The Missing Face of Writing

How to Cite

Brahnam, S. (2004). Type/Face: The Missing Face of Writing. M/C Journal, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2315
Vol. 7 No. 1 (2004): Text
Published 2004-01-01

For Socrates the act of communication is grounded in the world of original forms, archetypes, or abstract ideas. These ideas exist independently of the human mind and reflect a reality that is truer than the world of everyday experience. The task of the speaker is to draw the listener closer to the truth of these ideas, and this requires an intimate coupling of the form of speech to the character of the listener.

In Phaedrus, Socrates explains, ". . . a would-be speaker must know how many types of soul there are. The number is finite, and they account for a variety of individual characters. When these are determined one must enumerate the various types of speech, a finite number also." The types of soul must then be carefully paired with the types of speech. This theoretical knowledge by itself, however, is not sufficient. A speaker must also know when ". . . he has actually before him a specific example of a type which he has heard described, and that this is what he must say and this is how he must say it if he wants to influence his hearer in this particular way" (Plato 91-92). Thus, the aspiring speaker must sharpen his powers of observation.

Exactly how a speaker goes about discerning the various types of souls in his audience is not discussed in Phaedrus, but one assumes it is by mastering the art of face reading, or physiognomy. The science of physiognomy was of particular importance to the ancient Greeks.   Nearly all the well-known Greek writers had something to say about the subject. Pythagoras is claimed to be the first Greek to formalize it systematically as a science. Hippocrates wrote voluminously on the subject, as did Aristotle. Socrates not only recommended physiognomy to his students (Tytler) but he is also reported to have demonstrated his facility with the science at least twice: once in predicting the promotion of Alcibiades and once upon first meeting Plato, whom he immediately recognized as a man of considerable philosophical talent (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Writing is inferior to speech, Socrates tells Phaedrus, precisely because it cannot see and adapt the message to the reader. Like a painting of an object, writing is merely the image of dissociated speech. What is missing in writing-and what writing seems ever intent on reconstructing-is the human face.

Pressing Faces Behind the Typeface

Although physiognomy was banned by the Church, as it was associated with paganism and devil worship (practitioners of the science were burnt at the stake), it was revived in the Renaissance and became an obsession with the advent of the printing press.

The printing press heralds democracy. But as human rights grew, urban centers developed, and new professions and classes emerged, people were no longer able to divine their own destiny or to predict the behavior and destiny of others. It became imperative to find other more reliable means of identifying the good and the bad, the talented and the unremarkable.

Two books were considered indispensable: the Bible and Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy (Juengel). Physiognomy was the science that helped people decipher class and profession.   It became the spelling book of character, one that people diligently studied so that they could learn to read not only the marks of character in others but also the signs of talent and potential in their own faces and in the faces of their children.

Face reading was egalitarian and leveling (Juengel). The heads of state could be read and debunked in the flourishing art of caricature, and people delighted in decoding the physiognomy of the ordinary faces that crowded the pages of the popular press. The populace applauded the artists that succeeded in revealing the whole spectrum of a character-class, intentions, profession-in the masterly strokes of the pen (Wechsler).

Unfortunately, so intense was the interest in face reading that many people were forced to cover their faces when out in public (Zebrowitz). Inside the religious, medical, educational, and criminal justice institutions, authorities scanned faces to identify the virtuous and the vile. People were hanged because of the shape of their jaws ("A physiognomic auto-da-fé,") and sometimes convicted of crimes because of an unfortunate physiognomy, even before any crimes were committed (Lichtenberg. 93).

Mass Consumption of the Face

Open a magazine. What do you see? I counted over 200 faces in the September 15, 2003 issue of Newsweek, 120 faces in the September 29, 2003 issue of Forbes, 124 faces in the September 15, 2003 issue of Time, and 37 faces in the November, 2003 issue of Handgunner (I included the masked faces).

Whereas, in the 19th century, face reading was used by the religious, medical, and criminal justice authorities to identify a person's character, in the modern world face reading becomes face righting.

Early in the century, people came to be viewed less as individuals than as masses that were dynamically statistical with fluctuations of opinions and tastes that could be sampled and manipulated. It quickly became apparent to the behemoth advertising industry that was erected with the advent of mass media that product designs and packages could be collated with viewer reactions. The audience is scrutinized, labeled, and targeted.

What people are fed are fleshless images of themselves. Horkheimer and Adorno have observed that the media have reduced the individual to the stereotype. Stereotypes package people, typically in unflattering boxes. Mediated faces are used to mirror, to prime, and to manipulate the audience (Kress and van Leeuwen). On television and in print, images of canned faces proliferate.

Not all stereotypes are unsavory. Nothing recommends itself nor sells like a beautiful face, but even beautiful faces must be retouched, even recomposed from features extracted from databases of perfect facial features. So important is the image of the face that media icons routinely visit the plastic surgeon. Michael Jackson is the most extreme example of what has been derogatorily termed a "scalpel slave." Plastic surgery is not exclusive to celebrities; countless millions of ordinary Americans feel compelled to undergo various cosmetic surgeries. The 20th-century consumption of the face has ended by consuming the face.

Facing the Face Interface

Text has made a comeback in hypertext. Empowered by the hyperlink, readers have become writers as they assemble texts with the clicks of a mouse (Landow). Electronic texts are pushed as well as pulled. Businesses have learned to track and to query users, building individual profiles that are then used to assemble personalized pages and email messages. Socrates' objection that writing is unable to perceive the reader no longer holds. The virtual text is watching you.

And it is watching you with virtual eyes. There is a growing interest in developing face interfaces that are capable of perceiving and talking. The technical requirements are enormous. Face interfaces must learn to make eye contact, follow speaking faces with their eyes, mirror emotion, lip synch, and periodically nod, raise eyebrows, and tilt the head (Massaro).

Face interfaces are also learning to write faces, to map rhetorical forms to the character of their interlocutors in ways Socrates could not have imagined. Socrates did not teach his students to consider the rhetorical effects of their faces: the speaker's face was thought to be fixed, a true reflection of the inner soul. Virtual faces are not so constrained. Smart faces are being developed that are capable of rendering their own appearances from within a statistical model of the users' impressions of faces. The goal is for these virtual faces to learn to design, through their interactions with users, facial appearances that are calibrated to elicit very specific impressions and reactions in others (Brahnam).

Some people will disapprove of virtual faces. Just as the media use faces to manipulate the viewer and perpetuate facial stereotypes, smart faces run the risk of doing the same.

Some may also worry that virtual faces will be attributed more intelligence and social capacity then they actually possess. Do we really want our children growing up talking to virtual faces? Can they satisfy our need for human contact? What does it mean to converse with a virtual face? What kind of conversation is that?

For the present at least, virtual faces are more like the orators and bards of old. They merely repeat the speeches of others. Their own speech is nearly incomprehensible, and their grammatical hiccups annoyingly disrupt the suspension of disbelief. On their own, without the human in the loop, no one believes them.

Thus, the virtual face appears on the screen, silently nodding and smiling. Not yet a proper student of classical rhetoric, it is much like the virtual guide at artificial-life.com that recently greeted her visitors wearing the following placard:

Virtual Guide

A virtual guide that greeted visitors at artificial-life.com. Access date: October 2003.

Author Biography

Sheryl Brahnam