The in/visible – University of Copenhagen

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Negotiating (In)visibilities > Publications > The in/visible

The in/visible edited by Clare Birchall

Given that the essence of the invisible lies in our inability to see it, the large number of cultural attempts to represent and mobilise it as metaphor presents an irony. The use of invisibility as a trope dates back at least to the legend of Gyges, discussed in Plato's Republic, written around 360 BC. Gyges discovers a ring that makes him invisible; the advantage this bestows helps him to win a kingdom. Ancient etymology indicates that the name of Hades, Greek god of the underworld, means ‘invisible’ and in mythology, a helmet, rather than a ring, enables Hades to escape detection (Roman & Roman, 2009: 182). More recently, H.G. Wells warned of its dangers, exploring the suspicion and havoc invisibility can wreak; Queen have sung about its appeal; and Harry Potter dons an invisibility cloak to vanquish dark forces in the first book. In philosophy, at least for Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, albeit in different ways, the possibility of perception relies on the difference between the visible and invisible (see Reynolds, 2004). After Adam Smith, economists refer to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market: indicating a supposedly self-regulating entity. In terms of identity politics the invisible is used as a marker of the marginalised and voiceless – unrecognised by the state or society and without power, they are effectively invisible. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, begins: ‘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, fibre and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me’ (1952: 1). As a result of all this cultural activity around the invisible, the strangeness, the absence, the alterity that attracts us, and encourages us to find ways to represent invisibility through existing paradigms, is undoubtedly domesticated.

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