How can you show people who are not there?

By Asher Goldstein, EMESO, Linköping universitet

This post takes as its title and jumping off point the provocative reflection at the close of Kira Kosnick’s lecture at the end of the first week of the summer school. It is not intended as a recapitulation of the arguments presented in her fascinating lecture “Why gender and sexuality matter in European migration and border management”. Instead, the following presents some reflections on the representation and visualization of invisibility, with specific emphasis on the spatial, temporal, and symbolic.

As Norbert Cyrus reminded us (with reference to Brighenti (2007)) in the discussion following Kosnick’s lecture, visibility and seeing are active processes. Yet the inverse, that invisibility or unseeing are consequently passive does not hold. The understanding of invisibility as an active process, and crucially, as a methodological flaw suggested here, is in keeping with Kira Kosnick’s reading of the constrained presence of gender in migration management as an artificially minoritized, vulnerable group, disconnected from demographic realities, and contexts of exposure to vulnerability.

The argument supporting this claim is grounded in the approaches of scholarship of the sociology of ignorance (SOI)(For an introduction to the field, see Croissant, J. (2014) and Gross, M. and McGoey, L. (Eds.) Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015)). As an interdisciplinary field, SOI takes processes of ignorance-making, or active ignoring as its ethnographic and theoretical objects of study, drawing inspiration from and connected to other disciplinary approaches to the study of absences, unknowns, and disavowals. It is in this process-focus where SOI offers insights into Kosnick’s methodological provocation of “How can you show people who are not there?” by asking first who is not there, why they might not be represented, and what is the precise character of their invisibility, e.g. unknown, anticipated, or constructed.

Spatially, the where of ‘not-there’ is as much a problem in research design that ignores the global entanglements of contemporary inequality by recourse to methodological nationalism (Wimmer, A. and Glick-Schiller, N. (2012)) and often, methodological whiteness (Bhambra, G. (2017)). Such theoretical frames and white research and methods (Zuberi, T. and Bonilla-Silva, E. (Eds.) (2008)) forget the foundational articulations of migrants’ rights activists “We are here because you are there” and “La frontera nos cruzó” that foreground this global entanglement in the causes and consequences of mobility. In ignoring intersections of status which affect the possibility to take up space and claim visibility, the invisible is often defined out of the frame of inquiry.

This spatial forgetting and invisibilization shapes the when of ‘not-there’ and its attendant temporal horizons of invisibility. Reckoning with and representations of colonial heritages and present-day legacies (Vimalassery, M., Hu Pegues, J., Goldstein, A. (2016, 2017)) has been a major focus of this transversal research subject, taking up what Fabian’s in his critique of anthropology called the denial of coevalness, meaning “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (Fabian, J. (2002 [1983], 272). This imposition of backwardness takes many forms, in diminishing the relevance of historical formations, or dehistoricizing the forms of mobility which are shaped by historically contingent social formations.

This is not to say, however, that the preceding also applies to privacy and the generative potential of refusal to be visible to the ethnographic gaze. Resisting instrumentalization into ‘damage research’ is often a powerful symbol and agentic deployment of invisibility named in the SOI literature as the politics of refusal (Tuck, E. (2009), Simpson, A. (2016)). The principal distinction can be expressed as one of extraction of knowledge vs community ownership, of research and its outputs; both crucial tests to keep in mind in assessing the possibilities of refusal and the politics of invisibility in context. Of course, these possibilities for invisibility are themselves constrained by spatio-temporal social formations, where agency may be limited to the everyday acts of resistance to biometric capture, denial of access to territory, or insistence on sovereign language and expression.

Yet, even prominent reflexive contributions on the nature of invisibility often themselves instrumentalize the pathological to explore symbolic aporia in cultures of commemoration, representation and scholarship. By diagnosing social pathologies through recourse to impairment metaphors, these scholars argue for aphasias (Stoler, A.L. (2009), Achiume, E.T. (2021)), agnosias (Byrd, J. (2011), Khosravi, S. (2020)) or other forms of ‘cultural disablement’ (Stoler, A.L. (2011)) at play. Making invisibility a consequence of a deficiency in the anthropological gaze is an important project, but such metaphors instrumentalize difference without attending to its embodiment, nor its embeddedness within systems of devalorization and inequality. Personally, I can appreciate the numerous insights of these contributions, while rejecting their too easy ableist instrumentalization of embodied conditions and lifeways unjustly damaged by global systems of debilitation. Paradoxically, these projects to make visible what the anthropological gaze excludes express the scholarly tendency of disregard in making metaphors to coin or develop novel terms. Terms which disabilities studies scholar Tanya Titchosky argues, “through their sophisticated medical tonality… seem to transcend the schoolyard nastiness of the term retard” (Titchosky, T. (2015, 3, my emphasis)).

Coming to this perspective on symbolic invisibility through the constrained possibilities of refusal suggests a meaning, in dialogue with the above reflections on invisibility’s spatiality and temporality. Invisibility is actively constructed, either by the researcher’s failure to understand context, or the community’s or individual’s refusal of consent. Methodological corrections to avoid losing those ‘who are not there’ involves, following Kosnick’s guidance, not only exploring how segments within a population are rendered invisible, but also how such segmentations sever people from histories of place, time and agency.

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