Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)
Author: Dr. Dan Öberg
The face as an object of thought has received increased attention in the social sciences (Davies, 2004; Oberg, 2005; O’Sullivan, 2006; Rutter, 2007; Engle, 2007; Burns, 2008; Yue, 2008; Ibrahim, 2009; Steinberg, 2010; and Black, 2011). Herein it is argued that the face as part of social reality is produced through various ‘modes of knowledge,’ such as science, philosophy, and literature. These modes make the face appear as an integral part of social reality through encounters, identity and expressions. The aim of this article is to explore and criticize the ontological underpinnings these modes rest upon, and outline some consequences of this through a discussion of social media.1 The text looks into how the face appears as part of social reality by presenting a brief overview of mainly three aspects: the face as a metaphor in language, the face in neuroscience, and the face in philosophy (by way of Emanuel Levinas view on the face as an ethics and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories of faciality). These modes make it possible to illustrate some common denominators of how the face appears to us; as a metaphor for a humane politics, as a special image, and as a potential for ethics or emancipation.
These established modes are contrasted with an alternative view, based primarily on a reading of Paul Virilio’ and Jean Baudrillards’ theories of disappearance. Drawing upon their critique of technology and time and its impact on art, the hypothesis that the face has disappeared is put forward. As an illustration of this, consider how, through virtual technology, the face is potentially broken down into pixels and digits in ways that make it resemble a barcode rather than an object of mystery. We might ask if this has not led to how the face has ceased to be an object of wonder in favor of an object being deciphered like a template in biometrics; a face that is no more human than a fingerprint, no more real than the photo shopped surgically corrected face in an advertisement. To claim that the face has disappeared is therefore not a matter of claiming that actual faces do not exist any longer. Rather it is an assertion that the face has disappeared as a metaphysical object. Baudrillard states that: ‘when we say reality has disappeared, the point is not that it has disappeared physically, but that it has disappeared metaphysically. Reality continues to exist; it is its principle that is dead’ (Baudrillard, 2005b: 17). In this view the face have ceased to be an object of wonder and become an empty configuration of discrete parts.
The text therefore unfolds through two contrasting hypotheses: the first hypothesis would be that the face appears for our benefit – to humanize technology and to emancipate subjectivity through for example social media. A critical project would then either embrace and/or escape the way faces affects us. The second hypothesis, incompatible with the first, is that the face is disappearing – and that knowledge and social media are part of the modes which obscure as well as hasten this process. This text unfolds within the ontological challenges this poses and is part of an effort to challenge the modes which reifies the face as an object.
The first parts of the text discuss the three modes of knowledge (literature, neuroscience and philosophy). The subsequent part analyzes Virilio’ and Baudrillards’ ontology of disappearance. The fourth part transforms this into a critique of the face as a metaphysical object in favor of the idea that the face has disappeared. The fifth part tries to understand why we still seem to revere faces despite the fact that they have disappeared. The sixth part asks how contemporary social media (such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and various dating sites) participate in the disappearance of the face.
II. The appearance of the face — a special image that mediates between inside and outside
Etymologically, in English, the word ‘face’ primarily comes out of ‘facies’ (meaning appearance) and secondarily ‘countenance’ and ‘visage’. It is therefore a term which indicates mainly two things – the front of the human head which appears to us, and the state of mind which this appearance supposedly indicates (see: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=face). In political or literary discourse, the face often appears in the second form, as something which leads towards the inner life of a subject, or indicating the order of a state of things. There are of course numerous ways in which the face is linked metaphorically to politics. Consider how the face works as humanity: in ‘globalization with a human face’ (HDR, 1999), ‘security politics with a human face,’ (Cooper, 2008: 99), or ‘radical democracy as politics with a human face.’ (Matustik, 1998: 190). Or as inhumanity masked as humanity: in ‘the two faces of Bill Gates and the two faces of George Soros’ (indicating that they are framed through the face as both ‘cruel businessmen’ and ‘great philanthropists’) or through ‘state violence masked with a human face’ where the face is taken to obscure inhumanity (Zizek, 2008: 19, 102). And even as a metaphor for the lack of humanity, such as in George Orwell beautiful description of a totalitarian propaganda machine at its apex in 1984:
The ideal set up…was something huge, terrible, and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons – a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same face (Orwell, 1987: 170).
