Thursday, 26 August 2010

Prosopoeia to prosopagnosia: love and commentary’s ‘inhuman partner’.

‘I couldn't recognise my reflection as me until my 20s but I always saw CLEARLY. Nothing was a blur. But the face meant nothing, it seemed like a stranger, but I did get used to 'her' and that she was always in the mirror.’

‘At the club I saw someone strange staring at me, and I asked the steward who it was. You’ll laugh at me. I’d been looking at myself in a mirror’
Prosopagnosic patient, (cited in Martha J. Farah, Visual Agnosia, 2004)

For as his own bright image he survey'd,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade;
And o'er the fair resemblance hung unmov'd,
Nor knew, fond youth! it was himself he lov'd.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (trans. Garth, Dryden et al)

‘By means of a form of sublimation specific to art, poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner’.
(Lacan, Seminar VII)

Like Astrophil and Stella or Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the central conceit of this essay is the formal impossibility of the amorous relation and the interminable commentary that it generates. Here is a romance between two allegorical figures: Prosopoeia, the personifier, the maker and perceiver of faces and personae everywhere, and Prosopagnosia, s/he who is unable to recognise individual faces, even or especially her own. While Prosopagnosia can perceive all the elements that make up a face, indeed can recognise a shape as a generic face, the elements fail to signify a specific person or personality, instead the image perpetually poses a question, ‘who?’

This essay will be in two parts that will run side-by-side, separated by a barrier. In the first, I look at how the face, always already repeatedly photographed, is no longer primarily an object of demand, desire or recognition; it is no longer a phantasmatic screen of imaginary projection, but an ever-shifting marker of nodal points of data, an empty mediating space for the exchange of biometric and economic information. As such, I am going to suggest, the relation to one’s face becomes affected by a generalized psychic agnosia in which one's face begins to lose meaning, becoming unrecognisable, even imperceptible, in relation to the profile-images that continually displace it. In the second I return to the courtly tradition of western epideictic poetry, from the Troubadours, Dante and Petrarch, where the luminous face of the beloved Other is the highly generic inspiration which provides the impetus to forge the poetic personae that set, it is often claimed, the pattern for the emergence of the self-reflecting, self-making modern individual.

It is easy to see how the general 21stC imperative to have a face, or to make one, or to make a persona, an identity or profile is linked to a general disquiet about faces, ravaged by age and cosmetic surgery. Michael Jackson is perhaps the most symptomatic of our age. While the Classical Narcissus fell in love with a face he failed to realise was his own, Jackson’s serial attempt to construct a face he could love was apparently predicated upon an initial loathing of a face in which he recognised only his father. Common distaste for one’s passport photograph (‘that’s not me!’) that, in digital form, has become ubiquitous as a marker of personal identity throughout the (online) world of techno-bureaucracy is no doubt linked to the criminal mug shots that heralded the introduction of universal policing and surveillance from the 19thC. Supremely, Facebook provides a forum for contemporary prosopoeia, on the basis of the pure form of an empty template, for face-making. It is a machine for endless commentary and self-narrativization through which we negotiate our (self)love, online romances, filial and friendly relations, increasingly becoming our main means of self-promotion, the way we establish our market value.

Prosopagnosia is of course a figure from modern neuroscience, describing an inability to recognise faces. Martha J. Farah writes, ‘most prosopagnosics complain of an alteration in the appearance of faces. Although they have no difficulty perceiving that a face is a face (and do not generally mistake wives for hats), they often speak of seeing the parts individually and losing the whole or gestalt’ (Farah). Agnosias are important for cognitive neuroscience in determining, among other things, whether cognition is the effect of an over-arching ‘functional architecture’ or a more modular system comprised of contingent features that have arisen due to specific evolutionary problems. Prosopagnosia, suggesting as it does that faces are ‘special’ objects of cognition, implies the latter.

In its positing of a highly generic face comprised of a blazon of highly conventional features (golden hair, black eyes, ruby lips etc.), there could be said to be something prosopagnosic about the poetry of courtly love even though the praise of the beloved’s face is both the condition and the means of the production of poetic subjectivity. Further, it closely delineates love as an effect of a relation between form and perception, enhanced to a large degree by the influence of Neoplatonism that corresponds to the process whereby ‘object recognition is accomplished by repeatedly transforming the retinal imput into stimulus representations with increasingly greater abstraction’; the process that transforms the raw ‘stuff’ of perception into the pattern of ‘things’, thereby producing the template necessary for face recognition.

This essay returns to the courtly tradition of Dante and Petrarch to look again at the literary process of amorous prosoproduction in the light of these distinctions not in order to speculate on the neural pathology of love, but to excavate the architecture of a psychic (narcissistic) prosopagnosia of amorous relations that owes its origins to that tradition. The essay thereby explores the contrast between this tradition and contemporary amorous commentary where the face and its multiple profiles take on a different function in the context of an unconscious that has become increasingly modular.

Abstract for On the Love of Commentary (in Love)