DOI: 10.1515/zaa-2023-2045 ISSN: 0044-2305

Afterword: Running with the Metaphor of Social Invisibility

Esther Peeren
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


In this afterword, I reflect on the contributions gathered in this special issue, which make clear that social invisibility is multivalent, as visibility, invisibility, and the oscillation between them have different meanings and effects in different social and literary contexts. To the points made about social invisibility in the contributions, I add three more. First, after considering social disappearance as a possible alternative to social invisibility, I conclude that the lack of clear boundaries between these two highly elastic metaphors should not be seen as a problem, but as fruitful: running with both metaphors allows us to arrive at a better understanding of the lives led by particular precaritized groups, and to compare these lives across historical and cultural contexts, as well as across approaches and methods. Second, while social invisibility and social disappearance have predominantly been used to figure disempowerment, it should be acknowledged that escaping notice can also empower. A brief reading of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis illustrates the power self-chosen invisibility may impart to the privileged. Third, I argue that humanities approaches to fictionality and narrative and visual form, as found across different types of art and media, provide ways of thinking through social invisibility that add something valuable to empirical and ethnographic approaches in the social sciences. The main reason for this is that narrative and visual form can defamiliarize our perception of the social world, enabling us to notice again or notice differently what has become unremarkable.