opacity (n.)


Opacity describes a lack of transparency and translucence; or somewhat more figuratively, a lack of intelligibility or knowability. Opacity is a state, medium, or space through which light cannot pass. A white wall is opaque, as is a mirror, as is a lump of coal. When light strikes an opaque thing, it can be diffused, reflected, or absorbed entirely.


One of the enduring contributions of Martinican philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant was his insistence on a “right to opacity for everyone.” In formulating opacity as a response to the Western, imperialist demand to know and understand the Other, Glissant designated opacity as a resource for navigating the optics of discovery, exposure, and enlightenment.


Opacity questions the master metaphors of identity politics: margins / center, invisibility / visibility, silence / vocalization. Against straightforward calls for recognition, opacity suggests the limits and violence of recognition itself.


Opacity critiques visibility as inherently good. According to CeCe McDonald, who was once incarcerated for defending herself against a transphobic attacker, the “height of trans visibility” has come alongside the “height of trans violence and murder.” Here, the increased legibility of the term trans simultaneously drives a culture of anti-trans violence.


Opacity refuses legibility as a precondition of protection and dignity. A right to opacity is a right to difference without the conciliatory promise of knowability.


Read alongside opacity, darkness becomes a protective shelter for escape, and light becomes the harsh glare of exposure. Darkness resists juridical mandates such as New York’s historical “lantern laws,” which required that any unattended slave carry a lit candle, as well as their contemporary parallels, such as the high-intensity LED flood lights illuminating certain housing projects. Opacity follows what surveillance scholar Simone Browne terms “dark sousveillance,” the fugitive “tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight.”


Opacity suggests there are limits to what we know.


In the conspiratorial sense, opacity means: secret plots by the government, people detained in hidden places, unspeakable atrocities. Opacity as nondisclosure agreements, redaction, and censorship.


In a collective sense, opacity means: mutual aid, models of abundance vs. scarcity, a world without cages. Opacity as limitless possibility, and a portrait of collective liberation that we have yet to fully realize in our own time.

Christopher Joseph Lee is a zine-maker, writer, and PhD candidate at Brown University, where their research explores narratives of anti-queer violence. Their writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and The Baffler.