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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

the crowned mask

“A preserved index counts some forty masks for comedy alone. And if one picks out the better masks in painting, ivory or terracotta preserved or actor statuettes and takes into account the exaggeration inherent to comedy, it will seem that the recognition that not seldom moved the performance of the mask maker to keep step with the writer is justified. Accordingly one understands that the greatest scholars of Greece and Rome, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Varro, held the masks to be worthy objects for their writing, and yet more, since the masks were completely essential to the success of a theatrical performance, that the greatest tragedian in Rome, Aesop, never put on the mask, without having studied its fine points industriously, and that another celebrated comedian, Ofilius Hilarus, by the meal after one of his most applauded representation, crowned the mask.” (The Physiognomik der Griechen, Richard Foerster, 14)

LI has criticized the methodological confusions of Paul Ekman, but we cannot say that those confusions are arbitrary, particular to Ekman, unmotivated, or even that they operate on the conscious level. Is it even fair to mix together a remark by the way – about the coming ‘disappearance’ of the people Ekman decided to study – with their appearance, as informant/curiosa, to be incorporated in a very sixties program, one that produces two registers (emotional content/facial expression) and matches them up under the sign of nature? Yet I don’t think that this remark – however unsourced and automatic – should be left out of an account of Ekman’s work, because that work, after all, revolves around universals that happen to be encoded, by a happy and uninspected historical coincidence, in distinct English pathic words, and the disappearance of people, of languages, of customs, before the universals of civilization is familiar – it is, in a sense, the great imperialist story.

In fact, I want show that the wholesale change in the emotional customs of Europe is circumstantially bound the coming of the market based industrial system, and that means showing how Europe disappeared a certain popular culture, certain tongues, certain time wasting attitudes – the savage within – at the same time that the savage without was disappearing. But it does not mean that the universal appears, suddenly, among a dominant class that has a preformed idea of how society is to change. Rather, there is a flow back and forth between ‘elite’ or erudite ideas and popular or vulgar superstitions. Honour Penury (see my post Wednesday) was not completely wrong about Isaac Newton, whose reintroduction of ‘occult forces’ – attraction at a distance – was quite a shock to the Cartesians. It visibly looked like a step backwards. Nor was the Cartesian physio-psychology that different from a folk psychology in which the body was imagined as a kind of kingdom, inhabited by different animal spirits.

It is harder to see this when we automatically attach labels like “pseudo-science” to epistemically organized topics like the reading of faces. Our contemporary physiognomy has formed an alliance with the contemporary trend towards a kind of maxi-Darwinism to form a scientific discourse that can endlessly design confirmatory experiments (show forty Inuit students pictures of Bollywood starlets making the Duchenne smile – rank their responses – etc.), while the older physiognomy got along with a metaphysics of signatures, but the output has a striking similarity. This is how Abbe Pernetty introduces Philosophical letters on Physiognomy (1746):
“I have to tell you from the very beginning that I renounce everything that is called Divination; that I have never understood how people who reason could believe in those vague predictions, founded on facial traits and the hand; on those supposedly necessary relations between those who are born and what is happening in the heavens at their birth; in those conformities with animals, established by an exterior resemblance of the figure: your mind and mine are agreed on the vanity of these presages (prestiges), which make for true misery in those who are afflicted with them, and dupes of those whom they flatter. I fly from the marvelous in everything that I have to say to you; and if sometimes I appear to be leading you there, this will not be because I am detaching myself from true nature, but because I am unveiling before your eyes some of its productions that are unknown to you.

I don’t know if magic is merely not that kind of discovery which one regards as supernatural until one knows its principle.” (5)

Having tried to show how the modern and nature are associated with each other in libertine discourse, it is time, perhaps, to go outward a step socially to those signatures of the passions the reading of which was as much a part of the politician’s equipment as the seducer’s.

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