Relationship Between Visibility And Invisibility Cultural Studies Essay

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"Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we cant see." It is with these understated, wise words from the conductor in the recent children's movie The Polar Express that this exploration into social exclusion begins. How is sight related to social exclusion? Quite simply, if a person, population or space is not or cannot be perceived it cannot be engaged with. In many instances it ceases to exist as part of functioning mainstream society, to stretch the sight metaphor, it disappears in society's blind spot. What causes the location of same in this blind spot of society is to be examined elsewhere, but as a process it certainly exists. This essay attempts to outline the relational nature of the societal seen and unseen through some specific ethnographies pertaining to social exclusion.

To give a structural grounding, this essay examines firstly the nature of visibility and invisibility, both theoretically and in practice which allows this work to be contextualised. The notion of how this visibility or invisibility feeds into social exclusion is outlined and finally specific references to particular ethnographic texts are made, with secondary literature being called on where necessary. The core ethnographies are Bourgois (2002), 'In Search of Respect' and two works of Saris (2002a, 2002b) on the Cherry Orchard community; 'State and Culture', and 'The meaning of art'. Concrete examples will be drawn to make reference to both the visibility and invisibility of persons, populations, causal connections and social forces in no particular order. The interplay between same will be loosely traced throughout and is dealt with in depth before the closing remarks.

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The construction of the notion of visibility and invisibility is a ubiquitous yet largely un-theorised dimension of contemporary anthropology. Much like its sister subject or indeed even mother subject of social exclusion which is yet to be clearly defined in modern anthropology due to its fluid nature. For the sake of this essay I propose that social exclusion be understood as 'that process through which people or groups are prevented from participating'. As to the relationship between social exclusion and visibility, if one is invisible either as an individual or group how is one to participate? So too if a social force is invisible it cannot be dealt with or controlled. This essay asks the question of how is visibility formed? What does it take to be constructed as a visible subject, citizen or consumer in society's eyes, the market or local and global power structures? Which persons, populations and groups are forced to lead invisible lives or to make their existences seen through drastic behaviour and so-viewed misconduct? What illegal activities and lives are constructed and maintained in the shadow of public attention?

The anthropological theoretical construct of visibility and invisibility, that is to say the manner in which anthropologists highlight the existence of these phenomena permeate numerous aspects of the discipline, society and culture. Numerous forms of visibility and invisibility can be constructed whether that is a rendering of human subjects, groups or events visible or invisible based on local moral, societal or hierarchical views. Take for example the employment of social norms and national law in addition to the varying forms of challenging these. Take the enforcement of tough laws of the Irish State against horse owners in Cherry Orchard, whereby the government constructed the view that horses in suburban communities, in this instance Cherry Orchard, were undesirable and had the Gardai (police) take possession of same (Saris: 2002b). Even the preparation, writing and presentation of ethnographies can be made invisible by the mainstream academic community, often due to the issues dealt with which some would rather remain neglected and silenced. Take for example the nature of how these ethnographies are received into modern anthropological thought. Bourgois (2002) has been criticised, just like many other ethnographers in the past, for their representation of a particular reality, for Bourgois life in El Barrio. Its rawness and uncensored violence challenge and disgust many that would prefer it remain hidden or rather invisible in academic writing and thought.

Bourgois examines how the inner-city street culture developed in reaction to inequalities suffered by people when they interact with the mainstream society of New York. Bourgois proposes that "street culture offers an alternative forum for autonomous personal dignity" (2002: 8). Respect, he goes on to say, is integral to this subculture. The construction of this respect as a social manner of placing oneself in a hierarchy within the community of drug ridden El Barrio is important in terms of its making visible a social force, that of respect, and how that articulates itself in terms of actions within the community. Even within the community which is viewed as invisible the dynamics of visibility and invisibility exist.

