Originally published as “Invisible and Scrutinized Bodies,” in Andrea Pavoni (ed), Lo Squaderno 35 (March 2015)
The following text will attempt to demonstrate that both processes that aim at making bodies either invisible or, on the contrary, hyper-visible operates through the same mechanisms of a productive politics of visibility. The brief of this issue evokes “homeless, illegal workers, gipsy communities, early-morning cleaners, graffiti writers… and let’s not forget urban foxes, cave spiders, mice, contagious germs,” as examples of human and non-human bodies incarnating the “urban invisibles” that gives it its title. These bodies are invisible insofar that they constitute what is perceived as absolute otherness. This argument of a social invisibility is the one dramatically described by Ralph Ellison in his Invisible Man (1952): the protagonist is an African American man writing his autobiography from the depths of a New York basement, describing his invisibility for the White bodies surrounding him. The novel opens with this paragraph:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.1
The invisibility of bodies “of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids,” is used by Ellison to describe the urban conditions of African American bodies; such an invisibility is however applicable to all bodies hidden in the shadow created by the social organization of the city. Time is also a factor of this invisibility: the population of night workers, which includes cleaning personnel, garbage collectors, dishwahers, truck drivers, newspaper and other goods delivery agents among others, remains unseen to the rest of the population that tends to unconsciously interpret their work as the result of invisible magic. Moreover, in Europe, as well as in North America, this nocturnal invisible population often finds overlaps with the social precariousness of a population formed by more or less recent emigration.
The idea that time superimposes different lives in the city makes us recall another novel, The City and the City (2009) by China Miéville.2 Its plot describes two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, existing simultaneously on the same space but invisible to each other. Although many people have seen in this superimposition of two essentially different urban spaces, an allegory of Palestine in general, and of Jerusalem in particular, Miéville himself explicitly opposed this interpretation of his text.3 The invisibility of our societies is not a symmetrical fetish, it is a constructed condition. Palestinian bodies are simultaneously invisible to the Israeli society, and hyper-visible to its militarized components. Here lies the complexity of the politics of visibility and invisibility: contributing against its hegemonic scheme does not merely mean to render visible bodies currently invisible. Often, this revealing operation is effectuated by policing and/or militarized bodies, thus perpetuating the exercise of power on them.
Reducing invisibility to a minimum is indeed one of the main focuses in the US and Israeli military research at this moment. The respective works of Derek Gregory and Caren Kaplan help us to understand this technological will to military omniscience.4
The “right to opacity,” argued by Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant is thus flouted in the most literal manner by the cameras of drones and the ultra-wideband cameras seeing through the walls of these armies.5 Against such practice consisting in the revealing of bodies, artist Adam Harvey has created a series of clothing that significantly reduces the temperature signature of a body as well as hair styles and make-up that prevents one face to be recognized as such by surveillance cameras.6
Clothing is certainly an important factor of visibility and invisibility. The hoodie or the niqab, for instance, carries this complexity in their surfaces, simultaneously dissimulating bodies and revealing their presence in societies organized, sometimes legally, against such a voluntary invisibility. The French law of October 10, 2010 thus prevents anyone to hide their face in public, in a semi-explicit targeting of Muslim female bodies wearing the niqab. The antagonist reading of the hoodie – especially when worn by Black or Brown bodies – found its paroxysm in the infamous murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford (Florida), on February 26, 2012.
This piece of clothing might even be legally banned in the State of Oklahoma if a bill planning to do so is voted in February 2015.7 In an essay entitled “Profiling Surfaces,” Mimi Thi Nguyen examines these sartorial examples, as well as others to argue the following:
Such cover as clothes might provide confounds because it transforms the available surfaces for reading, extending and transforming the body’s boundaries into the world, rendering that body both more dangerous and more vulnerable, depending on their movements. But even as fabric extends a fleshy body’s boundaries into the world, that body also emerges and disappears, materializes as a threat and dissipates into shadow.8
Invisibility is thus only one face of the politics of visibility’s coin. Both processes of invisibilization and scrutiny of the bodies are taking the latter for target and exercise a power on them. This is easily understandable when we realize that both processes involve a gaze – even when the gaze deliberately does not see – from an entity external to the seen/unseen body. Whether this gaze comes from the transcendence of the law, or the immanence of the norm – both are always involved to some degree – it reads the seen/unseen body through its narrative, that is its own subjectivity.
A response that would consist in revealing invisible bodies or dissimulating scrutinized bodies would thus remain within the logic imposed by this gaze. On the contrary, a powerful response is offered to us through the example of Ukrainian revolutionary women holding mirrors to the riot-geared policemen facing them.9During this moment, these women’s bodies were neither visible, nor invisible for their opponents: like for the mythological Medusa, the gaze was returned to its emitting entity, thus allowing its introspection rather than its violent exercise of power on other bodies.
1 Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York: Vintage International, 1995, at p.3.
2 China Miéville, The City and the City, New York: Macmillan, 2009.
3 “I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way. Whereas, in fact, in a lot of these situations, it seems to me that – and certainly in the question of Palestine – the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population.” Geoff Manaugh, “Unsolving the City: An Interview with China Miéville,” online at bldgblog.blospot.com (March 1, 2011).
4 For instances, section “Visuality” of Derek Gregory’s blog geographicalimaginations.com; Caren Kaplan, “Air Power’s Visual Legacy: Operation Orchard and Aerial Reconnaissance Imagery as Ruses de Guerre,” inCritical Military Studies, London: Routledge, 2014.
5 Édouard Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers, Paris: Gallimard, 1995, p. 72.
6 See Adam Harvey’s Stealth Wear (2013) and CV Dazzle (2012), online at ahprojects.com
7 Emily Atkin, “New Bill Would Make Wearing Hoodies a Crime,” online at thinkprogress.org (January 3, 2015).
8 Mimi Thi Nguyen, “Profiling Surfaces,” in Léopold Lambert (ed) The Funambulist Papers, Vol.2, New York: Punctum Books, forthcoming 2015. Online at thefunambulist.dev
9 I am indebted to Ethel Baraona Pohl for bringing back this memory in her lecture “How to Dress up a Police?,” Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam, November 27, 2014).