Magazine | April 8, 2019, Issue

‘How to Disappear’: Seeking Invisibility in an Age of Exhibitionism

(Wikimedia)
How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, by Akiko Busch (Penguin Press, 224 pp., $26)

It is fitting that Akiko Busch’s new book should take as its opening image a Hudson Valley deer hunter’s decrepit tree stand. For one thing, as Busch notes, it is “actually called a blind,” making it “a good spot to begin thinking about being unseen and the conditions under which we become visible.” For another, it is in the woods, lost in reveries of Jeremiah Johnson–style solitude and self-sufficiency, that one contends with a powerful impulse to vanish from human society and its watchful eyes. In the woods, even the most docile man becomes a flight risk.

I was disappointed, then — I say this only half-jokingly — to learn that Busch’s book is not an instruction manual. It is not about how to disappear in the fake-your-own-death, go-off-the-grid, become-a-hermit sense.

Rather, How to Disappear is a reflection, a charmingly discursive one, on the nature and pleasures of invisibility. One thing Busch cannot be accused of is literal-mindedness. The subjects covered herein range widely, and some are only loosely related to the urgent issues of surveillance and privacy, transparency and its enabler, exhibitionism. The reader who hopes to learn why we have collectively — and at times enthusiastically — ceded so much of our privacy may not come away satisfied, though he will at least have much to ponder about how and why to get it back.

Busch’s first two chapters are about invisible friends and invisibility as a superpower, respectively. To lead with these topics is an elegant way of returning the reader to childhood, when one has such an ambivalent relationship with being seen. The child abhors loneliness but cherishes privacy, secrets, locked diaries, hiding spots. He must, for safety’s sake, be fairly well supervised; he simultaneously must learn to negotiate the challenges of being alone. The twin fantasies of never being alone and of disappearing at will are indispensable tools for the child and, frankly, for the adult he will become.

Though “frowned upon by Freud and . . . Piaget as instruments of dysfunction,” Busch writes, invisible friends have come to be understood as teachers of “empathy, invention, compassion, and comfort.” She is bracingly skeptical of the idea that our digital pseudo-friendships have similar value: “The constant need to shape identity for public consumption diminishes us. Socially awkward moments are invariably documented and posted on social media, and Internet shaming is familiar to most teenagers.” Social media such as Facebook and Instagram fuel anxiety and depression. In some respects, the associations we maintain in the digital ether may even be less “real” and more harmful than imaginary friends — so it is little wonder that the ability to disappear retains such a profound appeal.

From this psychological territory, Busch makes an abrupt detour back to the woods and the water. Two chapters explore invisibility in the natural world: one about camouflage, crypsis, and good old-fashioned sneaking around, the other about the weightless joys and splendid isolation of scuba diving. We get a crash course in natural disguise and mimicry (the Australian lyrebird, Busch informs us, is “capable of echoing not only the call of other birds . . . but also the din of the motors of cars, trucks, and jets overhead”), the “elegant trickery” that plants and animals employ to survive and thrive. The development of military camouflage comes in for fascinating treatment. Concealment, like flight and submersion, is an ability that man has always envied his animal neighbors.

A chapter on invisible or disappearing ink, and blank pages, and erasure in the arts reveals just how far Busch is willing to wander away from the typical reader’s expectations. “The Roman poet Ovid urged lovers to write their letters in milk,” we learn. “Recipients could then retrieve the messages with powdered charcoal.” Or: “During her exile in a labor camp, the Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya used the end of a matchstick to write her poems on bars of soap, washing them away later, after she had memorized them.” Busch reflects on the reality that “deleting text and images has become as much a part of contemporary communication as creating them.” Our privacy is served by erasure. (Note to self: Clear search history.)

From here the book wades deeper into abstractions: the anonymity of crowds, the mutability of personal identity. We are cast into the “gorgeous multitude” of Grand Central Terminal; we visit a “remote dune on North Carolina’s Bird Island,” where something called the Kindred Spirit Mailbox affords visitors the opportunity to leave anonymous “love letters, marriage proposals, confessions, entreaties, notes of grief, appeals, prayers, apologies, farewells, and impressions of the surrounding seascape.” But even as she celebrates the liberating beauty of anonymity, Busch acknowledges its dangers. Anonymity can empower people to be unkind, even cruel, even criminal. Cyberbullying, racism, conspiracy theorizing, and sex trafficking are, she reminds us, all facilitated by anonymity.

It is both a strength and a weakness of How to Disappear that it is not especially polemical. As a free-associative inquiry into invisibility it spends more time accumulating subjects and offering them up for our consideration than it does making an argument. But a forceful argument is warranted here. Anyone who has put a strip of masking tape over his computer’s camera, or purchased a VPN subscription, or deleted his Facebook account, knows that the erosion of privacy is a source of tremendous anxiety in modern life. Many of us want to disappear, but few of us know how to do so in a practical and effective way. Descending into a coral reef to float unnoticed among fish sounds wonderfully therapeutic, but it is certainly not a long-term solution. Where do we go from here?

We are conditioned to talk about the end of privacy as though it were something imposed on us from the top down. To a certain extent, that makes sense. Facebook appeared out of nowhere during the last finals week of my college career. “You will be assimilated,” it seemed to say, like Star Trek’s Borg. “Resistance is futile.” But it was never futile. We participated in the destruction of our own privacy by treating its surrender, as we treat so many of what were once understood to be moral failings, as a laughing matter. Just as we persuaded ourselves that gluttony was something harmless called “being a foodie,” we let ourselves believe that pathological exhibitionism is “the way we live now.” We all hate it, on paper. Yet very few of us remember how to live without it.

How to Disappear is a marvelous book in its way, but it pulls its punches; it is not quite brave enough to make us share in the blame. The problem is not that some malevolent They will no longer let us hide but that We see our exhibitionism as essentially benign, excusable, a comical Seinfeldian character flaw. But how much of what we reveal about ourselves is intended to manipulate perception, to provoke envy? How often do we try to assuage our insecurities at the expense of inflaming everyone else’s? At what point does our lust for attention tip the scales from merely childish to downright pathological? Governments and corporations respect our privacy, it often seems, exactly as much as we do. If I saw myself behaving this way — believe me, I do, all the time — I’d want to disappear, too.

This article appears as “Escape from Exhibitionism” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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