Hi. I’m going to start by answer­ing what seems to be the burn­ing ques­tion at PopTech for me and let you all know at the out­set that I’m not going to talk about Renée Zellweger today. And I’m sor­ry to dis­ap­point you because I’m actu­al­ly going to start by talk­ing about…me. And I’m going to also start by talk­ing about per­for­mance a lit­tle bit. Because of course I’m per­form­ing here today right now, and I thought about it real­ly care­ful­ly. I thought about how I was going to appear to you real­ly care­ful­ly.

The PopTech vibe is cre­ative and casu­al. Dress com­fort­ably and leave suits, ties and high heels at home. We sug­gest you pack com­fort­able shoes for walk­ing around town and a jack­et to keep you warm. A scarf and hat wouldn’t hurt either. Fall tem­per­a­tures vary wide­ly in Midcoast Maine, so be sure to check for the lat­est weath­er updates and pack accord­ing­ly.
PopTech FAQ [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And I thought about my cos­tume. Choosing to dis­re­gard the PopTech dic­tum and invi­ta­tion to appear total­ly com­fort­able. Some of you will rec­og­nize this as well. Because I knew this was being filmed, and because frankly I want­ed to look good. Please let’s all agree to just tell me that I suc­ceed­ed.

And the oth­er thing I did, I put on my game face. That’s what we say, right? Put on your game face.” Which seems to imply that we can change our faces. That we have, you know, this kind of face for this expe­ri­ence, and this kind of face for that expe­ri­ence, and that we can change our faces through expres­sion, through make up, through con­text. It seems to say that we have dif­fer­ent kinds of faces. Kind of. We have dif­fer­ent kinds of faces, kind of.

Because the truth is that even with­out my game face, you’d prob­a­bly rec­og­nize me, short of some kind of dra­mat­ic inter­ven­tion. And I actu­al­ly did think about putting up a whole array of pic­tures of myself in dif­fer­ent con­texts to test this. But I thought it might come across as a tad nar­cis­sis­tic. So I didn’t do that. But I did sort of think real­ly care­ful­ly about the fact that our faces actu­al­ly more or less stay the same, and that real­ly mat­ters. It mat­ters a whole lot, because in many ways that’s the very basis on which our eth­i­cal oblig­a­tions to one anoth­er are rest­ing. It’s the very basis on which our social com­mu­ni­ty and our inter­ac­tions arise.

The French philoso­pher Immanuel Levinas has taught us that it is through our inter­ac­tions with the face of some­body else, it is through encoun­ter­ing the face of anoth­er, that our respon­si­bil­i­ties to some­one else arise. You can­not look at some­body else, tru­ly look at them, and then walk away with­out hav­ing some kind of sense of a rela­tion­ship towards that per­son.

But what if the oth­er has no face? What then? Or what if the face of the oth­er is actu­al­ly the face of anoth­er per­son entire­ly? And now some of you are think­ing, Okay, we’ve gone into the realm of sci­ence fic­tion. We’ve gone into the realm of zom­bies with­out faces. We’ve gone into the realm of crazy Frankensteinian mon­sters.” This kind of futur­is­tic, crazy dystopi­an fic­tion.

But, there are peo­ple with­out faces. Maybe they’re the vic­tims of acid attacks, or elec­tro­cu­tion. Perhaps they’ve been shot at point blank range. Maybe they’ve been mauled by a dog, by a chim­panzee. And I’m not going to show you pic­tures of these things, part­ly because I think your imag­i­na­tion can do the work with­out it. Partly because I don’t know how strong your stom­achs are and lunch is com­ing up. And part­ly because I real­ly do want to respect the pri­va­cy of the indi­vid­u­als involved if, at all pos­si­ble. Because I’m not talk­ing about ran­dom exam­ples. These are some of the back sto­ries of the over thir­ty peo­ple to date who have received face trans­plant surgery. And again some of you are think­ing, what is she talk­ing about?

But some of you will remem­ber back in 2005, the case of Isabelle Dinoire, who took a series of pills in an attempt at sui­cide and passed out. Her dog attempt­ed to rouse her, and in so doing chewed off her nose, her lips, and her chin, also known as the tri­an­gle.” Dinoire was rushed to the hos­pi­tal imme­di­ate­ly in Lyon, and her team greet­ed her, and over the course of six months in a series of exten­sive tests, she was deemed an appro­pri­ate can­di­date for the world’s first-ever face trans­plant surgery.

And then the world erupt­ed. People went crazy over this surgery. The debates were fast and furi­ous and most­ly neg­a­tive, ask­ing all kinds of ques­tions about the ethics of this oper­a­tion, about Dinoire her­self, about her doc­tors. And under­ly­ing it all was this over­whelm­ing sense of fear. Do some of you remem­ber this? Yeah, this over­whelm­ing sense of fear and this idea of just because we could, does that mean we should? Which is maybe the oppo­site of the ques­tion of a rebel? I don’t know. Just because we could, does that mean we should?

