativity and innovation for sake of a band aid of representation.

Regimes, fantastic way to think about it!

The question of ‘fit’

Let’s take for a moment the possibility that ‘fit’ means ‘suited for’ rather than ‘healthy.’ 

When it comes to the notion of fit it’s hard to determine what, if anything, separates two relatively equal ideas or considerations of any sort. Fit is a nuance or subtle sway that distinguishes one thing over another. It is a feeling that one gets; an almost incalculable congruence. 

Fit is a factor of invisibility, or perhaps is better understood as an operationalization of invisibility where what you see, hear, sense and feel align to say, yes, this is the one. I visited very few homes before we bought the one we’re living in. I’ve visited many homes (not for sale) and have lived in far too many homes in my life. I knew what I wanted, even if I couldn’t put it into words. The house we bought was not ideal and didn’t have everything we were looking for, but ‘it fit’ perfectly.

Fit is a fickle thing that is often hard to demonstrate but is nonetheless a powerful determinant of what we pick versus what we don’t. 

I often don’t feel like I ‘fit’ where I am but I’m here anyway. When I fit I feel better and tend to be more productive. But, then again, when I don’t fit, my productivity sometimes increases because I want to try hard to get to somewhere else where I fit better. 

I’m having difficulty with ‘fitting’ invisibility because it isn’t a subject or an object that easily aligns to one thing over another – it’s an all AND rather than a maybe OR. How to you fit something that can be found in everything? 

Hitting the wall

While I often walk into actual walls (I think there’s a disorder that accounts for this, but that’s another story), today I’m feeling like I’ve hit the figurative wall. We all do sometime or another. Runners and cyclists call it the moment when they bonk, when their energies give out and the momentum they had dissipates.

I can tell you with some confidence that I haven’t been running or riding a bike but I can say that my momentum has waned today. I woke up with it. Truth be told, I probably went to sleep with it.

Could it be the onset symptoms of a cold? Perhaps over-streched-ness that comes at mid-term time in the fall when everything is finally underway concurrently after a period of summer (both in the calendar sense of summer and in the mind-set sense of summer). Or maybe it’s just that I’ve run out of steam for a moment and my body is telling me that I need to take a breath.

The fact is, I’ll never know why I hit the wall, or why today when things were just beginning to gather momentum. Malcolm Gladwell might call my little episode an ennui after I fell over a tipping point of exciting times. I think it’s just a matter of things that I did not notice, that were invisible to me, coming together all at once to tell me to stop and regroup.

Energy is always there, but how it moves from flow to ebb, though I can deconstruct it, is a mystery enfolded in the invisibility that surrounds my daily life. 

Mystifications of economics – occupy this

One thing I’ve always wondered is how the notion of ‘confidence’ got to be such a fundamental part of economics – or rather how we came to live in a system where getting antsy could topple the financial infrastructure that has over taken our independent good judgment (the necessary structures of exchange) that facilitate the operation of much of the world.

Economics is an interesting, valuable and remarkable field of study – but is it ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ if the global economy can be determined by such a fickle human disposition as ‘confidence?’

For economics there seems to be a purposeful process of mystification where our base need to exchange with others to live in ‘society’ becomes conflated with and confused for natural with the human-made tools we use to understand those exchanges and, indeed, inform how they work.

Zygmunt Bauman said of capitalism (in my interpretation), to live in a system of individual maximization requires a wilful ignoring that not everyone and everything can be maximized concurrently – the world/nature doesn’t work that way. Maximization works on the principle of dis-equillibribum. Life, however, requires balance.

If confidence is, as we are now regularly told, such a volatile arbiter of ‘economic stability’ (read balance), then why do we value its role so much in economics? If confidence is based on an individual maximizers belief that s/he can maintain their level of maximization (stay filthy rich), should that really be able to make everyone else suffer as a ripple effect? Here I am not talking about greed (but I don’t see why not), just worry and fear – gaming, that perhaps I will not win the pot at the end of the rainbow. 

And perhaps I should also ask why is economics given such a valued place in the ‘world of evidence’ if it is based on such a mutable and unpredictable principle. Necessary and helpful economics as a view on exchange, yes, but the sole basis of crisis and peril such as we’re seeing and have done for several years now and will again in the future? I’m not so sure.

