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Conditions Of Visibility
By Rosie Flanagan
“Glass is the key to the exploration of our world. It was through glass that Galileo explored the solar system; it was a glass prism that gave Newton the spectrum... Glass is the salt of intellect – a seeing through, its transparency pushes into dark corners.”
– Derek Jarman, Chroma
I am writing this on my laptop, its screen awash with colors and ideas distant from the grey skies that loom outside my window. Moving between multiple tabs, I add words to various Google Docs, drop myself as a pin in the north of Sweden, skim an essay that a friend sent me, peruse a 1967 press release about Frank O’Hara and do a quick subsequent image search: Jasper Johns. I check my email. Google flights. Open WhatsApp, think: I should call Mum. Scroll through Instagram. Look at news headlines, and briefly consider reading their full-length counterparts.
The screen marks an imagined threshold between here and elsewhere. Glass, as Jarman noted, is the material through which we see and understand so much of the world: “As the manufacture of glass in the seventeenth century advanced so did discovery. Grinding of lenses. Magnifying glass. Glass spectacles. Lustrous, hard and brittle.” But today, the glass interfaces of our myriad devices offer only the pretext of clarity. Transparency, as a quality and philosophy, means many things.
If you Google transparency, the internet will tell you that it is a physical property that allows the transmission of light through a material, that the color of a transparent object is determined by the color of the light that it transmits. Glass – like air and water – does not absorb light, but instead transmits it. Materially, the glass of our screens has an almost uniform index of refraction, which means that when lightwaves travel through it they do not scatter in different directions, but move smoothly. They exit the material in much the same way as they entered it. In this sense transparency could be described as a truthful way of seeing light and color; what comes in is what comes out.
Over half of the global population is online, spending – on average – six hours each day staring at a screen. Many of these hours are whiled away on social media, non-spaces where our disembodied selves like, share and converse with one another. Here, we see when holidays are taken, when engagements happen, when houses are bought, when babies are born, when career goals are reached. But unlike the transmission of colored light, our identities are not always the same on both sides of the screen. In life, the self is fractious – a fact that is drawn into focus on social media. Conflating the ideal with the real, we edit photos, we filter faces, we sharpen colors to full luminosity. Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory has gone digital – we’re all performing here.
These platforms mediate our understanding of the world while pretending to be transparent. Through opaque policies and practices, they harvest our personal data and manipulate our news feeds to enclose us in warm circles of familiar aesthetics and, more disconcertingly, political opinion. By trading privacy for convenience, we have become willing accomplices in the construction of our own echo chambers. These network-driven platforms are sold to us as spaces of connection, authenticity and self-expression, and they reward our acts of visibility with hits of dopamine cleverly disguised as likes and follows.
This is not an argument against self-revelation – one need only look at the #MeToo movement to see the way in which online solidarity and collective empowerment can enact radical change – but not all sharing with the internet is done in such a cognitive way. Beyond our wine-induced Twitter arguments, unintelligible Myspace profiles and accidental likes of Instagram photos from hundreds of weeks in the past, we remain highly visible online – this is the age of surveillance, after all.
Unlike the lightwaves that move smoothly through transparent material, our information hits Newton’s prism and scatters the rainbow of our selves across the internet. In Exposure, Olivia Sudjic writes: “For those who want to escape their own subjectivity, the Internet should be a Utopian playground. But unlike in Tim Berners-Lee’s original mind-expanding conception of the World Wide Web, our experience is increasingly personalised.” In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon: “Visibility is a trap.”
We have been taught that the connection between transparency and freedom is self evident, that because it desires the destruction of secrecy it must be inherently good. Defined as a perviousness to light, it has come to mean a perviousness to eyes, a watchfulness declared as a political right. But transparency does not limit misinformation or deception, a fact that I hold close as advertisements for sperm donors and Christian dating websites follow me – single, 31 and an atheist – around the internet.
Once bound to soft, romantic words like pellucidity and diaphaneity – material qualities that allow things to be seen – transparency seems to have grown hard, cool edges in a digital age. Used differently, it could free us by illuminating what should not be hidden, by releasing those things kept unfairly cloaked in shadows. Jarman believed that it was the colorless nature of glass that allowed us to understand the chromatic complexity of our world – but he too saw the value of darkness.
Carolina Carballo is a multidisciplinary visual designer from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Rosie Flanagan is a Berlin-based writer and editor.
1. Derek Jarman, Chroma (London: Penguin, 2019), 118-119.
2. Derek Jarman, Chroma, 118.
3. Olivia Sudjic, Exposure (London: Peninsula Press, 2018), 63.
4. Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” in The Nineteenth-century Visual Culture Reader, ed. Vanessa R. Schwartz, Jeannene M. Pryzblyski (New York: Routledge, 2004), 75.