Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Dismantling the Face: Landscape for Another Politics?

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Dismantling the Face: Landscape for Another Politics?

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

"The face has a great future, but only if it is destroyed, dismantled." Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987, page 171)

It is widely assumed that the face reflects a natural state of things. But it is not a natural object. Rather, the face is produced. It exists in a particular cultural, geographical, and historical context, not universally. (1) And it is contested. This paper takes it as read that the significance we give to the materiality of the face--the face as material object--does not arise from some necessary or innate importance but from what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call a certain assemblage of power, a certain politics. As Michael Taussig puts it, "the face itself is a contingency, at the magical crossroads of mask and window to the soul, one of the better-kept public secrets essential to everyday life" (1999, page 3).

While the face might seem the most natural thing in the world, then, maybe, we should imagine what difference it would make if we considered, along with Kobo Abe, whether "the face did not simply exist but was made" (2003, page 211).

In a range of areas--from studies of emotional expression to experiments on face recognition--doubts are to be found beneath the surface, and the public secret of the face is beginning to be revealed. The idea of the face as universally significant and wired into our biology is being undermined, even as automated technologies are being designed to mimic, enhance, or outperform our supposed natural abilities. In painting, photography, and the digital arts, practitioners are exploring what it might be like to think differently about the face and to inhabit a different distribution of the sensible as a result.

1.1 Face politics

In terms of politics and the political imagination, we have yet to explore what the face does, and what a politics without the face might be like, or what a politics that demands face means, or whether indeed these two poles of the dichotomy hold. We know that forms of identification and oppression attempt to exploit the face--our faces appear on our passports and ID cards, and we are used to having to show our photographic image for a range of purposes. Talking of the politics of the face brings to mind face-processing technologies and surveillance, biometrics and control: techniques of governance to be resisted, a demand for identification to be challenged. This aspect of biometric technology, and the biopolitical neoliberal governance of which it is a part, has been widely explored (for example, Gates, 2011; Salter, 2003).

But for Deleuze and Guattari there is more to the politics of the face than that. The politics of the face is a much deeper politics, a politics that enshrines a specific regime at the intersection of signification and subjectivity. In fact, it is not at all a question of a politics of the face. For them, the face in itself is a politics, and a distinct politics at that. Some assemblages of power, or the regimes of signs with which they are linked, produce the face; others do not.

The face is a politics that reflects and inscribes a particular intersection of two regimes of signs: the signifying and subjectifying regimes, the despotic and the authoritarian. At this intersection of the "white wall" of significance and the "black hole" of subjectification is "a very special mechanism ... a face: the white wall/black hole system" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, page 167, original emphasis).

It is only a certain particular form or concatenation of power, a particular politics, that produces the face. We do not have faces without it. And it is a particular face that is produced: "it is not even that of the white man; it is White Man himself, with his broad white cheeks and the black hole of his eyes" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, page 176). It is the face of contemporary Western politics: "The face is Christ. The face is the typical European" (page 176). …

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