On the Government of the Faceless and the Deathless

by | 19 May 2021

It seems that in the new planetary order that is gaining form two things, apparently unrelated to each other, are destined to be completely removed: the face and death. We will endeavour to inquire if they are not somehow connected and what the meaning of their elimination is.

That the vision of one’s own face and the face of others is a decisive experience for man was already known to the ancients: ‘What is called “face”- writes Cicero – cannot exist in any animal except in man” and the Greeks defined the slave, who is not master of himself, aproposon, literally “without face”. Of course all living beings show themselves and communicate with each other, but only man makes the face the place of his recognition and his truth. Man is the animal that recognises his face in the mirror and mirrors and recognises himself in the face of the other. The face is, in this sense, both the similitas [similarity, likeness] and the similarity of the simultas [rivalry, enmity], the being together of men. A faceless man is necessarily alone.

This is why the face is the place of politics. If men had to communicate always and only information, always this or that thing, there would never be politics properly speaking, but only an exchange of messages. But since men must first communicate their openness to each other, recognise themselves in the face of another, the face is the very condition of politics, that on which is grounded everything that men say and exchange.

The face is in this sense the true city of men, the political element par excellence. It is by looking each other in the face that men recognise and are passionate about each other, perceive similarity and diversity, distance and proximity. If there is no animal politics, this is because animals, which are already always in the open, do not make of their exposure a problem. They simply dwell in it without caring about it. This is why they are not interested in mirrors, in the image as an image. Man, on the other hand, wants to recognise himself and be recognised, he wants to appropriate his own image, he seeks his own truth in it. In this way he transforms the animal environment into a world, into the field of an incessant political dialectic.

A country that decides to renounce its own face, to cover the faces of its own citizens with masks everywhere is, then, a country that has erased every political dimension from itself. In this empty space, subjected at every moment to limitless control, individuals now move in isolation from each other, they have lost the immediate and sensitive foundation of their community and can only exchange messages directed at a faceless name. And since man is a political animal, the disappearance of politics also means the removal of life: a child born who no longer sees her/his mother’s face risks being unable to conceive of human feelings.

No less important than the relationship with the face for men is the relationship with the dead. Man, the animal that recognises itself in its own face, is also the only animal that celebrates the cult of the dead. It is not surprising, then, that even the dead have a face and that the erasing of the face goes hand in hand with the removal of death. In Rome, the dead person participates in the world of the living through her/his imago [waxen death mask], the image of the face molded and painted in wax that each family kept in the atrium of their home. The free man is, that is, defined both by his participation in the political life of the city and by his ius imaginum, the inalienable right to guard the face of his ancestors and to exhibit it publicly in the festivals of the community. “After the burial and the funeral rites – writes Polybius – the imago of the dead was placed in a wooden reliquary in the most visible point of the house and this image is a wax face made as an exact likeness both in shape and color.” These images were not only the subject of a private memory, but were the tangible sign of the alliance and solidarity between the living and the dead, between past and present, which was an integral part of the life of the city. This is why they played such an important part in public life, so much so that it has been possible to affirm that the right to images of the dead is the laboratory in which the right of the living is founded. This is so much so that those who committed a serious public crime lost the right to an image. And legend has it that when Romulus founds Rome, he had a pit dug – said mundus, “world” – in which he himself and each of his companions throw a handful of earth, the earth from which they come. This pit was opened three times a year and it was said that in those days the mani [souls], the dead, entered the city and took part in the existence of the living. The world is nothing but the threshold through which the living and the dead, the past and the present, communicate.

We understand then why a world without faces can only be a world without deaths. If the living lose their face, the dead become only numbers, who, in so far as they had been reduced to their pure biological life, must die alone and without funerals. And if the face is the place where, before any discourse, we communicate with our fellow men, then even the living, deprived of their relationship with the face, are irreparably alone, however much they try to communicate with digital apparatuses.

The planetary project that governments try to impose is, therefore, radically unpolitical. It proposes instead to eliminate every genuinely political element from human existence, to replace it with a governmentality based only on algorithmic control. Facial cancellation, removal of the dead and social distancing are the essential devices of this governmentality, which, according to the agreed upon declarations of the powerful, must be maintained even when the sanitary terror is eased. But a faceless society, a society without a past and without physical contact, is a society of ghosts and as such doomed to a more or less rapid ruin.

Republished from Autonomies with kind permission. Il volto e la morte – text published in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung“, April 30th, 2021 and in Quodlibet

6 Comments

  1. I am sorry to say, this argument is nonsensical. First, restricting any analysis of “politics” to Europe, and narrower yet, to the Greco-Roman polis, is bound to cast the rest of the world as lacking politics. This is obviously absurd, as East Asia, India, and the Near East all have sophisticated political traditions. Agamben here is in danger of repeating the “oriental despotism” fallacy. Second, even within the polis, if one wants to engage in this type of generalities at all, the voice, rethoric, is arguably more important than the face. But these are glib simplifications in any case. Third, death and the image and the name of death have been central to the social experience of the pandemic, the direct opposite of what Agamben claims.

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  2. Conveniently forgets that women were likely veiled in public in Ancient Greece.

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  3. “The face is exposed, vulnerable, as if inviting an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what prohibits us from killing…[T]he relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.” — Emmanuel Levinas.

    When I wear a mask, I don’t somehow remove my face or turn myself into a slave. Rather, I mark the fact that the Other takes priority over the Self. I say, even to a perfect stranger: your face is, for me, the site of an infinite obligation. I say this because I know that my breath can kill you, even without my knowledge.

    Wearing a mask over my mouth and nose is not then a neutralization of the face. It’s my way of dedicating myself to your face, and indeed to the possibility of a world in which the face has infinite meaning (or indeed is the very paradigm of meaningfulness). Far from betokening governmental or biopolitical control (faceless bureaucracy), my self-effacement is the very sign of a society that’s responsive to the face in the fullest (here Levinasian) sense. If my mask partially negates my face, I nevertheless then understand that this negation is also and at the same time an elevation of the face to a higher level.

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    • Exactly! Agamben conveniently avoids Levinas just to propagate this absurd reading of the relation between the face and politics.

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  4. The conclusion that is drawn is somehow unconnected with the theoretical build up. I perceived that the theory would be used to arrive at conclusions on topics such as enforced disappearances where the face of the victim and that of indirect victims are often erased from socio-political and legal arenas by repressive regimes. But to use that theoretical premise to talk of the pandemic seems somewhat disjointed to me although I am in general a fan of Agamben’s writing.

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  5. Stunned by this .Disbelief was the first reaction .But then when I look at the moments that I have been witness to, this looks more plausible. The general tendency to of the one with power [ it doesn’t need to be Govt always] to ‘assault’ the countenance of the subject has been common practice throughout human society .It’s just that this exercise comes in different disguises that overtly or covertly aid projections of power. How many societies went to great lengths to hide the face of female of our species.Modesty is an imposed virtue. The common habit of control imposed on the junior ranks in many spheres of sub cultures, from corporate setting to universities with thinly veiled emphasis on making their expressions appear insignificant.Only MAN uses the face to intimidate in full measure, whereas the other species resort to different parts of anatomies .Since it’s the FACE that matters primarily in this common habit of imposing control ,its the face that is made to be the direct victim . Makes sense -most of this, in hindsight.

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