【by Shan-ni Sunny Tsai, Dec. 2021】
As the pandemic replaces physical presence with video communication, the meaning of “face-to-face” has changed. This short essay tries to start describing this new faciality and think how it restructures the facial relationships with others and oneself.
Video communication demands us to look at our faces in the frequency, scrutiny, and immediacy that we have never experienced before. We had never really seen our faces when we listened to others, never exposed our faces to the camera during so many hours of conversations, and never let the screen be the measurement of our appearances so thoroughly. Our looks are no longer determined by the angles from which the people sitting next to us see us but by the relation between our camera and our faces. To look good, we adjust the camera to be lower or higher than our heads, the light to be brighter or dimmer, and our chin, nose, or mouth to point towards the camera. We face the camera the way we take selfies. Selfies are the moving images of mirrors. Mirror images are essentially the faces we present to each other in video communications. All shown faces are faces formed in the narcissistic route one forms with one’s screen. People can no longer see more in our faces than what we ourselves see. This is not only narcissism per se but also an open exposure of the most intimate image we have with ourselves. The mirrors are a delicate line between the showing-off of self-image and the exposure of what is private and too close to oneself to be shared—we very seldom let strangers’ faces get so close to ours to look at the mirrors we are holding in our hands.
The Lacanian mirrors that creates the totality of our egos are now not held by a parent but by the screen. We share our mirrors with each other to form the conjoined mirror, which becomes the flat space of communication. Our mirrors are held by a congregation of mirrors. Simultaneity replaces gathering. We are not bodies that gather together. We are live selfies, all with their own temporalities based on the different qualities of Internet connection, put together during the same time on the same screen. The temporality is barely even. The smoothness of streaming depends on the different qualities of internet connection. Some people’s temporality is more immediate than others; thus, some people’s facial expressions are more continual than others.
Gazes without Intersections.
The shared mirror in video communication is a composite of the screen and the camera. In other words, the narcissistic route of mirror image is intervened by the discrepancy between what takes our images and what presents our images. These two do not coincide. This displacement cancels eye contact, either between one and one’s mirror image and between people. Looking into each other’s eyes can no longer melt the distinction between looking at and being looked at. The breaking of the narcissistic stare into oneself creates a false space. We know our images on the screen are checking out our own images but we look like we are looking at something else instead of a mirror, looking into a joined space with others while we may just be in an enclosed route with the mirror. The breaking of the reciprocal eye contact with others generates us as characters. In video communication, we are playing our images, making it speak, nod, and smile, not to speak to, nod at, smile at other people, but to create an image that speaks, nods and smiles for other people to look at. Even if one looks into the camera to create the effect of looking at you in the eyes, what you see is their gaze into the void that happens to be where you are.
Video communications are full of gazes without intersections. The reciprocity of gazes is replaced by the displacement and the complementary interpretation done by us, the actors of our images in a conjoined mirror floating on the Internet. We know that the other is looking at us even when their eyes are not looking into our eyes. We are used to seeing each other looking elsewhere. We are used to picking up expressions of others through the vectors of connections without they ever arriving at us. We make smiling faces for each other when we cannot smile at each other. We gaze to become signs of gazes so that other people can tell we are paying attention. Losing touch with its target, the gazes are cut off, and its trajectories goes on without it. In the broken trajectories, we act as faces for each other. We become faces to make a book and a conference for each other. Our faces are no longer surfaces of our emotions and thoughts that face each other. Our faces become conjoined faces on one surface.
The Power of Turning off
The resistance to become part of this conjoined surface of faces is just one click away. We turn off ourselves for many reasons: to avoid the echoes that have come with Narcissus and his looking at himself since Greek mythology; to signal that we give the space for a recording that does not foreground our faces; or, to be able to eat, knit, and fold laundry without being seen.
To be able to turn off oneself may be a powerful position in video communication. When the speaker’s moving face is the only light on the screen, the speaker is shut in the mirror that reflects only himself while the audience hides behind the mirror without being in the mirror. The audience has the mirror’s power of seeing while evading the position of being seen. The speaker is gazed upon by his uncanny double and the darkness. It is difficult to get either totally narcissistic or completely anxious in video communication. The mirror image is abstracted, reproduced, and thrown into the dark space of internet.
Showing face instead of showing hand.
The idiom “showing hand” should now be replaced by “showing face.” When one lets their face to be seen, the face is exposed along with all its secret expressions, motivations, judgments and the bare faces. It is an act of kindness to offer one’s own face to become as seen as others. This act of kindness is not even present on the streets now as our faces are covered by face masks. Showing faces has become an even more intimate act.
Technical Problems instead of Weather
It is said that the safest topic to bond with strangers in social occasions was the weather. Nowadays, the topic that will immediately bond all strangers is technical problems. The obstacles of getting to the pace of gathering is no longer the difficult weather but the endlessly new conferencing software, the internet that randomly loses contact with the universe we are in, and the earphones are never reliably committed to the laptops. Every face seen is a survivor emerging out of the swamp of technicality, a face kept alive and captured moving in the shared mirrors.
Shan-ni Sunny Tsai, Naitonal Taiwan University, Taiwan
This essay is intended for the blog of Asia Archive and has been discussed with members of it. However, this essay does not directly address “Asia” since I have difficulties grasping what “Asia” means. I could only ensure that this essay is based on the experience of a person in the so-called Asian and other so-called Asian people have resonated with what have been described in the essay. The global universality and local specificity of the issue of screen is an interesting issue. Although we mostly use platforms created by non-Asian companies, there could be cultural specificity in the experiencing of it, which is beyond the capacity of this essay for now.