The Foreword to Jérôme Baco’s elegant new book, Invisible, tells us that what follows will be split: between “deliberately propagandistic imagery [and] texts of absurd realism”; between “portraits of revolutionaries [. . .] disembodied and dehumanized” and “the human, simple, obvious the one we glance furtively at each morning in the mirror and hasten to make disappear” (17). One might add that it is also split, for instance, between languages, as each individual text is offered successively in French, Spanish, and English. Moreover, the book offers us nothing like a linear, coherent narrative. What we get are fragments, chronologically and spatially unmoored, from what appear to be many positions, a multitude of perspectives, albeit all cast in terms of a shifting first-person subject: a “moi confundu” or “confused I”; a “confusión pronominal” or a “mistaken pronoun” (19, 20). So if this is what we see when we glance in the mirror, then it’s a cracked glass indeed, and perhaps the result is less “simple” or “obvious” (even less “human”?) than it may seem.
First, the images. These are forty-one black-and-white portraits of revolutionaries or radicals, who range from the familiar (Che Guevara; Nelson Mandela) to the relatively obscure (Mélida Anaya Montes; Ali Shariati). Almost always these figures are portrayed head and shoulders, from the front or very slightly to one side. They are abstracted from any social context or interaction: there is no visual background, and the only information provided about them–in two indexes, at the back of the book–is their names (“qui/quien/who” ) and their countries of origin (“où/dónde/where” ). Otherwise they are, almost quite literarily, icons: both in the sense that they are images that are to stand in for and simplify a much more complex reality; and in that they acquire a quasi-religious aura, inviting a kind of supplication. This feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every image is in some way distressed, as though many hands (or lips) had already touched their surface and worn them down. In sum, though the figures they portray end up appearing distant, even inaccessible, the pictures themselves remain tactile and convey a sense of their own materiality. We are never led to confuse the signifier with the signified, the icon with the saint. As with (say) Andy Warhol’s screenprints, what comes to the fore is the iconography, the ways in which the image ultimately acquires a life of its own.
But what the book’s title suggests is that the hyper-visibility of these images, precisely the ways in which they call attention to themselves, obscures something else. And perhaps that something else surfaces in the texts that surround them, texts whose connection to the portraits is seldom if ever obvious, though may do make us think in new ways about the icons they accompany. Opposite Che’s image, for instance, is a reflection on “the immortal” that becomes a meditation on suicide (64). And the portrait of Mother Teresa follows what is effectively a miniature story or micronarrative entitled “The Little Thief of the Poor,” in which the discovery of a “vaccine against poverty” enrages the average Leftist: “How could they do this, to him! He who never stopped talking about social justice!” (88). And in the end it is unclear how much this is a critique of those who venerate charity, or just as much of those who work for charity themselves. Equally, the brief fable that goes with the picture of Martin Luther King plays on the notion of kingship (“the king of the what” who wants “the what to be king”) and ends “speechless” (160). Is this an alternative King to the one who looks out on the facing page, or just another way to tell the same story of the charismatic leader who goes “to the mountaintop” but is denied the promised land?
So it is not exactly as though the texts render visible in any precise way what is obscured in and through the icons. Rather, perhaps, it is in the fractures and folds themselves–between propaganda and realism, between languages, between word and image, between times and places–that the invisible can be not so much seen as dimly perceived, viscerally sensed, irredeemably insurgent.