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Exposing Processes of Invisibilisation and Silencing

To be is to be perceived, not to be is not to be perceived

Être, c’est être perçu ; ne pas être, c’est n’être pas perçu
Guillaume Le Blanc

Résumés

Peut-on dire qu’être signifie être perçu ? Ou que ne pas l’être revient à ne pas être perçu ? Qui décide de qui est visible ou non ? Le but de cet article est de démontrer que l’invisibilité est une construction sociale liée à des normes d’appréhension, de reconnaissance et de justification. Ne pas voir une personne la rend absente et la précipite dans la mort sociale. Que se passe-t-il lorsque quelqu’un est ainsi rendu invisible ? La voix peut-elle ramener quelqu’un à la vie ? Quelles sont les conditions qui font d’une voix silencieuse une voix qui reste en vie ? Pourquoi l’invisibilité est-elle toujours rattachée à l’inaudibilité ? Si perdre sa voix signifie perdre son visage, alors garder sa voix, même quand elle est perdue, permet l’apparition d’un visage intérieur, un visage qui se dérobe aux yeux des autres mais reste néanmoins présent. Quel est l’avenir de ce visage ?

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1We may believe that we are visible and audible to everyone around us and, by extension, to everyone we meet. We are so convinced that our senses give us access to reality that we do not imagine that others have senses that can deny them access to the reality in which we find ourselves. In some situations, it appears to us that our voice is simply not taken into consideration and that we are not even really seen by others. At times, a tragic causal link even becomes apparent to us: speaking without being heard, we wonder if we are really visible; present in a place where no one really sees us, we wonder if our words can have any weight. Fortunately for us, we like to think of these situations as borderline. As soon as ordinary life resumes, the certainty that we will be seen and heard by others accompanies us. This, we think, is the normality of all life.

2Could it be that this normality is a social construction due to the social and political conditions made for ordinary lives? The fact that some lives are structurally and not accidentally invisible and/or inaudible reveals that social normality is not self-evident, that it depends on a whole set of norms of apprehension, recognition and justification of lives.

  • 1 I have made this interpretation in several books: Vies ordinaires vies précaires (Le Seuil, 2007), (...)

3How can we criticise such a frame of norms by which certain lives are made invisible and inaudible? I do not want, in this text, to enter a social and political reflection on the economic, social and political conditions that make some lives less equal than others, exposing them to precariousness, poverty and invisibility. As this work has been carried out elsewhere,1 I would like to ponder on the ethical resources with which we can criticise the fact that some lives are perceived more than others.

4We need a strong affirmation of the ethical value of every life if we want to create or restore the possibilities of a counter-narration in order to criticise both perspectives on invisibility and social inaudibility. I would like to identify some of its dimensions. Therefore, I propose to reflect on the ethical conditions by which invisible and inaudible lives are welcomed in our own narratives and more generally apprehended as valuable lives. I will summarise my own position by calling for a philosophical gesture to which I would like to give substance and meaning throughout this article: it consists in welcoming the voice of the other rather than expelling it, and thus dissolving the voice of the other as a so-called ‘different’ voice in order to constitute it as a neighbouring voice with which one is in relation. This entails firstly the identification of the social, political, economic, cultural logics of the ‘expulsion of the other’ by which existences are deprived of their face and voice and become invisible and/or inaudible. This also requires to examine the conditions of possibility of a minimal ethical attitude due to all life. In this paper I propose to cross these two analyses and to make them interdependent.

The Critique of Ethical Violence

5If, according to Berkeley’s phrase, to be is to be perceived, and if, therefore, not to be is not to be perceived, then not to see or hear a person precipitates this person into the non-being of social death. If this is the case, ethical violence can be understood as the simultaneous refusal to see and hear someone who truly is a neighbour, although I don’t want to see or to hear them as a neighbour. Someone’s face disappears as soon as their voice is no longer heard. Similarly, someone’s voice is lost as soon as someone’s face is no longer apprehended. To no longer see the other is to establish them as undead, as a zombie or as a ghost, as a kind of being whose apprehensions can only remain spectral, must not give rise to any accreditation. To no longer hear the other is to define them as a stranger: someone appears in my visual field, yet their voice is no longer perceived as significant, and is not the object of any transaction. Worse still, it is therefore a question of constituting the other as an undesirable stranger, whose vocal presence must above all not give rise to any kind of translation.

