The Face is the anatomical region at the front of the head, spanning from hairline to chin on the y-axis and from ear [See EAR] to ear on the x-axis.  The face contains the Eyes, Ears, Mouth and Nose and is therefore subject to all five types of sensory experience (namely, Sight, Hearing, Taste [See TASTE], Smell, and Touch [See TOUCH]) and, as such, is the channel through which the individual perceives [See PERCEPTION] the majority of Events and Information [See INFORMATION].  While The Face is a defining figure [See FIGURE] in discourses [See DISCOURSE] surrounding Perception and Subjectivity, this text [See TEXT] will focus on The Face primarily with regard to the Other.  So to say, it will recount some of the dominant philosophical perspectives [See PERSPECTIVE] on the indexical [See INDEX] qualities of the Face and will then explore the technical and philosophical appropriations of The Face in language [See LANGUAGE], literature, and film [See FILM], insofar as they are informed by the assumptions of the discursive framework [See FRAME] at large.
In his Physiognomics, Aristotle purports (not surprisingly) that the composition of the Face – the sizes, shapes, and spatial [See SPACE] relations of the features and cranium – may be read systematically so as to determine the “mental [See MIND] character” of the observed subject (1250).  The rhetorical [See RHETORIC] and logical [See LOGIC] foundations of his argument refer heavily to the phenotypic and behavioral attributes of animals:
“The face, when fleshy, indicates laziness, as in cattle: if gaunt, assiduity, and if bony, cowardice, on the analogy of asses and deer.  A small face marks a small soul, as in the cat and the ape; a large face means lethargy, as in asses and cattle.  So the face must be neither large nor little: an intermediate size is therefore best.” (1246)
Thus, Aristotle defines Physiognomy as a rigorous Natural Science, a system [See SYSTEM] of Peircian Thirdness which denotes the Face as the concrete manifestation of the subject’s underlying identity.  The Face is thereby constituted as the Secondness to the “mental character” that is understood as an a priori, transcendental Firstness.
This almost hierarchical structuring of the person effectively asserts that, if the face results from the preexisting essential qualities of the person, then the essential person necessarily exists a propos of the body.  The Face is thereby symbolically constructed as a container, a surface, and therefore necessarily a point of division.  As such, a distinction is marked between the Face and the essential properties of a person, therein denoted as a heterogeneous entity.  Aristotle’s model de-emphasizes that heterogeneity by purporting an unimpeded logical and biological continuity between essence and appearance – one which is echoed by Saint Jerome (“The face is the mirror [See MIRROR] of the mind [See MIND], and the eyes without speaking [See SPEECH] confess the secrets of the heart”(Letter 54)), Cicero (“The face is the mirror of the soul . . . for this is the only part of the body [See BODY] capable of displaying as many expressions [See EXPRESSION] as there are emotions” (Synnot, 614)) and Shakespeare’s Claudius, who asks of Leaertes: “Was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting [See PAINTING] of a sorrow, / A face without a heart,” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7, line 3250).
Thus, with Aristotle, The Face enters the symbolic register and therein attains the characteristic duality of being both indicative and substitutive.  Hence, two dominant strains of the reigning facial discourse are rooted in the assumptions of the above exposition: As we will see, The Face is regarded, on the one hand, in faith that the signals [See SIGN] perceived in it stem directly from an unalterable and eternal truth, and on the other hand, with skepticism a propos of the degree of removal inherent to all signs.  The symbolic appropriation of The Face therefore portends both the “misreading” and deliberate manipulation of the latter.
And so, The Face enters the realm of discursive sociality as a trope subject to semiotic [See SEMIOTIC] principles and becomes naturally affixed to discourses of Truth, Goodness, and Concealment.  It furthermore becomes common to discourses engaging notions of assumption and the efficacy of semiotic systematization.
In China, the Face functions as a socio-linguistic trope regarding dignity and standing of the Ego in society.  “Lien” denotes both the anatomical face and high moral standing.  Says Hsien Chin Hu in his essay on the subject, “It is the respect of the group for the man of good moral reputation . . . a decent human being.  It represents the confidence of society in the integrity of the ego’s moral character, the loss of which makes it impossible for him to function within the community”.  “Mien-tzu”, meanwhile, is both the literal face and “prestige that has been accumulated by means of personal effort or clever maneuvering.  For this kind of recognition ego is dependent at all times on his external environment”.  This fine degree of systematization indicates the relationship of the linguistic “Face” to the Chinese Ego as one of equivalency rather than metaphor [See METAPHOR] or analysis.  In that understanding of unmediated [See MEDIATE], referential equivalency, this linguistic [See LINGUISTIC] appropriation of “face” recalls somewhat the Aristotelian model, which assumes a direct correlation between Face and character.  The two systems are also comparable in their mutual treatment of character as a formative [See FORM] element, resulting in the formation of a “fitting” front or surface [See SURFACE] as the natural consequence.
That said, there is a crucial distinction between Aristotle’s anatomical face and the notions of “Lien” and “Mien-tzu” in that the former addresses the literal Face and regards the “mental character” as if that too were an empirically observable phenomenon. The Chinese appropriation of Face, conversely, functions entirely on the socio-symbolic register, disregarding biological reality [See REAL] in favor of a Social environment ascribed an equally eternal natural order.
Turning to the Oxford English Dictionary, though the anatomical face is the word’s primary association, other definitions speak to the assumptions and connotative qualities discussed earlier.  A number of linguistic appropriations deal with The Face in terms of its surface qualities.  As such, the Face becomes defined as “The part of a thing presented to view”; “the upper or outer surface of a thing [See THING]”; “Outward form [See FORM], appearance”; “Visible state or condition”.  In that sense, the English word “Face” is applied to pages of a book, the moon or sun (insofar as it is considered in relation to the observer), the fronts of buildings, the marked part of clocks, and so forth.
Continuing in that vein, many additional definitions and appropriations of the linguistic face treat it as not only superficial, but dissociated in that superficiality from its supposed premises.  The word “appearance” is featured prominently in these definitions, as in, “External appearance, look; semblance of (anything)”.  The notion of semblance is crucial in its notable divergence from presumed equivalence.  Appearance, not essence, is the requisite condition for semblance.  The appropriation of outward appearance as the point of reference in the dynamic of semblance is therefore a reversal of the Aristotelian model in which appearance is secondary to an a priori firstness.  The presumed rigor and fixedness of the Aristotelian discourse are challenged by English Language phrases such as: “making a face”, “putting on one’s face (with make-up)”, “putting on a brave/happy face”, being “two-faced”, and “bold-faced lie”; Such phrases delineate the surface as distinct from the content, and furthermore, as malleable.
Here we are referred to more skeptical treatments of The Face.  Boetheus, for instance, says in the Consolation of Philosophy that, “Your own nature doesn’t make you beautiful [See BEAUTY].  It is due to the weak eyesight of the people who see you”.  This assertion places the source of misunderstanding in the observing Other rather than the face itself.  Boetheus reads the anatomical face as incidental and rejects totally the validity of physiognomic intuition and identifies that set of assumptions as grounds for error.  That is not to say, however, that all critiques of physiognomic logic do so on the same grounds.  As evident in its linguistic appropriations, The Face is also discursively associated with transformation, deception, and performance.  By “putting on a brave face”, one theoretically becomes brave.  Likewise, changing one’s features with make-up effects a change in that person’s sense of self.  Thus, the physiognomic logic is reversed here, as the Face is purported in these examples to be capable of enacting inward transformation.  This Face, rather than following directly from an inward condition, is attributed formative powers of its own.
The Face can furthermore be altered in order to produce impressions on Others.  The Face is a constant trope in Macbeth, for instance, insofar as it engages thematically with deception; hence, Lady Macbeth instructs her husband as follows: “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters.  To beguile the time, / Look like the time [See TIME]; bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (Act I, Scene 5, line 417).  Such a passage speaks not only to the use of the Face in the poetic language of Deception, but also to its performative capacity, in which the Face projects a contrived identity by mobilizing the assumptions of the spectator-Other.  Apparent in the use of masks [See MASK], for instance, a role is adopted and enacted by adopting the facial signs appropriate to it (i.e. A happy character will wear a smiling mask).