That the metaphor is part of day-to-day political discourse is also evident in how it works as a mode of accessing the inner life of the “social” or the “political.” For example in how the (blind) former Labour Home Secretary and UK MP David Blunkett said in an interview: ‘for most people, “social” means facial expression’ (cited in Cole, 1998: 21). Or how another UK MP Jack Shaw claimed that the veil was an obstacle to political dialogue since it allegedly makes ‘positive relations between…communities difficult’ which cause ‘separation’ in that ‘in our society, we are able to relate particularly to strangers by being able to read their faces…’ (cited in Ibrahim, 2009: 30, 32). The face thus appears to be that which appears as a threshold into knowing the Other, or knowing the state of things that encompass the subject.
The idea that the face appears as a way into the Other is also evident (albeit in a much more precise way) in science. To neuroscience it is clear that the face is a “special image” separable from other images (Young, 1998: 67, 160). Face related science tends to inquire into this “specialness” from various perspectives. In these discourses one sees the face as a facet of identity, emotional states and expressions, and argues that it differs from other images through the qualities it displays and in how it attracts our attention (Eimer 2000: 103-4, 113-115).2 In this view the face is considered the richest part of visual information on our body and it appears as a wealth of intricate social signals (Darwin, 1999: 326, Young, 1998: 4). Some also argue that from the face we are able to infer intent, personality, social relations, and that specific facial expressions correlate with distinct emotions and bodily changes (Keltner et.al., 2002: 411-415 and Ekman, 2003: 15). The “specialness” of the face can also be based on discussions of material configuration as in how some argue that compared to the front part of the head in other species the flat human face is very unusual as a visage (McNeill, 1998: 3, 20, 43). Discourses on neuroscience thereby code the face as a special image that mediates between the inside and the outside, a view that chimes well with modes of biometrics in discourses on security and criminology in which the face is seen as a facet for potential violent acts (Adey, 2004: 1365-1380).
What is important here is not whether or not we can find a causal connection between the face as it appears to us as a promise to know the Other. Rather, what concerns me is how the promise to know the Other appears through how various modes of knowledge are producing the face as special, or as a threshold between inside and outside. As discourses promise us the truth of the Other through the appearance of the face the political subject is conditioned to see faces as something more than simply an image.
III. The face as a possibility for ethics and a limit to emancipation
While there are various philosophical accounts that extensively discuss the face, two that stand out are Emanuel Levinas discussions of the face of the Other and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattaris concept of faciality. While both are topics of much study, let us briefly consider in what way they participate as modes of producing the face. Similarly to the previous discussion, a Levinasian account would suggest that the face is situated at the intersection of inside and outside ‘as an active mediator of within and without’ (Rutter, 2007: 285). As we have seen neuroscience promises us that we can know the truth of the Other through the face. The Levinasian account however promises us the opposite, namely that the face as appearance is where the full truth of the Other is ultimately lost’ (Black, 2011: 22). To Lawrence Burns:
signification without a context (TI, 23/8). The face is naked (TI, 75/73), it “signifies by itself”, it is “immediate”, and it has an always positive value” (TI, 74/71–2). The face is “absolutely other” (TI, 33/21) and unrepresentable, like the idea of infinity (TI, 197/215). Yet the face is also vulnerable and commanding, revealing its misery and poverty at the same time as its mastery and height (TI, 75/73). To be sure, even though Levinas tells us that it is indeterminate and incapable of being represented, there is still something to say about the face (Burns, 2008: 317).
The face therefore appears as part of encounters as it signifies the outside of, and disrupts discourse, through how it invokes an ethical responsibility. Although the face does not yield a moral codex, for Levinas it arguably reveals the impetus – as an intersubjective structure out of which the need for moral principles emerges (Burns, 2008: 318-332). So the face appears as the place where the full truth of the Other is ultimately lost – it is the outside of discourse and thus comes back to haunt and disrupt ethics. Similarly to the scientific discourse we have a situation where the face appears as a “special image” albeit metaphysically. The face appears as that threshold which leads into the subject’s inner life but not through knowledge (as in science) but through an ethical guiding principle.
If, for Levinas, the face is indicative of how the full truth of the Other is lost but the ethical imperative gained, for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari it is nothing of that kind. To Deleuze and Guattari it is an organizing feature of humanity: ‘the inhuman in human beings: that is what the face is from the start’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 171). To them the face becomes a problem to dismantle as it is part of an abstract conception of the body that facializes perception. The face is the intersection through which we striate bodies into subjects and signs. To Deleuze and Guattari radical politics rests upon dismantling the face so as to get past how the face conditions possibility into subjects and signs. The face thus works as the coordinates and contours that allow for the subject to emerge since it organizes the field of possibilities through partly determining how we see (O’Sullivan, 2006: 311).
