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What Can a Face Do? On Deleuze and Faces

From: Cultural Critique
51, Spring 2002
pp. 219-237 | 10.1353/cul.2002.0021

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Cultural Critique 51 (2002) 219-237

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What Can a Face Do?
On Deleuze and Faces

Richard Rushton

[He] saw a certain ambitious triumph in her face which no assumed coldness could conceal. (Dickens, 205)
This brief passage, from Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, contains a number of assumptions on the nature of faces.

Her face (the face of one of the heroines of the novel, Bella Wilfer) signifies "ambitious triumph." First of all, the face is part of a signifying system: what is expressed on a face (the signifiers) are the concepts or feelings (the signifieds) "behind" that face. In Peirce's terms, there is an indexical relation between what is on a face and the feelings or ideas it expresses—that is, what is behind the face is what causes the marks or expressions to appear on the face.

That which is signified is "in" her face. What the face thus brings forth is a model of representation: the face represents or expresses the inner feelings of a person; it expresses something that is hidden behind the face, yet there is something in the appearance of a face (on the face) that allows access to what is hidden beneath.

Nothing Bella did—no amount of being cold-faced or stone-faced—could conceal what was in her face. This implies that nothing can stop the face from revealing what is beneath it; what is beneath the face will flow onto the contours of the face unhindered. However, one must assume that on certain occasions that which is hidden in a face could be concealed, that there would be times when Bella could be sufficiently stone-faced so as to conceal the realm beyond. So what, then, is Dickens saying?

He is saying, on the one hand, that there are certain times when what is in a face cannot be hidden, that there are times when the facial signifier is automatic. A face, therefore, does not need to be [End Page 219] actively or intentionally marked or expressed in a certain way so as to give rise to meaning. The face is part of a signifying system that is quite different from that of spoken or written language, and it is quite different from traditional forms of representation like drawing or painting or photography. What these traditional forms of representation need are a certain intentional logic, the determination that "with these marks I am representing x"—even if there is no intended meaning, there is certainly the intention that one is doing or producing something (an artwork, for example). The face, opposed to this, on certain occasions, can represent or signify automatically, without the intention of the person upon whose face the markings arise.

He (none other than "our mutual friend" himself, Mr. John Rokesmith/Harmon) sees what is in Bella's face. He does not read or decipher what is in her face. He merely sees it. The face is most properly considered in terms of vision, in terms of what one sees. Relating to or reading a face is not a matter of interpreting certain preformed codes and of applying those codes to the markings one sees expressed on a face; it is, rather, an intuitive mode of seeing.

That is not to say that the face cannot be conceived in terms of a preestablished signifying system: in The Expression of the Emotions, Darwin charted the emotions in terms of seven or eight specific categories of facial expression, and the universal nature of the smile has been widely noted (see McNeill, 204-8). And there is little doubt that by way of habit we form certain expectations about what certain expressions mean or signify (though we would agree with Hume and declare that these are not properties of the faces but rather of the minds that contemplate such faces)—as, for example, when earlier in Dickens's novel Bella notices "a fall in her father's face" (49), she goes to comfort her father in his moment of sadness (for he laments that they are not financially as well...