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Although the street economy is based on the sale of crack cocaine, it is important to note that, "substance abuse in the inner city is merely a symptom - and a vivid symbol - of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation" (Bourgois 2002: 2). Crack, then, is not an end in itself or the aim of the subculture, but rather a centre it operates around. As Bourgois observes, "The crack economy, in fact, sprang from the search for respect; people needed an alternative to undesirable minimum-wage jobs, to fit with the street-defined dignity of refusing to work honestly for low wages" (Bourgois 2002: 130). The residents of El Barrio could not earn respect or feel respected in the inferior positions they would be working in: "Obedience to the norms of high-rise, office-corridor culture is in direct contradiction to street culture's definitions of personal dignity" (Bourgois 2002: 115). Dealing crack provides a different visual representation for dignity and respect. Although the majority of East Harlem residents are not involved with drugs in any way, the minority who are "have managed to set the tone for public life" (Bourgois 2002: 10). Hence, the crack economy, serves as an important structural force in the culture of East Harlem.

The ways of earning respect in East Harlem inner-city street culture vary drastically, even defiantly, from those in mainstream American society. One method of achieving respect is through violence, whereby regular displays of outward violence are essential for protecting against rip-offs by colleagues, customers, and professional holdup artists. Bourgois explains that "upward mobility in the underground economy of the street-dealing world requires a systematic and effective use of violence against one's colleagues, one's neighbours, and, to a certain extent, against oneself. Behaviour that appears irrationally violent, "barbaric'", and ultimately self-destructive to the outsider, can be reinterpreted according to the logic of the underground economy as judicious public relations and long-term investment in one's "human capital development" (2002: 24). Hence within the context of inner-city street culture violence is a part of the order of society and a legitimate way to earn respect, even though to an outsider violence may seem like a symptom of chaos. The highly visible nature of violence when expressed acts as a key point of socialisation in El Barrio.

In El Barrio Bourgois highlights one aspect of the invisible becoming visible. Violence and violent activity among the invisible community of El Barrio's drug underworld makes a very distinct, and ugly, presence felt when gang members quarrel. The public display of violence or fighting is visually noticed by the members of the 'visible' community and is highly problematic. Deaths register on the police's radar and the media, which only manage to reinforce mainstreams societies need to repress or hide the region of El Barrio. "Violent incidents, even when they do not physically threaten bystanders, are highly visible and traumatic. For example, during my first thirteen months of residence in El Barrio I witnessed a slew of violent incidents: ....a deadly shotgun shooting... a bombing and a machine-gunning.... a shoot-out and a police car chase ....fire-bombing of a heroin house..... a half-dozen screaming, clothes-ripping fights." (Bourgois: 2002: 34)

Saris (2002b), brings an Irish context to this visibility/invisibility argument through his example of Cherry Orchard, Dublin 12. Described as an "unfashionable Dublin suburb that most people in the capital have never been to (and that many people would never want to visit)" (Saris: 2002b: 14). Saris goes on to say that "Irish public policy towards poverty has been spatialised, looking to address the 'social exclusion' of areas and populations in line with continental, especially French, models." (Saris: 2002b: 14) When Cherry Orchard intrudes on the Irish national consciousness at all, it is generally through the reporting of severe problems to be found therein. Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of this tendency in recent years is the media coverage of the serious troubles in the area around Halloween 1995. At that time, the Gallanstown Housing Estate in Cherry Orchard erupted into a major civil disturbance which was described by the Gardaí at the time as an 'organized riot.' On Hallowe'en night, several units of the Gardaí were lured into the area in hot pursuit of joyriders in stolen cars. They were then surrounded and driven off the street by crowds bearing rocks and petrol bombs. The Gardai came back in force and were driven off the streets again. Over the course of several hours, tens of people were injured, two children very seriously, and dozens of arrests were made. "Indeed, the Halloween Riots are still viewed by the authorities as one of the most disturbing incidents of public unrest in the Republic of Ireland within living memory" (Saris: 2002b: 15).

