What we see in the face is not . . . its nothingness, but rather a certain mode of registering the world.
--Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, from Forms of Being
WITT [Jim Caveziel]: Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of; all faces are the same man.
--from The Thin Red Line
For a long while now, my friend Michael Moore and I have been having our arguments about humanism. You might say that, when trying to grapple with where we might stand now--here, in this troubled late century--with regard to humanism, in all its forms [early and late], and human [and other] rights, that it has become increasingly difficult to defend the status of the human as a kind of measure by which the adjudication of the joys and sufferings [and being-ness] of the world could ever be adequately attended to. I, myself, want to embrace Michael's more hopeful viewpoints, as he has expressed them in both of his essays, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages] and "Notes Toward a Miloszan Humanism" [Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2]--that friendship, with oneself and others, "might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice," and further, that a "new humanism would be a valuable position, even a source of joy, because of its purposes: to provide resources for personal liberation and the confrontation of contemporary cultural and political reality with ancient alternatives" [and this new, even poetic humanism--following Milosz's project--"would prove beneficial because it would neither project an ideal humanity nor offer an historicist project for transforming humans into a new humanity"]. But then, I also hear Karl's insistent arguments, as he recently expressed them in his SEMA conference paper, that
If the human establishes itself as human by dominating animals, then, in another instance of the key insight of any number of postmodern philosophies, there is no essential human identity; there is only a fundamental conflict. The human is both a structural position and an ongoing event that seeks to produce both the human and the animal by elevating one and denigrating the other. It might be expected that this conflict could end once humans resurrected into an afterlife populated only by God, angels—or demons—and by other humans, where humans will have assumed their perfected bodies, freed from all flux. By passing through death, humans finally realize their distinction from nonhuman earthly life, and, in an afterlife lacking any lifeforms that can be dominated, they should be freed from the necessity of conflict. This peaceful end might be understood as the point when the human at long last comes into its own. But if the meat-eating by which the human struggles to be human contaminates the human body, if the pork we eat resurrects with us, then that struggle will be marked on the human body for eternity. Rather than finally arriving at an identity, the human will permanently display a corporeal reminder of its systemic antagonism; rather than transcending flux, flux would be fixed in the human forever. The truth of human nature—its contingency, its inessential relationality—will be irrepressible.Is it possible, finally, to talk of human or any other rights without recourse to the idea of something like a stable [or readily identifiable] human being, and more troubling still, without recourse to a religious, or metaphysical, viewpoint? This was the problem Simone Weil wrestled with when writing her "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations," where she wanted to conceptualize a way of translating "God" into language that would be meaningful to the religious, agnostic, and atheistic, and where she wrote,
There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties. Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, there is a longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. . . . Those minds whose attention and love are turned towards that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men. [Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles, pp. 201, 202]I am reminded here of Levinas's thinking on la petite bonte [the "little act of goodness"]--the idea that goodness cannot be accomplished all at once in the world when everyone is all of a sudden and unreservedly for-the-Other-before-themselves [this could never, will never happen], but rather, resides in those small singular moments when "the human interrupts the pure obstinacy of beings and its wars." This goodness, which is little and passes from one person to another, is ultimately "fragile before the power of evil," and yet is the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be "a regime, an organized system, a social institution" [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 207, 218, 217]. But, what calls upon this goodness? What hails it, causes it to turn and address itself to a plea [or even, to turn in anticipation of a plea not yet expressed]? Is it the face, and if so, what kind of face, or faciality? For Levinas, of course it was [while we must also remember that the face, for Levinas, was both the human face and also an "expression" that overflowed all images that might seek to contain it--in this sense, it is not bound within the human form but also has a primary "residence" or "dwelling" there].
