[Note: This post has been crossposted to Pillowfort.]
This is a post about “visibility” as the name of (and approach toward) a type of primary community goal. While in the drafting stages, I had considered naming this post something more simple, like “on visibility” — but it occurred to me that a potential reader just might think this was simply yet another post on “why visibility is important,” and it is not. This post is not pro-visibility. This is a post inviting the reader to consider the potential for visibility to become a trap.
The impetus for this post comes from two sources. One is that, while pursuing “visibility” has been the received wisdom in ace communities for a long time now — even the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, founded in 2001, has it right there in the name — only just recently have I learned that it’s a stated goal for some parts of the aro community, as well. I won’t take that survey as representative, but I will take it as indicative — showing that, because people are still talking about needing “visibility,” there’s still a reason to talk about the language of “visibility” as a community goal.
The second source of impetus is a realization I had about ace Tumblr. About a week before those aro community survey results were published, I put together a rough community timeline for my post on reclaiming “SAM,” and in that timeline, I left a part of the summary simply at this: “2011 happened. 2011… kept happening. 2011 never stopped happening.” And upon writing those lines, I realized I used to think of the anti-ace alarmism on Tumblr as distributed in waves — because that’s what it felt like at the time. But referring to them as “waves” would imply that they ever let up, when in hindsight, it… never really stopped. This Question of how to position asexuality amid straightness and queerness, specifically as a trojan vector for anti-ace hostility, well predates the discourse meme of 2015, mind you. Since 2011, the fire’s been burning, and over the past eight years it seems like it’s only gotten worse.
As best I can tell, the year 2011 is special because that’s the year something… changed. It’s not that people weren’t asking The Question until then — they were, and Siggy has written about how the conversation around it looked completely different pre-2011. What changed wasn’t that someone thought to ask. What changed, roughly speaking, was who joined in to answer. In Aceadmiral’s account of events:
2011 was the year that some aces decided to come out of the ace-exclusive spaces of AVEN and the ace blogosphere and make themselves heard. 2011 was the year that people everywhere started hearing about us. 2011 was the year that we were finally taking up space, and it was enough that we started to be noticed.
If you will permit me a generalization on the topic: 2011 was the year Aces Got Noticed.
…Or maybe they weren’t, really. But they were getting noticed more than before, comparatively, anyway. Getting… seen, if you will.
I’ll tell you one thing: there was a time, maybe around 2012, when I would have to hunt to find ace blogs on Tumblr, and I practically never saw a mention of asexuality outside of the ace blogosphere. By 2017, it’d gotten to the point where I so wary and jaded about branching out from the few-and-shrinking Tumblr blogs I was already watching, I started writing reminders to myself to stop venturing onto non-ace Tumblr blogs at all. Because whenever I’ve stepped off the familiar path on that site, it’s felt like only a matter of time before I’m smacked in the face with some kind of post attacking or making a mockery of aces or ace language. We’ve now achieved enough “visibility” for that. Congratulations.
For the record, I’ve centered these above descriptions around what happens on Tumblr for three reasons. 1) It’s one of the “most widely followed online asexual communities,” according to the 2016 census. 2) While I can’t tell when, exactly, Tumblr got popular with aces, I suspect it may have been sometime around 2011, the year when the platform itself started getting popular. 3) This anti-ace harassment campaign — ostensibly premised on The Question — has been disproportionately located on Tumblr. While I don’t doubt that it has spread elsewhere, and while Aceadmiral even attests that it wasn’t born there, it has thrived on the Tumblr environment.
Let me say one thing about the Tumblr environment, on that note. If Tumblr is good for one thing, it’s circulation. It’s spreading things. It’s making things “go viral.” It’s sending your message flying from hand to hand. It’s serving it up to more and more eyeballs at an exponential rate. It’s a vehicle for visibility.
Visibility is a trap.
The title of this post is a reference to a famous quote from French social theorist Michel Foucault, and more specifically a section of his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which he contrasts the principle of the dungeon against the principle of the panopticon. The principle of the dungeon involves three functions: 1) to enclose, 2) to deprive of light, and 3) to hide. The panopticon is the same but different. The panopticon encloses the prisoner, but its lighting is bright, and it exposes more than it hides, facilitating constant surveillance. The panopticon makes the prisoner inescapably visible. And in Foucault’s summation, visibility is a trap.
When we speak of an identity’s “invisibility,” as in “ace invisibility” or “aro invisibility,” as a primary community obstacle, we invoke the principle of the dungeon. We metaphorize the problem as going unseen, wreathed in shadows, relegated to dark corners and going unacknowledged — (not-so-)incidentally paving the way for some kind of grass-is-always-greener malice envy.
It’s understandable that this language could easily take root on Tumblr, where a post “not having enough notes” is code for “people don’t care as much about this topic as they should.” But it’s also disastrously ironic. It’s ironic because on Tumblr at large, users recognize that getting too many “notes” (too much circulation, too much attention, too much visibility) can be a bad thing. Why else would people make jokes comparing “when you make a tumblr post that gets a lot of notes” to failing a stealth mission? Why else would people openly talk about not wanting and hating it when their posts get “too many” notes? Or lamentations on the consequences? Or “since that post my life has never known peace”? Or “it’s probably best if everyone would stop reblogging my posts forever”? Or offer condolences when someone else’s post becomes popular?
I don’t need to invoke a complex sociological analysis here. Tumblr users already understand this. Visibility is not an unequivocally good thing.
Other communities have discussed the drawbacks, as well, and rejected “awareness” as a basis of advocacy. In the autistic community, it’s been written on again and again how “awareness” is not necessarily the same thing as acceptance — and in fact, they’re frequently even contrasted as completely different, even mutually-exclusive things. I wouldn’t go that far exactly, but it’s worth noting how “awareness” has not always been benign.
The (in)visibility paradigm has been questioned and probed at within the asexual community, too, here and there. I think of Aceadmiral’s post on wanting more than “to be seen” and Vesper’s post on visibility as a double-edged sword. I’m also reminded of Elizabeth’s post on how linking to ace resources during a fight can cause splash damage, creating “visibility” in the form of hostile traffic.
…But as far as I can tell, the paradigm of the dungeon remains in circulation, going largely accepted by many, and not just with aces. The thinking goes like this: we are enclosed, deprived of light, and hidden — “invisible.” The solution, then, is to bring us into the light and make us more “visible.” Ostensibly, this is supposed to make our lives better.
But it hasn’t, won’t, and can’t, because all that does is exchange the principle of the dungeon for the principle of the panopticon. Visibility is not freedom. Visibility can be a trap.
For that reason, I want better ways to talk about community goals than “visibility.” I want better ways of identifying what we’re up against than “invisibility.” It’s not that people simply don’t know. It’s not a set of issues that’s purely informational. Our ideological opponents are not something that can be defeated by simply putting the word out there. We cannot Horton-Hears-A-Who our way out of this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. No amount of “We are here! We are here! We are here!” will stop people from responding, “I know, and I despise you for it.”
My hope is that people of any identity, not just aces, can take something from this. While you could argue that it’s none of my business whether aros use the paradigm of the dungeon, since I’m only quoiro (& whether or not quoiros get claimed as a part of “aros” apparently sometimes depends on rhetorical convenience), it pains me to see missed opportunities to learn from our mistakes. And for that matter, it’s high time aces came back to this question ourselves. Aces love making models, so riddle me this: How do we model the essential structure of what’s happening to us?