March 15, 2009
Maus II provided an interesting interpretation of the role and function of the human face in (ab)normal social interaction(s). Because Speigelman choose to tell Maus II as both a retelling of the Holocaust and as a telling of his own difficulty with the emotional residue of his family’s Holocaust experience the reader is privy to the function of the face as both a historical and personal marker. I draw a distinction between these two ideas – historical and personal – because each seems to offer sufficiently different understanding of the role and function of the human face to warrant an exclusive description of its potential significance.
The human face is one of those everyday experiences that is so thoroughly a part of our lives that it often loses meaning. It is normal to see the face on the street, on the television, in a magazine or across the way; it is normal to see the face speaking, it is normal – at times – to see another person’s face motionless. It, however, is decidedly un-normal to not see another person’s face. We watch other’s faces and we casually interpret its variations: laughter, sadness, make-up, Botox. But, we are always granted access to the face no matter how perverse it may be. This access, to the face, seems at a first glance to be of the utmost importance. Access to the face denotes that person’s willingness to be identified by other individuals living in a community.
Access to the face grants the viewer access, we seem to believe, to the individual. This is not to say that the individual does not exists if he or she lacks a face, only that the viewer is not given access to said individual. This may not seem problematic, but I would offer that the hood offers an illuminating example of the assumed role and function of the face. When an individual wears a hood they claim ‘non-participation.’ The hood does not grant the viewer access to the individual and thus does not carry the expectation of social participation. When terrorist – of any sort, Islamic-fundamentalists, KKK, ELF – wear a hood/ mask they are not allowing themselves to be identified by all other members of the community within which they are participants. This assumed, ghostlike, position allows the terrorist to be all things at all times: s/he is at once a person and a non-person – the Other in Lacan-ian terms. This Other may then act with impunity upon the community infinitely representing a threat to the stability and predictability of persons lives within that community. At the same time, the terror suspect is almost always given a hood to wear while incarcerated or, as photos from Guantanamo Bay have shown, tortured. This is hardly an effort on the part of the captors to comfort the prisoner, rather, if the prisoner is a non-entity, is unidentifiable as a person, unapproachable, as Levinas may have framed the argument, than that entity is more easily disregarded: more easily tortured. The hood allows the torturer to see the prisoner as a tangible Other that then can acted upon, that, to some extent can be controlled.
When Speigelman depicts the face as a caricature he permits the reader to glance, not at the page, but back into their own mind. The individual reader is able to project whatever image they wish upon either the Jews or the Germans the survivors and the dead. This projection then invests the reader in the story in a way in which they otherwise have not . If the reader is granted permission to impose h/er own experience onto the story than the history that it depicts at once becomes more real and more distant. The mask is able to mediate the experience of the story as a historical event for the reader. Similarly, as the story ends, and Speigelman offers the reader their first ‘true’ face – his father as prisoner – and thus forces the reader to glance back to the immediacy of the moment. As Levinas may have described the moment, the reader is now forced to face the obvious reality of the moment.
Thus, the use of the hood or mask to distort the face serves a multifaceted function. It simultaneously permits the individual and the viewer to distance themselves from the moment, but it also allows the hidden face to exists more subtly and more profoundly in the mind of the viewer. Subsequently, then, the historical and personal experience of the face are manipulated. Historically the face becomes a personal projection; personally the face, or lack thereof, becomes a threat. In the final analysis, the face, and our access to it, at least partially mediates our experience of one another, society, our the history of each.