Deleuze and Guattaris view on the face differs significantly from Levinas’ since it does not rest upon the face as a hope for an ethics but rather as a promise of emancipation by escaping the ordering of faciality (Delueze and Guattari, 1987: 190). Even though their account has little to do with the other modes of knowledge production (since it aims to dismantle the face) there is in their writing a constant invocation of the face as “special”: the face is invoked as ‘the white man’ (1987: 176), ‘the typical European’, ‘Jesus Christ‘ (1987: 176), ‘a politics‘ (1987: 181), and as ‘a horror and a close-up’ (1987: 190)’. To them understanding the face is part of a tactics of challenging the way bodies are represented as subjects and signs. But in doing so it also produces a guiding principle in how images affect our understanding of social reality. In the subsequent part I will provide a critique of attempts that draw on Deleuze and Guattari by using the face through art and through virtual technology as an impetus for the production of subjectivity.
To summarize, the common denominator between neuroscience, face-recognition, various philosophies of the face is that they conceive of the face as a special image. Although how to deal with this image, what it communicates, or how it affects perception might differ in each account the idea is still that it communicates, that it is there as an object, and that it does affect perception. All accounts therefore rest on the underlying preconception that the face is real – that it exists and that through knowing it we might be emancipated. In short, the face is. This is indicates a specialness that affects us through modes of subjectivity, or though ethical encounters, or as a way of knowing the world through metaphor. Let us now look into an account that sees the face from the perspective of disappearance and change.
IV. The aesthetic of disappearance and art
Nothing (not even God) now disappears by coming to an end, by dying. Instead, things disappear through proliferation or contamination, by becoming saturated or transparent, because of extenuation or extermination, or as a result of the epidemic of simulation (Baudrillard, 1993: 4).
For Paul Virilio the most remarkable feature of late modernity is the shift from an aesthetics of appearances to one based on disappearance. This indicates that we have gone from a field of perception based upon classic geometric perspectives with a clear horizon, to a situation in which this horizon has disappeared. As a consequence of this our perception has dissolved due to the immediacy and omnipresence of virtual technology (Virilio, 1997: 36). We only need to consider how digital cameras, GPS, real-time TV, and mobile phones (with integrated video cameras, internet access and portable computers) create an interconnectivity that force us to reconsider what it means to see. In the words of filmmaker Francois Reichenback the camera projects ‘a different way of looking at everything’ (Virilio, 1995: 8). Now we see through the screen as a new horizon and through an excess of images which comes to us from “any-space-and-time-whatever”. To Virilio the shift in perception – from local images to global images – comes out of an underlying shift in space/time which arguably affects classic time’s succession. This change force upon us a move from classical concepts of time to a new conception based on exposure. The impact of technology is therefore that location and succession – such as the near and the far, the past, present, and the future – gradually disappears in favor of a reduction of time that leads to an exposure of a perpetual present (Virilio, 1997: 28). One casualty of this aesthetics of disappearance is art.
As a consequence, art as a phenomenon has disappeared into modes of technology, advertisement, media, and digitalization and it has no destination other than the virtual world of networks and interaction (Baudrillard, 2005b: 105, 109). In short, it has become an operational practice that lacks the possibility of transcendence. As Virilio states:
All the arts – and particularly the arts of re-presentation – were…to be fatally damaged, then destroyed, by the constant acceleration of technologies of presentation and reproduction …which, by reducing the space and time between subject and object to zero, were to eliminate…not just the concepts of rarity and durée, but the nodal points of the potentiality and the ‘becoming’ of the work of art– its phenomenology (Virilio: 2002: 51).
We now live in an era where we access art virtually, as a reproduced and dispersed part of a hypercapitalist market of images. To Baudrillard and Virilio this signifies that art has disappeared into virtuality, its metaphysics eliminated (Virilio, 2002: 49). This means that art disappeared, not so much because good (or creative, or real) art disappeared. On the contrary: ‘art does not die because there is no more art, it dies because there is too much’ (Baudrillard, 2005a: 64). Moreover, ‘it is at the point where everything is on display…that we realize there is nothing left to see (Baudrillard, 2005a: 181). In the horizonless world of exposure we are being blinded by too many images. The insipid state of art therefore works as an example of how the aesthetics of disappearance have affected other areas as well. Virilio and Baudrillard trace this disappearance in a number of spheres such as war (Baudrillard, 1995, Virilio, 1991: 102-110, Virilio, 2000: 81-84), sports (Virilio, 1995: 92, 2000: 34), sex (Virilio, 1997: 103, Baudrillard, 2005a: 25:26), consciousness and humanity (Virilio, 2000: 50, Baudrillard, 2000: 19-20), and most important to the arguments below, the disappearance of the body (Virilio: 2002: 14, Baudrillard, 2002: 1-4).
