Field Notes: Invisibilities

Many scholars have noted vision’s privileged place within modern knowledge production, and contemporary technologies—from Google Earth to video cameras for laparoscopic surgery—make it easy to feel that everything is visible.  However, today’s emerging worlds must also contend with countless invisibilities, powerful actors that cannot be directly seen: viruses, natural gas, the Holy Spirit, radioactivity, and the market, among many others.  As Bruno Latour details, invisibilities are not mere social constructions, nor are they autonomous realities beyond our reach.  Rather, they are both made and real; they are constructions and actors.  These invisibilities, along with the actors that work to make them legible, are what Latour labels “regimes of invisibility” (2010), complex sets of practices, technologies, mediators, knowledges, and translations that arise to “bring to light” the invisible.  

There are a number of reasons why invisibilities are good to think and engage with.  I’ll mention only two.  First, invisibilities can remind us that we become human only in concert with other entities, oftentimes entities that we cannot see.  Donna Haraway notes the variety of bacteria in and on our bodies that we require to go about our everyday business.  She writes, “I become as an adult human being in company with... tiny messmates.  To be one is always to become with many” (2008: 4).  While Haraway focuses on how we become along with tiny critters that were long understood to sit far below humans on the Great Chain of Being, Dipesh Chakrabarty looks up the Chain at another type of invisible entity, insisting “that the question of being human involves the question of being with gods and spirits” (2000: 16).  From top to bottom, all along the Great Chain of Being, we become with invisible others.   

Second, invisibilities, especially those that are often categorized as “supernatural,” can urge anthropologists to remain relentlessly ethnographic (rather than relentlessly secularizing) as we carry out our research.  Of course, oftentimes anthropologists do not heed this call.  Instead, they describe “supernatural” entities through reference to that great secular fudge and ostensible source of all agency, the human mind.  Or, in another mode, they defer to etiquette, taking the position of the “polite anthropologist”—“I respect your beliefs but they are not mine” (ibid.: 105).  Rather than these two well-travelled routes, anthropologists who encounter these “supernatural” beings can use their ethnographic experiences with the invisible to think through how these entities’ actions in the world are both made and given, perhaps by applying some of the methods that ethnographers have used to consider invisibilities in the lab and other sites of scientific knowledge production.  

On this site over the month of June, four scholars will think through both the processes by which various invisibilities become legible and the consequences they have in the world.  They will discuss how different “regimes of invisibility” are put together in practice and how controversies about these invisibilities are resolved (or not).  In this way, topics that would normally be divided up between various subfields (e.g. anthropology of religion, critical race studies, environmental anthropology, and science and technology studies) will instead be placed in conversation as distinct invisibilities.  

Writers for this round of discussion are as follows:  

Provocation: Ali Kenner received her PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research focuses on asthma, embodiment, and U.S. healthcare. Kenner will join Drexel University's STS program as an assistant professor later this year.  

Translation: J. Brent Crosson recently completed a long-term period of research in southern Trinidad with the assistance of a Fulbright fellowship. He has served as an affiliated researcher with the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI St. Augustine and as a scholar-in-residence at Alice Yard in Port of Spain. He is currently a doctoral candidate and an ACLS/Mellon fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  

Deviation: Roberto Domingo Toledo received his doctorate in philosophy from Stony Brook University in 2013. His dissertation is entitled Latour as Philosopher: On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Critique for Innovative Science and Sociology. He is currently working as a sociologist at the INSHEA on a project analysing the evaluation of youth with school-related disabilities in French schools and disability services.

Integration: Micha Rahder is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. Her dissertation centers on the intersections of remote monitoring (via satellites, aerial photography, etc), conservation and development interventions, and local livelihoods inside Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve. She focuses on the ways that technoloscience, conservation ethics, and endemic violence come together to shape the reserve's landscape. Her work can be seen at      

William Girard is a PhD Candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He will receive his PhD in August 2013.  His research investigates how Pentecostal Christians in Honduras rework a range of ostensibly secular modalities, including development and geopolitics.  

Works Cited  

Chakrabarty, Dipesh 2000   Provincializing Europe Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Haraway, Donna J. 2008   When Species Meet.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.  

Latour, Bruno 2010   On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.    

Image Credit: Loz Flowers, "Invisibility Warning, Long Lane"

Posts in This Series

Invisibilities: Integration

Invisibilities: Deviation. Visibilizing the Invisible Operation of Racism in French Psychosocial Institutions.

Invisibilities: Translation. Spirits of the Dead and the Politics of Invisibility

Invisibilities: Provocation