Unit 2—Analysis Essay
The politics of visibility
“The only pertinent political question in relation to an „identity‟ [or its photograph] is not „Is it really coherent?‟
but „What does it actually achieve?‟”
(Victor Burgin as quoted in “Mirrors and Window Shoppers:
Lesbians, Photography, and the Politics of Visibility”)
Suggested unit readings/texts:
o Rosetta (film)
o Maggie Anderson‟s “Among Elms and Maples…”
o Rosemarie Garland-Thomson‟s “The Politics of
o Diana George‟s “Changing the Face of Poverty”
o Gay Hawkins‟ “A Dumped Car”
o Laura Hershey‟s “From Poster Child to Protester”
o Langston Hughes‟ “I, Too, Sing America”
o Marc Lacey‟s “Abuse Trails Central American Girls
o Geraldine Pratt‟s “Abandoned Women and the
Spaces of the Exception”
o Alissa Quart‟s “When Girls Will Be Boys”
o Marjane Satrapi‟s “The Veil”
o Kathleen Stewart‟s Ordinary Affects (excerpts)
If you think for even a minute about the patterns of exposure in our culture—that is, what is made
public, visible— from talk show topics like “My mother runs a brothel,” to Ken Starr‟s massive brief
on Bill Clinton‟s dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, to “reality” programming, to tabloid headlines, to
“home” porn seeping its way into the public sphere (think Rob Lowe, Pamela Anderson, Paris
Hilton), it‟s hard to imagine that anything at all remains invisible, below the radar.
Visibility is a concept currently being examined in theater, psychology, sociology, cultural studies,
queer studies, political science and many other disciplines. The concept is especially interesting to
scholars because of the sheer volume of images, texts and ideas people are exposed to each day
through television, radio, advertising, newspapers, magazines, and other forms of communication.
And inextricably linked with visibility is the concept of „hypervisibility‟ (or surplus visibility)—that is,
the images or identities or figures in heavy rotation in US culture. Certain images—e.g. the person in
the wheelchair, the flamboyant gay man, the dying person with AIDS, the starving African child—
stand in for larger, more diverse, more complex groups of people. And as Victor Burgin reminds us
above, the “only pertinent political question” is —what do these images and representations
“achieve”? Who benefits? Who—and what—gets sacrificed?
An example: On Wednesday, July 7 th 2004 the Syracuse Post Standard ran an article on the advances in
prosthetics that are helping American soldiers injured in Iraq return to more “normal” lives. The
article was accompanied by photos of a soldier amputee walking confidently, comfortably, and
proudly on an artificial leg. That depiction (text and photos) of soldiers is hypervisible—that is, it
comes to stand in for all soldiers injured in Iraq, and it relieves the public of the strain of bearing
witness to (and thinking about) the emotional, physical, and economic devastation that is much more
the “norm” for those wounded in battle. It is the devastation, for the most part, that remains
invisible. Soldier deaths also remain invisible—as we are not allowed to see pictures of the flag-
draped coffins coming into Dover Air Force Base on a regular basis.
In your essay for unit 2 I would like you to draw on the skills you began to hone in unit 1—close,
critical reading and interpreting—to identify and analyze the important tensions that exist between
what our culture makes visible and what it glosses over or hides.
Your analysis will unfold in layers. First you will locate a representation or representations—for
example, a photo, film clip, newspaper article, magazine cover, tv program, radio broadcast, sound
bite, etc— that you deem hypervisible, a representation that draws explicit attention to a person,
group or phenomenon, but that simultaneously obscures the complexities of the person, group or
phenomenon. [A little aside here: your representation does not have to be visual for its effect to be
hypervisible: hypervisibility refers to the status or the impact or “achievement” of the representation.
Got it?] You will carefully describe your subject and analyze its (hyper)visible representation, and
then you will analyze (with plenty of examples and evidence) how the representation glosses over
other more complicated versions of the subject.
Just because there is pressure on you to be critical in your examination of the subject(s) you choose,
that doesn‟t mean you will be working all alone. That‟s one of the ways secondary sources can help.
Your analysis will be richer, more persuasive, if you contextualize your claims in some way, offer
your reader insight into larger cultural forces and phenomenon, and I would like you to do so by
referencing two secondary sources (one of which must be scholarly). Back to the example in the
fourth paragraph: you might look for sources about war injuries, or about the impact on families of
soldiers injured in battle. You might interview someone who works in the disabilities office on
campus, or a professor who is knowledgeable about US foreign policy. You might interview a peer
who is related to or knows someone serving in Iraq. The possibilities for secondary research are
endless, and are pretty much determined by your need to know.
We will spend time in class brainstorming possibilities and exploring library databases for
potential material. We will also spend time in class practicing working with source material and
weaving it effectively into our own analyses.
We will also spend a great deal of time in class brainstorming ideas and topics, and working through
the early invention strategies of the assignment together. And we will read several articles in Critical
Encounters with Texts. The articles are not necessarily models for you to follow, though you may find
yourself inspired by a writer‟s choices in organizing and sequencing ideas; the articles will deepen our
understanding of hypervisiblity, expose us to ways of thinking that we might not otherwise
encounter, and challenge us to push further with our analytical claims.
You will take the essay through various stages of composing—brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting
and revising. Please save all of the writing you do during the unit.
The final analysis paper should be 6-8 pages long and is due on X. Please create a title and follow
MLA citation procedures. As in unit 1, you will turn in an invention portfolio along with your essay.