The visage and the mask. A text by Giorgio Agamben.
Quello che si chiama volto non può esistere in nessun animale
se non nell’uomo, ed esprime il carattere.
What is called visage can exist in no animal except the human, and it expresses the character.
All living beings are in the open, they appear and communicate with each other, but only the human has a visage, only the human makes of its appearing and of its communicating with other humans its own fundamental experience, only the human makes of its visage the place of its own truth.
What the visage exposes and reveals is not something that can be said in words, formulated in this or that significant proposition. In its own visage the human puts itself unconsciously into play, it is in the visage, before that in the word, that it expresses and reveals itself. And that which the visage expresses is not only the “stato d’animo” (state of mind/soul) of an individual, it is before all its opening, its exposing and communicating itself to other humans.
This is why the visage is the place of the political. If there is no animal politics, it is only because animals, who are always already in the open, don’t make of their exposition a problem, they dwell simply in it without caring about it. Hence they are not interested in mirrors, in images as images. The human, on the contrary, wants to recognize itself and be recognized, it wants to appropriate its own image, it searches in it its own truth. In this way it transforms the open into a world, into a field of an incessant political dialectics.
If humans had to communicate each other always and only information, only this or that thing, there would never be a politics proper, but only an exchange of messages. But because humans are, above all, to communicate each other their opening, that is, a pure communicability, the visage is the very condition of politics, that on which is founded all that humans say to each other and exchange. In this sense the visage is the true city of humans, the political element par excellance. It is in facing each other that humans recognize themselves and enthuse each other, perceive resemblance and difference, distance and proximity.
A country that decides to renounce its own visage, to cover with masks in every place the visages of its own citizens, is thus a country that has erased itself of all political dimension. In this empty space, subjected at every moment to a control without limits, are now individuals moving about in isolation from each other, who have lost the immediate and sensible foundation of their community and who can only exchange messages directed at a name that no longer has a visage. At a name that no longer has a visage.
Translation by Ingrid Hoelzl and Gabriele de Seta of Un paese senza volto, a text by Giorgio Agamben, originally published on the site Quodlibet on 8 October 2020.
Image caption: Faceless Gaia – Detail of the Gigantomachy frieze of the Pergamon Altar: Gaia pleads with Athena to spare her sons. Pergamonaltar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin, public domain.
In this short text, Agamben refers to his rendering of Martin Heidegger’s notion of “the Open” which the latter developed in 1929/30. In his book The Open. Man and Animal he takes up Heidegger’s hierarchy between animals and humans, while bringing it in contrast with other approaches, for instance, Jakob von Uexkuell’s notion of “Umwelt”, different for each and every being. For Agamben, though, humanization is the very process of differentiation from animality, which is a symbolic process rather than evolutionary. With post WW2 biopolitics and population control he sees an animalization of humanity in the sense that the human can no longer oppose itself to the opacity of the animal, since both are now subjected to the governmentality of “bare life”.