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Interestingly the Cherry Orchard community, as a population, have expressed themselves through art, in specific wall murals. A number of local activist groups joined together and began to cast around for "a way to put the riots behind them" (Saris: 2002b: 15). It was eventually decided that, to symbolize the new birth of the area, the dreary walls in and around the housing estates of Cherry Orchard, which had hitherto been little more than convenient graffiti canvases, were to be repainted by the youth of the area. These walls allow a space for public expression of the community identity. They are also spaces of conflict in that they are used by rival gangs to pass messages, for example, "let the games begin" (Saris: 2002b: 14). This is a coded statement which visualises an otherwise unseen threatening reality. This lends another dimension of how groups of people, in this case gangs, make themselves visible. That is to say they articulate their warfare to the outside world, and indeed make a statement within their own community. A specific gang is now visible in the community. The community can also now by identified by this gang. Hence a small group or gang can control external perception of the entire community as they have expressed themselves and choose to be visible. They have gone from being hidden and hiding behind the wall to making their presence felt by using the wall as a canvas. Interestingly in response to this invisible community making a visual stance the authorities, in this case Dublin Corporation, repaints the wall rendering these expressions invisible again. This particular example also begs the question as to who exactly controls what is and is not visible. On these same walls a statement 'Mark Hall was killed by the Gardai' (Saris: 2002b: 16) was placed expressing a perception of a particular gang and using this to incite further violence. Mark's mother defaced the wall herself removing the slogan saying that enough is simply enough. Individual actors in the society or community can have influence over their visibility or invisibility.

"All the poorer suburbs of the Dublin fringe, Fettercairn, North Clondalkin and Cherry Orchard, including 'high-rise' urban areas like Ballymun, have recently completed, or are currently building Equestrian Centres, under the auspices of 'community development." (Saris: 2002: 171) These horse based projects are undertaken to aid those communities who are perceived as being socially excluded. It is through this representation of these neighbourhoods as visibly poor that they have gained such financial assistance for this project. The importance of horse ownership in these communities historically is quite significant in that they used horses for the transportation of goods, for general transport and for work. The tradition of maintain horses continued, unnoticed by most of the sprawling suburban Dublin. The fact of horse ownership in Dublin was invisible, and would have remained so had that invisible world overlapped with the mainstream visibility of middle class Dublin. Saris details an event whereby a number of horses strayed onto the M50, a busy motorway which is a ring road for Dublin. The issue of horse ownership in a city travelled from the invisible quarters to the visible and this transition was problematic for the society at large. The relationship between the visible and invisible is a tentative one. When the two overlap both become visible in their sharing. This forces the visible community to deal with the issues presented and for the most part his means returning the invisible to their invisibility. Legislative and police enforcement means were chosen by the middle classes to exercise this control and boxing back into community. These law focused deeds were socially exclusive means to deal with the problem whereby those in these poorer areas lacked the social credit to engage with such policies and drawing up of same. Hence the Dail passed legislation which made it all but impossible to have a horse in the city. Thus legislating horses from visible to invisibility.

The final work which I wish to examine in terms of visibility is that of Lemanski 'Spaces of Exclusivity or Connection? Linkages between a Gated Community and its Poorer Neighbour in a Cape Town Master Plan Development.' Even from this articles title the relational nature of the article is apparent. I propose that the 'gated community' in question is constructed visibly whereas the 'poorer neighbours' are constructed into invisibility. The article deals with an analysis of the relationships between residents of a gated community, Silvertree Estate, and their poorer neighbouring, non-gated, area called 'Westlake Village'. The attitudes and perceptions that exist amongst residents of each both communities towards the 'other' neighbourhood are addressed, as well as the nature of any direct contact between residents. "The case study for this paper is located in a master plan private development, constructed in 1999 in the heart of Cape Town's wealthy (and predominantly White) 'southern suburbs'. The development hosts two vastly different residential areas that despite spatial proximity are socially and functionally isolated." (Lemanski: 2006: 397) The development comprises two housing areas: Westlake village, a state-assisted low-income housing area providing home-ownership for Black African and Coloured community and also Silvertree Estate, a luxurious security Village with 24-hour surveillance. The development also includes non-residential land use with an exclusive private school (thus attracting high-income families to Silvertree), a business park, office park, retail centre and the US Consulate office.