V. The disappearance of the face
What happens to the face when the field of perception changes? How can we explore this change as part of a critique of the face as an object in contemporary thought? Through our screened-out horizonless world every face is potentially exscribed from its context and placed in front of us. The face, which was supposed to be a template image of visual difference, rather stands as an image of visual indifference. Every face is interchangeable, possible to manipulate through beauty operations or digitization (and let us not forget that every beauty operation rest upon an actualization of software-based operational codes). There is an excess of faces which leads to a kind of vertigo – similar to the experience of watching every face of every person in a horizonless world. A vertigo that is induced when they all appear at the same time – screened out. And we only need to think of the overexposed images of contemporary popular icons such as Che Guevara and Bob Marley to realize that their faces indicate the “branding” of an empty form. Through the excess of empty faces and the development of the face into a barcode for identity it is perhaps time to admit that we have long ceased looking at the faces that surround us – except as a neural reaction to a useless stimulus. A reaction that works similar to how some researchers claim that the reason we unwittingly cringe at the sight of reptiles is since it is a survival mechanism, a useless vestige in our genetic memory. We absorb, decode and process faces as a useless vestige of modes of knowledge production due to how we are constantly being fed them.
Hence, the face does not disappear because it is outside of the frame; invisible, hidden, missing, occluded, or lost. It does not disappear because it is veiled, ski-masked, covered, absent, or looks away from us. The face has disappeared due to excess and to it being dispersed into other modes (of media, advertising, entertainment). If the face becomes part of the past today it does so through underexposure. Consider Princess Diana who went from being the most overexposed face of the 1990’s to becoming an underexposed, almost embarrassing visage, in less than a decade (Davies, 2004: 78-79). If ‘faciality’ or an ‘ethics of the Other ‘ are meaningless concepts today, it is because the coherent metaphysical reality of the face has already been lost.
Therefore, if faciality or an ethics of the Other indicates anything it is nostalgia for the metaphysics of the face (albeit they give voice to this in very different ways). As theories they are beautiful ways of delaying an end through ritualizing this nostalgia. And this is arguably enacted in other ways as well. Is not the liberal-democratic sentiment in the “outrage” over veils as an “anti-democratic” symbol precisely part of this ritual? It is as if the whole outrage over veils is simply an attempt to hide the fact that there isn’t anything interesting being hidden. In contemporary political (and perhaps also religious) discourse, there seems to be a hope that if the veil is ritualized and exposed enough then perhaps we might find a meaning to that which is supposedly beneath. Instead, if we think of the face as a mode of disappearance we can appreciate that the nudity of the face – hidden in various ways – is best understood as bodies in general. Namely, clothes are there to hide the fact that there is nothing worth seeing underneath.
Perhaps it is plausible to, in light of the disappearance of our horizon of perception, think of the face as it is produced as part of modes of knowledge as a reaction to the alleged dehumanization that takes place in modern society? If so, invoking the face as an ethical impetus or as a metaphor for a more humane politics would be part of an attempt to “rehumanize” a state of things. However, if these are seen as rituals of nostalgia then they indicate not so much a reaction to dehumanization, as a way of obscuring that the value of the face-to-face has disappeared into virtual modes. Hence, if we need to act-out and direct our anger at an object it should not be against the things that obscure or hide the face. It should be directed against the emptiness of form induced by virtual technology and for the way this emptiness is shrouded by science as modes of knowledge, in ways that make a ritual out of the nostalgia of the face.
If we see the face as part of a disappearance of the body, of the image, of art into modes of genomes, virtual reality and interchangeable objects based on visual indifference, it becomes clear that it is “worthless”. Meaning, it holds no value except as a fetish which is consecrated through rites of advertisement, media, beauty discourses as well as though science and philosophy. As the face is today a pixelled image (as in biometrics) or a template ready to be rearranged surgically it is possible to argue that the face has lost whatever distinguishing features it used to have; aura, mystery, or scenic quality. As art in Baudrillard and Virilio, the face has become transparent to itself, lacking the possibility to transcend its own image, lacking secrets, illusion and dreams (Baudrillard, 2005a: 120). Therefore, we must not ask what is the special status of the face, or what does it enable in terms of politics, or how does it delimit and enable subjectivity. Rather, we should rephrase the question and ask what to do with the face after its disappearance?