6Consequently, we see that perceptions are not only natural qualities of the body but are at the same time social and political constructions in relation to social and moral values by which lives are considered either as lives that count or as supernumerary. What can then be our moral and political attitude towards lives that are made invisible and inaudible? There is a risk inherent in the moral perspective, prescribing the conduct of others, determining in advance where the good lies, what obligatory forms an existence must take. On this account, the whole normative and corrective moral perspective has been legitimately criticised as inflicting violence on lives, which leads me to the following question: is there no additional violence when ethical reasoning wrongly considers that the unlivable lives made unlivable by social and economic conditions are exclusively concerned with their survival and in no way with the ethical form that their behaviours take? I want to criticise such a widespread attitude according to which life-survival is considered as an ‘under-life’ so to speak, so much so that it does not carry any potential or ethical ideal. Lives are made unlivable for economic, political and social reasons, but also for ethical reasons that have to do with our refusal to perceive how a life is still a life. Consequently, there is ethical violence when, in the name of dignity or legitimacy, certain lives are too quickly rendered undignified, illegitimate because they do not conform to the moral expectations that weigh on these lives.

7This first aspect needs to be complemented by a second one: the lack of perception. The refusal to apprehend a life as a dignified, decent, legitimate, and fully-lived life is made possible by the refusal to perceive it as a life worthy of being apprehended, of being narrated. Ethical violence reaches its paroxysm when the disqualification of certain subjects is made possible by the decision not to perceive them. Not hearing a voice, not seeing a face, leads to depriving a subject of her actual capacities, of her art of doing as well as of her narrative abilities. The unlivable life is then the life made unlivable, impossible, by the absence of perceptual consideration and even more of perceptual care: this constitutes the heart of ethical violence.

8Our present moment is that of neoliberalism, in which inequality between lives has increased. Economic but also legal precariousness (for migrants, and more specifically undocumented migrants) has intensified for an ever-increasing number of people. Ethical and political reflection then only makes sense if it provides, within our present, possibilities of alternative lives to the lives made unlivable by neoliberalism. This can only be achieved by renouncing abstract hypotheses and by aiming at describing them from within the situations lived by precarious lives. Rather than validating or invalidating existential patterns, a particularly valuable function of ethics could then be to restore the perspectives through which precarious lives are still lives that try to develop themselves by forms of inner solidarity. As Veronica Gago puts it in her analysis of neoliberalism in South America, Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies, what is at stake is contrasting neoliberalism ‘from above’ with neoliberalism ‘from below’, which is revealed in the informal economic practices of migrant and poor people, in the largest clandestine market of South America, Salada (in Argentina), in order to read what she calls ‘a pragmatic vitalism’ (2020, 19). From the perspective of a pragmatics of the poor, ethics becomes a set of possibilities for holding on to the present and moving towards a future. It can be considered less as a prescription than as a critical resource or struggle aimed at loosening the grip of neoliberalism in order to introduce, in the same gesture, lifestyles and a series of supports for these lifestyles. As Judith Butler points out in an interview: ‘I call for a struggle to establish lifestyles that are likely to be fully satisfying, and that a bearable existence, a life capable of opening up to all possibilities, is necessarily a life supported by social, economic, legal and cultural conditions, all tending towards this fulfillment, this blossoming’ (Butler 2020).

Lifestyle

9I would like to state here, as a minimal ethical perspective due to all life, the ethical character of any life tied with the recognition of each person’s lifestyle. By ‘minimal’ I do not mean, in the manner of Ruwen Ogien in La panique morale, that all moral choices are equal as long as they do not cause harm to others (2004). In another register, I suggest that ethical reflection must postulate, at least as a regulatory hypothesis, the ethical character of each life. This leaves aside as a limit the violence of which a life is capable and its capacity to produce evil.

