“I am an invisible man.” –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
What kind of being belongs to the invisible? Perhaps the being of the invisible is a non-being of the visible, and the being of the visible is a non-being of the invisible. Perhaps we can only say that the invisible “is,” in some respect, if we also say that the visible “is not,” in that same respect. The being of the visible and the being of the invisible may be contradictory to each other.
Perhaps the being of the invisible is also a nothingness of the visible, an emptiness or void in the realm of the visible. The invisible is that which we know is there, but which we cannot see.
Invisibility is the negation of visibility. It is a blank space or hidden territory into which being vanishes or disappears.
The difference between the visible and the invisible may be analogous to the difference between the seen and the unseen, the discernible and the indiscernible, the apparent and the unapparent, the disclosed and the undisclosed.
How many degrees of visibility are there? The spectrum may extend from the completely invisible, the virtually invisible, the barely visible, and the slightly visible, to the partially visible, the mostly visible, the completely visible, the obviously visible, and the unavoidably visible.
If visibility may signify a kind of presence, then invisibility may signify a kind of absence. However, visibility as presence may depend on, and may perpetuate, invisibility as absence.
The being of the spoken may be invisible insofar as spoken words cannot literally be “seen” by listeners, but it may be visible insofar as spoken words can have visible effects on listeners and speakers. Conversely, the being of the written may be visible insofar as written words are actually seen on a page, screen, wall, or other background, but it may be invisible insofar as written words are unseen unless they are actually being read.
Of course, when we see the world around us we (usually) assume that we are seeing it as it actually is, and that what we are seeing is real and not imaginary. We (usually) assume that for something to be visible is for it also to be real. On the other hand, we may have no grounds for assuming that for something to be real is for it also to be visible. The visibility of (all of) the real may not follow from the reality of (all or some of) the visible. The real may often be invisible to us (at least insofar as we are able to see it with the naked eye).
On the other hand, the hypervisible or all too visible may be that from which we must avert our gaze in order to avoid becoming consciously aware of it. Thus, the fact that something is hypervisible does not always mean that we consciously see and recognize it. We may have various motives for trying to ignore things that are hypervisible. We may also in some cases be less aware of things that are hypervisible than we are of things that are much less visible.
Visibility and invisibility may be examined in terms of their metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. The metaphysics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the ultimate nature, being, and reality of the visible and invisible. The ethics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the obligations that we incur when we make or do not make things visible, and with the responsibilities that we assume when we make or do not make visible those things that should or should not be made visible. The aesthetics of visibility may be concerned with the manner in which (or the degree to which) the visible conforms to such ideals as beauty, elegance, harmony, symmetry, and unity. The politics of visibility and invisibility may be concerned with the manner in which (or the degree to which) the visible and the invisible are produced, recognized, and authorized by law, public policy, and government.
Being in society (social being) may enable, encourage, or require each of us to have some degree of social visibility. Being socially visible may mean being included among those who are noticed and recognized. Being socially invisible, on the other hand, may mean being excluded from notice or recognition by society.
Being seen may or may not lead to the awareness of being seen. It may or may not also lead to the awareness of being a visual object. Being seen as a person and being seen as a visual object may to some extent be compatible, insofar as being a person makes possible the experience of being seen as a visual object. On the other hand, being seen as a person and being seen as a visual object may be incompatible insofar as a person is not merely an object, but a whole person, and for him/her to be seen merely as an object is for him/her to have his/her whole personhood ignored and unrecognized by whoever sees him/her in this way.
To be visible is also to be situated in a field or terrain of visibility. The field or terrain may include other objects that (or persons who) have varying degrees of visibility. The visibility of any particular object (or person) may depend on prevailing environmental conditions as well as on the visual capabilities of the viewer.
To be visible is also at times to cast a shadow over some other person or object in the viewer’s visual field. The shadow cast by some person or object may obscure the presence of some other person or object, and the relations between those persons or objects may thereby also be obscured. Being invisible may therefore in some cases mean remaining hidden within the shadows. It may also mean being perceived as having only a shadowy, vague, and indeterminate kind of existence.
We may be compelled by whatever (social, cultural, or historical) situation we find ourselves in to ask ourselves, “How visible are we, and to whom?” To whom must we be visible? To whom do we want to make our presence known? By whom would we rather not be noticed or recognized? From what (or from whose) standpoint do we want or not want to be visible, seen, and recognized? What kind of visibility to others and what kind of recognition by others do we aspire to achieve?
Minority groups that have been described as invisible in one way or another to the majority of American society include blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, minority women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, elderly people, people with disabilities, children of undocumented immigrants, and other minority groups.
Being a member of an invisible social minority may mean being faceless and nameless to the social majority, by virtue of being unseen and unrecognized. It may also mean being voiceless, by virtue of having no say in matters that pertain to one’s own destiny. It may also mean having to overcome the social disadvantages suffered by minority group members as a result of the prejudices of majority group members. It may also mean being falsely assumed to enjoy the same social advantages as majority group members. It may also mean being ignored by majority group members, and being discriminated against by them.
People may be made to feel invisible by not being noticed, by being disregarded, by being forgotten, by not having their presence acknowledged by others, by being talked about as if they were not there, by not being able to get the attention of others, by being interrupted when they are speaking, by not being listened to, by being refused acceptance or recognition by others, by being denied rights that are enjoyed by others, and by not being granted privileges that have under similar conditions been granted to others.