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Research Report by Amanda Phillips

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Research Report: Giorgio Agamben, "The Face"


By Amanda Phillips, Making a Face: A Catalogue of Avatar Creation Systems


  1. Abstract. Agamben’s essay on the face assesses the potential of the body’s most communicative part in a political and economic regime designed to control it. The face is not only a literal human visage, but can be a metaphorical point of communicative potential in art or nature, and its separate faculties also serve as metaphor for consumerist and fascist political regimes. In Agamben’s view, one of the most political acts is to seize control over one’s appearance and communicability, to become one’s face, and this is the ultimate exhortation of the piece. 


  2. Description.  This essay, closing Part II of Means Without End, is the natural conclusion of a section that begins by theorizing gestures, then moves through languages, people, and the spectacle. At stake in this section of Means Without End are the various modes of communicability that exist in the political sphere. We begin at the body and end at the face.
        For Agamben, the face is pure communicability, “the only location of community, the only possible city” (91). The face, however, is not merely a visage, nor is a visage necessarily a face; it is the point at which language and character merge with the visage and become a point of exposure and interface with the world. Inanimate objects can have faces, but only as they encounter language: “Nature acquires a face precisely in the moment it feels that it is being revealed by language. And nature’s being exposed and betrayed by the word, its veiling itself behind the impossibility of having a secret, appears on its face as either chastity or perturbation, as either shamelessness or modesty” (92). In this way, he reveals the face as a certain human relation to the image, a relation which he claims only humans have, as animals “are always already in the open and do not try to take possession of their own exposition” (93). Recognizing, owning, and exposing one’s own appearance are central to these facial politics. As a result, appearance is one of the most contested sites on the contemporary political battleground, a place controlled by the media, politicians, and bureaucrats to keep humans separate from the communicative potentials of their own appearance.
         In the final movement of the piece, Agamben maps several binaries onto the face: interior/exterior, proper/improper, communication/communicability, potentiality/act. The “active” terms in the binary belong to the mouth and eyes, while the “passive” ones are nose and ears. Balancing of the mouth/eyes with which he links to consumerism and totalitarianism, respectively, is the key to politics. It is only in the unity or reciprocity of these aspects of the face that we can achieve pure communicability and community - to become our faces, which is his final recommendation. To do so is presumably to reclaim the gesture, to become pure communicability.


  3. Commentary.  I was struck with the juxtaposition between Agamben’s imperative to become the face and Deleuze and Guattari’s instructions to flee it, as celebrated in Zach Blas’s “Fag Face” video. For the purposes of this project, despite the facial deformations that lie at its center, ultimately facial customization is about becoming a face - more to the point, becoming a face with political meaning. As one of Agamben’s most political acts is the seizing control over appearance, even the superficial functions of facial customization tools add another fundamentally political dimension to gaming.
        The distinction between the visage and the face is one of language, of communication - of being codified according to a system that is insufficient to capture its totality. I’d like to use this perspective as a jumping-off point to think about the ways in which technology struggles with recreating faces; in particular, the way that avatar facial customization sliders express (or fail to express) the communicative dimensions of the face. The face is a site of interpersonal exchange, and its status as pure communicability for Agamben is useful for this project. What does it mean to have power over the creation of your face? What kind of a face would you put forth to display to other users? What kind of face would you create for yourself? And, perhaps most importantly here, what kind of faces are users permitted to create within the constraints of an avatar customization system?
        The binaries that Agamben sets up are precisely the ones that many schools of contemporary social justice critique, queer theory in particularly, seek to dismantle. While some of these pairs were made to construct the face as a space in between, which is itself a critique of the binary, on the whole this thinking seems incompatible with the types of theories I wish to engage. This logic of the binary poles with a liminal face in between, however, does map well onto customizable slider bars: two extremes with a range of possibilities in the middle. Like the binary nature of digital technology, these decisions may be based in technological practicality but resonate with ideologies of oppression.
        More theories of the face will be necessary to construct an adequate theoretical frame with which to understand the implications of the technological processes of face-making. Here, Blas will be useful in integrating a specifically queer implementation of the theories of faciality introduced by Deleuze an Guattari. Indeed, the limitations of digital face-making, whether customizable or not, are related to those that Blas himself brings up: though making faces is the inverse of decoding them, both functions ultimately suggest that the face is reducible to mathematical functions, to machine-readable and -reproducible structures. Appearance, as Agamben warns, is ultimately a matter of who controls it, and avatar face creation software is one of these means of control. Another likely theoretical extension will come from Gloria Anzaldúa's introduction to Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras, which is more in line with developing methods for social justice: Anzaldúa writes about the faces of women of color in a white racist society, which resonates with my avatar experiments.
        An final source I found useful was also quite unlikely: Jon Rutter’s “Dismantling the Face: Toward a Phenomenology of Boxing.” Rutter brings together the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Levinas with Derrida’s hauntology to speak about the specters of faciality. Spectrality is also particularly suited for discussions of avatars, and something that is not addressed in "The Face."

  4. Resources for Further Study.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria, ed. Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1990.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Continuum, 2004.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague/Boston/London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.
  • Rutter, Jon D. “Dismantling the Face: Toward a Phenomenology of Boxing.” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 7.3 (Jul 2007): 281-93.


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