Philosophers of the Cinema attempt to locate such theatrical [See THEATRE] appropriations of the Face within the new medium, most often in the Close-Up shot, which is thought to enact an intensification of the effects of the Face by emulating presence [See PRESENCE] in a hyperbolic format (supporting what is, in Doane’s words, “the cinema’s aspiration to be a vehicle of presence”).  This is accomplished, in the first place, by changing the dynamics of spectatorship; so to say, by making the face larger, its effects are multiplied.  Eisenstein believes of the close-up generally, that “The laws of cinematographic perspective [See PERSPECTIVE] are such that a cockroach filmed in close-up appears on the screen one-hundred times more formidable than one hundred elephants in medium-long shot” (112).  Doane applies the same logic to the facial close-up, claiming: “The face is that bodily part not accessible to the subject’s own gaze [See GAZE] (or accessible only as a virtual image in a mirror), and simultaneously it is the site [See SITE] that is seen and read by the other-hence its over-representation as the instance of subjectivity. The scale of the close-up transforms the face into an instance of the gigantic, the monstrous: it overwhelms. . . In the close-up, it is truly bigger than life” (93-94).  Finally, Deleuze, whose three-part composition of the shot defines the facial close-up as an “Affection [See AFFECT] image”.  Furthermore, he wholly conflates the Face and the filmic close-up, stating: The close-up transforms whatever it films into a quasi-tangible thing, producing an intense phenomenological experience of presence, and yet, simultaneously, that deeply experienced entity becomes a sign, a text, a surface that demands to be read. This is, inside or outside of the cinema, the inevitable operation of the face as well” (94).  As such, the cinema’s championing of the facial close-up can be read in its attempt to magnify physical presence, as parallel to the function of the human face which, in its representative (or misrepresentative) capacity, is also concerned in all related discourses with the perpetuation of presence; be it a fitting container or a mask.

Stephanie Kahn


Aristotle.  The Complete Works of Aristotle.  Ed. Jonathan Barnes.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Cinema 1: The Movement Image.  Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Doane, Mary Ann.  “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema”.  Differences.  14.3 (2003): 89-111.

Hu, Hsien Chin.  “The Chinese Concepts of Face”.  American Anthropologist.  46.1.1 (1944): 45-64.

Jerome, Saint.  Selected Letters. Trans. F. A. Wright.  Caimbridge, MA: Harvard     University Press, 1975.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans.  Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York, London: Penguin Group, 1977.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, Ed. 2009.

Peirce, Charles Sanders.  Philosophical Writings of Peirce.  New York: Dover, 1955.

Synnot, Anthony.  “Truth and Goodness, Mirrors and Masks: Part 1 – A Sociology of  Beauty and the Face”.  The British Journal of Sociology.  40.4 (1989): 607-636.