What Is a Face

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About the face

Transcript of What Is a Face

Body & Society http://bod.sagepub.com/

What Is a Face?Daniel Black Body & Society 2011 17: 1 DOI: 10.1177/1357034X11410450 The online version of this article can be found at: http://bod.sagepub.com/content/17/4/1

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On behalf of:The TCS Centre, Nottingham Trent University

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Abstract The face is a shifting, multiplex, distributed and layered phenomenon. It is by far the most mercurial feature of the human body, and even a single face cannot be isolated in, on or outside any one body. In the following discussion I will employ a variety of differing accounts of the face and suggest that the differences separating each account are merely reflective of the multiplex nature of the face itself. Keywords anatomy, Deleuze, face, Levinas, vision

The question What is a face? might seem easy enough to answer. Common sense might define a face as the presence of certain features, such as eyes and mouth. But does anything with these features qualify as a face? Can a snake, for example, be considered to have a face? Certainly, in some sense, it can. We speak of all manner of living things as having faces, and even the crudest representation of key facial attributes most importantly eyes are enough to trigger recognition as a face. Infant humans and primates are able to recognize representations of faces within days of birth (Guo et al., 2003: 371; Lutz et al., 1998: 16970; Slaughter et al., 2002: B71); in addition, neonates not only seem to recognize others as having faces, but also understand that they themselves have faces. Experiments have shown that babies only hours old will imitate the facial expressions of others, despite never having had a chance to look in a mirror and see that they have features which correspond to those they are seeing (Gallagher, 2005: 75ff.; Meltzoff and Moore, 1983). They seem to have an innate understanding of what a face is and the commonality betweenBody & Society Copyright The Author(s) 2011, Reprints and permissions: http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav Vol. 17(4): 125; DOI: 10.1177/1357034X11410450

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their faces and those of others. On the other hand, infants also seem to recognize simple line drawings of faces (Wilson et al., 2002: 2910), and this ability to identify even the most rudimentary of representations as a face would seem to suggest that the face exists more in the mind of the viewer than on the body of the viewed: it perhaps results more from the attribution of a face than the simple presence of physical features. These and other attributes of the face invite multiple, seemingly contradictory, accounts of what faces are and how we perceive them. In this article I will argue that, while common underlying themes can be identified in these different attributes of the face, the face remains, by its very nature, a multiplex phenomenon that never can be fully accounted for within a simple or singular account. I will, therefore, approach the face in a way which does not seek to force its attributes into a restrictive pre-existing framework. A variety of different accounts of the face will be used, but none will serve as a point of origin for my analysis; rather, I will seek to have different kinds of knowledge regarding the face interact productively with one another without privileging any particular one as more truthful or apposite. Understanding the face as a multiplex phenomenon, my intention is to capture the different views of the face produced by differing investigative approaches, accepting each as adding to the potential for understanding the nature of the face through its very difference. I will then draw common themes from these differing accounts and suggest that, despite their methodological dissimilarities and varying foundational assumptions, together they do provide a consistent view of the dynamism and multiplicity of the face. However, drawing together different kinds of research on the face will inevitably require that I sometimes arbitrate between competing claims underpinning different approaches. Before I begin, therefore, I will set out the foundational assumptions of the following discussion. These assumptions derive from my evaluation of competing claims made by the various sources discussed here, and the basis of my conclusions regarding the superiority of one claim over another will be set out during the discussion itself. 1 The face, while a key factor in the production of subjectivity and social structures, is not produced by or comprehensively explicable in terms of either of these things. Deleuze and Guattaris treatment of the face is referred to at multiple moments in the discussion, but I will argue that an account of the face which, like theirs, sees faces purely in terms of subjectivization is untenable given the anatomical and cognitive uniqueness of the face as a material organ of communication.

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What Is a Face? & 3

2 Communication is not entirely reducible to linguistic structures. Too often, all communication is understood to be linguistic, or amenable to analysis in linguistic terms. The face is the most powerful example of communication which extends outside and predates language, rationality and consciousness. 3 The material body provides a fundamentally important substrate of communication. In its ability to communicate affects and associations at a corporeal level without conscious analysis or linguistic sense, the face challenges a common tendency to understand communication as detachable from, or even opposed to, biology and bodily materiality. Foundational to both the biological structure of the face and the machinery of human perception is the bodys role in nonverbal, non-linguistic communication. The following discussion will therefore look to disciplines such as ethology and neuroscience as sources of insight into the evolutionary and cognitive production of faces, as this can both highlight the blindspots in accounts of the face arising in the humanities, and offer opportunities to enrich and extend those accounts. As we will see, however, the appeal to such disciplines does not reflect a desire to provide an objective, scientific account of the face, nor does it require that communication be treated as something rigidly structured by biology or amenable to simplistic empirical accounts. Nonetheless, I will interact with these forms of knowledge in good faith I have no desire to simply criticize them from a position founded on, or use them as a resource to bolster the claims of, approaches external to them. 4 The body as material substrate of communication is a dynamic entity which produces a multiplicity of perceptual interactions with itself and the world. Highlighting the role of biology and materiality in communication need not produce an account of the face which is fixed, essentializing, or built on claims to identify some objective rules of function or meaning. Accounts of the cultural production of the body tend to start with the body as it is isolated and fixed by social forces, but the lived materiality of the body is not reducible to this entity. The face as an anatomical and perceptual phenomenon is the most mercurial, unstable, and elusive feature of human anatomy, endlessly exceeding efforts to capture it and draw a stable, generalized view of it from its endlessly shifting lived reality. It is these very qualities of the face which necessitate a mode of investigation which is open to multiple perspectives and multiple forms of knowledge. What is a Face for? Crucial to the question of what a face is is the question of what a face does. What is a face for? While eyes are for looking, and noses and mouths are for breathing,

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tasting, smelling, eating and talking, the face as a whole is for none of these things (it just happens to be partially composed of features which carry out these functions). The face is, rather, an instrument of communication. Faces are for signification; the most obvious use of the face is to generate meaning for the benefit of an observer. Among mammals, facial signals such as the narrowing of eyes, lowering of brows and baring of teeth to denote an urge to attack are consistent across a tremendous variety of species. A human being and a cat will both communicate in this way as a result of an innate biological predisposition, and so, on this most basic level, equally can be attributed with faces. However, when discussing animal behaviour, a distinction must be drawn between display (a signal or pattern of motor activity whose exaggerated or stereotyped characteristics suggest that it has become specialized in form, frequency, or both during evolution to effect or to facilitate the process of communication [Redican, 1982: 216]) and expression, which suggests an intentionality of communication. While a human being might make an involuntary facial display of aggression or fright like a cat, a cat will n