Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.

The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”

Mack’s essay provides several examples that demonstrate gaps between the eye’s ability to take in visual information and the mind’s ability to process it cognitively. A standout experiment is the now-famous “invisible gorilla” video. Viewers watch a video clip and are asked to perform a complex counting task. Partway through the clip, a person in a gorilla costume dances across the frame.

As Mack explains, “Approximately half the viewers who do not know anything about this video prior to doing the task fail to see the gorilla even though eye movement records show that they may have been looking directly at it.” The experiment demonstrates the power of what Mack has called inattentional blindness. When the brain focuses on an assigned task, even the most glaringly visible of objects can disappear from perception. The mind’s capacity to filter information renders invisible what would otherwise be obvious to individuals.

But what about instances in which invisibility is precisely the desired end? What happens when it is individuals themselves who want to disappear? To address these questions, one can turn to some of the world’s longest-standing mythological traditions. As the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger explains, stories featuring characters that seek the ability to vanish are almost as old as literature itself.

Brimstone butterfly camouflaged as a leaf. Photograph by Steve Childs.

“Being invisible is one of the great human fantasies,” said Doniger, a Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at UChicago’s Divinity School. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that stories about invisibility have a long and complicated history.

In a conversation about her essay for Social Research, Doniger pointed out that the trope of invisibility appears again and again across cultures. By examining a range of traditions, it becomes possible to identify variations and similarities in representations of invisibility’s uses and misuses.

Doniger first described the Western tradition of invisibility, beginning with Plato and ending with Claude Reins’s The Invisible Man. She suggested that in the context of this tradition, “People who make themselves invisible are doing it to become powerful and often to do evil.” Speaking generally, she added that the Western tradition is one in which “the fantasy of invisibility is one of power.”

But one of Doniger’s central assertions in the essay is that the portrayal of invisibility as a source of power is not universal. She emphasized that, in the Sanskrit tradition, invisibility often becomes a way for women to avoid the power and predation of men. Female characters wear masks, create doubles of themselves, and find other ways to use invisibility as a means to escape harm.

“Invisibility has different uses for different genders,” Doniger said, “it’s about power for men and it’s about the evasion of power for women.” In this account, which depends upon the weaving together of multiple cultural perspectives, a subtler and more varied picture of invisibility expands our understanding of the role it plays in the history of literature.

Invisibility’s importance in the area of mythology is matched by its importance in the realm of public policy. In several familiar cases, invisible laws and structures become the building blocks of entire ways of thinking. Laws of unintended consequences formulated equally by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or notions of divine providence that preceded those laws, emerged from attempts to grapple with and understand invisible forces. Viewed from this perspective, the social sciences attempt to make visible the abstract forces that hold society together in order to observe, measure, and manipulate them.

As Social Research contributor and the Harvard University Law School Professor Cass Sunstein put it, “It’s intriguing to think that many social practices are product of human interaction, but not human design.” In Social Research, Sunstein joins with Oxford University Said Business School’s Bent Flyvbjerg to reflect on one proposed invisible but felt forced: the hiding hand.

Initially proposed by economist Albert Hirschman, the notion of the hiding hand is based on the idea that when individuals plan large projects in advance, they have a tendency to underestimate the amount of difficulties and uncertainty involved. As a result, planners tend to be overly optimistic in their appraisals of cost and time. Hirschman’s idea is that there is an observable countertendency to this optimism: a hidden reservoir of spontaneous creativity that helps us overcome our overconfidence and resolve complications as they emerge.

As Sunstein explained via email, “The hiding hand idea is that people don’t see obstacles to the success of plans, and so they go forward, but they also don’t see their own creativity, which can overcome those obstacles.” For this reason, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg describe the hiding hand—as Hirschman’s renders it—as the benevolent hiding hand.

This hypothesis is quite different from previous conceptions of an imperceptible order quietly orchestrating society’s affairs, but it has a providential assurance that somehow, in the end, the best laid plans will turn out fine. Sunstein and Flyvbjerg’s article challenges this assertion.

This, they argue, is a matter of statistics and rules of inference. Hirschman’s proposal was based on a very small sample size, and as the authors explain, “he was in no position to establish whether this belief could be empirically substantiated.” Such a precarious method is very significant when it comes to forming and appraising estimates and proposals for large, expensive projects.

