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.

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.

 

Operating on Unfamiliar Terrain: Ann Stoler on Her New Book, Research, and The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry

Ann Laura Stoler wants readers to push beyond established concepts about colonialism and its enduring effects.

In her ninth book, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Duke), Stoler asks “what sorts of rethinking and reformulations” might allow a better understanding of “colonial presence.” Her ambition is not to overthrow the concepts that underlie knowledge about colonialism. Rather, she uses methodical interventions to “inhabit them differently,” broadening our sense of the complex outcomes of imperial projects.

Stoler’s approach represents the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that characterizes the New School for Social Research, where she serves as the Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies. It also characterizes her leadership of the New School’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry, which she has called a “labor of love.”

To work at the edges of a disciplinary boundary, or in the borderlands between disciplines, means that a scholar often occupies a liminal space, opening oneself to the possibility of being equally misunderstood by peers in multiple fields. In a recent interview with Itinerario, Stoler explains that such misunderstandings have sometimes determined the reception of her work, especially in the early part of her career.

“When I was in Madison,” Stoler says, “a stolid World Bank consultant on the faculty criticized my work for being ‘political’ and not ‘scholarly’ and with avuncular largesse counseled me to cease the former if I wanted tenure.” But Stoler persisted in her provocative line of research, drawing on Foucault and Marx, and navigating between anthropology, history, and philosophy. Her work is now recognized precisely for its deft integration of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and has a well-established home at the New School for Social Research.

The New School attracted Stoler because it valued her cross-disciplinary approach to scholarship. Prior to her arrival, Stoler says that she “imagined a philosophically inflected critical scholarship with a different bite and edge.” She adds that her work “has been nourished by being in New York [her birthplace] and by the environment that the New School faculty and its eclectic graduate student body offer.”

Ultimately, the convergence of Stoler’s passion for critically grounded, non-traditional research and the New School’s commitment to its history of critical scholarship resulted in the creation of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry.

Stoler explains:

“I wanted to create a space where it was possible to learn about what you felt you should already have known- whether that be the work of Fanon, Hegel or Marx and to learn about how to think those thinkers today with ‘masters’ who had taught and studied those thinkers for years and then to come together with fellows from all over the world to think those thinkers differently again.”

Today, Stoler’s Institute for Critical Social Inquiry offers weeklong immersive experiences for young and seasoned scholars from around the world, and is comprised of graduate school-style master classes each morning and project workshops in the afternoon. Every institute puts advanced graduate students and junior and senior scholars into an intensive intellectual environment in which appreciation of the politics of knowledge is key as they cultivate and refine their critical skills, and share work with their peers.

Applications for the 2017 Summer Seminars are open through December 15. International Scholars, especially those based in the Global South, are encouraged to apply. Scholarships and travel grants are available. This summer’s featured lecturers will be Anthony Appiah, David Harvey and Michael Taussig. In previous years the ICSI lecturers included Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Talal Asad, Patricia Williams and the New School’s Simon Critchley and Jay Bernstein.

The New School’s focus on heterodox perspectives, along with its emphasis on the connection between theory and contemporary political and social issues, continues to attract faculty and students eager for the opportunity to work across disciplinary boundaries, for being unsettled, and for mixing and matching lines of intellectual influence.

When reflecting on the development of her own career, Stoler notes, “‘influence’ is a word that Foucault reminds us hides and I would argue steals meaning from the practices that make it up. I’d say that those places where I hadn’t expected to go were provocations that compelled me to do something in a way I might not have otherwise, caught me productively off precarious balance, and exposed me to the vulnerabilities of operating on unfamiliar terrain.”

For the rest of Ann Stoler’s interview, read the upcoming issue of the Leiden-based journal Itinerario.

Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times is available now. In her endorsement of the book, Patricia J. Williams writes: “Duress is an extraordinary excavation of colonialism’s recurrent conceptualizations of massive zones of ecological ruination, human vulnerability, and affective disregard. Ann Laura Stoler is laser-like in the forensics of those imperial pursuits—global and across centuries—whose accumulating sedimentations have all but naturalized unremitting states of emergency, eternal war, and perpetual exceptions to the rule of law. This book’s comprehensive clarity about the histories of our present is a gift of vision that, if heeded, might point the distance toward reckoning and repair.”

Ann Laura Stoler is Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. Stoler is the director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry. She taught at the University of Michigan from 1989-2003 and has been at the New School for Social Research since 2004, where she was the founding chair of its revitalized Anthropology Department. She has worked for some thirty years on the politics of knowledge, colonial governance, racial epistemologies, the sexual politics of empire, and ethnography of the archives. She has been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études, the École Normale Supérieure and Paris 8, Cornell University’s School of Criticism and Theory, Birzeit University in Ramallah,  the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, Irvine’s School of Arts and Literature, and the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the recipient of NEH, Guggenheim, NSF, SSRC, and Fulbright awards, among others. Recent interviews with her are available at Savage MindsLe Monde, and Public Culture, as well as Pacifica Radio and here.

For more details about Ann Stoler’s publications, see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf.