I was speaking with a good friend today and she reminded me about the need to consider invisibility not just a multimodal process and state but as having degrees. She’s described these as ‘opacity’ but I’d also like to think of them as the exercise of one or more of the variable of seeing, hearing, power, and affect being demonstrated more than the others.
Opacity is an interesting concept because so much of what we think about the world revolves around questions of opacity – or invisibility – insofar as we consider the realm of ‘transparency’ as preferred. In reality, there are things we simply don’t want to know and are happy to defer to others. In her example, policy makers. The machinery of policy can and to a degree must be unseen. It is so often the upset that arises that bespeaks the gap between policy makers and those to whom policy is met out. A person I once met argues that contemporary failures of public policy are failures of public relations – the invisible massaging of power into affective salience.
A while ago after I asked for assistance in locating research on the concept of invisibility I was forwarded a forthcoming book chapter by Marisol Clark-Ibáñez, who is an Associate Professor in Sociology at Cal State San Marcos that addressed a very tangible example of the impact of multidimensional invisibility on people.
She discussed how ‘seeable people’ become ‘invisible people’ by virtue of the machinery of citizenship. This idea fascinates me and is related to my ideas on exile, ‘passing’, and ‘authenticity.’ Her research team demonstrated (as have others) that ‘illegal’ (im)migrants often get lost in a mire of structural invisibility by being allowed to do some things like go to school while having no rights or sense of legitimacy to say anything about the nature of how the institutions address them.
Recently there have been renewed (in my mind idiocy) in Arizona calling for a ban on so-called ‘anchor babies.’ The larger question, as related to invisibility, demonstrates how corporeal presence does not negate a more dynamic invisibility – control in and through the squashing of power, voice, and a sense of belonging.
It is incredibly ironic that on the one hand there are so many forces at play pushing a free and global world (read economy) while maintaining protectionist practices around the authenticity of people.
To my mind, citizenship ends up being an act of imposing and negating invisibility, not corporeally but otherwise. Not just of those who can be seen and those who must hide, but also in terms of who can be heard or exercise power, and how affect or feelings are used as an arena in which to engage in this struggle.
So much of the discussion coming out of Arizona uses a rhetoric of resource strain when, in reality, they use a strategy of manipulating the multidimensionality of invisibility – attaching to the sight of ‘brown skinned people’ a way to speak for and act on their behalf as played out in fear, loathing, and anger.
Much has been made in recent weeks about Wikileaks. Among the more interesting metacritiques of their actions I hear a lot of talk about ‘transparency.’ Transparency is an interesting conceptual terrain not entirely separate from the realm of invisibility.
Governments, particularly the diplomatic arms of them, some have argued, require a degree of opacity to operate freely, form opinions, and ‘talk amongst themselves’ without marring the public in details. One major critique of Wikileaks is that it will cause a lot more of what governments do to go deeper into the shadows – become less transparent and more opaque.
This poses an interesting dilemma. If the work of government is to be an extension of ‘the people’s will’ then perhaps the practices of obfuscation (behaving one way visibly but thinking something else ‘privately’) is a bad thing.
On the other hand, do governments take on the burden of details and by extension necessarily the onus of having to keep some things out of the light?
At the same time, there are many pernicious ways in which governments deploy invisibility to massage consent and control of the will of the people, engage in black ops that are deemed to be ‘of national security’ which is another way of saying ‘if you knew what I was doing you wouldn’t like it so it’s best that you don’t know.’
Invisibility, thus, is a fine line to walk. Perhaps soon I’ll consider how this plays out on a more practical level such as ‘sunshine lists’ where public salaries are disclosed without context and to much outrage, or in the development of what seems like arbitrary public policy and such.