What is a space of visibility?  We should not think visibility in a naïve empiricist fashion as something that is merely given to anyone.  We should think visibility as Heidegger thinks it with his aletheia, Foucault with his visibility produced in the clinic or hospital, Ranciere with his politics of aesthetics, or with Badiou and his appearing, or yet against with Butler and her logic of that which can appear.  The visible is never merely given.  Perhaps Heidegger is the launching point here.  Things become manifest or withdraw from hiddenness in terms of our concernful dealings with the world.  The garage is a very different place for the person dropping their car off and the mechanic.  To the person dropping their car off, the garage is a sort of bewildering chaos.  Attention is directed at the mechanic and the car.  The rest lacks meaning and significance.  To the mechanic, by contrast, all of the tools and places are imbued with meaning and function with respect to the dealings she has with cars.  Certain things come into relief that are invisible to someone who is not the mechanic.

There are regimes of visibility everywhere and in all aspects of our lives.  When Butler speaks of appearing, her point is that a people might be there, but they are unable to appear for that society.  The structure of society is coded against their appearing; against their membership in the society.  Yes, the homeless are there.  We might even see them.  Yet for a particular regime of appearance, for a particular society, they do not count as members of that society.  As I argue elsewhere, they are “dim objects”, beings that are there but that don’t appear.  Or rather, they appear not as what they are, but as what they are not.  They are coded as the negative of society, as that which should not be there, as that which does not belong.  One speaks of a plague of homeless people in San Diego creating a health crisis through the spread of hepatitis b.  Democracy is said to be the rule of the people, but who the people are is always in question.  There is always a set of distinctions, a semiotic sorting machine, determining who is and who is not the people.  This sorting machine, in its turn, decides who and what can appear; who belongs.

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In this regard, politics is, in part, a politics of appearance…  Of who and what can appear.  It is a struggle over who and what can appear.  Will those that exist merely be dim objects, or will they become rogue objects capable of transforming the social order?  Will the regime of appearance be transformed through the part of no part appearing, through the transformation of the regime of appearance redrawing the lines of the apparent and the inapparent?  The appearance of that which is prohibited from appearing can be seen clearly (!) in the case of those football players who took a knee in response to police violence.  Immediately the reigning regime of appearance pushed back, striving to recode, obscure, and veil that which shouldn’t have appeared.  “The players are disrespecting the flag and vets!”  “No one has the right to protest while on the job!” (never mind that Kim Davis did this, to great acclaim, in Kansas with respect to gay marriage licenses).  “Look at these privileged, wealthy players protesting when they have everything!”  This is how the regime of appearance strives to regulate the appearance of that which is not supposed to appear.  They take it up within the code of that which is sanctioned to appear and strive to turn it into a non-appearance…  Yet there they are, as Butler says; there, their bodies appear for all to see.  A sort of forcing of appearance takes place here.  Will it be a line in the sand of the beach, doomed to be wiped away by the next tide, or will it leave a more lasting mark that affects the tides themselves?  Something similar happened with the WTO protests of the 90s, where bodies appeared, yet their voice was refused through nearly all channels of the media.  They were registered as mere chaos, as hooligans, rather than as the appearance of that which is prohibited from appearing.

In Archeology:  The Discipline of Things, Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Whitmore speak of the museum as a space of visibility like the classroom, prison, hospital, or barracks in Foucault.  The museum makes history visible in a particular way.  The logic of appearance in the museum, they say, is a logic of replacement.  History is divided into different epochs, different periods, where one replaces the other.  The space of visibility governed by a discourse or semiotic machine sorts things in a particular way.  In a very literal and material sense, we walk through the museum, looking at artifacts from these different periods.  The museum becomes a space of speech, of dialogue, that informs how we think about time and what is visible in time.  However, time does not work this way, they contend.  There is a material memory that is topological or, as I like to put it, “crumply”.  The past is right here in the present and we live around it in a variety of different ways.  The aqueducts were still there for people in the Middle Ages, crumbling and ruined, yet people had to modify their life and movements around these ruins.  If the road layout is such a mess in the city of Dallas, then this is because past city design is there with the present of the city, requiring design choices to be made in response to these past choices.  Everywhere and always there are different simultaneous rhythms of time interacting with each other.  We’re all Amish in a sense.  The semiotic machine of the museum and the history book distorts this nature of time, instituting a particular regime of appearing that informs all of our investigations.

The word “theory” comes from the Greek theoros, which refers to spectators.  Let us take this etymology very literally, just as we should take the etymology of ethics from oikos (dwelling) and hexis (habit) very literally.  Let us take the word theory not to signify “getting at the true”, but rather “rendering visible”.  The work of theory is a work of rendering apparent, of making appear, that which is inapparent.  Theory is a sort of strange work that precedes anything true, allowing that which does not appear to appear.  There is never a simple gaze or seeing, but rather there is always an apparatus that allows something to appear that would not otherwise appear.  And there is no looking nor acting that doesn’t presuppose an apparatus of appearance.  If you doubt this, study the history of surgery.  Prior to people like Lister, the appearance of things like puss following an amputation or surgery was seen as a sign that the body was healing and purging itself of toxins.  It takes a regime of appearance to see puss in this way.  It took a transformation of the regime of appearance for puss to be a sign that the patient had become septicemia was a revolution in appearances and what appeared, requiring an entirely new semiotic machine.