Giorgio Agamben: Becoming faceless

Returning to our loss of face in pandemic times …

A country without a face

Giorgio Agamben, Quodlibet

The face and the mask

… although she [nature] made all other animate creatures face the earth for grazing,she made the human alone upright and roused him to look on the sky,as if on his family and former home; and she shaped the appearance of his face so as to mold in it the character hidden within.

Cicero, On the laws

All living beings are in the open/in openness; they show themselves and communicate to each other, but only humans have a face, only they make their appearance and their communication with others their own fundamental experience, only humans makes of the face the place of their own truth.

What the face exposes and reveals is not something that can be said in words, formulated in this or that meaningful proposition. In their own face, humans unconsciously put themselves into play. It is in the face, rather than in the word, that they express and reveal themselves. And what the face expresses is not only the state of being/mind of an individual; it is above all their openness, their exposure and their communicating themselves to others.

This is why the face is the place of politics. If there is no animal politics, this is only because animals, which are already always in the open, do not make 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. On the other hand, humans want to recognise themselves and to be recognised, they want to appropriate their own image, seeking in it their own truth. In this way they transform the open into a world, into the field of an incessant political dialectic.

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 humans have first of all their openness to communicate to each other, that is, a pure communicability, the face is the very condition of politics, that which is the basis of everything that humans say and exchange. The face is in this sense the true city of human beings, the political element par excellence. It is by looking each other in the face that we recognise each other and are passionate about each other, perceiving similarity and diversity, distance and proximity.

A country that decides to give up its own face, to cover the faces of its citizens with masks everywhere is, then, a country that has erased all political dimensions from itself. In this empty space, subjected at every moment to a control without limits, individuals now move in isolation from each other, having lost the immediate and sensitive foundation of their community and being able only to exchange messages directed to a faceless name; to a name without a face any longer.

October 8, 2020

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