The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Facial Misrecognition

A guest post by Wan-Chuan Kao 

Oliver Sacks, who brought to popular awareness many cognitive conditions that are simultaneously debilitating and fascinating—such as visual agnosia, of which face blindness is one type—observes that “our faces bear the stamp of our experiences and our character”; and “it is with our faces that we face the world, from the moment of birth to the moment of death.”1

Sacks’ figuration of the face as an impressionable bodily surface, ready to be “stamped” with experience and character (both figured as legible signs, as signifying texts), evokes Aristotelian faculty psychology, in which sensory perceptions get imprinted in the mind and are further processed. The face is an organic archive. But as much as the face records, signifies, and identifies, it can also hide and mislead. Or, the face, as a mask, offers possibilities of different identities and meanings, alternate futurities. It is a platform, a springboard, a stage. 

The “facial turn” in critical theory has brought together semiotics, cognitive studies, and affect studies. It is about embodiment as much as it is about disembodiment. Reading faces seems analogous to reading texts. I suspect that reading faces is the original iteration of “surface reading.”2 The text is an interface. Yet reading faces, like reading texts, is not without its dangers. To read faces is to participate in the politics of recognition. Ours is the age of biometric technology. From Facebook to Google, from police surveillance to employment video interviews, artificial intelligence records and analyzes our faces.

A visualization of 2,000 of the identities included in the MS Celeb database from Microsoft. Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License, via Megapixels. (Cade Metz “Facial Recognition Tech Is Growing Stronger, Thanks to Your Face,” New York Times, July 13, 2019)

As Joy Buolamwini points out, facial recognition technology is shaped by and reinforces the priorities and prejudices of its designers: cameras that cannot discern facial features of Asians and algorithms that identify dark-skinned faces as those of gorillas. Buolamwini terms the bias built into facial recognition technology the “coded gaze.”3 Buolamwini further argues that the built-in error of face recognition technology is compounded when attempting to recognize the faces of women of color.

From Gender Shades. Credit: Joy Buolamwini. Creative Commons License: CC BY 4.0.

The flaws of facial recognition technology suggest that the act of reading faces is not simply about what is being read and interpreted; rather, what’s equally significant is “who” the reader is. Reading faces is more than surface reading. It is also, to borrow Holly Crocker’s formulation, reading in the flesh. Crocker argues that “To read in the flesh is to admit that surfaces have depth.”4 A face may be a surface, but it is also flesh and depth. In the act of reading, two faces meet: the text and the reader. I would further argue that reading faces, in addition to surface reading and reading in the flesh, sometimes entails reading the queerthe inhuman, and the racialized. 

Take, for instance, the fourteenth-century Middle English romance The King of Tars. In the romance, the Sultan of Damascus desires to wed the Christian princess of Tars, but her father, the King of Tars, initially rejects the marriage proposal. Out of rage and humiliation, the Sultan wages war against Tars. To prevent further violence, the princess volunteers to marry the Sultan. But while she feigns conversion to Islam in public, she clings to her Christian faith in her heart. The Sultan, unaware of her ruse, welcomes and impregnates herAfter some time, the princess gives birth to a monstrous, formless lump of flesh: “For lim [limb] no hadde it non, / Bot as a rond of flesche yschore [shorn] / In chaumber it lay hem bifore / Withouten blod and bon. / For sorwe the levedi [lady] wald [would] dye, / For it hadde noither nose no eye / Bot lay ded as the ston” (576-82).5 Horrified, the Sultan blames the princess’s false conversion, while she attributes the monstrosity to his faith. They agree to pray to their respective gods to restore the child’s humanity. The Sultan’s prayers to Muslim deities—Islam was misconstrued as polytheistic by the medieval West—are ineffectual. The princess then demands that a Christian priest, released from prison by the Sultan, baptize the lump. When the priest baptizes the lump, it transforms into a fair-skinned baby boy. Moved by the sight of the miracle, the Sultan converts to Christianity, and his skin turns from black to white. 

The King of Tars, The National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS. 19.2.1 (The Auchinleck Manuscript), fol. 7r. By permission.

