Friday, 26 February 2016

The Face, and the City Beyond the Mask

"The face is the only location of community, the only possible city". (Giorgio Agamben - Means Without End pg91)

1) The contemporary life of the subject is marked by two differing realms of experience. The first is a corporeal experience of comings and goings, of physical exchanges and mundane transactions; the ticket barrier that opens when I present my card on the way to work; the hurried rush along underground tunnels; lunch in a sterile office or noisy local eatery; small talk with colleagues, a visit to the supermarket, a quick evening drink, etc. The other realm which we no longer consider as separate from the first takes place in virtual space, on the internet, via my tablet or smart phone. Here too there is exchange, "sharing", information flows and playfulness. There is also increasingly a lot of anger, and to the extent that this virtual world now penetrates the formerly "real" world so totally and is seemingly so unavoidable, this inchoate anger now haunts our otherwise mundane corporeal experiences. And yet in practice our day to day shunting between home and work or college seems relatively untouched by this online violence as if we were in the midst of some secret civil war that polite society was reticent to discuss.

Fundamentally what is at stake in this split and this upsurge of angst online are the related concepts of identity and personhood and consequently of community itself. In concert with developments in communicative technologies recent decades have witnessed a semantic slippage from the person or personality to identity and the means to represent it. This slippage has gone so far as to more or less erase the person from political discourse. Whereas we have today all manner of  identity politics notions of the public person or of personality are siphoned off into other fields such as psychology or cultural studies. The explosion in social media in the last ten years has pushed this general trend to near completion. The other essential concept in this cluster is recognition which for reasons that I hope will become clear does maintain a healthy life both online and in identity politics.

Giorgio Agamben dedicated a recent essay to this subject under the title of Identity without the Person which seeks to draw out the consequences of an age when our public persona is increasingly reduced to mere biological datum and digital recognition. Agamben points out that the Latin persona originally meant mask and derived from the ancestors mask of wax that hung in the atrium of patrician families homes in Rome, marking an individual's belonging to a gens but also coming to represent an individual's public 'personality' or political standing as a free man in general. Thus as Agamben summarises, the struggle for recognition is the struggle for a mask (Agamben 2009 pg46). More important for our purposes is the link Agamben emphasises between a person's "mask" and their formation as an ethical being. For the mask is accordingly something we take up, we put on, and thus we cannot be reduced to. It's a role we have an obligation to play and to play well, but we can never and never should try to identify with our mask, to reduce ourselves purely to its representation. This crucial tension between individual and mask is according to the Italian philosopher the subject of Roman art which depicts an actor gazing at their mask as if in dialogue with it. Immediately we might think of modern masks like those we produce online, on Facebook deploying multiple profile pictures and snappy status updates, holiday photographs and videos of our favourite music artists. Indeed Mark Zuckerberg has made billions off the human need for a mask.  But does life online maintain that critical reflective aspect that Agamben believes is key for ethical life? Or is it not the case that in the modern era under pressure from a consumer capitalism that admonishes us to "be the best version of yourself" in a spirit of permanent entrepreneurialism this constitutive gap between man and mask has all but collapsed. What are the consequences of this?

2) Despite endless scandals involving mass theft of personal data and the revelations of state surveillance that have come out due to the bravery of whistleblowers like Edward Snowdon, the historical links between the public online "profile" and techniques for cataloguing, categorising, and identifying criminals (or "persons of interest" in the language of the securicrats) is generally not recognised. In fact the profile picture itself nestled in the top corner of our social media page is an almost direct appropriation of the mug-shot that was fixed to the top of so called "Bertillon cards", the ID system developed in the late 19th century for cataloguing repeat offenders in Paris by Alphonse Bertillon. The cards also contained anthropometric measurements, a forerunner of biometric passports and were christened portrait parle, a speaking portrait which is a pretty good description of today's social media profiles. The difference being that the latter are constantly updated.