I recall a powerful scene in Terence Malick's film about the Pacific theater in World War II, The Thin Red Line, when, after a successful yet deadly battle to secure an enemy gun turret on a hilltop, the camera moves to a closeup of just the face of a dead Japanese soldier whose body [including most of his head] is submerged under the gravel and dirt and who, in voiceover, addresses American Private Witt [played by Jim Caveziel]: "Are you righteous, kind? . . . Are you loved by all? Know that I was too. Do you imagine your suffering will be less because you loved goodness, truth?" This is a scene of the human face as the locus of recognition of self-sameness, of companionability in suffering, and also in joy. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in their book Forms of Being, devote one entire chapter to this film, and especially to Caveziel's character Witt, and to Malick's "nearly obsessive filming of Witt's face," whose look [incredibly open and ontologically passive throughout the film] "indiscriminately register's the world's appearances" and refuses to impose a moral or aesthetic identity upon that world [p. 163]. Further, the
precondition of his wholly receptive gaze is a subject divested of subjectivity. The astonishing unprotectedness of Witt's look designates a subject without claims on the world, who owns nothing (not even the life he so freely gives at the end). . . . The attentive way in which Witt's look simply lets the world be also replicates the world as an accretion to a consciousness, and a look, ceaselessly receptive to the world. The forms it absorbs constitute the identity of the absorbing consciousness. Lessness is the condition of allness. [p. 165]Witt believes in "another world" that the men he fights with cannot see, and he also believes in souls--especially in his own soul and its capacity to, in Bersani's and Dutoit's formulation, welcome all appearances. Witt's look, then, "is not the sign of a decision about the world; it acknowledges an inescapable connectedness, the fact that I am only in the world. I move within my repeated, disseminated being," and "the surfaces of all things 'quiver' from the presence within them of all the other things to which they relate" [p. 169]. And perhaps putting an important spin on Weil's idea of "another reality" that is supposedly outside of human mentality and understanding, there is, "as Witt insists, another world, but it is in this world seen as a vast reservoir correspondences, of surfaces always ready to 'open' in order to acknowledge, to welcome, to receive that which is at once their outer and their immanent being" [p. 169]. There is another world, but it is in within this one and also within our [human] capacity to see and to hold.
Bersani and Dutoit's ruminations upon Witt's face and its receptivity [through an open looking] provides, I think, an important ethical counter-narrative [or, companionable narrative?] to Levinas's thinking upon the face of the Other as that to which we are held hostage and in which there shines forth an "exteriority that is not reducible . . . to the interiority of memory" and which "breaks through the envelopings" of all material forms, calling into question the subject's "joyous possession of the world" [Totality and Infinity, pp. 51, 76]. But if the human, as Karl has argued so beautifully elsewhere, has no essential position, does it also possess no essential face, and without faces, without looking through faces and the receptivity of faces, how do we construct and enact our ethical projects of welcoming, of hospitality, of wonder and admiratio and finally, love? Do we labor under a tyranny of what Deleuze and Guattari called "faciality," in which, "[a]lthough the head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face, the face is produced in humanity. But it is produced by a necessity that does not apply to human beings ‘in general’; there is even something absolutely inhuman about the face" ["Year Zero: Faciality," A Thousand Plateaus, p. 189]? They write further,
Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability, delimit a field that neutralizes in advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations. Similarly, the form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance that select the sensed or mental reality and make it conform in advance to a dominant reality. The face itself is redundancy. [p. 186]For Deleuze and Guttari, "if human beings have a destiny, it is . . . to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations, to become imperceptible, to become clandestine, not by returning to animality, nor even by returning to the head, but by quite spiritual and special becomings-animal, by strange true becomings" [p. 189]. Quite spiritual and strange? Here I see an almost perverse-yet-real knotting together of Weil, Levinas, Bersani and Dutoit, and Deleuze and Guattari regarding the [hopeful] possibilities of Karl's "human" as "ongoing project" and "structural position," and even, as a means of a type of transcendence of itself [an undoing only possible within the being that must undo