Reviewed: Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, Penguin
In H.G. Wells’ 1897 gothic masterpiece The Invisible Man, a mysterious figure arrives in a small English town to carry out nefarious deeds. Under an outfit that’s largely made up of bandages, the optics-obsessed scientist is invisible, which allows him to get away with arson, theft and, literally, murder—until he himself is killed. As he dies, parts of his body slowly regain visibility, revealing him in his battered and grotesque glory. It’s the story of an insane anti-hero who takes advantage of the art of concealment to nab ill-gotten gains, yet who remains deeply dissatisfied when he does get them. Invisibility, according to Wells, is mostly a transgression.
Yet could it also be a blessing? This is the question that underpins Akiko Busch’s new book, How to Disappear. During a time in history where rhetoric around visibility is thriving—particularly in our extremely online worlds, amid economies that trade on our attention—to entertain the idea of invisibility seems gauche: why shun the public gaze unless you have something (terrible) to hide? But what if, as Busch asks early on in the book, invisibility could be ‘regarded not simply as refuge, but as a condition with its own meaning and power’?
How to Disappear is a series of essays that gently contemplate the often neglected liminal spaces in our culture of hard binaries. Whether that’s weighing up the push-pull between privacy and celebrity, the fascist surveillance of minorities or the role that transformation optics plays in science, Busch dips into art history, literature, folklore and the natural world. Her prose is a meandering cavalcade that sweeps across broad cultural landscapes to try to locate the impulses, doubts and anxieties that arise around the concept of invisibility in our world now.
In one essay she considers the invisibility older women experience through the lens of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Another essay looks at urban legends such as the Huldufólk, invisible people who are thought to live inside Iceland’s lava rocks, and which pervade Icelandic culture whether one believes in them or not. By framing these ideas as questions rather than statements, the book does more than the predictable job of pitting invisibility against visibility; instead, it’s a guide towards envisioning a conversation around in/visibility that cleaves open spaces for more meaning.
When the desire to obscure oneself is laden with negative connotations around wrongdoing, alienation and uncertainty, while the call for #visibility is associated with celebration, self-empowerment and pride, it’s difficult to reimagine invisibility as a source of strength. After all, human ego and self-actualisation revolve around seeing and being seen. In How to Disappear, Busch acknowledges all this: as she mulls over the twin prongs of solace and discomfort that arise when invisibility is considered next to smart technology and social media in contemporary Western society, she situates this discord against childlike pursuits and the uncomplicated inclination towards invisibility in certain parts of the natural world.
Like the pebble plant Busch describes in loving detail, many living things, be they predator or prey, make use of a technique known as crypsis to go completely undetected in the world. For these creatures, ‘camouflage in the natural world is not some exotic and picturesque trait. It is nuanced, creative, sensitive, discerning.’ I think about Édouard Glissant’s concept of opacity, a body politic that, when utilised by people on the margins in response to imperial conquest, seeks to defy definition. With the Deleuzian call for ‘the right to say nothing’, refusing to demarcate so-called marginal selves in relation to calls for visibility and representation so as to allow for a greater depth of being, the ability to self-actualise in private outside dominant gazes. If I follow in the footsteps of the long-tailed weasel and the Australian lyrebird—two examples of natural-world trickery Busch exemplifies in How to Disappear—perhaps I can troll my way into the creation of a self that doesn’t exist in opposition to another, but rather one that sits comfortably as a rainbow of multitudes.
In today’s attention economy, visibility remains a highly political issue. For those of us—older women, queers, the homeless, people of colour, disabled folk or anyone else who sits in the intersections of all of these and more—who acknowledge the conditions of our invisibility, we are equally hypervisible and unseen. As Fred Moten writes in his ground-breaking work In the Break, ‘invisibility has visibility at its heart’. In other words, how I’m seen is still highly contingent on authoritarian ways of looking, a kind of value that can appear liberating at first glance, but which waxes and wanes according to the market.
When the conditions for visibility online sit alongside surveillance culture, how do I, as a queer woman of colour, take this reflection of myself seriously? What kind of information is being harnessed about my (desire for) visibility that will eventually inform power and capital? Even as I flirt with in/visibility via open-source browsers such as Tor and communicate through encrypted messaging services such as Signal, the spectral possibility that lies beneath being uncovered hovers in the background as state surveillance of citizens accelerates, whether through facial-recognition programs, satellite cameras or our mobile phones.
In How to Disappear, Busch wants readers to meditate on and reassess the loudness of our selves in the world, to harness the ability of moving out of sight as a way of regaining agency of our selves: ‘becoming invisible is not the equivalent of being nonexistent’. Here, the imaginative possibilities of invisible ink is ripe for the taking: just like how heat oxidises lemon juice to make visible what was once seemingly nothing at all, I can write a self that is unseen until I choose to reveal it.
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Westerly, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is Kill Your Darlings’ 2019 New Critic and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.