In their analysis of Hirschmann’s work, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg find little to corroborate his original hypothesis. In fact, they found compelling evidence of a contrary force: a malevolent hiding hand. “Thus the benevolent hiding hand, which is Hirschman’s topic, has an evil twin, the malevolent hiding hand, which also hides obstacles and difficulties, but in situations in which creativity does not emerge, or emerges too late, or cannot possibly save the day.”

Planners activate the malevolent hiding hand by “deliberately underestimat[ing] difficulties/costs and overestimate creativity/benefits.” In other words, they cook the books to the detriment of competing project proposals, often in order to secure funding. In doing so, they are counting on as-yet-unseen twists of good fortune to deliver them to desired outcomes.

As Sunstein and Flyvbjerg write in their conclusion, “The theoretical implications of our findings are clear. The idea of a benevolent hiding hand is a special case, and as an effort to capture reality it is misleading or even a distraction. The malevolent hiding hand is pervasive, and it is a case of the planning fallacy writ large.”

Yet Sunstein and Flyvbjerg remain optimistic: “This does not prove the uselessness of cost-benefit analysis as such […] The task is to improve it, not to abandon it.” Improvement involves making the invisible visible, by making forecasters and planners accountable when projects fail to meet the estimates that justified their funding, but also by subjecting estimates in general to external scrutiny before allocating funds.

Across disciplines, the essays in Social Research demonstrate the importance of engaging with comparative ideas about invisibility—not just to understand societies, but also to improve them.

The Center for Public Scholarship publishes two issues of Social Research each year. Please see the CPS website for other events, initiatives, and programs. Information about past and upcoming Nth Degree Series events at The New School is available at the series’ homepage.

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.

In Wagner-Pacifici’s account, we perceive events as breaks in what otherwise seems like the unremarkable continuity of everyday life, or what Wagner-Pacifici refers to as ground. “In order to better understand what makes a rupture feel so disorienting and disquieting, you have to understand how it is we navigate the everyday world that we consider the uneventful world.” Events become eventful when we perceive that they “emerge” from or “rupture” the ground we are used to navigating.

Wagner-Pacifici describes specific events, not just to examine individual ruptures and their respective effects on specific societies; rather, she mobilizes them as cases that help to articulate how the construction of events might be understood more generally. At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that events only exist in the forms of their representation. “Forms matter,” Wagner-Pacifici says, “In fact, they are the matter of events. [Events] don’t live anywhere else.” To put it differently, events exist in the ways that they are mediated: by news reports, paintings, novels and films, legal decisions, the creation of new categories of “enemy combatants,” social media feeds, and memorials.

What is an Event? makes a specific intervention when it comes to this last form: the case of memorials. Wagner-Pacifici argues that memorialization plays a central role in the creation of events. “A monument is about cauterizing the event,” she says. To erect a monument typically marks an effort to collectivize memory and suggest separateness from the event itself. But Wagner-Pacifici offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting “the memorial is as much a part of the event as anything that happened.” Memorials become, in her account, an essential form in the creation of an event. Viewed this way, the building of a 9/11 memorial or the decision to locate an Islamic Community Center near “Ground Zero” has as much to do with the event as the hijacking of planes and the destruction of buildings.

If events like the Great Recession seem trickier to define, Wagner-Pacifici points to the difficulty of pinpointing when events actually occur. “How do we know when we’ve reached that threshold?” she asks, “when it’s no longer just daily oscillations or some probabilistic series, but rather something that has taken form and launched itself as an event?” In her estimation, The Great Recession frustrates those trying to analyze it, partly because of its resistance to formalization, its failure to cohere, and the extent to which the forms and factors that caused it remain in place. “Millions of people lost their homes, their retirement savings,” Wagner-Pacifici grants, “but it was a non-event in a way […] Wall Street continues unabated, banks continue unabated, the accretion of finance in the hand of a few continues.” One interpretation of the Great Recession suggests that the elusiveness of substantive policy responses represents one outgrowth of the “abandonment of an attempt to concentrate that event into some kind of centralizing image.”

In this, Wagner-Pacifici drives home again the importance of understanding aesthetic depictions of events, and she regularly turns to the analysis of images to help build her structure for thinking through events. “It’s really important to do as adequate a job at analyzing images and symbols as it is to analyze discourse and textual materials,” she says. “That’s why, in trying to find various angles into events, I’m also trying to illuminate events through their pictorial apparitions.”