In the version of the romance found the Auchinleck Manuscript, the medieval illuminators depict the episode of the monstrous lump. In a split-frame image (above) that opens the text on the folio, the left panel depicts the dark-skinned Sultan praying to an animal idol, while the right panel shows him and the princess joined in prayer before a cross. When viewed up close, a white baby’s face and body, emerging out of formlessness, are faintly discernible beneath the crucifix. 

Fetal positions in the womb from a gynecological text, British Library, MS Sloane 249, fol. 197. © British Library Board. By permission.

Medieval medical knowledge was rooted heavily in Aristotelian philosophy of form and matter. In human reproduction, the father provides form (life), while the mother, matter (body). The fetus is frequently depicted as a miniature adult while in the womb (see above). The wholeness of body is a crucial marker of the fetus’s claim to humanity. Note too the primacy of the human face to the category of the human and the privileged sense of sight. The head, on which the face is located, is the seat of human faculties that facilitate perception and cognition.

Left: Diagram of the human brain with five faculties, Cambridge MS Gg.1.1Qualiter caput hominis situatur, fol. 490v. By permission. Right: The Eye, from a medical miscellany, British Library, MS Sloane 981, fol. 68. © British Library Board. By permission.

But if the face signifies the human, it could also be a marker of the nonhuman and the subhuman. Deformity, misplacement, or the absence of the human face signals monstrosity. Medieval monstrous beings include the blemmyes, legendary creatures with faces on their chest. And monsters were believed to dwell at the edge of the known world, as represented in the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi.

A Blemmye (with eyes and mouth in its chest), Folger STC 17251, Itinerarium, The voyages and travailes of Sir John Maundeville knight, c.1582.

The monstrous body is also linked to the demonic and the idolatrous body. In medieval visual tradition, idols and devils are sometimes rendered formless without figuration. For instance, on British Library, MS Harley 1527, fol. 77r, three spots where idols are supposed to be are deliberately left in an almost blank-like rendering. We see only outlines of possible bodies, not too dissimilar from the vague baby materializing and gaining formal definition in the Auchinleck illumination.

Formless blank idols, details from the Bible moralisée, British Library, MS Harley 1527, fol. 77r. © British Library Board. By permission.

In addition to the denial of form, offensive images of devils in medieval manuscripts are sometimes rubbed out by viewers, as part of the tactile expression of affective piety. In the Mcclesfield Psalter, for example, the devil’s face has been violently rubbed out. And in The King of Tars, after the Muslim idols failed to transform the lump of flesh, the Sultan angrily smashes them to pieces: “brac [break] hem [them] arm and croun [head]” (654).

Devil with its face rubbed out. Detail from Fitzwilliam Museum, The Mcclesfield Psalter, MS 1-2005, fol. 140r. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. By permission.

The possibility of giving birth to a lump of flesh is not without precedent in medieval medical knowledge. The fourteenth-century French physician Guy de Chauliac theorized the existence of mola matricis (mole of the uterus), which he defined as “a gobat [lump] of flesche gendred in the moder.”6 Albertus Magnus, in De animalibus, speculated on a type of mola indicative of a false pregnancy, when the mother carries then discharges a frustum carnis [lump of flesh].7 In the reception history of The King Tars, critics have continued to read the lump of flesh as a literal monstrous body, as a hybrid matter that results from miscegenation, and as a sign of the superiority of the white, Christian body. However, I would like to suggest that the lump of flesh itself is not necessarily illegible or indecipherable. Rather, the lump has been misrecognized; in other words, the lump has been denied accurate, proper recognition by its reader-viewer. And key to the problem of recognition is the role of the face and the politics of recognition.

Without a face, how does facial recognition work? “It is by our faces that we can be recognized as individuals,” Sacks contends.8 In The King of Tars, the lump of flesh does not seem to have a face at all. In fact, it gains a face only after it is baptized with holy water: “It hadde liif and lim and fas” (770). If, as Katie L. Walter suggests, the lump is “not literally a lump but rather something that cannot be made sense of,” 9 then it is not the nature of the lump that is the problem but the capacity of its parents to see it as human, and thereby possessive of a face, in the first place. The Sultan, that is, has a form of face blindness. His inability could also be understood as a faulty “coded gaze” that misidentifies a face as a face. An alternate title to the poem might be: “The Man Who Mistook His Child for a Stony Lump.” By repeating the simile that the lump’s “flesche lay stille as ston” three times (582, 636, and 659), the poem self-consciously collapses the difference between lump and stone. The baby is not so much the “lump-child,” as commentators are fond of calling it, as the “lump-stone.” The Middle English gobet means “a bit of flesh,” “a lump, a mass,” or “a block stone.” Crucially, the Sultan’s face blindness, his refusal of recognition, has the effect of denying his child the status of a political being.