itself while, perhaps, always recalling itself as something special, something human?] that could bring justice into more full being, although I really hesitate at the loss of faces, of faciality, of subjects and objects, and even, of myself. Is what Bersani and Dutoit describe as our, at once, "fascinating and crippling expressiveness" what we have to discard? I wonder if one possible way out of this impasse, if I want to be, not just Bersani and Dutoit's "light hidden behind psychic darkness," but also expressive and bodily-erotic human form, might be found in Thomas Carlson's new book, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human [Chicago, 2008], in which the form of the human as creator [which is a type of love] keeps the human [and world] neither closed icon nor transcendent meaning, but infinitely open and always in play. I don't know, because I have only just ordered the book, so we shall see. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with everyone here the paper that Michael Moore presented at the SEMA conference, "Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages," because it contributes to what I think is perhaps one of the most important ethical questions of our time ["what is a human face and what of goodness does it do in this world?"], and also because it spurred all of my reflections here today, and thank you to Michael for allowing us to post it here:
Meditations on the Face in the Middle Ages
Michael Edward Moore
The human face appears to us as fraught with significance, whether menacing or vulnerable, whether regarding us, or turned away from us [Emmanuel Levinas, Liberté et commandement. Paris, 1994, p.43]. We see every face as unique, each scar and wrinkle recording the history of a person. The twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose writings provide a starting point for this paper, observed the ethical and political significance of the human face, suggesting that the face is the ultimate location of human meaning. In the Middle Ages, the face was usually connected to the theme of humankind’s likeness to God, and this was true of Levinas as well. The twelfth-century reformer Gerhoh of Reichersberg (†1169), in a Psalm commentary, insisted that “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces, mirrored in our spirits, a true mirror when it is pure.”
What connection was made between the human face and the ethical or spiritual meaning of humanity? Walter Ullmann noted that with the rise of medieval humanism, painting and sculpture began to move from the “abstract typified image” to the “portrayal of a human personality in all its substantial individuality and realistic concreteness” [Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages. Harmondsworth, 1968, p.166].
The shift seems incontrovertible. In assessing the meaning of the human face in the Middle Ages, we must also examine the problem of humankind as the image of God: we can take as one landmark the Tympanum of Chartres Cathedral, where in the phrase of Chenu, humanity was “portrayed as Christ’s double.” I hope to explain, in what follows, the significance of this resemblance.
For Emmanuel Levinas, to encounter the face of the other is like stumbling upon an unexpected crevasse in the surface of the world. The face of the other person, in its vulnerability, implicates us and calls us to take responsibility, to “face up” to the other person and his demand for justice [Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Pittsburgh, 1987, pp. 106-107]. “That responsibility is…brought about by the face of the other person” as it breaks into the phenomenal world: it serves as “an order issued to me not to abandon the other (the Word of God)” [Emmanuel Levinas, Outside the Subject. Stanford, 1994, p.44]. This command is the “order par excellence,” as he suggested in Alterity and Transcendence. The face of the other leaves an imprint on us, an image. This is the “word of God,” according to Levinas, albeit the Word of an “un-known God who does not take on a body…” [Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence. New York, 1999, p.35]. As he said: “[God]… is not the model of which the face would be an image. To be in the image of God does not mean to be an icon of God, but to find oneself in his trace” [Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, 1996, p.64]. The face of the other is the trace of an absent God.
One ally discovered by Levinas was the Swiss visionary, Max Picard. Picard’s prophetic writings seemed to Levinas like messages conveying a sense of snow-covered mountains. Max Picard wrote a book on the human face which Levinas admired [Max Picard, The Human Face. New York, 1930]. As Levinas explains, Picard often referred to the biblical concept of man made in the image of God, suggesting that “the face of man is the proof of the existence of God.” In the human face “the trace of God is manifested, and the light of revelation inundates the universe” [Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names. Stanford, 1996, p.95]. And here Levinas felt a kinship with the Swiss thinker.