  • 2 I am referring here to my own publication, Les maladies de l’homme normal (Paris, Vrin, 2004).

10What do I mean, then, when I assert that the ethics I defend is minimal and that it is intended to state the ethical character of all life? Each life perseveres in ways of being that are specific to it and which come to define a lifestyle. What does the reference to style mean in this context? It can be understood as the set of ways of acting in which people engage in order to hold firm onto their lives. It would be a mistake to identify this lifestyle with an art of living which would deploy an aesthetic of existence reserved for those who finally and fatally have the power to subjectivise themselves. In order to understand style, we must rather analyse the ways in which someone, caught in a set of norms, turns away from them, either to follow them in his or her own way or to contest them. The style of a life then refers to each person’s ordinary capacity to move within a set of norms in order to exist in their own way. The style is then, strictly speaking, the way of living, the creation of a certain figuration of oneself in space and time.2 This raises the following question: what kind of life does not have style?

11The inherent risk in any overarching ethical reasoning is then to miss the ethical style of each life or, even worse, to erase it in the name of an a priori value. If each existence is immersed in ways of being and deploys a style, the risk is that this style is simply not perceived and is even erased altogether. It is important to realise that this risk is not equally distributed across lives. It is a social risk that depends largely on the social apprehension of lives, from their mode of recognition articulated to their social justification. Any subject that is in a position of subalternity—i.e.: that is in a position of economic, political domination and symbolic relegation—is confronted more than others with this risk. The reference to subalternity was forged in the work programme of Subaltern Studies (1982–2000) that sought to articulate the system of economic, political and ethnic domination in the colonial context with the systematic erasure of the narratives of the dominated. The result was twofold: first, it brought new attention to the erasure of the voice of a subject in all situations of subordination; secondly, it laid the groundwork for a critical rearmament that would shift the focus to the voice of the voiceless.

12Ethical violence can therefore be defined as the erasure of a person’s voice due to their way of being. If someone cannot say what he or she does, then their whole life style is erased and eventually stops existing. British philosopher Miranda Fricker has used the expression ‘epistemic injustice’ to characterise this process in Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007). She has conceptualised two kinds of injustices linked to knowledge: testimonial injustices and hermeneutic injustices. The subjects, because of their social position, do not necessarily master the words or language to interpret their experiences in terms of domination or injustice (this is what she defines as hermeneutic injustice). Still, even when they do, telling them is not necessarily believed to be reliable as testimony (what she calls testimonial injustice). Testimonial injustice occurs whenever trust in someone’s word is taken away from them. In other terms, someone is not believed or ignored—they are not being heard— usually because of their subordinate status as women, black people, poor citizens, etc. (hermeneutical injustices). The loss of the voice therefore triggers the whole process of invisibility.

13By way of consequence, the minimal ethics that I defend aims to enlarge the circle of audition in order to apprehend new ethics, that is to say ways of acting that are intertwined with ways of speaking that are generally not taken into consideration and to bring them to their full recognition. As an example, one can think of the fact that the poor are too often discredited as subjects of their lives by the fact that they are in a position of relegation and domination in the social system in which they find themselves. The life of poor people is thus implicitly understood as a poor life and is thus defeated a priori by the non-recognition of their knowledge and expertise. The anti-poverty association ATD Quart Monde/ATD Fourth World’s contribution to the March 2019 Great National Debate following the Yellow Vests movement was initiated by the fact that many poor ATD activists felt that their point of view was non-existent in the Yellow Vests movement. One of the activists then asserted: ‘the yellow vests ignore the great poverty, we are not heard’. Another one declared: ‘One day, while shopping, I stopped at the round-about and I talked with yellow vests and I explained to them that I agreed with everything that is done but that we are not mentioned’ (2019, 5, translation mine). These two testimonies are eloquent because they reveal that even among those who experience relegation, some people feel that their voices count even less and are more radically erased than the voices of others. To elaborate on this example, it is interesting to note that ATD’s contribution was explicitly intended to give voice to the voiceless among the very poor by focusing on restoring their expertise and knowledge, which is misunderstood, erased and even more denied. Indeed, how can we not consider that there is expertise among the very poor in recycling and saving, since they are forced to do so in order to survive? As the ATD Quart Monde/Oxford University report entitled ‘Les dimensions cachées de la pauvreté’ (‘the hidden dimensions of poverty’) points out: ‘People in extreme poverty are already surviving on less than the minimum and have long been forced to recycle and save. Their experience must be recognised and their advice and expertise sought’ (2019, translation mine).