The integration of such humanistic readings into a sociological study marks one more way in which Wagner-Pacifici’s book opens up to diverse forms of interpretation. Running throughout the book is her assertion that our “blunt instrument of a vocabulary of cause and effects is not good enough, not sophisticated enough.” What is an Event? represents an attempt to build a more nuanced lexicon that helps us understand that no event is final, or should remain uncontested. With respect to the forms that comprise a single event, we may return to a sense of what Wagner-Pacifici calls “unremarkability” or “quiescence,” but any event “can always be resurrected.”

If an event is any one thing, then, it is always evolving.

Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab, where she pursues research under the supervision of Professor Emanuele Castano. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.

 

“Far Away from Where?”: an NSSR PhD Student Curates an Exhibition on Memory, Loss, and Migration

The idea for Far Away from Where? – a timely exhibition featuring twelve artists that meditate on homelands, trauma, memory, and refuge – grew out of an anecdote. As told by the show’s curator and New School for Social Research sociology doctoral student Malgorzata Bakalarz, the story goes like this:

Two emigrants are discussing their plans to find a new home. The first tells the second that he will migrate to Uruguay, to which his surprised companion replies, “Oh, that’s far away!”

The first responds: “Far away from where?”

For Bakalarz,  who was a Doctoral Fellow at The New School’s Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought, the question is instructive for several reasons. She explains that in the case of some migrants, whose hometowns and homelands may be destroyed or drastically altered by conflict, the question suggests the impossibility of ever returning to the places one remembers. The politics, memories, and histories woven into the built environment are torn down, destroyed, rebuilt, and — to the extent possible — reinvented. In another sense, the question suggests that one can never quite escape the psychological and emotional imprint of one’s home. The emigrant asking “Far away where?” might be implying the impossibility of getting too far from the traditions, customs, and memories (traumatic and otherwise) of a homeland.

The diverse works in the exhibit — which include pieces by artists drawn from faculty and students at The New School — present these and other potential meanings, which emerge from reflections on the experience of leaving, returning to, and longing for one’s homeland. Far Away from Whereis also part of a more complex intervention called Wounded Places in a Volatile World that joins the exhibit with a symposium and intensive course that Bakalarz teaches in Warsaw during Spring Break, designed for graduate students at Parsons.

Tymek Borowski’s “Data Visualization”

The result is a multi-part program that brings together artists, designers, and researchers for dialogue about memory, migration, and trauma.

In the exhibition, Tymek Borowski’s Data Visualization superimposes a dark column of cloud on the skyline of present-day Warsaw. It represents 18 million cubic meters of rubble from the destruction of Warsaw during World War II. The mountain of debris looms over the contemporary city’s skyline like a monstrous shadow, a literalization of how traumatic memory can haunt the present. By comparison, Elżbieta Janicka and Wojtek Wilczyk’s Other City features photographs of ordinary-seeming Warsaw cityscapes. Their pictures take on richer, more complex meaning when put in relationship to historical descriptions of the scene. It’s only thanks to these descriptions that we learn that these are images of Warsaw’s destroyed Jewish Ghetto. This knowledge reveals the “other city” hiding outside of our immediate perception. Simona Prives’s intricate palimpsestic video Helter Skelter differently represents the way ordinary lives in cities build upon and erase one another, suggesting that even in the absence of an overtly traumatic event, the urban landscape bears marks of loss and change.

Malgorzata Bakalarz with Hrair Sarkissian’s work

As Bakalarz explains, her curatorial decisions are directly in line with her academic research, which is deeply informed by sensitivity to the dynamics of places and spaces.

Her dissertation analyzes the complexity of reactions to the reclamation of Jewish communal property in Poland. In this work, which she calls “microsociological,” Bakalarz studies three sites in small towns to provide nuance to the picture of reception and application of the new democratic order in Poland during the country’s transition to democracy. In this, she is attempting to shed light on the meaning of public spaces in the context of local identities.

Bakalarz added that the works in the exhibit, when taken together, suggest that true knowledge of a site’s history may always prove evasive, either because memories are always partial or because the truth of loss is too large to get one’s head around.

The latter perspective seems clear in the case of work Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian’s, whose In Between presents monumental and stirring photographs of the artist’s return trip to his homeland of Armenia. The natural features in his pictures dwarf evidence of human intervention in the landscape. They are enormous, snow-covered, and undoubtedly beautiful, but also melancholy. By comparison, Jayce Salloum’s video works This is Not Beirut and Occupied Territories  present stories of a “home encountering” after 29 years in exile. In a particularly moving moment, a man holds up a piece of rubble that he took from Lebanon — a single shard of memory.

