Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”
There are many ways of becoming invisible. Roger Caillois, the great surrealist researcher on play and on mimicry, wrote that civilizations have existed without ploughs, wheels or levers, but never without masks. Hiding behind something, concealing ourselves from others or from ourselves, is as fundamental to humans as play. Peekaboo.
Akiko Busch’s “How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency” begins with a discussion of the atavistic delights of disappearance, pleasures that in some ways have gotten harder to come by in our age of linked-in visibility. “In recent years,” she writes, “we have been more preoccupied than ever by the question of how to stay in view.” So much of our lives is now exposed, and we know it: Smart speakers listen to our every word, and our appliances can converse through the Internet and deploy web services to predict what we’re likely to buy next. Thanks to GPS, today’s teenagers are monitored by anxious parents, and all of us who carry cellphones have our locations pinged to cell towers so we can always be found. We are always potentially visible, and we often send out tweets or posts to ensure that someone recognizes, even likes us.
All of this transparency can stoke a desire to disappear. Busch, who has previously written about reclaiming rivers by swimming across them, and about citizen science as effective environmentalism, in this book is interested in how we have devised strategies to avoid being seen. “The entire world is shining with things we cannot see,” she writes, and these short essays explore what it can mean to move among such things. “Inconspicuousness begins as self-protection but soon extends to self-reliance and a deeper appreciation of who we are and where we belong.” What Edmund Burke called “judicious obscurity” can be empowering.
The play of visibility and invisibility starts early, as infants and toddlers begin to learn about object permanence. Are you still there when I can’t see you? How about me? When I cover my eyes, can you see me? From peekaboo to hide and seek, children find fear and delight in covering and uncovering themselves and others. Busch quotes the famed psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott: “It’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.” It’s no fun at all, and indeed may be terrifying, to realize that nobody is looking for you.
There is little about terror in “How to Disappear,” but there is a great deal about wonder. Busch is fascinated by the astonishing ways animals use camouflage, or what scientists call “adaptive coloration.” Caillois might have been helpful here, but his work and the stream of reflections that has followed from it go mostly unnoticed. There are insightful pages on British zoologist Hugh B. Cott’s work on how animals fool one another by blending in with their surroundings. Busch doesn’t catch Cott’s hide-and-seek name (“You Be Caught”), but she does share her delight in the “menagerie of imposters” and concludes that “invisibility seems woven into the very structure of being and behavior.”
Busch’s subtitle signals that she’s providing only notes on invisibility. Her slim volume lacks a general argument. Instead, the author shares her enthusiasms for the natural world and for how one can position oneself to catch a glimpse of those things that shine through the obscurity around them. For example, she describes the joys of deep-sea diving and of the indifference (she imagines) with which undersea creatures treat her when she is far beneath the surface. Underwater, though, Busch loses me, and when she asserts that “submerged, I have become a refugee from the visible world,” I am visibly rolling my eyes. Refugee? Matters only get worse when she writes of the “healing” and “solidarity” that come from being under the sea. I suppose expensive tourist activities can be restorative, but the imagined solidarity with fish and refugees seems all wet to me.
Busch wants to create “a field guide to invisibility,” but field guides are useful when they help the wanderer tell one thing from another — to distinguish, say, among similar-looking trees or flowers. She instead tends to lump many things together: Camouflaging animals hiding from predators are grouped with divers in expensive gear enjoying colorful fish; memories that disappear from dementia somehow are similar to writings that are made to disappear by redacting censors. Field guides need to be precise, and although there are some fine moments in “How to Disappear,” Busch can be a bit wooly. She notes that contemporary culture tends to accept the pliability of the self, citing Rachel Dolezal as an example. But Dolezal was widely vilified for passing as an African American — not celebrated for expanding the boundaries of identity. A discussion of the “vanishing self” may belong in a book on invisibility, but when Busch writes of an anesthesia before minor surgery producing the “most blissful” moments of boundless “gratitude” and “an ineffable accommodation by a larger and supremely benign sphere of existence,” this guide eludes me. Anesthesia-produced ineffability, even from a drug labeled “versed,” should be left in the operating room.
Busch doesn’t want disappearance to sound like an option only for the privileged, so she ends her book with comments on how diminishing the self might lead one to become kinder, more altruistic. That’s nice, but sometimes animals obscure themselves to be more successful predators and sometimes to avoid being prey. Distinctions, Caillois noted long ago, are key — whether one is hiding or seeking.
By Akiko Busch
Penguin Press. 207 pp. $26