One of the most perceptive studies of the way we live now was published all the way back in 1979. It was The Culture of Narcissism
by Christopher Lasch. In it he suggested that 'success in our society has to be ratified by publicity'. The more we are known the better. The celebrity culture seems to have confirmed Lasch's prediction. Visibility has become the common currency of our time.
This was where Akiko Busch started her examination of invisibility. In How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency
(Penguin Press, New York, 2019), she cannily updates Lasch. After all, today we have the digital economy where 'Big Data can gather pretty well all the information about each one of us – where we go, what we buy, what we spend, even what we are biometrically. Alexa and Amazon know all about us, Google digitally trails us, Facebook facilitates our social identity. We live in a post-privacy
world. Connectivity reifies and panders to our vanity. We regard the trade-off between transparency and privacy as loaded in our favour'.
'The message is that in an age of perpetual surveillance, invisibility resonates with alienation… and generally implies estrangement and disaffection,' Busch goes on to say. Hers, then, is both a counter-cultural narrative and a challenging analysis of the causes and consequences of wanting to break free. If you are really concerned about how to remain yourself in a mad mad world, get a proper perspective, protect your privacy, manage what Big Data does to you as well as for you, then reflecting on how to disappear has a lot going for it. A lot of people are talking about it and there's no shortage of advice – mindfulness, calm, walks in woods, voices of whales, zen, prayer – fighting burnout, digital overload, social media addiction, ads on the perfect me.
Part of the logic of narcissism is the illusion that we have full control. We are able to decide whether to be invisible or not. Like a small child who believes that, because she can't see me, we can't see her. We've all played hide-and-seek when kids and don't need Piaget to tell us that if we hide behind a tree (or go into a wardrobe like the kids from Narnia) we're still likely to be found. It's fun to pretend, as if we've got a cloak of invisibility, that familiar device in both fairy tales and gaming scenarios.
Busch reminds us that Plato's tale of Gyges' ring can turn all this fun into mischief and even evil. Gyges was a shepherd who discovered a ring of invisibility. With it he was able to take over the kingdom. An example of opportunistic invisibility. A moment's reflection will remind us that, if we ourselves had such a ring, we might well exploit our invisibility in a similar way. It would take a very honest person to resists the temptations – perhaps someone like Frodo Baggins or Sam Gamgee in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
, where regularly characters are tested by the lure of the ring – Boromir fails and Faramir succeeds, Saruman fails and Gandalf succeeds, Gollum fails and Frodo only just succeeds. Myths and allegories throw up useful symbols, for all their obviousness.
And if all this sounds remote and merely literary, the invisible trolls on the internet, and devious ways in which protean avatars can be created and exploited there, provide us with more than a few warning shots. There are times when we choose to forget or be silent.
Many men and women having served in war speak about it seldom. Only in recent times has PTSD been recognised and treated properly for the effects of repressed fear and anger. The final scenes of The Lord of the Rings
are revealing in that Frodo and Sam, Pippin and Merry choose to say nothing of what they've gone through. On his journey, Frodo learns to hide his true identity, knowing the danger of carrying a huge evil burden. Cold cases expose evils long hidden, lottery winners choose to stay silent.
There are times when invisibility or anonymity can be useful to the criminal mind. Busch compares this to camouflage and mimicry in the natural world – the stick insect that resembles a twig, the moth with danger-sign spots on its wings, and mottling on the coat of a leopard, the colour repertoire of the squid. All to keep a creature safe from predators and to help it prey on others. In the same way stealth bombers have ways of eluding enemy detection, cloaking devices can be employed to protect identity in database management, invisible ink can be used in spy novels, and authors remain tantalisingly anonymous, criminals can devise new lives and identities for themselves.
In the American presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a further take on invisibility emerged strongly. That was where a large number of Americans were characterised as having been 'left out' – of the American dream, the alleged benefits of capitalism, excluded from health care, discriminated against racially, harmed by globalisation, ie the Trump constituency – and were called 'the invisibles'. The marginalised poor, the economic and social underbelly of society, the 'only just managing', the food bank and soup kitchen generation – all statistics for the think tanks and for government to manipulate with clever policies and the simulated compassion of the gospel of equality. Nevertheless, invisible not by choice but by circumstance, perhaps even by destiny.
Invisibility can creep up on you. We all know we change. Busch asks us to look at ourselves in old photos, and consider that self we used to be, with the funny clothes and hairstyle. Family photos open up the dumb show into a panoply of the past, faded into the very edges of memory. Invisibility is often seen as the price of ageing, usually associated with stereotypes and economic marginalisation. For many older people, Busch suggests, invisibility comes with dementia. 'When the brain cells die, the emotional characteristics, which make us who we are, evaporate. Self-awareness and empathy wane, and emotional memories fade.' She calls it 'the dissolution of the self' – then there seems no choice about becoming invisible.
Returning to the scene Busch started with, that of privacy and today's digital world that seems to know all about us, Busch invites us to reflect on the thesis David Zweig puts forward in his 2014 book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace
– that we can be good at work and find personal satisfaction without hankering after all the trappings of power, like promotion. She wonders whether this is just a quaint notion in an aspirational world where you are (you think) what you seem and where you sit where you want others to see you.
Even more counter-cultural is the urge some have to believe in the unseen – call it magic, that world of invisibility cloaks and Marvel Comics. Being able to fly (think Raymond Briggs' Snowman
, one of the most popular children's books ever) is a dream most of us have had, and not just Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Philip Ball's Invisible: the Dangerous Allure of the Unseen
(2015) alerts us to the risks of being invisible, succumbing to that opportunism we spoke about earlier. Recent avatar technology will allow images of Tom Hanks and other stars to persist long after they're dead. We seem to have cracked the problem of eternal life.
Speaking of which, one thing Busch only hints at is religion. That is notoriously a field of human experience where credulous witnesses testify they have seen what is unseen, and where the invisibility of the supernatural takes on a plausible tangibility all of its own, for instance in theories of transubstantiation. Perhaps some Jesuitical metaphysics are at work here. Perhaps the whole business is little more than the power of auto-suggestion triggered, as it is in the ghostly tales of M R James or in Henry James' A Turn of the Screw
, by what we fear but cannot explain.
Such unseen dangers, there or not, can persist into the modern world, as we know from beliefs of the Huldufolk in Iceland, even though that is as much manufactured tourist talk as anthropology. Even so, we only see what we can see and know what we can know. Knowledge and self-knowledge have imperfect peripheral vision. A post-privacy culture sets up expectations of transparency. It distrusts privacy while at the same time paying it lip-service. We long for that personal space where we can be ourselves, yet paradoxically search confirmation of ourselves in the public digital sphere.
Christopher Lasch was probably right in reminding us that, ultimately, we are narcissists, intoxicated by our own image, and by the image of our own image. We simply can't bear to be ignored.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland