٠ The Ethics of Visuality – How a Face Looks ٠

el11-047© Elad Lassry, Weld, 2011, foil on silver gelatin print, aluminum frame, 10 x 8.5 x 1.5 inches

el10-007© Elad Lassry, Untitled (Poles), 2010, foil on c-print, painted frame, 10 x 8 x 1.5 inches

EL08_075© Elad Lassry, Felicia, 2008, c-print, painted frame, 14 x 11 x 1.5 inches

EL08_073© Elad Lassry, Michael, 2008, c-print, walnut frame, 14 x 11 x 1.5 inches

“The face of the Other is always there, as near as sweat to skin but also further than the moon. Although this tension between near and far, between visible and invisible, is fundamental to the appearance of the face, this duality is at times hard to uphold. It tends to clash with basic habits typical of our behaviour in the realm of the visual such as, for instance, our common tendency to internalize the television screen as representing the field of vision and, more generally, with entrenched intuitions concerning the relationship between surface and depth, appearance and essence, what is revealed and concealed from the eye. Levinas does not make our task any easier in this regard. On the one hand, he chooses the term ‘face,’ which calls forth a clear visual context, and on the other, he takes pains to emphasize repeatedly that, for him, the face does not belong to the visual. If what concerns Levinas is indeed a non-visual dimension of the Other’s presence, why does he choose to identify this presence with the face?
(…)
But what exactly is implied by this? Are the visual and the ethical sides of the face mutually exclusive? Is the face that concerns Levinas not the visible face? Levinas’ own formulations do not always help: ‘Not to notice the color of his eyes!’ Is Levinas suggesting that we turn our back on the visual? Is it necessary, or indeed at all possible, to suspend seeing in order to turn to the face? This is not Levinas’ point here, as his next sentence makes clear: ‘The relation with the face can surely be dominated by perception, but what is specifically the face is what cannot be reduced to that.’ What matters here then, is not so much the actual need to shut ourselves off to the input of vision, but rather how can we, in our visual life, resist the gaze’s tendency to objectify the Other? How, within the realm of the gaze, can we evade the regime of the same?
(…)
The visual dimension of the world is not merely an outer layer to be discarded but a fundamental aspect of human existence. To be in the world means to live at the intersection of seeing and been seen, to be part of a visual space whose characteristics are intimately connected to who we are (our identity, corporeality, sexuality at the personal, social, political, cultural levels). In this sense, the face too is always part of the visual space: there it breathes and, ultimately, only there can it be revealed.
(…)

MP-WEARG-00019-A-300© Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait at 17 Years Old, c-type print, 115.5 x 92 cm, 2003

MP-WEARG-00777-B-300© Gillian Wearing, Me as Sander, framed bromide print, 157.3 x 107×3.2 cm, 2012

The face is never in front of us, like a fruit bowl on the table or a sign on top of the building. But neither is it hidden, as a letter in a shoebox, nor is there something specific that conceals it, like a hand blocking a camera lens. So how does the face appear? The entry of the face into the Levinasian philosophical picture is, as noted, methodologically significant. Beyond this, however, the modality of ‘entering a picture’ is essential to the face, and we may even say that the face is itself a kind of entry into a picture.

The face, then, is not something that is simply there, positioned, placed, or given as such, but is always part of a becoming, involved in its own revelation. The face is part of a movement that unravels the mesh of the visual, but is not itself entwined in the visual web. The face erupts into the visible and leaves clear traces, but is never found in the visual field as the object of vision. The face comes to the visual from a beyond. While showing itself, breaking into the frame of the visual, the face never coalesces into a visual object. The face’s form of appearance is not the form of a ‘something’ and, as such, it also eludes the network of visual concepts.
(…)
The face of the Other is not an object. It is never found there, but is present in another way: it comes toward us. ‘The epiphany of a face is a visitation.’ Thus, although we are now sitting across each other at the table I cannot, according to Levinas, say where your face is located. The face is not something that I can frame with my camera or whose location I can point to because it is not located in any kind of ‘there,’ say, around the nose or in the front of the head that is leaning against the wall. Indeed, the very expression ‘the face’s location’ or ‘is located’ is, in a deep sense, inappropriate here. The face is not located anywhere, at least not in the ordinary sense of things filling up a given space with their mass. Rather, the face is present as a kind of movement, the crossing of a border.

In Hebrew, as Levinas well knew, the root of the ancient biblical word panim (face) is a verb (panah) indicating, as I explain below, the movement – sometimes the action – of facing something, of addressing, of turning toward (peniyya). The unique presence of the face consists in such a turning. The face for Levinas is a one-directional vector traversing the space between you and I, the concretization of an original event that precedes any specific meaning that may appear and take form in the domain of sense. The face is the original presence of the other person whose being is a turning to the I, a facing that is (ontologically) prior to any particular content of the speech or action of that person. The face of the Other attests to the existence of such a turning toward me, commanding me, calling upon me for a response and thus making me responsible, regardless of what has been said or of what I understand from what has transpired between us. (…)”

2009CA1139_history_of_photography_blue_eyes© Thomas Ruff, Blue Eyes M.V./B.E; Blue Eyes M.B./B.E.; Blue Eyes L.C./B.E.; Blue Eyes C.F./B.E., 1991, C-type prints

tumblr_m5kro5wSF71qizk91o1_1280© Thomas Ruff, Selected Portraits, 1984-1985, Four color coupler prints

excerpts from The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze, by Hagi Kenaan

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