Tag Archives: invisibility

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. 

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 relationship between seeing and invisibility

In a few weeks I’m going to be presenting a paper at the International Visual Sociology Association annual conference in Vancouver, BC. My paper will be a general discussion of the value of invisibility in visual research.

The main argument I’m going to make, and I’m putting it here as a placeholder to remind myself, is that invisibility is the context that gives shape to the visible. It is not the absence of the visible, but the ground upon which it depends – both within and beyond sight.

If photography captures a representation of the visible, the visible captures a representation of the invisible. Each is bounded by rules and is governed by relational considerations and neither can work without its parent figure – photography > visibility; visibility > invisibility. It sounded clearer when I was half asleep last night and will be much more polished by the time I’m ready to present, promise. What the visible is to photography, invisibility is to the visible.

Into the (i)Cloud

Further to my earlier post on the mystification of technology as playing in the realm of invisibility, I’d like to consider cloud computing.

One of the main things about computers is that, when networked, we think of them as living inside our homes and opening doors to the outside world. Rarely to we consider how these doors are open – though if you have a PC and run anti-virus software, you probably think a lot more than you’d like about what they let in. 

At the same time, the hardware that plays with and stores much of what we do lives in the little boxes that we take around with us or that sit on/under our desks. But then there’s the cloud.

Cloud computing is not a new idea but is an interesting one that works on a distributed storage model. We don’t need to hold on to everything in one place, particularly if we have many places in which we’d like to access our things. The cloud, of all computing, is a space of invisibility if ever there was one.

With the push to cloud computing we are further entrenching the invisibility of (computing) technology by allowing our (digital) lives to be lived and stored outside of our immediate possession. The a-materiality of it all is a bending of invisibility to an extent that needs much further examination …. maybe by me?


I’ve been playing around with ideas for the edited collection I’m proposing on the topic of invisibility (see above CFP – still in development).

The name I’m working with is ‘Dancing with Shadows: Exploring Invisibility.” 

I like the idea of shadows as related to invisibility for several reasons. Shadows are everywhere, they are rarely noticed until they need to be (e.g. to provide respite on a hot day or as an obscuring factor at some point); they are influenced by other factors but also influence their surroundings; they represent an evocative metaphor for operating in secret; and you can make neat things out of them if you know how to manipulate them well.

I don’t think shadows are the same as invisibility but they do have some metaphorical symmetry.

Bin Laden and Invisibility

Aside from the obvious idea of ‘working in the shadows,’ the recent events surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden demonstrate two key aspects of invisibility about which I’ve written recently.

The first is that the compound in which he was hiding was both considerable in size and ‘in plain sight.’ Taken as ‘outstanding’ in it’s context, this compound should likely have been visible and seen. The funny thing is that there is much speculation about the level to which Bin Laden and his compound must have benefited from the ‘blind eye’ of the Pakistani government – which could indeed be true. Alternatively, it could be that a compound that necessarily stands out for its enormity and obvious opulence may have invited a wilful blindness … 

Come on, there are houses in your neighbourhood that you don’t question or mess with but around which you know to mind your behaviour. So too could this compound have been made invisible, in plain sight, in the way of the overt strategic invisibility that commanded a ‘look away’ invitation to those that passed by.

The second and very interesting way in which Bin Laden maintained his invisibility has to do with reports that he could not be found because he understood and observed the rule of eavesdropping – that if you don’t want to be heard, don’t say anything. Bin Laden, it is reported, didn’t use a phone of his own and had no traceable electronic signals enter his compound. In this day and age of sophisticated hearing technologies (anti-invisibility tools), he ‘dropped out’ of the grid while staying within its physical confines.

It’s funny how not having a facebook account reduces the number of hits you get on google … and Bin Laden fooled the most sophisticated skip tracers in the world for almost a decade by knowing this.


It’s probably not news to people in the U.S. that doctors have to be somewhat entrepreneurial … as do most people in the U.S. But in Canada where we have a ‘public healthcare’ system something comes to mind for me.

I’ve been listening to a show on CBC radio periodically called White Coat Black Art which is a show about the medical industry/culture. This week there was a discussion about doctors being fired by their patients. An interesting word kept recurring in the episode: agenda; i.e. ‘the patient’s agenda’ or ‘the physicians agenda’ and the gap between the two.

The power imbalance, real or perceived, between these to agendas aside, it’s interesting to consider the concept of the doctorpreneur inherent in the medical system. Doctors, like pharmacists, have to be at least somewhat entrepreneurial. Several years ago I did a research study in a hospital and was surprised to learn that few of the physicians I met were actually directly employed by the hospital. Instead they were paid by the government (and in the US by the medical insurance company) for contact hours. 

I found this fascinating because I had always thought of doctors as employees of a system which, to an extent, they are. But in reality they bill by the patient and don’t get paid for much of anything that doesn’t directly involve patient contact. This means that doctors have to find ways in which to balance seeing patients with everything else while only getting paid for parts of their job (which, lets face it, is often the case for many other professions, too but not so overtly). It made it difficult to get doctors to attend meetings or participate in my study.

This idea of the invisibility of the conditions of labour was fascinating to me particularly as it speaks to the ‘agenda gap’ that they described in White Coat, Black Art.

Invisible Technology

For some time now I’ve been arguing that (media) technologies are becoming increasingly invisible. On the surface this might seem counter intuitive given the current global obsession with defining and thus creating a ‘digital future’ but I still think it’s true.

Take for instance the fortunes of the fastest growing segments of the technology market: mobile devices (I hasten to call them ‘phones’) and (mobile) computers. Most of the worlds largest manufacturers of these hardware spend and make billions on selling objects not because of the objects themselves but because of how well these objects will connect us with our ‘digital stuff.’ 

Apple recognized long ago that content is king and, it seems, so too now does everyone else. Samsung, Motorola, RIM and many others have started to recognize that it’s not the box that people are buying (i.e. the physical technology) but a gateway to the content they want. And they expect that the content they want will work when they want it, where, and how.

You can see this in the ad posted below. You can also see this in a few seemingly inevitable imperatives built in to most new technology offerings: there is a presumed dominance of convergence over specialization; content is built to be platform independent so proprietary standards, though remarkably too common, are less well respected over free flow platform independence; integration across technology offerings must appear seamless or else the technology fails (in a market sense).

People don’t flock to new devices because they are new, they do so because of the promise of greater, smoother, sleeker access to their (digital) stuff and the technology, the box itself, grows increasingly invisible.

One need only look to cloud computers, Internet protocols, the weeding out of codecs, the number of inputs on flat screen TVs (which are rarely JUST or EVEN for TV anymore), to realize that people want what they want and the technology they choose to access it, as it becomes integrated into their lives and seems indispensable, is virtually irrelevant; invisible.

How did Apple grow its market share so much and so well? Because they recognized earlier than most that content integration and ease of use is where the money is. Good technology is not about sophistication of the object but about the closest replication of ‘perfect analog’ experiences as possible.