VI. A lingering servility to the face
Although the various modes of knowledge production differs, seeing them from a perspective of disappearance helps us to appreciate that we need to be sensitive to how the face is ritualized as a face. In light of this we need to reverse the contemporary view of the face through science and philosophy. What should concern us is not whether the face is a ‘special image’ or whether we can articulate or actualize a ‘politics with a human face’. Neither if the face provides the possibility of an ethics, or pose an inhuman problem that need to be dismantled (or both). What is interesting is that the metaphysics of the face at some point disappeared into the circulation of virtual images. However, as the introductory quote by Baudrillard illustrated “metaphysical disappearance is not the same as physical disappearance” – this means that even though the face lack guiding principle we still view faces, analyze faces, theorize faces, and the contemporary artist still paints faces. What do we make of this?
Baudrillard argues that if contemporary art is relevant today it is not because of its “critical potential”, its aura or longevity, its sublimity, or any other mystical quality, but for our continued ‘servility before works of art’ (Baudrillard, 2005b: 110). Neuroscience, the science that demands from us that we believe that the face is a “special image” is obviously feeding into this discourse. Curiously, Baudrillard once reproached neuroscience for not investigating why humans are so servile to art (Baudrillard, 2005b: 107). We can ask precisely the same: why are we so servile to faces? A servility which is all the more difficult to grasp since it is displayed towards an empty form. The (only remaining) remarkable feature about faces is therefore why we, despite their disappearance, still revere them? This servility has consequences for how we think of radical politics. Let us consider two examples of how ‘Deleuzeanism’ is operationalized as a tactic to produce subjectivity.
First, Simon O´Sullivan sees contemporary art as the key to dismantling the face and emancipating the production of subjectivity. His argument rest on the idea that contemporary art speaks to “a people to come” and due to how everyone can ‘experiment with the materials at hand and produce something new in the world or themselves anew in that world. Indeed, it is only with this creative participation in and with the world that the production of an “auto-enriching” subjectivity can proceed’ (O’Sullivan, 2006: 321). While it is unnecessary to rehash the previous argument one might wonder if not O’Sullivans hopeful approach to dismantling the face through art is slightly misplaced, given that the idea of “producing new subjectivity through art” is already caught within the aesthetic of disappearance. What makes it stand out in a horizonless world? Moreover, by drawing upon Baudrillard we can appreciate that dismantling the face is not so much a tactic to produce a more emancipated subjectivity as it is a reification which makes the face appear significant by giving it a reality that it lacks.
Second, Mark Hansen draws upon Deleuze and Guattari to argue that we need an understanding of faciality to facilitate an encounter with virtual technology. Hansen sees a need to:
…propose the encounter with the DFI (Digital Facial Image) as a new paradigm for the human interface with digital data. Via the affective response it triggers, the DFI offers a promising alternative to the profoundly impoverished, yet currently predominant model of the human-computer-interface (HCI). Whereas the HCI functions precisely by reducing the wide-bandwidth of embodied human expressivity to a fixed repertoire of functions and icons, the DFI transfers the site of this interface from computerembodied functions to the open-ended, positive feedback loop connecting the digital-facial-image and the entire affective register operative in the embodied viewer-participant (2003: 207).
In Hansens account the problem of the screen is how we can encounter it in a humane way. The face becomes a way of into interconnectivity and an impetus into an inquiry how we can give technology “a human face” – the face that is supposedly deserves. Hansen’s problem is therefore not that we are servile to faces – but how we are to organize our perception better through faces so as to get affected through the virtual milieu. The face still works as a metaphor for the mediator between the inside and the outside – only this time it promises us a creative way into the inner self of virtualization. Hansen lauds precisely the shift which Virilio saw as the shift from local perception (of the world with a horizon) to global perception (of a horizonless world). He acknowledges that due to this shift the images that surround us are linked no longer linked to the bodies of those that experience them and the role of thought seems to be to enable a supplementary encounter between bodies and digital information (Hansen, 2003: 225).3
The difference between such an account and the present argument lies in how we see the consequences of this. Hansen frames this as a potential opportunity giving rise to ‘radical heterogeneity’ (Hansen, 2003: 225) while I see the consequences of this as something which makes encounters disappear. As long as the problem is framed as a “productive encounter with virtual technology” we miss that by framing this encounter through the human face (as is done through for example avatars) servility to the face stands-in as an empty metaphor for something humane. Perhaps it is a blessing to Hansen that we can embellish machines with a face but it seems to me a part of how the possibilities of how encounters are disappearing. A development which, as the next part shows, Facebook and other social media are active parts.
