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 (2010, 163) labels “regimes of invisibility," 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, often 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” (Haraway 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 (2000, 16) 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." 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, often 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” (Chakrabarty 2000, 105). Rather than these two well-travelled routes, anthropologists who encounter such 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.
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.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2010. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
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