Indeed citizens of developed economies have become so habituated to forms of identity checking, data gathering, surveillance and the like which have developed out of police techniques that the shared affinity between these procedures and our voluntary uploading of personal information is seemingly obscured. Just as we are monitored in the world to an ever greater extent and our corporeal existence is recorded and measured to an ever more precise degree so has the public online profile taken on ever greater importance in the life of citizens. Agamben recognises this trend and its correlation with the general state of depoliticisation in developed economies: "At the moment when individuals are nailed down to a purely biological and asocial identity they are also promised the ability to assume all the masks and all the second and third lives possible on the internet, none of which can ever really belong to them" (Agamben 2009 pg53). What we seem to be witnessing here is a strange correlate to what Michel Foucault famously termed Biopolitics; the reduction of the political life of citizens to the management of mere biological life. As the public person has increasingly been reduced to the level of a biological body, forcibly ejected from the city square (now privatised), so has social media taken on its role as a substitute demos, a demos however made up of atomised sovereign identities without any real political power and maintaining only a semblance of community. It should not be surprising then that in complete agreement with Agamben's distinction, online there is certainly a politics of identity but neither persons nor rarely any ethics.

In order to properly grasp the significance for Agamben of this 'identity without the person' and this contemporary  split between the biological identity and the fictive online identity it's worth going back to a dense text which he authored in 1996 on the subject of "The Face" which seems to foreshadow where contemporary communicative technologies were headed.

"The fact that politics constitutes itself as an autonomous sphere goes hand in hand with the separation of the face in the world of spectacle - a world in which human communication is being separated from itself. Exposition thus transforms itself into a value that is accumulated in images and in the media, while a new class of bureaucrats jealously watches over its management" (Agamben 1996 pg95).

Much of this almost prophetic passage chimes with our contemporary experience of modern communication and social media. On the one hand there is a huge accumulation of images drawn in from everyday life and available for adoption and circulation. On the other hand this infinite multiplicity of images dwells alongside an ever greater demand for concision, soundbite, simplification and dissemination, as well as massive infiltration by forces determined to control the flow of information, directing or distorting it for political or commercial ends. In the so called "post truth age" as our sources for information get mediated to an ever greater degree, divested of any decisive authority, reproduced and recontextualised online, the ground for certainty on any issue whatsoever becomes shaky. Indeed one near ubiquitous view on social media is that you can't trust the media! And yet the very ground upon which this scepticism takes place - which might otherwise lead a way to truth - is the walled garden of social media itself which not only has no need to distinguish between true and false but in fact feeds off the demand for ever more sharing of images and information that this uncertainty creates.

We might then want to add a second aspect to that loss of personal ethical principles Agamben diagnoses as a result of modern "personless" identity. If my reduction to a set of biological facts is an identity I can form no relationship with, then all that I am left with which to identify is just those fleeting ephemeral images online that I upload and share, data which immediately becomes the property of social media corporations as well as material for others to appropriate and disseminate. Indeed my relationship with others becomes almost exclusively one of faceless appropriation and dissemination. Perhaps then we should not be surprised at all that fearful possessiveness of opinions, all that stubbornness and lack of openness that turns so quickly to abuse and threats online. In the public square I am a body to be managed or a consumer or passenger to get through the door; online I have a profile, I have likes and dislikes, interests to be shared, I can represent "the best", "the truest" version of myself before it inevitably dissolves into the network. Thus I will guard it zealously. 

We can see something of a dialogue in Agamben's reflections on the person and the face with Martin Heidegger's well known critique of technology which is undergirded by the centrality afforded to language. For Heidegger the essence of modern technology is that it reveals nature as a "standing-reserve" to be used or used up according to the demands of developed economies. This "en-framing" (Ge-stell) he claims occurs to the detriment of other ways of seeing and revealing that are more poetic, more artistic and seemingly less alienating. Heidegger was principally talking about large scale industrial and military technologies; the hydroelectric plant on the Rhine, a radar station. Agamben however - in an admittedly more Marxian vein - recognises that it is not only productive and military technologies that can have this alienating effect but communicative ones too. Thus we should understand that capitalism (or whatever other name we might want to give to the process dominating world history today) not only was directed to the expropriation of productive activity, but was also and above all directed to the alienation of language itself, of the communicative nature of human beings (Agamben 1996 pg96). 