Arguably, the main difference between a ‘Deleuzean’ approach and this paper can be illustrated through a more precise understanding of servility. To me, it is not the disappeared object but the way we ritualize it and make a fetish out if this empty form which is interesting. How we scan, consume and visually absorb faces with a mixture of ferocity and apathy; as if we secretly expect them to mean something. To understand the consequences of this servility let us consider why servility is a political problem. In Impossible Exchange, Baudrillard outlines contemporary servility as different from the servility of the slave for the master:
…to be liberated you have to first to have been a slave. And to have been a slave, you have to have not been sacrificed (only the prisoners who were not sacrificed became slaves). Something of this exemption from sacrifice and something of the consequent servility persists in “liberated” man, particularly in today’s servility – not the servility which precedes liberation, but the servility which succeeds it. Servility of the second kind: servility without a master (Baudrillard, 2001: 55).
Servility of the face is therefore the servility which succeeds emancipation – the type of servility that comes with the fact that the contemporary subject now lacks a master. It is the servility of the emancipated subject which invents objects to dismantle. Therefore, contrary to those who think of dismantling the face as a part of emancipation, the problem in this paper is not so much how to produce new subjectivity. Rather the challenge lies in understand how ritualizing the face as an object necessary for emancipation obscures the many ways in which we are already emancipated. Servility towards the face lingers in our neural system as part of the memory of an era which has ended. We remember the face homeopathically – the way molecules remember water (Baudrillard, 1993: 8). Perhaps this diluted and fading memory explains why we are servile still. And, perhaps it is time to agree with Antonin Artaud who once claimed that ‘the human face is an empty power, a field of death…’ (Hirschman, 1965: 229) If so, dismantling the face becomes a way of ritualizing and reifying this empty power.
VII. Social media as facial disappearance
Baudrillard is fond of quoting various parts of Jorge Luis Borges The Book of Imaginary Beings. For example, the fable “The Fauna of Mirrors” comes up from time to time in his writing (1996: 149-150, 2001: 106, 2005b, 94-95, 2007: 115). It tells the story of two civilizations – the people of the Empire and the mirror-people – living in harmony. This harmony lasts until one day when the mirror people walk through their mirrors and invade the Empire. After a long battle the mirror people are vanquished and they are sent back into the mirrors. Only this time they are forced by the magic of the Emperor to resemble the real world in every way. But inside the slavish repetition of the real world a reversal is slowly stirring. To Baudrillard this example shows how the virtual – forced to servile resemblance is slowly taking on its own reality. It is easy to see how the fable by Borges illustrates the dangers of a screened-out existence as an anticipatory example of what happens through social media. Internet sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Skype hardly warrant an introduction anymore. Facebook, with more than one billion active users is today the world largest social network [http://newsroom.fb.com/]. As a social network it works different from many other internet sites in that it is nonymous – we play the roles of ourselves. But this ‘play’ through the virtual medium is also highly constrained. For example through the way we interact and communicate (through a live-feed of short text messages and photos that come up in real-time), through (mainly) facial icons, or through the banners and various banal “games” as part of the interface.
A positive account of social media would most likely argue that through facebook we experience the encounter and possibility of emancipation through the ‘horizonless world.’ As companies are taking employees to court over “disloyal” status-updates and “indecent” pictures and countries are shutting down social networks in attempts to control discourse we are supposedly better off fighting for the right to emancipate ourselves through the use of social media (as the dissidents in China). However, if ritualizing the face as ‘empty power’ hides how it has disappeared into other modes it is necessary to ask – through the Borges fable – of what we have exiled to the screen through social networks. The idea that the emancipated subject who spends more and more time in front of the screen has in many ways abandoned social life is not new. However, an interesting aspect of sites like Facebook is how they both keep subjectivity into the loop (you need it to interact) while at the same time in a more sinister way it prevents the subject from actually interacting. This is by no means limited to Facebook. Think of how dating sites with its check-in the box formulas by promising hundreds of possible encounters (“meet singles in your area”), make simulations out of terms like “romance”, “dating”, or “seduction.’ Is it not ‘exiling’ precisely that which makes encounters worthwhile?