So, why? Why this huge amount of debate? It’s kind of hard to recap­ture that moment now, in our con­tem­po­rary expe­ri­ence. When we think, You actu­al­ly gave a woman back the abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in the pop­u­lace, to appear in pub­lic.” Why would we deny her that? Well, there are some rea­sons, and I’m going to go through them a lit­tle bit quick­ly.

Something that we might call click­bait today, right? The idea that this is a fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ry. Why not jump on it, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the crazy twist of fate that this attempt­ed sui­cide actu­al­ly received the face of a suc­cess­ful sui­cide?

Which rais­es a series of ques­tions about whether Dinore her­self has the psy­cho­log­i­cal for­ti­tude to look in the mir­ror every day and see the face of some­body else.

And what about her doc­tors? Did they just jump on this in order to win the face race? Maybe.

And then there’s the yuck fac­tor, which I bet some of you are feel­ing right now. That kind of…[shudders]. And the yuck fac­tor” is, by the way, a tech­ni­cal term coined by Arthur Caplan who’s a bioethi­cist. It’s your phys­i­cal vis­cer­al response to any new tech­nol­o­gy hav­ing to do with the body. So in that sense, the face trans­plant is real­ly the par­a­dig­mat­ic yuck fac­tor.

And some of it—and this is real­ly impor­tant and I don’t want to dis­miss it, even though in my rebel­lious mode I think a lot of these debates are in ret­ro­spect a lit­tle insane—the very seri­ous bioeth­i­cal issues involved of mak­ing a sup­pos­ed­ly well per­son” sick because any trans­plant patient has to take a life­time of immuno­sup­pres­sants that actu­al­ly make you vul­ner­a­ble to a host of ill­ness.

And also, and relat­ed to that, is real­ly this ques­tion of whether or not some­body who is get­ting this kind of inter­ven­tion is cheat­ing. And the cheat­ing piece comes up a lot. It comes up a lot with any kind of body mod­i­fi­ca­tion, because we are so vest­ed in the idea that we can look at some­body and see their iden­ti­ty. And we also know that better-looking peo­ple get more stuff. So if you make your­self better-looking, if you make your­self look bet­ter, some­how you’re cheat­ing in some kind of way.

And also you’re manip­u­lat­ing his­to­ry, right? You can no longer look at some­body and assume that you know some­thing about who they are and where they came from.

And yet, now, almost ten years lat­er, a lot of that debate died down. And I’ll give you a cou­ple of rea­sons why.

Data. Dinoire’s done okay. The psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma of look­ing in the mir­ror and see­ing some­body else, prob­a­bly not as big a deal as not see­ing any­thing at all.

Poster for the movie "Face Off," showing Nick Cage and John Travolta's faces at opposite ends, repeated a few times toward the center, where they merge into a single face joined at the middle

And also, it’s changed from sci­ence fic­tion to sci­ence. No evil doc­tors. It’s not this. Although, the title of my next book is going to be Face/On. Pro tip, every­body. And it’s not this.

Poster for the 1931 movie "Frankenstein"

So, what is it? Well, it’s still scary. And here I’m just going to wrap up. And it’s still scary because it does vex that very one-to-one cor­re­la­tion between spe­cif­ic per­son and unique iden­ti­ty. It does raise the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we can look at some­body and not trust them. It does tell us that one face can belong to mul­ti­ple peo­ple.

And this is par­tic­u­lar­ly acute because we’re get­ting that sto­ry from the oth­er side as well. Because one per­son can simul­ta­ne­ous­ly have mul­ti­ple faces, mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties. Of course, we can all have as many avatars as we want, and they can all be dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent. And sure, that may not be new. I opened up by say­ing we all have many faces, we’ve all been per­form­ing all the time. We’ve known that for­ev­er, right? But all of these avatars can exist at the same time, and be dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent. And for a lot of peo­ple, we’re in cri­sis mode. Because we no longer have that sense of unique dis­tilled iden­ti­ty.

And I’m here to say, rebel­lious­ly per­haps, this is not a cri­sis. It’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty in our encounter with the oth­er. It’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to look beyond the appear­ance. To look beyond a cen­tral­ized body. This is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for dis­abil­i­ty, for gen­der, for race, for eth­nic­i­ty, to say, I under­stand who you are not because of how you appear. And I am going to fig­ure out a way to get at what that is, because how you appear? That is not the way.”

And maybe here I seem to be going against Levinas, who I opened up with, but actu­al­ly this is real­ly con­so­nant with his ideas, because he told us, he taught us, the best way to see is to look at some­body and not even know the col­or of their eyes. A kind of vision that is real­ly blind to the out­side, but pen­e­trat­ing to the inte­ri­or.

So I invite you to join me in reimag­in­ing what it means to be human. To look beyond the exte­ri­or wall, still rec­og­niz­ing the vital impor­tance of iden­ti­ty, of human­i­ty, and think about a new way to access what it means to be you.

Thank you.

Further Reference

This presentation at the PopTech site.

Sharrona Pearl's faculty page at the University of Pennsylvania.


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