“Cómo te llamas?” Someone asked Ze. Ze preferred the Spanish phrasing of this question to the more taxonomic, “What’s your name?” version of this question in zir native tongue. Of course, its equivalent, ze had noticed, “Cuál es tu nombre?” was also often used in Spanish too, but often in more bureaucratic settings, where it felt more fitting alongside the data and fields in application forms. “Cómo te llamas?” for Ze, had
a more philosophical ring to it, like asking someone how they called themselves into being. Ze wondered if Spanish people ever thought about this.
Ze had decided to refer to zirself only with gender-neutral pronouns since leaving the Kabalarian Society in Vancouver. The Kabalarians are a ‘philosophical’ organization that think your name shapes your destiny. They believe that language is the medium of thought and that letters have numerological properties, which when arranged in a harmonious order, can have a positive impact on your life. Ze was told ze had a discordant name and that ze would have to change it, which ze did. Ze had now decided to drop this name as ze had dropped the Kabalarians. It wasn’t that ze had had a bad experience, it was just that it wasn’t what ze was looking for. Therefore, when ze had come across these pronouns, ze liked them; they seemed to make a statement about zir new life. This new life wasn’t concerned with gender or sexuality, this was quite obvious when you saw zir, but rather to use the pronouns to distance zirself from what ze now saw as language’s attempt to point at everything and reduce it. Ze didn’t really think this was how language worked, but that would be what its aim would be if it were an autonomous object. Ze, in effect, had four names: Ze (the subject pronoun); Zir (the object pronoun); Zirs (the possessive pronoun), and Zirself (the reflexive pronoun). Ze thought that by using these pronouns, as zir name, ze was hidden in language. Ze changed in relation to the grammatical use of the language, which seemed, for Ze, to expose the limitations of language. Zir real self was something that you had to experience face-to-face.
Ze was still looking for something after zir experience at the Kabalarians. Ze felt nebulous. Ze had spent much of zir life trying to find a form or theory which ze could attach zirself to. Despite zir recent resistance to what ze viewed as the positing nature of language ze wanted to belong somewhere or to understand enough about zirself to feel comfortable being in zir own skin, but ze wanted to find this place or state by zirself, not have it imposed on zir.
Ze had tried numerous avenues of enquiry. Ze preferred the ones that dealt with the why questions. At a conference ze had been to, the biologist and militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, had said that these were the wrong questions to ask. However, after doing some reading around the subjects of evolutionary biology and quantum physics, ze was again unsatisfied with what ze saw as the reductive attitude of ‘Scientism’. Ze didn’t see, how by abstracting the universe into propositions, particles, and evidence, that one could really account for infinity. To deconstruct the infinite into rules always seemed once removed from the reality of it; you always needed someone to delineate it, you weren’t in it. The why questions always seemed to promise more richness, even if they were messy and nutty, and lead nowhere. It was the ride you took that mattered, but in the end ze still wanted a destination. It wasn’t that ze wanted to find something that explained it all away, just something that made this vapid gnawing go away.
Ze had sought out refuge on the internet. Ze thought that perhaps twitter would offer zir up the potential to become part of something global. By following the trending topics ze could always be in the zeitgeist, transcending zirself and become meshed with what the world was thinking. Ze would be able to leave zir concerns behind and follow the will of the world. However, ze was disappointed when ze realized that Justin Bieber was the apex of the trending topics and that a lot of people on it were arseholes.
There were no solutions to problems like world peace, poverty or climate change. Ze came across conspiracy theories on the web, and trawled through them obsessively, looking for a worthy cause to join there. Yet ze found that the theories were just as amorphous as David Icke’s shapeshifting reptiles. Ze tried forums, social networks and even a bit of the deep web, but the internet, and the representations of people on it, just didn’t seem to exist. The whole thing felt phony; hanging out in cyberspace made zir feel even more two-dimensional, and for all its promise of knowledge and liberation that ze uncovered, in things like alternative media, it felt crushingly negative and repetitive at times.
Travel was another area of investigation ze had embarked upon. Ze had always imagined leaving the semi-rural town ze came from, and had moved around, internationally, a lot. Although ze had found these experiences valuable, and couldn’t imagine zir life being otherwise, ze felt that it had sharpened zir restlessness. It seemed that there was no possibility for a home now. Every new environment ze inhabited took zir away from the feeling of being at home that ze
remembered having in zir childhood. If ze went home these days, and visited the places ze had grown up in, the only feeling they presented zir with was a sense of nostalgia for the feeling ze remembered, but could not get to manifest in zirself in the present.