Consider advertisement: the staring faces at billboards, the blank faces of models in fashion magazines, the exaggerated faces of television commercials, and the digital faces of internet banners. Or media: newscasts with the face of the suffering child or the crying mother, the face of the serious bearded Arab “terrorist”, the slick but still concerned face of the politician, and the smiling face of the news reporter. The excess in itself acts as an image-feedback to the masses watching virtually. Consider the average protester at Wall street: simultaneously ”liking” the pictures of himself tagged by someone on facebook from his iPhone as he interactively twitters short messages to followers he never met and that most likely won’t read them, as part of a protest that is overexposed as it takes place mainly in modes of communication. Was he even “@wallstreet” as his twitter updates would indicate? Does it even matter as the event disappears on behalf of other events getting overexposed as part of the circulation of images? In short, is not the most salient aspect of the excess of faces through social media the very fact that it lacks any kind of guiding principle?
In the end one might ask whether it is not the mystery of ourselves that we ‘exile’. Our face disappears defeated along with the “mirror people” and perhaps with it the possibility of discourse and dialogue. While we are busy embellishing our virtual selves (“is this a good enough profile picture”) or ‘interacting,’ it is as if we, through video blogs and chat functions, have exiled dialogue. Perhaps by invoking a ‘neologism’ this disappearance can be better understood. Arguably, dialogue has disappeared in favor of what we might call “paralogue” – a parallel dialogue. Paralogue would indicate the parallel speech that takes place in a way that makes encounters impossible. While a dialogue indicates an exchange of ideas between two or more persons and a monologue is the talk of a single speaker with a silent audience, a paralogue indicate that everyone communicates at the same time but the discourses never properly meet as discourse disappears in modes of technology and time.
But what kind of time is this? As previously indicated it is not the time of the present and past but the time of various degrees of exposure. What would this imply in terms of social media and the face? Let us imagine what the underexposed universe of social media which exists alongside the overexposed would mean. In the underexposed universe dialogue is an empty chat room. Identity is a disabled twitter account in which discourse exists only as an operational code. Alienation is a photo that didn’t get tagged and didn’t get “liked”. Abuse is a ‘face-rape’4 that no one noticed. Desire is a closed down dating-profile. The face-to-face is two dark screens in sleep-mode staring at each other. Resistance is a screen saver of a Guy Fawkes mask.
The overexposed universe on the other hand needs no further introduction. Its paralogue perpetually hits us as we watch the overexposed faces on the screens, and in this reflection, the screens and faces stares right back into us. If we think of the servility of the overexposed faces around us as part of what succeeds emancipation it might be interesting to ask also whether a reversal is taking place, as in the Borges fable. Is it so that the mirror images that we put up on the screen – as profile-pictures, as video-blogs, as chat-icons – are not merely reflecting us but rather “thinks us”? If so our own faces are copies of the face that has disappeared into social networks. This would indeed mean that we have lost sight of ourselves.
Consider the voice-over-internet protocol Skype with its 663 million registered users. While Skype has a lot of features (file-sharing, telephone calls) it is best known for the virtual face-to-face calls that can be made for free. During the call one is screened out by one’s own video cameras while at the same time receiving the same images from those one communicates with. This is of course a very self-conscious way of talking since it is as if we are sitting in front of virtual mirrors mimicking ourselves: the virtual image working back on every facial expression and countenance. One might wonder if not the construction of a real face through various modes of knowledge has created both the implied need for a face-to-face as well as the ‘solution’ to this via social media. Is not the success of the digital camera in Skype (the implied “need” for a face-to-face at all cost) and the idea that the face is a ‘special image’ or a ‘mediator between inside and outside’ essentially two aspects of the same servility? Moreover, isn’t there a deep longing for an essence of humanity in the political imaginary, actualized through metaphors of “globalization with a human face” or “virtual encounters” through faces? Namely, a deep longing to ‘rehumanize’ the subject through various technological, theoretical, and metaphorical means.
Contrary to this we might also ask, if the face is around us as excess, as an empty vestige, what is it exactly that has disappeared? Perhaps the aesthetics of disappearance has ushered us into a post-Levinasian era. One in which it is the notion of the face as that which “the full truth of the Other is lost” that has been lost. If so, the face is no longer the place where the full truth of the Other becomes impossible. But it is the possibility and the impossibility of the face appearing as something more than a barcode of identity and emotion which has disappeared into various modes of information.
