If you were invisible
13 August 2008
Invisibility has always been a powerful metaphor for what happens when we step outside — or are forced outside — our own group. When someone becomes “other.” It’s such a common experience of adolescence, and it lingers into adulthood. It’s everywhere in fiction and memoir, television and film. Someone is not like us anymore, or she never was, and we ostracize her and she becomes invisible to us, dead to us. She’s simply not there, even though someone who looks just like her is trying to fumble her locker open with tears in her eyes.
And we become invisible when we are not “real” in other ways. Minority people are invisible as individual human beings to the mainstream culture. Information that the systems of power don’t want revealed stays hidden. And go read How to Suppress Women’s Writing for a cogent look at all the ways to make art “disappear.”
And then there are the invisible monsters. What we can’t see frightens us — the ghost, the seemingly-supernatural serial killer, the shark in dark water. Invisibility is powerful when it’s used to hurt. One way to make a human monster in fiction is to make them literally invisible, and then watch — they get up to all kinds of evil nasty stuff, because they can. They spy. They sneak. They learn things about us that they aren’t supposed to know. We are vulnerable.
And of course invisibility can be cool, too. Harry Potter’s cloak, using the Force to pass undetected, the good guys slipping through the cracks in order to confound evil and carry the day. Because in fiction, the invisibility that is such a weapon against outsiders in the real world becomes the way the outsiders win in the end.
Invisibility is a complex notion for humans, like telepathy and magic. Lots of fodder for story.
What would you do?
I know, I know — if this were available to folks, there would be a whole new list of ways for evil to play out in the world. I’m not interested in hearing how being invisible would improve the effectiveness of murderers and rapists and creepy stalkers, okay? But I am interested in your ideas about what ordinary folks might do if they thought no one could see them. Would they run naked through the streets at lunch hour? Would they have public sex? Would they sneak out of high school past the security guard and then have to sneak back into class later and convince the teacher they were there all the time? Maybe celebrities would use it to get in and out of clubs and courthouses.
What would you do if you could be invisible? What do you think other people would do? And would it always be like it is in fiction, dehumanizing, turning us into uncaring soulless monster creepy folk? Or would there be some good?
I think invisible public sex is the most interesting personal use I can think of right now, in terms of pure fun that hurts no one (or maybe it just shows my lack of imagination, who knows?). And the creepiest personal use I can think of came to me the other night… Nicola and I were sitting on the back deck as the sun went down, drinking beer and talking about being invisible. It’s very private back there, no one can see us. And then I imagined an invisible neighbor or a stranger leaning against the deck railing, just listening to us, feeling the particular power of invasion and secret knowledge. And even though we weren’t saying anything particularly personal, I suddenly felt so vulnerable.
If we could all be invisible, would any of us ever be able to trust again that we are alone? That we are unobserved? Will we ever have a moment that we truly trust is private?
I’m good at purposely forgetting the spy satellites and the systems that monitor all our phone calls and emails and that is probably scanning this innocuous little blog post right now. Those systems are out there — I can’t touch them, I can’t control them, and they aren’t really about me. But someone standing on my deck, watching me — that’s personal.
So invisibility is a cultural weapon, as long as it’s metaphorical, emotional, psychological. When it becomes real — well, then the invisible become very powerful indeed. I have to say that it gives me pause.