What’s a Face? Why Dismantle It?

Norman Mailer once said that at a certain age, we all have the face we deserve. The face doesn’t lie. The face is universal. We wear a face, it doesn’t wear us. The distinction is crucial.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the face in A Thousand Plateaus, entitled, Year Zero: Faciality, we find a very subtle attack on Levinas’ “face of the other” in so far as they take up the question of the face and its ontological genesis and role constituting subjects.

The basic point of the essay is that the face is imposed on us universally, and we are overcode with faces, constantly over-determining our identities. We typically think that particular identities are able to coexist within an environment where dominant identities determine the field. D & G point out that particular subjects can escape the universality of the face, which they see as tied to a very specific western European historical experience – i.e. to the face is Christ.

But the essay is really a critique of the “ethical turn” in philosophy, particularly the ethics of Levinas’ “face of the other,” which posits that commitment to the other exceeds our capacity to adequately respond; a position that results in a fragile and sentimentalized other – one in which Judith Butler and Simon Critchley operationalize for their respective projects.

For Levinas, ethics is not about life, but about something more than life. A secular ethics ultimately that, unlike Kierkegaard, is not based on God, but on a third party that intervenes in the “I – other” exchange prior to its material occurrence and results in a traumatic leveling of the subject and serves as an almost pacifying role.

Ultimately, despite his ambiguous relationship to God, Levinas argues that the encounter with the face of the other results in the Biblical injunction, “thou shalt not kill me.”

Levinas’ face is a universal, and it arises pre-discursively (prior to language) and importantly, it is a material face. Deleuze and Guattari situate the ontological origin of the face with the white man, and more specifically, with Christ. From this premise they seek to construct the way in which “facialization” (the imposition onto the subject to assume their/a face). Facialization was spread everywhere by white Europeans, and their critique offers a way to understand racism.

As they point out:

“Racism operates by the determination of degrees of deviance to the White man’s face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given place under given conditions, in a ghetto, or sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity” (Pg. 178 A Thousand Plateaus).

Year Zero: Faciality

What’s in a Face?

The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems.

Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects – facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing – as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”

Since the face is not a transcendent, wholly, or absolutely other for D & G (as far as I can tell) – it seems that the face, the process of faciality moves far way from Levinas’ third other – as that wholly Other that intervenes between the two material others in the world. D & G’s face is historically invented, albeit invoking an unknown, unexplored landscape. “All landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face,” and they “develop a face to come or already past” (Pg. 178 A Thousand Plateaus).

The face is a part of a surface system, and the face is produced as an overcoding. But a face relies on an abstract machine. At every moment, the abstract machine rejects nonconformity – it has a yes/no algorithm.

Dismantling the Face

Where I think D & G wind up short is in their dismantling of the face. What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus) – but it is here that problems arise.

What about shame? Sure, a face is something that you wear as a mask and is the result of years of internalized oppression – think of the radical destroying of historically oppressed identities under Malcom X and the proto-Islamic early twentieth century movements. Were those movements ever able to remove the face? They may have removed the face without shame, but my question is the face is something that only the schizo can eradicate?

As D & G navigate the waters of faciality, they opt for the deployment of a body that moves in aborescent speeds and rhizomatic patterns to resist the abstract machines that over-code the process of becoming facialized.

Dismantling the face means to “no longer look into the eyes, but to swim through them, to close your eyes, to close your own eyes, and make your body a beam of light moving at ever-increasing speed?” (Pg. 187 A Thousand Plateaus).


2 thoughts on “What’s a Face? Why Dismantle It?

  1. Interesting article, but I feel you’ve made a slight misreading.

    DG do not seek the ‘eradication’ of the face, but rather seek the ‘dissolution’ of the parameters that determine imperial faciality – let me be clear, ‘dissolution’ does not mean ‘eradication’ or ‘abolishment’ – the face is the only grounding coordinate of facial expressivity, to attempt to de-facialize oneself would result in a schizoid experience that they in fact warn us of: ‘Dismantling the face is no mean affair. Madness is a definite danger’. They later state that in respect of the white wall of the signifier, the black hole of subjectivity, and the facial machine that…’we are born into them, and it is there we must stand battle.’ It is an erroneous reading to suggest that they advocate for the eradication of facial relativity in absolute terms.

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