“All of these wounds are bigger than us,” Bakalarz said. “And wounded places are always closer than we think. The best we can do is to try to understand them and figure out how to position ourselves with respect to them.”

Far Away from Where? is open through March 5 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue). An artist talk by Hrair Sarkissian (via Skype) and reception took place on March 2. The exhibition was made possible by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and ArteEast.

Influential Economics Alumni in the News for Research, Teaching and Policymaking

Doctoral alumni from the Department of Economics at the New School for Social Research count as some of the most influential in the discipline, ranking highly on recent lists of leading economists published by Politico and Richtopia. They are also among the most productive researchers at national liberal arts colleges, according to a recent study that appeared in November’s issue of the International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education.

Alumnae Stephanie Kelton (PhD’01, Economics) and Heather Boushey (PhD’98, Economics) were both listed by Politico as two of 2016’s top “doers and visionaries” transforming American politics, specifically in the areas of Economics and Inequality. Boushey, who is described as part of a trio of policy advisers that played a prominent role in the Clinton Presidential Campaign, was characterized by The Atlantic as the former candidate’s “economic inequality whisperer.” In the wake of the election, Boushey continues to serve as Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, where her research focuses on inequality and public policy. Her most recent book, published last year by Harvard University Press, is Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict. In it, she argues that for decades the American Wife played the role of, “a behind-the-scenes, stay-at-home fixer of what economists call market failures. When women left the home—out of desire and necessity—the old system fell apart. Families and the larger economy have yet to recover.” According to Boushey, policy solutions must entail the creation of opportunities for American workers to better balance their home life and work obligations.

Kelton serves as Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a department with close ties to The New School for Social Research. Politico describes her as a leader in “Modern Monetary Theory,” which stands as “a major break, even with many Keynesian economists on the left who trumpeted fiscal stimulus after the financial crisis.” Kelton was an economic adviser to Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run, and was also ranked the 26th most influential economist in the world on Richtopia’s end-of-year list (up two spots from 28th in 2015).

The prominence of recent New School doctoral alumni isn’t limited to the States. Joining Kelton on Richtopia’s list was Jim Stanford (PhD’95, Economics), who recently relocated to Sydney, where he is Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute. Previously, Stanford was the Harold Innis Professor of Economics at McMaster University and has been a longtime commentator on economics in the press. In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Stanford analyzed the changing rules of globalization in the auto industry during the Trump Administration.

Like Stanford, Mariana Mazzucato (PhD’99, Economics) was recently named as the Director of an important economics research center, the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL in London. She was also counted as one of the most-cited industrial policy sources for the UK Labour Party during debate in Parliament. For the sake of comparison when considering economists cited as authoritative in Parliamentary debate, Mazzucato ranks fifth—tied with Karl Marx and falling behind only Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Stiglitz, and Milton Friedman. Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State, which was reissued in the US by Public Affairs in 2015, “debunks the myth of a lumbering, bureaucratic state versus a dynamic, innovative private sector.”

Boushey, Kelton, Mazzucato, and Stanford exemplify the New School for Social Research’s emphasis on conducting critical research that can drive policy discussions. This research excellence extends into the classroom. In “Engaged in Teaching, and Scholarship Too,” three economists examined the “research productivity of economists affiliated with the top 100 national liberal arts colleges,” as measured by the output of publications. Both Matías Vernengo (PhD’99, Economics) of Bucknell and Rajiv Sethi (PhD’93, Economics) of Barnard College were in the top 20. Vernegno’s scholarship emphasizes the history of ideas in the development of economic theory, while Sethi currently works on the economics of inequality, crime, and communication.

“It is exciting to see our alumni producing such diverse research while at the same time playing critical roles influencing policy and teaching the next generation of students,” said Mark Setterfield, Chair of the Department of Economics. He was listed as the fourth most productive researcher at the top 100 liberal arts colleges during his time at Trinity College. Setterfield added, “Our department plays such a special role in the discipline, both domestically and internationally. It’s evident from the accomplishments of our alumni that this role is widely recognized, both within the economics profession and beyond.”

The Economics Department welcomes “friends and family” to a celebration at the University Center that will coincide with the annual Meetings of the Eastern Economics Association on February 24. Details are forthcoming, and all with affiliations to The New School for Social Research Department of Economics are invited to connect with faculty, alumni, and others for an informal gathering. For more information, please reach out.