From the age of the divine Augustus down to the French Revolution, Western civilization maintained a largely unbroken belief that human rulers were sanctioned by the gods and in special communication with them. The modern liberalization and secularization which today seems so inexorable still stands out as an aberration on the historical timeline, as a budding inclination struggling against the deeper human tendency of worshipful subordination. The cult of the emperor was a cult in a quite literal sense, with political rituals of devotion borrowing from and overlapping with the expression of religious belief.
Today, in a pluralistic, heavily secular society, such a conception seems completely absurd. But history loves her ironies. When the ideology behind a practice dies out, its practical manifestations persist and often even intensify. Thus we get the absolutism and monomaniacal leadership of Napoleonism and 20th century totalitarianism only after the unquestioned belief in the divine sanction and sacred nature of state power suddenly evaporated. When legitimacy crumbles, dramatic assertion becomes the currency of political life.
I wish to focus upon one particular aspect of the old imperial cult that has exploded to absurd proportions in its lingering Nachleben — the cult of the face. Since the founding of Western imperial ideology under the Roman emperor Augustus, rulers have advertised their visage to the population in busts and portraiture. The emperor’s face occupies public life as a ubiquitous personification of society, inescapable and unavoidable.
The imperial avatar even adapts to local dress and appearance, as Augustus can also appear as an Egyptian Pharaoh.
As excessive as Augustus’ regime of portraiture may seem, he was at least limited by the constraints of the material culture of his time and place. But with the advent of mechanical reproduction, leaders could copy their image and distribute it out as the mandatory personal possession of individual citizens.
In our early 21st century, the cult of the face has grown to catastrophic proportions, albeit under a new democratic guise. The will to facial preeminence has not disappeared, but only been diluted by its popularization. To navigate through professional society is to be confronted by a pool of carefully presented faces, each demanding their due honor as late minor descendants of an unbroken regime of facial imperialism.
In a remarkable irony, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of the ultimate tool for digital facial pollution, reportedly idolizes the emperor Augustus, who got the ball rolling on the cult of the face some 2000 years ago.
This aesthetic development is, of course, reflective of a wider embrace of the subject which has been developing over centuries in the West. People tolerated the regime of the hegemonic imperial portrait for so long because, if they were empowered to do the same, as they are in our modern liberal democracies, they tend to adopt the same program with even greater zeal. It is now archaic for a single military/political leader to be revered by a worshipful society — in a strikingly autonomous loop, everyone now produces, advertises, and consumes their own regime of facial advertising. The man-god has been dethroned, and his selfie-stick wielding spawn are masters of marketing to their own irreverent taste.
Perhaps there was a healthy relationship with the face in 19th century portraiture, which notably tended to stay within the house rather than be thrust upon the world. Indeed, a preoccupation with the face is perhaps the most distinctive marker of romanticism, which assigns meaning to every vagary of physical particularity. Rilke, in many ways a poet of the portrait, writes:
World was in the face of the beloved–,
but suddenly it poured out and was gone:
world is outside, world can not be grasped.
Why didn’t I, from the full, beloved face
as I raised it to my lips, why didn’t I drink
world, so near that I couldn’t almost taste it?
Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But I was filled up also, with too much
world, and, drinking, I myself ran over.
This is the sublime state we seek to dimly recapture in the public cult of the face. When world cannot be grasped, it overflows with tantalizing promises of personal intimacy lurking on every digital profile. If the company is our new family, we now have workplaces that publish the equivalent of family photos. As society atomizes, we seek to know everyone as if they were to be seated closely across from us in near conversation.
Rilke’s poem also suggests the overwhelming, magical power of faces, a power which has been so exploited in the centuries of facial propaganda. We would not, to use Rilke’s phrase, “run ourselves over” in adherence to doctrines or even slogans, but we are helpless before faces. They cannot be opposed or disputed, and so they present the word of their bearer as a form of self-evident fact.
It is now a mundane fact of public relations that every wicked policy must have a good face promoting it. We will drink from it, we will trust it, and, like powerless children confronted by the masks of demanding parents, we will be run over.
It is not the portraiture itself, then, that is so obtrusive and disquieting, but the inescapable feeling of being watched that comes along with its mass publication. This is what happens when the power of the face, the power of a world, is magnified beyond its own proportions. In the propaganda of Big Brother in 1984, George Orwell distilled the feeling of dread associated with the ubiquitous presence of such an observer. The irreducible subjective, phenomenological experience of tyranny is the feeling of being the object of constant observation, in an involuntary dialogue with unrelenting faces. It’s been a truth of our social and political life since at least the reign of Augustus.
But the new multiplicity of faces produces a different, stranger feeling, the feeling of micro-self-assertion without any grand state or heavenly order supporting it. If a ruler once oversaw society with pseudo-paternal benevolence, we are now torn apart by a kaleidoscope of mere competing interests. An infinity of faces is equivalent to no faces at all, no human maps upon which to build the metaphor of society.
While the necessity of such a liberation has been articulated since the Enlightenment, it has been incomplete because we haven’t seriously engaged how to replace what it leaves behind. Is not the publication of everyone’s face everywhere a way of turning the human being back into a barely differentiated insect? What beauty can there be in the world without some elevated, primary observer? Is this not surely the real reason why we have endured the narcissism of the royal face — because it seemed to be the only relatable alternative to pure cosmic abandonment into the oblivion?
When the solution is neither subjective nor extrinsic, it must be reflexive. When nobody is watching, watch thyself. There is a world in a face — it is stronger in itself than spread over a thousand magazines.
Nobody Is Watching
In ancient Coliseum proud
The sounds passed long
And the boys play catch
On specks of dusty crowd
The crowd was once a magician
It made an ugly box a home
Vast expanse intimate
Where Roman murder became light
But I’m closer to scenes
We will never see
The smile she doesn’t wear
The victory he cannot boast
The love we cannot advertise
God is dead
And the rows are empty
Nobody is watching
For the first time
For the first time
You are your own audience
In this blissful motion
We see and do and forget
Nobody is watching
— November 2018