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The Invisible Man, Part 3

(c) Erica Feliciano

The nature of social invisibility, a topic often ignored in intellectual circles, is starting to achieve some level of visibility for itself in the halls of academe. Much of this is a result of Axel Honneth’s pioneering work, an influence to the fore in a recent special edition of Distinktion: the Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory entitled ‘Recognition, social invisibility and disrespect’ [Vol. 13, No. 1, April 2012 – non-subscribers can access the introduction only – roll on the academic Spring]. Alongside Honneth, many of the articles have a strong Hegelian bent to them – unsurprising, given his influence on Honneth (see There is no other). These influences are brought to bear on a range of empirical fields, such as the sociology of work, education and pedagogy, critical weight studies and political science (alongside interviews with Honneth and Judith Butler). The application of theory to ‘practical’ concerns about the experience of invisibility is one of the reasons why the special edition is such a success (I will revisit some of the other papers in future posts).

Cover of "Doctor Glas: A Novel"
Cover of Doctor Glas: A Novel

In their introduction to the special edition, the editors frame the discussion via a quote from Doctor Glas, the famous Swedish novel from 1905 written by Hjalmar Sӧderberg, a novel in which the main character states that

[W]e want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact. (Sӧderberg [1905] 2002, 70)

The editors see in Sӧderberg’s work an early echo of current concerns over recognition and respect, using the above sentiment to start building a case for social invisibility as a phenomenon to be taken seriously:

This is the horror of being socially invisible. If you can’t love me, then at least detest and despise me! To make people disappear by refusing to take notice of them, by demonstratively seeing through them, is a form of disrespect to be distinguished from outright disrespect in the form of being the object of stigmatizing and devaluating attitudes, gestures, or actions. (Mikael Carleheden, Carl-Göran Heidegren & Rasmus Willig, editors)

Sӧderberg joins with H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison (see The Invisible Man, Part 2) in using the novel form to reflect on what it means to see and be seen. The papers in the special edition use research to achieve pretty much the same outcome. Regardless of form, writing on invisibility carries an emotional punch, an emotional reaction that speaks volumes for its significance in everyday lives. And as academia catches up with this significance, fictional accounts of the invisible man may soon find in academic research some real subjects to compare themselves with.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.