- FacelessnessA Relational Politics
The face is an ordinary object hiding a profound complexity. We experience face-to-face encounters every day. Our immediate environment is full of smiley, needy, beautiful, and dangerous faces. The ubiquity of the phenomenon does not make it less fascinating. In Face Politics, Jenny Edkins, coming from the field of international politics—and with previous publications concerning missing persons, trauma, and more recently, landscapes of detention—explores what a face is and how it relates to a certain political regime. From portraiture to biometric technology, the face is linked to the contemporary concept of the individual. As a consequence, the face stands in Western contemporary politics as a dense surface where meanings of the self are located. This kind of politics, which Edkins denounces, produces the person as a fixed and knowable object “available to the gaze of a bureaucracy, an administration” (7). However, we can escape from this. Through four chapters, Edkins presents examples from the arts, neurosciences, and surveillance technology in order to pose ethical and political questions about our condition as subjects within the contemporary regime of self-awareness, separation, and individualism. She takes us through the process of “dismantling the face” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 188) to argue that facelessness offers new (and desirable) ways of relating to the self and to others.
There are two basic assumptions in contemporary face-processing research: (1) that a face identifies a person, and (2) that a face conveys internal emotional states (55). Both assumptions imply that by “reading” a face, we can grasp an [End Page 391] important amount of information about a person. In addition, both rely on a specific understanding of identity as contained within a body and, thus, a certain politics. Face Politics questions these assumptions and explores a way to a faceless politics. In the first chapter, Edkins analyzes the familiar act of reading a face to expose the numerous intricacies of our daily encounters. She relies on the photographic work of Suzanne Opton, Robert Lyons, and Ly Daravuth to destabilize this interpretative act and to show us that “our attempts to read the face are always open to failure” (35). Two issues emerge from the analysis. The first is that photography is not a finished object; it is an event that registers ambiguous traces from an “encounter between photographer, camera and photographed person” (35). Photography, at the same time, prompts different responses from different spectators and contexts depending on a shared social reality (41). Portraits, then, are political objects that promote relational, context-dependent responses from spectators. Chapters 2 and 3 explore Möbius syndrome (the inability to convey emotion through the face) and prosopagnosia (the impossibility of remembering other people’s faces) to show that another way of perceiving is possible. In fact, people living with either of these conditions are able to establish different ways of connecting and communicating with others. In this kind of face-blind politics, incompleteness is recognized as an inevitable factor: “a politics where we saw each other not as ever at any time whole, complete persons, but as inevitably incomplete, in relation, continually missing to ourselves and to each other” (126–27). This kind of politics opposes the current trend toward superrecognition, the process by which our real-life faces are connected to digital profiles, banking information, and medical, school, and legal records, in a way that affects every aspect of our lives. In the last chapter, Edkins approaches facelessness. By exploring the development of face transplants, she examines the urgency to cover up, to reconstruct the face of someone who has, for whatever reason, lost it. She argues that this urgency does not necessarily come from the “faceless” person but from the rest of us, who feel unable to connect and communicate under these circumstances.
The close connection between the face and a political regime centered on the individual has been addressed by other works such as Des visages: Essai d’anthropologie (Faces: An Essay of Anthropology) by...