Invisibilities: Integration

From the Series: Invisibilities

Photo by kdsphotos.

On May 16, 2011, on Los Cocos ranch in the Petén, Guatemala, twenty-seven farm workers were brutally bound, tortured, and beheaded. Straight out of a horror movie, a gruesome message was left written in blood on the side of a farmhouse, warning the owner of the farm that the Mexican drug cartel the Zetas was after him. For days after the slaughter, the media and public speculated if those killed were really innocent migrant workers, or whether they were cleverly disguised members of the drug trade.

The president, Alvaro Colóm, responded by declaring a state of siege (estado de sitio) in the Petén, and Guatemala's northernmost department was flooded with heavily armored vehicles heaped with uniformed men carrying machine guns. This spectacle of statehood had little to do with actual control of criminal activity—particularly when the soldier-laden trucks paraded around the edges of Flores, the quiet island capital of Petén, center for a regional tourism industry based on ancient Mayan temples and the rich jungles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The trucks met visibility with visibility, spectacle with spectacle.

I saw this emphasis on making the state visible echoed in the hours I spent in a government GIS lab responsible for ecological monitoring and evaluation of the enormous Maya Biosphere Reserve. There, in addition to watching forest fires, land use change, and other environmental measures, technicians have started monitoring, mapping, and measuring governance (gobernabilidad), defined in practice as the presence of the state. Maps, reports, and animated PowerPoint presentations detailed the paths of monitoring flights, the trails walked by park guard patrols, and the locations and staffing statistics of control posts at entry points around the reserve. The state lab is monitoring and making visible its own monitoring practices.

This meta-monitoreo is a response to increasing pressure on the Guatemalan state, as well as the many NGOs working in state-like capacities in the reserve, to demonstrate advances in governance, a term that travels with its companion transparency through grants, loans, and other international commitments. Transparency, of course, literally means to be invisible in order to offer up views of a world previously unseen - the invisibilities of corruption, inaction, unreported crime, and secrets (Hetherington 2011; Mathews 2011).

Life and work in Guatemala is dominated by rumor, suspicion, and (entirely reasonable) paranoia: just because a park is patrolled, doesn’t mean the guards will report what they find. If an innocent farm laborer is killed, perhaps he wasn’t so innocent after all. As an ethnographer I was greeted with endless jokes about being a CIA spy, and told that private discussions about my presence ended with a decision that I was “probably not evil.” Probably not. The unseen and the unknown hold sway. Visibility can be untrustworthy, recognized as a performance designed to hide the truth of power.

This back and forth between the hidden and the visible in the Petén resonates across the previous posts in this series on invisibilities: the play of the mundane and the exceptional; the power inherent in being seen, or remaining hidden; and, finally, our role as ethnographers in all of these dynamics.

First, I wonder why we tend to focus on charismatic moments or spectacular display, what Roberto Toledo calls “breakdown situations” or J. Brent Crosson terms “hypervisibility.” Not all regimes of invisibility are visibilized in so dramatic a fashion, as Ali Kenner’s attention to breath makes clear (though even in her case it takes the exceptional, in the form of the pathologized asthmatic body, to bring breath into focus). These moments turn the invisible into something from which we cannot look away, but the question remains, visible to whom? Breath is always apparent to asthmatics, racism to nonprivileged groups, spirits to believers. Moments of hypervisible eruption, like the slaughter at Los Cocos and the state of seige that followed, serve to visibilize to particular groups, and in particular ways, things that were already seen as mundane by others.

Here, perhaps, is one possible key to the question of power. Brent Crosson writes: “It is the constant play between visibility and invisibility, rather than a telos of visibilization, that produces powers.” Moments of hypervisibility perform a radical break between appearances and the unseen real, marking power. More routine regimes of invisibility, like mapping governance or the laboratory work through which Bruno Latour formed the concept that frames our discussion (see William Girard's introduction), assert power through different means and for different ends. I suggest that we meet each set of visibilizing apparatuses with the questions of not just what is being made visible and how, but to whom, when, and where?

Diane Nelson (2009), writing about the duplicity of state violence in Guatemala’s civil war, described the state as simultaneously real and unreal: a rumor, a myth, which by the power of people's belief in it is undeniably true. In her text, the state appears like the dimmest stars in the sky, visible only in peripheral vision.

The mapping of governance in the Maya Biosphere Reserve responds directly to this dynamic, enacting clear boundaries between violence, lawlessness, and hidden dealings on the side of land invaders and drug runners, and transparency, accountability, and right action on the part of the state. The result is a display in which governance becomes quantifiable: something to be “increased” (by more presence, more patrols) rather than “improved,” or made more effective or just. The question of justice is elided by the moral valence of the state simply making itself visible, including to itself.

So what do I hope to accomplish by making visible the Guatemalan state's regimes of invisibility? Or more generally, how do we conceive of our work as ethnographers of invisibilities, or as scholars more broadly in a world that so often conflates vision and knowledge? Ali Kenner notes that it is precisely the everyday habituation to breath that renders it invisible; ethnography, so we like to think, is uniquely attuned to those things to which we are most habituated. Roberto Toledo struggles with this question directly in his attempts to make racism visible, though not all of us conceive our work through such revelatory terms. And as both Brent Crosson's and my case suggest, visibility can be quite dangerous. The most we can hope for, perhaps, is that in making things visible, our work will probably not be evil. Probably not.


Hetherington, Kregg. 2011. Guerilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mathews, Andrew. 2011. Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Nelson, Diane. 2009. Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.