14Testimonial injustice is revealed by the fact that every sort of knowledge of the poor is denied. The counter-example is superbly shown by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables when an old woman teaches Fantine how to live in poverty:

An old woman who lighted her candle for her when she came home at night, taught her the art of living in poverty. Beyond living on little, there is living on nothing. They are two rooms. The first is dark, the second is pitch-black. Fantine learned how to go without any fire at all in winter, how to give up a bird that eats a quarter of a sou’s worth of millet every two days, how to make a coverlet of your underskirt and an underskirt of your coverlet, how to save your candle by taking your meals by the light of the window opposite. We do not know how much some poor creatures, who have grown old in honest destitution can get out of one sou. It eventually becomes a talent. Fantine acquired this sublime talent, and again took heart a little. (2015, 167)

15Fantine draws capacity from the incapacity in which she finds herself: her talent—which reopens a future and kindles her hope—consists in reinventing what is at her disposal. Again, this reinvention comes from the transmission of knowledge (the old woman taught her the art of living in misery) thanks to which life, instead of being defeated by misery, manages to undo it to a certain extent. Still, more often than not, this kind of knowledge is never identified as such by people in other social positions.

16Against testimonial injustices, ethics can therefore guarantee the testimonies of those who find themselves confronted with such injustices. Minimal ethics then necessarily turns out to be an ethics of witnessing the ethical value of lives.

The Social Conditions of Ethics

17If we want to assert the ethical character of all life, it is however necessary to return to the social conditions of ethics, to the social framing by which certain ethical norms are in a position of hegemony in relation to other norms that become invisible. It is thus necessary to clarify the social scenes of visibility and audibility through which some lives acquire full ontological consistency, while others become ghostly and are no longer understood as fully-lived lives. This is what Judith Butler meant when she argued in Frames of War that ‘the epistemological capacity to apprehend a life is partially dependent on that life being produced according to norms that qualify it as life’ (2009, 3). All lives are not apprehended equally. Their apprehension depends on their position in relation to the norms. Socially-justified lives are supported by powerful narrative frameworks, through which they are understood as lives that matter and are thus fully recognised. Conversely, unjustified lives are lives that remain outside of the existing hegemonic narratives and whose own narratives, for this reason, fail to impose an alternative framework. The struggle for narratives is therefore an essential one if we want to broaden the modes of apprehension and recognition of lives. As long as hegemonic narratives are in full force, some lives run the risk of never being fully apprehended in such a way that, in Butler’s words, ‘there are “subjects” that are not quite recognizable as subjects, and there are “lives” that are not quite—or, indeed, are never—recognized as lives’ (2009, 4). For Butler, these inequalities of access to life and the incomplete restitution of a life’s ways of being are linked to the normative expectations that, a priori, weigh on existences.

18A life can never be lived independently of these expectations that anticipate the way of life, decipher it in advance as normal or, on the contrary, pathologise it. These expectations are themselves the expression of a pattern of normality that circulates within the different norms in which lives are situated. The recognition of a life is dependent on these normative expectations and patterns of normality. It relies on them to validate or invalidate its own modes of representation of the individuals. Butler asserts that ‘a life has to be intelligible as a life, has to conform to certain conceptions of what life is, in order to become recognizable’ (2009, 7). The ethical violence by which some lives are apprehended and recognised and others are not is intimately dependent on these hegemonic narrative frames supported by patterns of normality circulating in society. A critique of this ethical violence, therefore, implies a critique of the narrative frameworks largely reconstructed today from the neoliberal expectations of a person’s economic value. It is the sine qua non condition of the minimal ethical perspective that I defend. According to this perspective, the ethical point of view primarily consists in presupposing the ethical perspective of another life and being attentive to its narratives and more broadly to its voice. It is on this condition that the term ‘ethics’ can still have meaning today. Minimal ethics can thus be understood as the refusal to submit the testimony of the other to the normative expectations of one’s own narrative schema.

