“I am an invisible man,” writes the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s novel “…simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison 3). Thus the concept of vision is introduced to the text, understood not only as the faculty of sight, but rather as a weapon for racism, a tool for identification, and a simultaneous excommunication and escape from white society. The narrator, known only to the reader as Invisible Man, understands his invisibility as both a product of the sight (or lack of sight) of others, and a means for subversion against those who created him as such. It is only his awareness of his invisibility, however, that allows him to empower himself; Invisible Man acknowledges that he “did not become alive until [he] discovered [his] invisibility” (Ellison 7).
Ellison uses the motif of invisibility as a method of subject formation, one that both upholds and creates stereotypes and imposes identities upon the powerless. What produces invisibility is not blindness, but distorted vision, and this distortion systematically formulates the identities of the oppressed as manifestations of the fantasies and preconceived prejudices of the viewers. Kimberly Lamm writes that Invisible Man offers “compelling insights into the complicated roles vision plays in the perceptual frames that together compose black masculinity” (Visuality 815).
This perceptual construction of black masculinity is evident during the Battle Royal, when the prestigious white men of the community blindfold the “little shines”, or African-American high school students, in order to actualize their fantastic notion of the black man; overtly sexual, barbarically savage, and brutally violent towards even his own race. When Invisible Man is put into the ring, he notes that “Blindfolded, I could not longer control my motions. I had no dignity” (Ellison 22).
Linking sight to control, Ellison implies that the power rests with those who possess vision, or more accurately, those whose vision is considered accurate and therefore a representation of reality. Eliminating or dismissing vision destroys the ability to define oneself, and therefore strips away one’s dignity and significance. Another example of ocular oppression is seen in the bronze statue of the college Founder; Invisible Man is “unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly into place; whether [he is] witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding” (Ellison 36). This instance of subtle misrecognition implicates the educational system as not an agency of liberation, but rather an enforcer of inequality and ignorance.
Lamm, quoting Lacan, writes that “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside. It is through the gaze that I enter light and it is from the gaze that I receive its effects” (Visuality 817). But because of his status as invisible, Ellison’s narrator is forced to find a way to determine himself without the eyes of others. So Invisible Man undergoes a delayed mirror-phase when he learns to recognize himself not though others’ vision, but through his own. “I caught myself wishing for someone… who could give me a proper reflection of my importance.
Finally, I went to the mirror and gave myself an admiring smile” (Ellison 163). Just as he circumvents Monopolated Light & Power, Invisible Man overcomes the problem of his invisibility by formulating his own identity through his reflection in the mirror. Though not seen by the eyes of others, particularly the eyes of whites, he continues to interpret himself through vision.
The limited vision of others is what allows Invisible Man to commit acts of sabotage unseen, and allows him to retreat from society when necessary. Invisible Man remarks that Trueblood’s wife and daughter “were crouching behind their eyes… just as I recognized that I was trembling behind my own” (Ellison 51). However, the narrator recognizes that this obscuration ultimately prevents him from achieving his aims. Invisibility is a mode for subversion, and also for self-discovery.
By accepting his invisibility Ellison’s narrator becomes capable of determining his own identity, and therefore emancipating himself from the categorization of others. As Invisible Man eventually recognizes, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free” (Ellison 243).