The languages ze had learnt had also opened zir up to being able to meet a lot of different people and inhabit their ideas. Ze also enjoyed comparing these languages and the differences between them, something ze felt intensified even the most banal utterances. Each time ze learnt a new language ze felt that the cultural nuances and affectations ze relied on in zir native culture had been stripped away and ze had to be more true to zirself. The downside was that there were quite a few of them now (languages), and ze had trouble remembering what ze was like before. Ze sometimes felt like ze was pretending to be a person. Maybe this was just a symptom of being a global citizen? Ze thought.
Ze had tried myriad more things, again with slightly deflating results, but in all these adventures ze had failed to find something to stay with or that stayed with zir. Ze loved the books that ze read on literature and philosophy, but found that a year late ze couldn’t tell where an idea had come from or which author, or if it was zirs. The same with music, ze listened to so much of it that ze never felt that ze could remember a song. Ze could remember an artist and relate a song to them when played to zir, but could never tell you the title. Ze never felt like a real fan, and ze longed for the closeness that something like reciting all the bands that an artist had been in inspired in its delivery. Ze felt like more of a dilettante than a polymath, that despite all the effort ze had put into living an exciting life, and zir ability to talk across a broad range of subjects, in reasonable depth, ze got the impression that everyone knew about zir desperate need for substance, because of a lack of it within zirself.
Zir new interest was art. It was something that ze had always had an interest in, but had never got involved with. One of zir reasons for moving to Madrid had been the history of the Prado and the Reina Sofía, and the opportunity of being able to hop over to London or Berlin to check out the burgeoning, although not quite as much as in their heyday, contemporary art scenes ze had heard about there. Ze liked the idea of going to galleries to see art works because seeing and art object was something you had to do face-toface, like really understanding a person. Ze had been reading some Object Oriented Ontology and found this concept called ‘allure’ in a book called The Quadruple Object by Graham Harman. This part of the book talks about the sensual object being different to what he terms the silent object, something usually withdrawn from the everyday experience of objects. However, he seems to make an exception for artworks, saying that the silent object is not reached, but makes an ‘allusion’ to the sensual object in an artwork, that there is a ‘vague fusion’ between them. Ze liked this quote in particular when ze had read the book, but has almost forgotten it. Incidentally, it comes from a previous book, called Guerrilla Metaphysics:
“…allure is a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between the a thing’s unity and its plurality disintegrates.”
Ze liked the sound of experiencing that, as ze often felt that way about zirself or zir experience of other selves, or how other selves seemed to interpret zirself. Ze was unclear as to whether the author was referring to the artwork itself or what it represented, or even replaced in its absence.
Countless people had told zir that it was completely different seeing something in the flesh. Ze wondered if this expression meant the meat of the object, or the fact that you dragged your body along to the gallery with you. The expression was so frequently used that ze felt embarrassed to ask. Ze had spent hours in galleries and could honestly say that ze felt something akin to this ‘allure’ or a feeling that the concept seemed to be a referent of. However, there was still something that seemed to be in the way. This, ze thought, was the gallery walls. No matter how many times ze returned to the gallery, ze knew that the artwork could never be zirs. Ze wanted to have one, to live with it.
Ze was living in a flatshare with some people ze had met on her travels. One of them had invited zir to come to a gallery opening of an artist who was friends with one of her friends. The artists were: Adrien Guillet, Camille Tsvetoukhine, Carlos Fernández-Pello, Julián Cruz, and Sam Savage. Ze had never heard of them before, but relished the chance to see something of the local art scene, and perhaps even interact with the artists.
This is why ze now found zirself in a gallery opening being asked what zir name was. Ze replied: “Ze, encantada.” Ze wasn’t going to explain the whole story about zir names; ze thought people who involved themselves in the first part of the first ever conversation they had with someone were cunts. Ze would explain it to people ze knew, after a while, like zir flat mates, who said it was cool. Instead ze chatted small talk to this person; it turned out it was Camille, one of the artists. After the pleasantries, Camille asked her what ze thought of the exhibition, and explained the premise of it. Ze said: “I thought it was great to see something on the local art scene, I haven’t been here that long – it’s a new experience for me.”