19Ethical violence reaches its paroxysm when the subjects in a position of domination assume that their own moral conception is the norm from which to translate the experiences of others. This can only be achieved if they feel and believe that their moral conception is shared by all those who, in one way or another, occupy the same social position. It is therefore not only the domination of one moral conception over another that imposes ethical violence, but the fact that this moral conception is shared by a whole set of subjects, to the point that it becomes more than a conception: it becomes a moral order. The moral order is basically a moral conception that has become hegemonic and that systematically depreciates all the ethical resources present in other aspects of life. This corresponds certainly to what Joseph Wresinski, founder of ATD Quart-Monde, denounced in a 1968 text entitled ‘Violence against the poor’: ‘Isn’t it in the name of the moral order that we meddle in the sub-proletarians’ poor loves? Pushing them around, sometimes denigrating them but always judging them, instead of considering them as the key to their family progress?’ (1993, translation mine).

20Let us broaden the discussion to conclude: the defence of the minimal ethics that is due to all lives must deconstruct the violence of the moral order if we want to enter into the depths of a life in order to understand its arts of living. It is only under these conditions that invisibility can become a way of life and not determine the social destiny of precarious lives. It is only under these conditions that silence can be the condition of emergence of the voice and not what makes it impossible.

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Bibliographie

ATD Quart Monde. ‘Grand débat : la parole des citoyens les plus pauvres’, Le Journal d’ATD Quart Monde 492 (May 2019) : 1-8, last accessed at https://www.atd-quartmonde.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/journalATD-mai2019_web-1.pdf on 10 May 2021.

ATD Quart Monde and Oxford University, Les Dimensions cachées de la pauvreté (2019), last accessed at https://www.atd-quartmonde.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/DimensionsCacheesDeLaPauvrete_fr.pdf on 10 May 2021.

Butler, Judith, Frames of War, New York: Verso, 2009.

Butler, Judith, Private Interview With Guillaume Le Blanc. 2020.

Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethic of Knowing, Oxford: OUP, 2007.

Gago, Veronica, Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies, Duke: Duke UP, 2017.

Gago, Veronica, Économies populaires et luttes féministes. Résister au néolibéralisme en Amérique du Sud, Paris: Raisons d’agir Éditions, 2020.

Hugo, Victor, Les misérables, 1862, Trans. Chritine Donougher. Penguin Classics, 2015.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Les maladies de l’homme normal, Paris: Vrin, 2004.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Vies ordinaires vies précaires, Paris: Le Seuil, 2007.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’invisibilité sociale, Paris: PUF, 2009.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, Que faire de notre vulnérabilité. Paris: Bayard, 2011.

Wresinski, Joseph, ‘La violence faite aux pauvres’, Quart Monde 147. 2 (1993): n.p., last accessed at https://www.revue-quartmonde.org/3286 on 10 May 2021.

Ogien, Ruwen, La panique morale, Paris: Grasset, 2004.

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Notes

1 I have made this interpretation in several books: Vies ordinaires vies précaires (Le Seuil, 2007), L’invisibilité sociale (PUF, 2009), Que faire de notre vulnérabilité ? (Bayard, 2011).

2 I am referring here to my own publication, Les maladies de l’homme normal (Paris, Vrin, 2004).

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Référence électronique

Guillaume Le Blanc, « To be is to be perceived, not to be is not to be perceived »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/10944 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.10944

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Auteur

Guillaume Le Blanc

Guillaume Le Blanc is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris. His reflection focuses on the apprehension of precarity and vulnerability through the prism of social norms and constructs. He published Vies ordinaires, vies précaires in 2007, L’Invisibilité sociale in 2009 and Que faire de notre vulnérabilité ? in 2011, as part of his philosophical enquiry on social critique, dwelling on the exclusion and invisibilisation of the precarious.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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