Fire rocks (lapides igniferi), Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 384/604, fol. 174r. By permission.

Medieval thinkers, especially scholastics, denied stones a soul yet still described them as if possessing vitality and agency. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes that while medieval Christianity denied stone animacy, it nonetheless developed the idea of the “living stone” (lapides vivi), especially in analogies with figurative and literal churches.10 Lapidaries assert that stones are endowed with an animating force, a notion that The Book of John Mandeville picks up in its depiction of diamonds as gendered male and female that actively reproduce.11

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1991, Gelatin silver print, 19 x 13 in. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W, New York. By permission.

We see a modern interpretation of the living stone trope in David Wojnarowciz’s Untitled (Face in Dirt), in which the face is inextricable from the rocky landscape. In characterizing the lump as “stille as stone” (636), The King of Tars in fact unsettles categorical thinking; the lump is as still—or as animate, so the logic suggests—as a stone. The Sultan’s failure to see his child as animate is reflective of the blindness inherent in his cultural logic, which has led him (and the princess) to attribute incorrectly any perceived sign of monstrosity to religious difference and therefore to racial difference. This is a key metaphysical claim of the poem, I contend.

I would like to read the flesh-stone-lump alongside a photograph by the Chicana lesbian photographer Laura Aguilar. In Grounded #111, Aguilar uses her own body as both subject and object.

Laura Aguilar, Grounded #111, 2006-2007, Inkjet print, 17 x 20 in. © Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016. By permission.

At first glance, the flesh mirrors the boulder in the background. In their analysis of the image, Dana Luciano and Mel Y. Chen observe that the figure, by virtue of its orientation toward the boulder and away from the camera, obscures its race, gender, and age.12 The figure is also, I note, faceless and limbless, like the lump of flesh in The King of Tars. However, what appears faceless (the back) in fact marks the place of the face. Or, it marks the orientation of the face toward the boulder. The body’s turning away from the gaze of the viewer performs Aguilar’s refusal of the logic of the gaze demanding that a body be recognizable and classifiable. In so doing, her flesh lies as still as stone, and she “enters the very nonhuman fold…effectively displacing the centrality of the human itself.”13

The miracle in The King of Tars hinges not so much on the lump’s literal facelessness as on a collective inability (or refusal) to recognize its face as a face prior to baptism. The lump of flesh, like Aguilar’s queer inhuman body, resists the demand for recognition because the face is always there, indifferent to the blind algorithm.

Wan-Chuan Kao is an Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University and is a 2020-21 Folger Fellow. His monograph, White Before Whiteness in the Late Middle Ages (forthcoming from Manchester University Press), examines late-medieval representations of whiteness across bodily and non-somatic figurations. 

  1. Oliver Sacks, “Face-Blind,”New Yorker, 23 August, 2010.
  2. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations108.1 (2009): 1–21.
  3. Joy Buolamwini, “When the Robot Doesn’t See Dark Skin,” New York Times, 21 June, 2018.
  4. Holly Crocker, “In the Flesh,” postmedieval 4.4 (2013): 396 [391-400]
  5. The King of Tars, ed. John H. Chandler (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2015)
  6. Guy de Chauliac, The Cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac, ed. Margaret S. Ogden, EETS o.s. 265 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 128.
  7. Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, ed. and trans. Kenneth F. Kitchell and Irven Michael Resnick, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1:846.
  8. See note #1.
  9. Katie L. Walter, “The Form of the Formless: Medieval Taxonomies of Skin, Flesh, and the Human,” in Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture, ed. Katie L. Walter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 129 [119-39].
  10. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 227.
  11. The Book of John Mandeville, ed. and trans. Iain Macleod Higgins (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011), 99.
  12. Dana Luciano and Mel Y. Chen, “Introduction: Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” GLQ 21.203 (2015): 182-207. Luciano and Chen misidentified the photo as Grounded #114 in their essay.
  13. Luciano and Chen, 184.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)