The text has unfolded through negotiating two contrasting hypotheses. The first hypothesis was that the face appears for our benefit – to humanize technology and to emancipate subjectivity trough social media. This was illustrated in the text through how the face is produced by modes of literature, neuroscience and philosophy. The face appears as a metaphor in literary and political discourse where it indicates a threshold between inside and outside – for example as a way into the state of the subject or the state of the social. It appears in neuroscience and security related discourses as a “special image” through which we might know personal identity, intent or emotional states. Finally it appears in philosophy as the place where knowledge of the other is lost in favor of an ethical responsibility that we cannot opt out of, or as a problem to dismantle so as to create ourselves anew. All these accounts rest on the presupposition that the face is real (either in a direct material sense or as a metaphysical principle). Although various modes make it appear in different ways they assume that we need to take the face into account as part of emancipation or knowing the world.
The second hypothesiswas that the face is disappearing – and that knowledge and social media are part of what obscure as well as hasten this process. This hypothesis was advanced through the thought of Virilio and Baudrillard, mainly their critique of time and art. Through their ontology it was argued that attempts to humanize technology or seek emancipation through social media are parts of a lingering servility to faces. Today we are left with the face as an empty form and servility towards this form: something which science, literature and philosophy unwittingly feed into. To challenge this servility we need to acknowledge that the face is reified in discourse. Theories that draw on the metaphysics of the face to articulate an ethics, or that promises us emancipation through the dismantling of the face, arguably makes a fetish out of the face in how they ascribe it positive or negative value. Drawing on Baudrillard we can see that the political problem resonates with how the face lingers as part of our neural system. When we pose the questions of ethics or emancipation through the face we unwittingly end up reifying it as an empty form.
By thinking of the various social media networks which are used globally we can appreciate that the promise of emancipation through the face hides other more difficult problems. As the face is ritualized into an object which appears virtually in the various modes of social media it also exiles the quality of encounters. However, we might also ask if there is indeed a reversal taking place in which the various modes of technology are making our faces into copies of this empty form. If so, we have through how the face has disappeared into other modes, also in a sense ‘transcended’ the ideas that the face is where ‘the full truth of the Other is lost’ or that ‘the face is a politics.’ Perhaps the way the face appears through social media has less to do with regaining humanity or subjectivity than it has to do with obscuring the fact that the body as we know it is in the process of disappearing?
About the Author
Dan Öberg is a senior lecturer of war studies at the Swedish Defense College, Stockholm. He finished his Ph.D. in Yokohama National University, Japan, with a thesis on the politics of the face (2005) and has published in Japanese, Swedish and English. His current research interests ranges from Japanese military history (latest book: http://www.norstedts.se/bocker/utgiven/2012/Host/zetterling_niklas-kampen_om_stilla_havet-inbunden/) to the interplay between critical philosophy, communication, and war. He is currently preparing a special edition for IJBS entitled ‘Baudrillard and War’ (for publication in 2014).
A special thanks to Astrid Nordin (Lancaster University), Caroline Holmqvist (Swedish Defence College), and Anna-Karin Jonsson (Swedish Institute for International Affairs) for encouragement, comments, and assistance on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to the participants of the Temporalities of the Political workshop organized by Tom Lundborg at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm 30 November, 2012.
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1 – To Baudrillard every appearance also envelops various kinds of disappearances, ways ‘by which we are currently obliterating the traces of our existence, spiriting away the evidence for our sensible world’ (1996: 23). The following part maps up how the face is produced in the contemporary discourses of science, politics, literature, and philosophy. But it does so against the background of a disappearance which envelops this production.
2 – Neuroscientific experiments seem to show that the Fysiform-area of the brain (FFA) typically activates more for faces than other visual objects, even during passive viewing (Gauthier et.al, 2000: 191). Experiments have shown that face-recognition has attentional effects on the activity of the FFA. If retinal stimulation is held constant (i.e. a faces are perceived during a certain time) then FFA activity is stronger than during the perception of non-face objects (see Wojciulik et.al.: 1574-1578).
3 – Curiously Hansen portrays Baudrillard (along with Henri Bergson) as a philosopher who sees the world as ‘pre-fabricated through set images’ as opposed to a view based on ‘radical heterogeneity’ (Hansen, 2003: 225). However, to attribute “pre-fabricated imagery” as an ontological characteristic to Baudrillard (to whom the world is arguably best understood as illusion and contingency) seems absurd.
4 – Face-rape’ is a term that indicates that someone hacks the facebook account of the actual owner and posts messages (often in an embarrassing fashion).