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'How To Disappear' Condemns Online Visibility Without Truly Exploring It

Feb 12, 2019

Why does Akiko Busch hate the Internet? After reading her essay collection How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, I should know. Sadly, I remain in the dark.

Busch, a practiced art and nature writer, dislikes social media and networked culture: that much is clear. What she neglects to explore is why.

Busch opens How to Disappear in a deer blind. Perched in a tree, she writes in beautiful, scientific detail about how humans, birds, bees, and deer experience nature. "The entire world is shining with things we cannot see," she promises. But rather than explore them further, she descends from her blind, walks out of the woods, and beholds the brave new world of social media. "Visibility," Busch writes in her introduction, "has become the common currency of our time." In How to Disappear, she sets out to argue against it.

Busch's arguments divide roughly into two categories: nature and society. Her nature essays, which are stunning, explore camouflage, Caribbean coral-reef diving, and Iceland's elf-filled lava rocks. In these essays, she successfully invokes art, technology, and history. She links coral reefs to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and connects camouflage to both Cubist painting and Wendell Berry's "An Entrance to the Woods," in which the writer "[moves] in the landscape as one of its details." When Busch moves in details, she does so strikingly well. Her best essays, "Invisiphilia" and "Across the Natural World," are richly allusive and digressive, written in prose as elegant as Berry's.

But in her society essays, Busch casts detail, and often beauty, aside. In the collection's first essay, on imaginary friends as a stage in childhood development, she pivots without warning from her chosen topic to a long digression on the damages of social media. Her writing about imaginary friendship is replete with research, literature, and anecdotal evidence; her writing about social media is full of sweeping we-statements, with only one source cited and no examples or anecdotes at all. Not only does the digression fall flat as a result, it drags the rest of the essay down with it.

This proves to be a pattern. Time and again, Busch condemns online visibility without exploring it. She withholds both interest and empathy from the Internet and its users. I take no issue with the former: Busch has little reason to defend data mining or Mark Zuckerberg. But online visibility is not pure evil. It creates and sustains community. It offers education, professional opportunity, and connection. Not exclusively, but demonstrably. Busch could have interviewed a host of people able to describe online visibility's positive contributions to their lives, and had she included those counterarguments, her own would have been markedly stronger.

Busch does not seem open to counterarguments. In general, she refuses to attend to perspectives that don't match her own. She acknowledges, then quickly dismisses, invisibility as a negative social force, writing, "Because of [its] association with social estrangement and neglect, invisibility has gotten a bad rap." In a chapter about invisibility in the crowd, she writes of Grand Central Station:

"Though carried by the currents of commuters streaming through the vast marble corridors and canyons, I rarely bump into anyone. Instead, we are all turning and swerving in an improvisational choreography, our pace quickening and slowing in sync with those around us. I am certain it is sustaining for regular commuters to experience this each morning."

She may be certain, but I'm not. That improvisational choreography might be much less elegant on crutches, or pushing a stroller, or with social anxiety, or while running late.

The Grand Central example may be a small failure to empathize, but often in How to Disappear, those failures are larger. They are especially glaring when Busch turns to culture and politics. In an essay titled "At the Identity Spa," she moves swiftly from the work of Cindy Sherman to what she calls "the plasticity of self, [which] has become more routine, and in the time of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, we increasingly accept that pliability." This is a profoundly sloppy thought. My role is not to explain why those two figures are different, or why eliding them is harmful. Many writers have already done so, and I refer anyone who needs a refresher to Meredith Talusan's Guardian column "There Is No Comparison Between Transgender People and Rachel Dolezal." If Busch has access to Cindy Sherman's self-portraits, she has access to a body of work explaining that gender transition is, very often, not about plasticity or pliability of self, but about making the true and constant self visible.

How to Disappear fails intellectually because Busch never accesses the bodies of work that don't suit her. Her best essays demonstrate the scope of this failure by demonstrating the rigor, both academic and artistic, of which she is capable. They make her sloppiness on other fronts all the more obvious. They also beg the question of why she chose to write about politics, culture, and social media, when these topics seem not to interest her. Worse: They seem invisible to her. Ironically, that invisibility undermines her work.

In How to Disappear, Busch set out to create an antidote to visibility culture, but all she does, in the end, is expose herself.

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