The concept of humanity’s image and likeness to God is complex: God is distant from us. Despite the doctrine of our likeness to God, according to patristic and medieval theologies, we must approach, with a sense of awe, a God that is unknown. Jewish and Christian tradition accepted the doctrine that man was made in the “Image of God,” the theme of Genesis 1:26-27.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’A kind of cloud surrounds these basic texts. As Lohfink remarks: “it is not easy to say what this means, for from ancient times there have been extended discussions of this subject among theologians” [Norbert Lohfink, Theology of the Pentateuch. Minneapolis, 1994, p.3]. Did it mean, first of all, that the physical human form resembled the form of God? This suggestion was generally rejected in Jewish and Christian tradition.
27 So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them. [NRSV]
In a glossary of words having to do with the body, compiled by the Carolingian scholar Walahfrid Strabo, we have the following discussion of the face: Facies. “The face is so called from “in the likeness of,” or effigie: [the face] is where resides the whole figure (tota figura) of a man, and [our] recognition of every person.” This confident assertion of human likeness to God was indeed captured in certain works of Carolingian and Romanesque art.
Christian theologians normally took the image and likeness in a different direction. For Paul the concept of an “image of God” could only refer to Christ. The “image” to the extent that it resided in humanity, was only a shadow, a sign that one day we might become like Christ. The celestial man, or Christ, is the true image of God, while the terrestrial man is not. Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocian theologians followed in this vein. There was a divine impress, but it was obscured by the influence of sin: this caused “the defacing of that image … which had been formed in us when we were created.” [Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Domini, Chapter V. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 44:1181]. The image of God referred only to humanity as a whole. There is one human nature, created before Adam, and Christ is the archetype of this likeness.
This was the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochene theological tradition as well. “If some king, after having constructed a very great city…ordered…that his image…be set up…as proof of his founding of the city, the image of the king who built the city would necessarily be venerated…” [Trans. Frederick G. McLeod, The Image of God in the Antiochene Tradition. Washington, 1999, p.65]. By honoring humanity, you therefore honor God the Creator. Christ is the one who fulfills the role of image of God. Such a concept lies behind the many medieval sculptures and portraits of Christ in majesty.
Along this route, the theologians moved from the face to the interior in their search for the likeness of man to God. In the view of Tertullian, “the glory of God is on the face of Christ because this is the face of the invisible God turned toward the world. The face… is the… manifestation of an unknowable God.” Tertullian’s view is quite similar to that of Emmanuel Levinas.
How could the human face refer to the divine face, which after all is invisible, and expressly forbidden to us? This is emphasized in crucial texts from the Book of Exodus. When Moses was to receive the Law on the mountain, God first reminded him: “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). To prevent Moses from seeing his face, God placed him in “a cleft of the rock” and covered him with his hand until he had gone by (Ex 33:22). When Moses saw the Burning Bush, he hid his face, afraid to look at God (Ex 3:6).
The sense of a distant, unknown God was shared by Christians. In the Psalms, a troubled people questioned God in these terms: “How long will you turn your face? (Ps 13:2). Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Psalm 27 said that the divine face had served as an exemplar for creating the soul as the image of God. The Psalm reads: “‘Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Thomas held that such expressions signaled the coming of the incarnate Word. Thus Christ appeared as an opening in which the formerly hidden God could in some sense be seen.
According to St. Augustine, the image of God was impressed on the mind, rather than on the face. The Carolingian theologian Alcuin took this direction as well. According to Alcuin, man is in the image of God, and this is a unique condition: Homo solus ad imaginem – only man was made according to the image. And this similitude is in interiore.
According to Emmanuel Levinas, the face of the Other is the location or the occasion of ethics, and is an image of God, but only in the form of a subtle trace. We could say it is like an old inscription that has been scratched away and covered with leaves. Nevertheless, to quote Gerhoh of Reichersberg once again: “the Lord impressed his Face like a royal seal on our faces.”
Despite the fact that the traces of God are weatherworn and faint, to the point of mystery, one lesson conveyed by the medieval tradition of the face was that the image of God must be honored in our fellow human beings.