Contemporary science fiction is full of these scenes of shifting from visible to invisible, from William Gibson’s Neuromancer with the Panther Moderns media terrorist organization who wear mimetic polycarbon suits, to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell with thermoptic camouflage. These scenes can be understood as speculative design precursors to the nanotechnological efforts to create materials which can bend light in order create invisibility for soldiers which made significant progress in March 201410. What I am advocating is a strategy similar to Chela Sandoval’s differential consciousness, but deals more with the materialities that allow a shift from visibility to invisibility, and considers the space between states or modes. Perhaps a close consideration of this flickering can aid in the project of locating trans women of color in women of color feminism. This project uses methods from cultural studies, transgender studies, media studies and the materialisms of Deleuze and Barad to consider the politics, aesthetics and ethics of passing and translucency.
Passing is a technique of modulating visibility in order to be perceived as belonging to a particular category. Passing is gesture that brings the contemporary trans subject into an analogous relationship with the flickering digital signifier, where the performative utterance of making one’s body be read in a certain way reveals both its mutability and reveals that one’s body can be a sign with more than one signifier, like the digital image.
Passing is not simply a question of being or becoming visible or invisible, but instead a question of attaining a particular form of visibility. Often, for trans women of color, the question of passing can be determined by the amount of light and the color of light reflected from one’s face and neck. This light can determine one’s ability to survive or not, as in the case of Islan Nettles, a black trans woman who was murdered in New York after her catcaller decided that she was a trans woman11. These instances of violence recall with undeniable force that passing is not simply a question of identity, but a poetics of relation, a politico-aesthetic Glissant has articulated. Passing involves both the modulation of visibility by the person who is passing but also the reception of that image by the viewer who makes a decision about whether or not a person fits into a particular category. This relationally inherent to passing indicates the problematics of shaping resistant movements according to passing status, as such a gesture puts the shape of movements in the hands of dominant groups.
Passing requires an observer, it involves the modulation of light, but that light needs to reach a retina, and in this moment the quantum mechanics of light are necessary to consider, which is why researchers working on invisibility cloaks are focusing on nanomaterials that are small enough to operate on quantum principles. Karen Barad has proposed a concept of relationally between identities based on these principles that she refers to as “intra-action”, describing the co-constitution of agency, which one can see in operation in the moment of passing12.