The politics of seeing and non-seeing

Trump visit1 wall

     In the Ring of Gyges, the famed myth framed by Plato, the wearer of the ring may wear it and turn invisible. In the story, Gyges wears the ring to commit unjust acts and because of the invisibility accorded by the ring is then able to thwart any moral consequence. One of the arguments then which Plato wants to bring forth through this myth is that it is visibility that brings accountability to an action. If we were to slightly extend this, we could even ask, what when injustice – the act itself is made invisible. Does it then absolve responsibility of the act and what then maybe the consequence of such invisibility?

Ahead of the Namaste Trump event which is being held to welcome the President of the United States visit to India, a large wall is being built along the route the president will take to reach the Motera Stadium- the largest cricket stadium in the world, in an effort to hide the informal settlements on its way. This has received widespread coverage in the media with headlines accusing Modi, the Prime Minister of India of trying to hide poverty and the poor. In response, the local body in Ahmedabad has said that it is only a cleanliness drive and a beautification effort. This is not new in India or the world. In 2016, Rio built a wall to hide the Mare Favela complex. In 2010, ahead of the Commonwealth Games, the Sheila Dixit government erected bamboo curtains to hide poverty and the poor. Such attempts to hide then tends to render poverty and in turn render the poor invisible.

For centuries, rendering people and places invisible has been the modus operando for exclusion. In his article Saliem Fakir(  speaking of invisibility and race quotes Ralph Ellison’s novel ‘Invisible Man’ and the ways black experience is made invisible. In apartheid South Africa, the blacks couldn’t be visible in areas ear marked for the whites. Women for the longest and perhaps in some parts of the world even today couldn’t and cannot be visible in public deliberations. People from lower castes in India were/are driven to Ghettos outside of the villages. What essentially was/is at work here was/is the exclusion of sections of peoples from the public. Etymology points out that public means to be part of people. And to be part of people, requires visibility. Visibility, participation and inclusion then all are analogous and come to mean the same. Visibility therefore one could even say is power and invisibility is akin to being powerless.

What has changed however, in the current times to render a section of population invisible is the rationale behind rendering this section invisible. If with race and caste it is ‘purity’ and with gender it is power, with class or the act of rendering the poor invisible today rests on the idea of ‘beauty’. The act of building the wall ahead of Trump’s visit was claimed to be a beautification effort. ‘Beauty’ is the ring of Gyges of our times, the invisibility ring of injustice. Thinking of beauty, one is reminded of Nietzsche who famously said that to view the world as beautiful is to experience it wrong. But in our world today dominated by images, of representations of an imagined and desired future – the manicured parks, the tall imposing high-rise apartments, gated communities and ubiquitous malls, authentic experience has little value when compared to accumulation of symbols of capital and the precedence of luxury. And every city in the world therefore begins to mimic others.

Scholars such as Ghertner in his seminal work- Rule by Aesthetics speaks of how the populations are ruled by the ideas of beauty. Several others root this is what is now called the ‘worlding’ literature.  The idea of ‘worlding’ was brought into existence by Heidegger in his work Being and Time (1927) where he refers to worlding as being in the world. Worlding practices then involve visions of a global city and desires of world- class infrastructure. Such visions are taken in by the middle class as well as by the governments. Such symbols of capital become necessary to beget more capital in forms of investment. In an increasingly unequal world order then one cannot discount geo-politics in the rise of beauty as a mode of rule. The diplomacy efforts of India when a state head is to visit the country then is also rooted to seek a certain visibility. A visibility which rests on projecting a certain kind of image, a presentation which isn’t authentic because it isn’t a representation of historic time but is rooted only in the future, desires for a future which increasingly looks similar around the world and is pivoted on capital. In doing this, thus losing any authentic self of a city or culture. This is a sort of a iront for the mainstream politics propagating authentic Hindu hood for a nation which in itself is worthy of criticism and why no one imagination can dominate a nation of multiplicities, but increasingly on the other hand it gives in to this sort of loss of self of a nation.

And in such visions of a city, there is no place for the poor or the several informal settlements in which they live in. Never mind the fact that it is on their informal labor and exploitation that the economy runs on and increasingly extracts value. In seeking a certain visibility then in the world order, India renders several sections of its own invisible. What it forgets is that when you ‘see’ you make the seen visible. And therefore, this act of seeing brings the seen into ‘being’. The act of willing non-seeing is an act of violence.

Priyanka Krishna  is a graduate from SOAS, University of London and works as a researcher in the field of education and development in India.




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