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What Do Pictures Do?
(In)Visibilizing the Subaltern

Edited by Mathilde Arrivé

The broadening scope of the socially visible world, along with the shift from voice to image, is seen by many (Benjamin, Crary) as a hallmark of modernity. In the wake of the pictorial turn, as individuation processes increasingly involve visual identifications, visibility has become a central paradigm of today’s social imagination. Whether desired, imposed, refused or denied, chosen or endured, visibility is now both an individual injunction and an institutional rationale (Zawadzki), regarded as the vehicle and guardian of social existence (Honneth).

Based on these premises, social invisibility characterizes individuals who are excluded from authorized visualities and majority visual discourses, and thus denied access to the social gaze. Invisible women and men are people “without”—without a face, without a voice. They include the youth, the poor, the disabled, ethnic and sexual minorities, outsiders, rebels, refugees and strangers, but also people living precarious lives or simply anonymous existences, whose images and words are relegated to the sidelines of public expression. As philosopher Axel Honneth argues, social invisibility has to be understood metaphorically, as “a denial of recognition” sealing “social non-existence” and causing feelings of disaffiliation. In fact, what is commonly called social invisibility (and its corollary, “inaudibility”) is an intersectional phenomenon that encompasses and intersects other forms of invisibility—historical, political, and legal (Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach).

Not only has “the gaze” long been an area of investigation among philosophers (Lévinas, Sartre), psychoanalysts (Freud, Lacan) and sociologists (Mauss, Elias), but the critique of visibility constitutes, in itself, a major theoretical tradition, initiated by the Frankfurt School, continued by Foucault, Debord and Barthes, but also Morin and Baudrillard, as well as Sontag, Mitchell and Mirzoeff in the US. Research on social invisibility, on the other hand, has mainly been the focus of sociology, political science, political philosophy, moral philosophy and history.

However rich and diverse the array of theoretical and critical thought on invisibility may be, invisibility has too rarely been approached from the perspective of invisible individuals and through the prism of visual mediations. The conference therefore proposes to fill these two gaps in order to expand and enrich the nascent field of invisibility studies, but also to shed light on the dual agency of images—as the vectors of both visibility and opacity, alienation and emancipation.

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