Skip navigation

A question raised in Wednesday’s lecture – and in the Beltran text – struck me as though-provoking: what makes the DREAM activists so unafraid of coming out at the risk of arrest and deportation; of claiming their rights when in all probability they will be structurally denied? I think this is an important question to consider, especially given the social media channels and modes appropriated by the activists for their protests. It reveals the crucial place and stakes of visibility and identity in the realm of politics.

Ranciere claims that “politics distributes the sensible”: politics dictates what is seeable/readable and what is unseeable/unreadable in society. In democracy, this seems to be one of the ways in which politics negotiates the paradox of democratic government being challenged by democratic social life: aspirations and demands that exceed the capacity of the democratic institution are not merely denied, but rendered unreadable. By this logic, undocumented immigrant youth are not denied their rights, but are assumed as having no rights in the first place – they are not “citizens”, their identities are not legitimized by the government, and therefore they constitute an excess unreadable by the so-called universality of law.

It is in this context that an “aggressive politics of visibility” becomes crucial. Undocumented youth must make themselves seen and defined in order to claim stakes in politics; it is only by putting their identity at stake, can they assert their identity. Or, as Beltran writes, “they [enact] the very rights and standing they [demand] from the government”. Ranciere echoes this idea in his account of feminist protest during the French Revolution: “they showed that since they could enact those rights, they possessed them.”

The stakes of visibility are perhaps even higher in the political realm of the internet. Given its archival and open-access nature, visibility on the internet is associated with possession of a legitimized identity that transcends the limited jurisdictions of government . This is linked to the valorization of online archives and repositories of knowledge, even though their “authoritativeness” is questionable: if something or someone cannot be Googled or pulled up on Wikipedia, one tends to question its existence or legitimacy. However, precisely because the internet promises the democratic ideal of “unqualified access” to visibility, it is unable to escape the paradox of democracy : unqualified access encourages ‘mass individualism’ which threatens equal access to visibility. This is of course complicated by the fact that even ‘unqualified access’ is arguable. Access is unevenly distributed along economic, social and geographic lines, which means that not everyone is able to possess a visible identity and voice on the internet. This struck me during lab on Tuesday, when I was perusing the Community Portal section of Wikipedia and came across a plea urging users to write articles for a list of ‘highly cited women scientists’. It made me think: what about the many persons denied the right to netizenship? What about the persons undocumented on the internet, who do not have access to the abundant and egalitarian visibility promised by the internet?