What is a reader to make of the curiosities of a writer whose greatest engagement now is with invisibility? This reader should have known by the title of the book, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, that Akiko Busch would drag me down the rabbit hole of the idea of being unseen, into considerations of brain disorders and VR and AR developments, across a terrain of mystical entities who live in rocks and fissures, underwater or up a tree to be actually unseen by others…and leave me with even more questions in the end.
In How to Disappear, Busch proposes that we curate our identity. We engage in multiple networks of information, even reaching a personal level of micro-celebrity in our social media worlds. “There’s this constant drumbeat to make everything public,” she says. “We live to see and be seen.” She quotes Christopher Lasch, who noted that “Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity.” As the impulse to brand and market a persona has come to dominate human intercourse, particularly among people who frequent their screens more often than they meet in the flesh, there’s another side of being human that has been forgotten.
It’s that impulse to escape notice, to meld into the crowd or the environment, to hide from the spotlight, to be private. Busch writes that the idea of being unseen, of silently traveling as a spectral presence, has become a rarity. At the extreme, being undetected can be a symbol of prestige, something to be desired. Escaping notice, we can indulge in being autonomous and singular. We can privately maintain our identity, even as we fit in with the immediate social, cultural and environmental landscape. Balancing the two opposing impulses may be vital to our sense of well-being.
Busch writes that being ignored can be useful, and that empathy grows when the self disappears (a point right out of the Buddha’s playbook) – although people on the margins of society may experience invisibility in a much less self-actualizing, self-nurturing way. Aging brings on a wholly new, perhaps unwanted cloak of invisibility. Whole communities go unnoticed and, therefore, may be excluded from prospering in the game of life. They may be excluded from choosing whether to be seen or not.
In her search to understand what invisibility is and what it means to sentient beings (including some plants) to become invisible, Busch turned to the sciences, to literature, to traveling into foreign cultures and landscapes. She cites interesting facts about animals who can camouflage themselves through crypsis, and describes the Rochester Cloak, and talks about object permanence and a child’s assumption of self-agency as being a milestone of childhood development. She mentions invisible friends and the psychic intimacy of cloistering.
I asked what brought her to this subject. She answers, “About five years ago, when the kids were out of the house, I went through a repositioning. It’s a time when you start to reconsider who you are. You’re past being a social unit; you began to think of yourself as a broader…At first the subject was speculative. My research was far and wide. So the title didn’t come until I was well down the road.
“I love writing about place – Iceland, a wide New Hampshire lake – but I couldn’t structure the book by place. Lots of [the text] is abstract. And it’s not written chronologically. I knew I would end it with wonder. Wonder is the connective tissue.”
In the book she quotes Scott Grafton: “We have come to the point of viewing ‘self’ as a process…While we can talk about self in the singular, that singularity is an illusion.” And from Daniel Gilbert: “The person you are right now is transient.” Busch says, “We think of ourselves as cohesive wholes. But we don’t have a fixed identity. You have this thought that you are who you are. You change. We’re even disappearing from ourselves in this moment.”
Busch discovers that dissolution of the self – the one fixated on her own image – can also be a cause of joy and rapture, as exemplified by people who experience ecstatic seizures or take mind-blotting pharmaceuticals. She quotes Elizabeth Sherman, the woman who took her into the deep: “Diving, I lose me a little bit; I am insignificant, and at the same time, part of something extraordinary.” And she reminds us of Peter Matthiessen’s admonition to “make no impression.”
“But this is not about checking out, abdicating your responsibility in society,” she says. “It’s about finding your place in the human community and connecting with that greater community. I feel it’s a message, something that people are happy to hear, even millennials.”
Author of The Incidental Steward (a collection of essays about citizen science and stewardship), Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live, The Uncommon Life of Common Objects: Essays on Design and the Everyday and Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here, Busch was a contributing editor at Metropolis Magazine for 20 years and has been published in numerous national magazines, newspapers, and exhibition catalogues. She has taught at the University of Hartford and Bennington College and is currently on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She lives in the Hudson Valley and makes it a point to swim across the Hudson River once a year.
Akiko Busch will be onstage at the Kleinert/James Center with Melissa Holbrook Pierson and James Lasdun for the Woodstock Bookfest panel, “New Forms for Personal Stories,” on Saturday, March 30 at 11:30 a.m. Admission costs $15 at the door. For more information, visit https://woodstockbookfest.com.