 To put this in Heidegger's terms we could say that modern communicative technologies enframe day to day human experience as standing-reserve to be accumulated, circulated and converted into revenue via the media, social or otherwise. Just as I am forced to sell my labour in order to live, similarly I am ever more required to feed data into the 'Great Memory' so as to secure even a semblance of identity, and as such my experience of reality is increasingly mediated through the photo lens and the screen. The end result of this for both thinkers is much the same. For Heidegger the illusion that technology gives to us of the world means that no-where does man today any longer encounter himself (Heidegger 1993 pg332). And for Agamben developing the argument from the essay in 1996 to the one on identity without the person thirteen years later, it is this mysterious experience of "the Face" beyond any identity that we might appropriate, which is closed off to us. Putting it in characteristically hyperbolic terms; "the face, truth, and exposition are today the objects of a global civil war, whose battlefield is social life in its entirety, whose storm troopers are the media, whose victims are all the peoples of the earth" (Agamben 1996 pg95). What justifies this broad and dark proclamation? 

3) One should not take these reflections as a call for some kind of reductive return to "real life" and real community. Nor am I suggesting we should be taking a "moral stand" against the alienation of social life in the hope that would be sufficient to break the spell. I am after all also a user of social media and like most people feel the itchy pull of the smart phone in my pocket. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt. So if there is to be a way out of this it cannot be backwards to an idyllic former life but only forward to a new use for technology and a new experience of community. But what might going beyond the split between the biopolitical body and the multiplicity of illusory masks be like? And what is this mysterious figure of the face which Agamben believes lurks behind every representation?

I don't want to embark on a detailed exposition of what I think may be at stake in the idea of the face as it appears regularly in Agamben's work, not least as I don't feel entirely qualified to do so. However what does seem clear is that what Agamben calls the face is an experience of another person as a singularity beyond all particular characteristics and qualities (being tall, being black, being gay, etc), beyond that is all forms of representation. That is not to say however that these qualities are simply ignored as in liberal "difference blindness". As such the face is not something that transcends the visage: it is the exposition of the visage in all its nudity, it is a victory over character - it is word (Agamben 1996 pg97). And later in the essay of 2009 the face is that simple figure of the human being that we must search for as a way out of both the world of the biometric facies and the online world of infinitely appropriable masks (Agamben 2009 pg54). In another iteration Colby Dickinson in a recent collection of essays on Agamben's work links the face to a process of self-citation (another good description of life on Facebook) that can give life to the fractured human self and which can provide the much sought-after sense of 'transcendence-in-immanence' that religions have subsequently distorted and monopolized (Dickinson and Kotsko 2015 pg82). This self-citation would not however be the sort of citation we perform online; building our profiles up from status updates, quotes and images borrowed from the news media and long dead authorities. That form of citation is little more than an extreme form of representation where I alienate myself into borrowed images, glib phrases, and descriptions of my day to day life. A citation that "heals the fracture" between the biopolitical body and the potentiality I am as a "speaking being" can thus only be a form of direct presentation which as Dickinson's quote above suggests bares no little relation to notions of mystical communion.

For our purposes then what an encounter with the face appears to be (as Dicksinson and Kotsko have also noted) is something akin to the idea of face in the work of Emmanuel Levinas where it constitutes the supreme call to ethics from the exposure of the Other. We might also think of the experience of love where what is loved is not this or that set of qualities or characteristics (which are of course acknowledged but also acknowledged as changeable within the life of a person) but rather the singular individual beyond any representation. So the answer to the often asked question "why do you love me?" can only be "because you are loveable!" None of this however really seems to help us get an understanding of the political implications of this experience of the face. To try and bring things back to something like an idea of political community I want to briefly draw attention to one other of Agamben's recent essays that does address the political implications of this "mystical communion" of singularities in a more direct way.