To be sure, this is not a rally against the discipline of economics, but against the overvaluation of ‘confidence’ and perhaps the undervaluation of balance – not skewed balance, but ‘real’ balance where few aren’t allowed to maximize at the expense of everyone else having to compromise. That is a form of balance but balance based on disproportion – I’m not even talking about equity, there’s no way we could all have an equal share of the pie, but I’d like more than a crumb.

Perhaps that’s what the growing movement of ‘occupy [insert name of city here]’ is all about – the erosion of confidence in, and the de-mystification of imbalance. Or as one of the contributors to the CFP on invisibility calls it: the ‘outing’ of a pernicious public secret.

Don’t fence me in

Did you wake up early to reserve your new iPhone last Friday? I did … foolishly early.

I haven’t 100% committed to buying it yet nor have I truly really figured out if I need it. Sure my current phone (iPhone 3G) is well past its prime, but do I really want to enter into an exorbitant contract for 3 years lest pay, heaven forbid, full price for my new phone!?! 

But a contract I likely will sign because I am both too cheap and too broke to pay full price. But why am I reluctant to sign a contract (let’s leave the stupidly long term of the contract out of it – and thank your lucky stars that you aren’t in Canada since we have among the most ludicrous mobile phone markets in the world)? I think the reason I don’t want to sign a contract is because I will feel boxed in.


I don’t like talking to utility providers any more than I have to and, as long as things work and my fees are roughly predictable I likely won’t change providers for at least as long as the term of my contract anyway. But the contract still feels like a yolk that holds me in place, a yolk that, were it entirely of my own doing, wouldn’t feel so restrictive.

Family works that way, and attending parties you don’t want to attend because they are thrown by people who would look down upon you or be hurt by you if you didn’t. Life is full of these little fences that pen us in place, invisible and mutable but nonetheless profound and ever present.

Now if I could only figure out how to get my phone cheap, not be on contract, but carry on with the same plan and not have to speak to a CSR person at my mobile provider I’d be golden. 

Alas, dreams of another day.

Yes, but what does it mean?

Today I was reminded of Stuart Hall’s complication of Shannon & Weaver’s model of the logic of communication (the S->M->R model). Hall describes a process whereby which transactions are complicated by intentions and meaning.

At each stage a message is met by the sender encoding meaning (and producing meaning based on the context of their experiences and production values/choices) and a receiver decoding meaning (often not entirely related to the sender’s intentions at all). The point of intersection is the recognition of the message as a conduit.

I was also reminded of the important aphorism that it is impossible to not communicate. A colleague of mine defines this as silence. In law it is called fiduciary responsibility. In ethics (and elsewhere) it can be defined as tacit consent. There is a layer of meaning circulation that transcends and betrays us when we assume that people get the drift of what we are communicating. 

In this layer of invisibility intentions are lost and interpretations are variable. But the overall enterprise, communication as a fundamental conduit of our interaction with the world, occurs in this space of invisibility – a space that were we to make it obvious to ourselves would reduce many frustrations and open up channels of more fruitful discussion.

A lesson from wind

In my bastardized understanding of the state of Nirvana, the ultimate in Bhudist enlightenment, wind is described as disorder. Nirvana, as its opposite is the state of no wind, where things fall into place, align, make sense. Today wasn’t one of those days but was fruitful nonetheless.

Today I was reminded of the value of considering wind as a metaphor for understanding invisibility. It rains where I live, pretty much from now until about ten days after one loses sanity from the damp and darkness. In an extra bonus way, today it was also colossally windy. Many small but stable branches on the many trees that surround my house were felled and litter the ground as testaments to wind. But though I heard the wind and saw it sway the trees, I never actually saw the wind.

You might believe that you have seen the wind (nod to the author W.O. Mitchell for a book of the same name), when in fact all you’ve seen is the impact of why the wind does. We cannot see invisibility (perhaps because it is invisible?), but we sure can see what it does. If the scattered branches on my lawn are metaphoric of invisibility, it is because they are examples of what happens when unseen forces inform the outcome of things. Or maybe it’s just a windy windy day and some sand got in my ear and tickled my brain …. I think more the former than the latter but perhaps it’s somewhere in between.

The joy of wearing glasses

Why can’t I see my glasses when I’m wearing them and, at the same time, why can’t I see (as well) without them – just for reading of course?

This is a question for next time but an interesting metaphorical one to help me make sense of invisibility in a visual sense, and how the visual sense transfers to other realms, too.