Emmylou Rahtz is a PhD student in Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London. She holds degrees in English Literature (BA, MA) and in Psychology (BSc).
Faces are complex and, as Stephen Pattison argues, are ‘not just private property but form a place of negotiation about self, identity, responsibility and belonging’ (p.49). This book tackles head on the ambiguities of faces, examining their often underestimated role in social interactions and in the Christian relationship with God. Moreover, the author offers a potent example of the way sciences can inform theology, and the way the arts and humanities can in turn provide lessons for science: the book has already influenced my own research on faces.
Pattison approaches face from three angles in subsequent sections of the book: cultural and scientific facts about faces; the relationship between face and shame; and a longer account of the face of God and the relevance of faces in Christianity. Beginning with an accurate and compelling overview from developmental psychology and neuroscience, he comments on the particular communicative powers of human faces, exemplified by their flatness and bareness, and their white irises. He discusses the way emotions are displayed facially and the fact that blind children facially exhibit the same major emotions as sighted children, illustrating that these are not expressions learnt through observation. Humans instinctively judge people by their faces (p.41), often undeterred by errors in judgement. In particular, there is a tendency to equate beauty with goodness, and to falsely ascribe malign intentions to those with facial injuries and other visible differences.
Importantly, Pattison does not limit his discussion to faces which are visibly different. He also considers people who have difficulty expressing emotions facially; those who cannot see faces at all; and those who struggle to ‘read’ faces, through conditions such as autism or neurological ‘face blindness’ (p.72). His arguments are relevant not only to a minority, but could include any one of us. Diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, for instance, can inhibit the facial expression of emotion, leaving patients and their families feeling isolated or invisible. Emotions are reciprocal and ‘perhaps we cannot fully understand ourselves, let alone others, if we do not enter into the facial communication of emotions’ (p.39).
Drawing largely on psychoanalytic texts, Pattison posits that shame is rooted in the facial experiences of infants communicating with their parents and experiencing love or rejection (chapter 3). There is little doubt that the physical signs of shame – blushing, averted gaze, lowered head, slumped shoulders, hidden face – tend to be expressed facially. They are also experienced facially, as recent research by Lauri Nummennma and colleagues (2013) has shown. Participants across different cultures and languages were asked to demonstrate where different emotions were experienced, and shame is one of a handful of emotions notably focussed in the face and especially the cheeks.
Bodily topography of emotions associated with words. The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colours) or decreased (cool colours) when feeling each emotion. (P < 0.05 FDR corrected; t > 1.94). The colour-bar indicates the t-statistic range (Nummenmaa et al. 2013).
Pattison uses ‘loss of face’ as a central metaphor for the way shame is visually and facially mediated. As an illustration, people who are considered to be ‘disfigured’ can experience reactions – stares from strangers, or comments from children – which produce and reinforce a sense of shame at their own appearance. Shame is explicitly relational:
‘Shame is one’s own vicarious experience of the other’s scorn. The self-in-the-eyes-of-the-other is the focus of awareness’ (Lewis p.15).
Shame sometimes seems too narrow a framework within which to discuss faces, and in medical fields the focus might be broader: psychological distress, for example. However, that approach would give broader, less nuanced answers.
Pattison then turns to theology (chapter 5), proposing that, since mediaeval times, the concept of ‘the face of God’ has been neglected in Christianity. The expectation of seeing the face of God is a traditional one: the promised conclusion to Christian life is a literal as well as metaphorical revelation. But over time the word of God took precedence, while a more instinctive, embodied, pre-verbal understanding of religion fell out of favour. In a delightful analogy Pattison suggests that in the time of the New Testament, seeing the face of God was comparable to seeing the Queen now: although most people have not seen her, it is theoretically possible to do so. He thus illustrates the smaller, more intimate world of the New Testament, where God was personally knowable, and God’s face more than a metaphor.
The early Christian community aimed at the sharing of shame, in Pattison’s account, ‘bestowing face’ on the previously shamed such as women and slaves (p.103), and relabeling Christ’s shameful death as a noble act. In this community, the face of God could be seen in the shining faces of fellow believers. Pattison proposes ‘shining up the face of God’ as a metaphor for reciprocal love, for ‘the mutual creation and recognition of faces shared between humans and God’ (p.7).
From the Middle Ages, the idea of seeing God’s face became improbable, too much at odds with rational thought, and there was a drive ‘to create a philosophically acceptable God. But this God was then abstract and non-personal, without real presence in the natural, material world’ (p.131). It is interesting that a move to make God more ‘real’ – more scientifically acceptable – in fact made God less real in a physical sense: less tangible, more cerebral. Theology’s downgrading of God’s face may have driven, as much as reflected, a downgrading of embodied experience in Western culture generally, which has only recently been addressed by ‘feminist, womanist and liberationist theologians’ (p.129). Certainly it is part of a wider move to accredit less scientific approaches, such as the increasing value accorded to qualitative research, and cultural psychiatry’s acknowledgement of and engagement with non-Western belief systems.
Pattison concludes by calling for more self-awareness when we see faces. We must challenge our own assumptions to reduce the shame and invisibility that can accompany facial difference, and instead seek to create sanctity between people, and between people and God. As he says, ‘If we cannot see God directly, then the quest to see Jesus requires us to take all human faces seriously, particularly those that are in any way shamed or alienated’ (p.162).
At times the reader may wonder if Pattison’s arguments apply to bodies in general as much as to faces, but Pattison gently corrects, reminding the reader that faces are intrinsically special, and yet also stand for the whole body. They are the public face of the body. Occasionally the book’s conclusions seem unsubstantiated and Pattison acknowledges this, saying for instance ‘the narrative I have provided here is somewhat speculative’ (p.60): this might be problematic for readers preferring a more objective argument, including those in the sciences. However, there is a powerful plausibility to the book’s arguments. They may not all hold up to scientific scrutiny but nor do they try to, and they evince instinctive truths.
The issues discussed by Pattison are relevant to us all, offering novel perspectives on faces and the ways we relate to them. His accounts of people with facial differences and difficulties give a literal sense of shame as the self-in-the-eyes-of-the-other. Faces are the hook by which we understand shame in wider contexts. As Pattison notes, the existing literature on faces and enfacement is ‘oddly selective and sporadic’ (p.14). The medical literature generally skirts the broader question of ‘why faces?’ The question is perhaps too complex to be tackled in medical fields alone, and contributions which bring science together with theology, philosophy and other humanities will be more rewarding. They help answer the ‘so what’ question often posed to scientists: Pattison’s book has certainly augmented my perspective. Scientists are likely to find themselves having a worthwhile dialogue with the book; readers in the humanities may learn about peculiar properties of faces; Christians may reconsider the divine face. All can learn to enface fellow humans, ‘seeing more clearly and more justly’ (p.174). This short review cannot hope to do justice to Pattison’s complex and valuable contribution, and I urge you to read the book.
Lewis, Helen Block. The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation. Hillsdale: NJ Erlbaum, 1987. Print.
Nummenmaa, Lauri, et al. “Bodily maps of emotions.” Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (2013): 1-6. Web. 2 January 2014. <www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111.full.pdf+html>