In terms of visibility of persons Westlake village is a prime example 'Westlake respondents were relatively easy to locate by walking the streets, knocking on doors and gaining referrals by befriending residents' (Lemanski: 2002: 399). This again echoes the earlier examples of notions visibility depending on perspective. Whereas the Westlake village community is considered by those outside to be unworthy of recognition and hence written into invisibility, within the community itself individual actors are as real as the residents of Silvertree Estate. To refer back to the opening remarks of this essay 'the most real things in the world are the things we can't see'. In contrast the residents of Silvertree are more were "less willing to pass on their neighbours' contact details and security measures ensured that all interviews required a pre-arranged (usually by telephone) appointment; thus it was harder to access Silvertree residents" (Lemanski: 2002: 399). The residents of Silvertree are somewhat invisible to each other to within the highly visible community of Silvertree Estate, the walls within walls in which they live are an exterior expression of this interrelation-ally distant outlook. The nature of what brings about this difference is striking. Silvertree residents wish to remain independent, up in their ivory towers, and do not interact easily or frequently with their neighbours. The etiquette is one of polite distance, not wishing to pry on the other and a desire to maintain security as a priority. They choose to remain invisible. The notion of access is raised, in that Silvertree residents are difficult to access. This reflects the nature of invisibility itself, it is hard to access that which is hard to perceive.

As to the enforced invisibility of the Westlake Village, the structural factor of planning has planned them into physical invisibility thanks to specifically designing the two communities in such a manner that the sight-line from Silvertree Estate does not intersect with any house of the 'invisible' Westlake Village community. In the words of one Westlake resident "due to the design of the compound the sight line of residents of Silvertree is such that they cannot directly see Westlake village. They build high walls like Jericho. They don't want to see us (E.T., 11 March 2004)."(Lemanski: 2006: 408) To give an opposing perspective, that of a Silvertree Estate resident speaking about Westlake people "As far as we're concerned they're not even there (A.K., 28 April 2004), (Lemanski: 2006: 409). The social factor of being undesirable, that is to say in this context poor and coloured, has resulted in their being built into invisibility.

The relationship between visibility and invisibility is one which functions for the betterment of the visible community. A desire to repress or hide the other is satisfied by this process, its success is evident in the Westlake and Silvertree housing project. "While Silvertree has become a sought-after address, with property values far exceeding original hopes, Westlake village has become the forgotten part of the development and is barely visible even from within the development, let alone from the surrounding roads and neighbourhoods." (Lemanski: 2006: 406) Lemanski even goes on to say that this 'invisibility' was intended by the original master-plan design, hence hinting that such an apartheid-esque approach is still considered acceptable by both developers and the city town planners. Hence invisibility can be used as a tool to socially construct and control communities.

Hence it is evident that finding the truth is a matter of representation, into visibility or invisibility. Social constructs are related by their ways of making visible, or their pointing out ways of obscuring, a fundamental reality, perhaps the defining quality, of our historical moment that of gross inequalities and their systematic reproduction. Whether that be the apartheid which still exists in South Africa through particular planning and the rewarding of same with success. That is when undesirables are written into invisibility in a particular estate and the whites can exist independently in their visible world they are rewarded by increased property prices. That violence in El Barrio is rewarded with respect.

It can therefore be derived that the relationship between visibility and invisibility is complex and centred on power relationships. The nature that if a person, population or space is not or cannot be perceived it cannot be engaged with is key to the usefulness of invisibility for visible communities. So to the desire for invisible communities to stay invisible is demonstrated by Saris (2002) in Cherry Orchard where once their horses ventured into a visible sphere that which the community valued was challenged. The construction of the notion of visibility and invisibility and their relationship is an ever-present dimension in societal action, which feeds directly into or is part therein of social exclusion, in that the aid they process through which people or groups are prevented from participating.