Let us first note that when talking about practical resistance to the control of appearances we are first and foremost talking about the State and media apparatus that is today more than ever founded upon such control. In Leviathan and Behemoth (Agamben 2015), Agamben's inventive analysis of the frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, he once again emphasises this constitutive split between bodily biopolitical life, and the life of the people which can only be represented by the State. In Hobbes' well know political ontology the multitude of disunited individuals in the state of nature mutually agree to give up their rights to the sovereign so that "he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence" (Hobbes, 1996 pg114). What Agamben observes in the frontispiece is that the city which the figure of Leviathan looms over is completely devoid of inhabitants except for a few guards outside the castle and two figures outside the church on the right hand side which are identified as plague doctors (I'm less than convinced on this point). The people however have been transferred into the body of Leviathan which we can see as the crowd of heads all facing up towards the face of the giant figure.

The crucial movement we are encouraged to see here is not the one from warring individuals to body-politic under the sovereign (as the traditional reading goes) but rather one that goes from a disunited multitude (in the state of nature) to a dissolved multitude (in the body of the Leviathan). The body of the people it seems cannot itself subsist outside of its dissolved representation in the State. Or as Agamben puts it: "the people - the body political - exists only instantaneously at the point in which it appoints 'one Man, or assembly of men, to beare their person' (Hobbes 1996 pg120).; but this point coincides with its vanishing into a 'dissolved multitude'. The body political is thus an impossible concept, which lives only in the tension between the multitude and the populus-rex: it is always already in the act of dissolving itself in the constitution of the sovereign; the latter, on the other hand, is only an 'Artificiall person (Hobbes 1996 pg111), whose unity is the effect of an optical contraption or a mask (Agamben 2015 pg35).

So on the one hand we have the body of the people which does not exists aside from its fictive representation by the sovereign, and on the other hand we have the actually existing bodies of the individuals who make up the multitude of citizens which are absent from the city aside from the guards and doctors signifying their reduction to mere biological existence, security and health. It should be clear now that the arguments Agamben is making here differ from those on the person and the face only by a matter of scale. We should thus equate the mask of the sovereign with our fictive online identities, and the guards and doctors which haunt the city with our experience of depoliticised corporeal life in modern democracies. The authentic figure of politics that encompasses both the disalienated individual and the absent body politic goes by the name of "face".

This is obviously something of a cursory description of what is a more complex exposition on the supposedly eschatological aspects to Hobbes' political philosophy, but nevertheless we should now have a glimpse of what Agamben believes is at stake in this striving towards a pure 'presentation' of the face beyond all representation. If the logic behind this split in human subjectivity is not just a recent phenomena but rather the hidden core of the political history of the West (as he claims) then any struggle against the forces of representation is ultimately a struggle against the State with all its media apparatus in tow. Or to put it in the somewhat mystical language it seems hard to avoid: the attempt to generalise the experience of love - that pure experience of singularity - to a whole community necessarily puts the representational logic of the State at risk. The risk is that the people may discover their own body as a community founded not by a gathering together of some particular traits (being English, being white, being Christian, etc) but by the simple gathering together of "whatever singularity". This is what Agamben has termed 'The Coming Community' and it is from his text of that name that he issues a warning on the potential danger of such a gathering: "Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principle enemy of the State. Wherever singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear" (Agamben 1993 pg87).

Despite the dangers and the still somewhat mystical nature of these claims, modern life testifies to the necessity of re-thinking community beyond our structures of representation. Whether it is Tiananmen or Tahrir, Zuccotti park or Trafalgar Square, this is the open in which human beings can take hold of their appearance as being-manifest, it is as such the only possible city.

Agamben,Giorgio - 1993 - The Coming Community (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota)
Agamben,Giorgio - 1996 - Means Without End: Notes on Politics (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota)
Agamben,Giorgio - 2009 - Nudities (Stanford University Press, Stanford)
Agamben,Giorgio - 2015 - Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh)
Dickinson,Colby & Kotsko,Adam - 2015 - Agamben's Coming Philosophy: Finding a New use for Theology (Rowman & Littlefield International, London)
Heidegger,Martin - 1993 - Basic Writings (Routledge, London)
Hobbes,Thomas - 1996 - Leviathan (Oxford University Press, Oxford)