Camille replied that it wasn’t actually that local as her and her partner, Adrien, had organized it, with her, as part of a residency program. She then invited Ze to come for dinner, and possibly drinks after the show with the other artists and and some other, including zir flat mate, people. “Yes, of course…I’d love to,” said Ze.
The opening came to a close and they wandered off to have tapas in some place that Carlos recommended, ze has forgotten the name of it. The food was good, ze particularly liked the salmorejo with its creamy tomato-ness offset by succulent, smoky ham. The conversation was filled with subjects that were momentarily, intensely investigated, and then, with equal vigor, dropped in favour of another, as is typical of a couple of tables full of enthusiastic, but unfamiliarised people. Ze was disappointed that there hadn’t been a more fervent discussion about art. Ze thought back to zir readings of the Abstract Expressionists and their heavy drinking and conversations about painting in the Cedar Tavern, accompanied by exploits, such as the ripping of doors from their hinges. Then ze thought that this was a mistake, it was silly to decode these artists and their work by their, if they ever came to be written about, biographical actions. The evening culminated in a hilarious rendition of Aqua’s Barbie Girl by Juan in a Dominican karaoke bar.
The following day at 12:00pm ze awoke with a stinking hangover to the sound of zir mobile ringing. Ze answered the phone:
“Hi, it’s Sam from last night.”
It suddenly all came back to Ze. Ze had, at one point during the night asked to buy Sam´s piece in the exhibition.
¨Just to say, um, you said you were, um, interested in buying the piece from the exhibition…I don´t want to sound pushy, but someone else called me this morning and said they were also interested, so, as you asked me first, I thought I´d ask you.”
Ze didn´t know if this was a hustle or not, but vaguely remembered having a discussion in a booth in the karaoke bar about this piece. The work, itself, was an assemblage of materials in a red metal frame. There was some child´s underwear; something wrapped in a plastic bag; screwed up bits of paper; and different manifestations of paint mixed with other material. There seemed to be some organization of them at a two-dimensional level, but when ze walked round the work it was lost in the matterof- fact nature of the materials poking outward from the support’s profile. Ze hadn’t particularly liked the piece more than the others, but remembered thinking that ze liked it because it didn’t have a direct association with painting’s relationship with the image as some sort of currency, or that it was an expression of its inadequacies relating to the digital, or its rendering being the unconscious or complicit resolute of a process impinged on it by current ideological structures. Perhaps, ze thought, it had a type of allure? Perhaps it was a grower, like Some music had been for zir? Ze felt relieved that these thoughts crossed zir mind in enough time so as to seem relatively lucid with zir response. Half racked with booze riddled guilt and this cognitive justification ze said: “Oh right! Of course… No, I haven’t changed my
mind, I definitely want to take it.”
When the show was taken down, Sam came over to her flat, and hung the work on zir bedroom wall. He said it was very fragile and that, within reason, he would be willing to reinstall it in zir next living space. Ze thought this was very kind. He thanked zir and they had a short talk about his studio and what it was like being a foreigner pursuing an artistic career in Madrid. He asked zir what ze thought of the city and what plans ze had while ze was there. Ze thought that he was much more affable than on their previous encounter. On the evening they met he had seemed quite quiet until he was drunk, and after that he had been somewhat humorous, yet overbearing. Ze had preferred his partner, who seemed more gregarious, used to going out with people, and more in tune with the art scene. Sam, ze had thought, at first, was more of a lugubrious figure, and his style seemed to be somewhat typical of the wares you could buy to obtain the look of a mainstream take on Hipsterdom. His overall aspect and tonsorial neglect (as if he’d had an ok haircut and let it grow out for far too long) made him seem standard. Ze had decided to not let this impression affect zir experience of the work. After all, now it was zirs and not subjected, as zir postmodern readings of art history had suggested, to the artist’s concerns, and the artist.
Over a year had passed since the exhibition and ze was moving into zir own flat. During this time ze had become unsatisfied with the artwork that
hung in zir room. Ze sometimes liked it and sometimes hated it. There was some pleasure to be had in the treatment of the paint and the use of colour, but there was something about it that was impenetrable. It just sat on the wall, mute, like it had something on the tip of its tongue, but forever undisclosed. Ze didn’t really know if it was the artwork doing this or zirself, but ze found it incredibly frustrating.
In an attempt to renew zir interest ze had started doing more background reading on Graham Harman. Ze found out that he was a fan of Levinas and decided to buy a copy of Totality and Infinity from Amazon. Ze was delighted that it dealt with being face-to-face with someone. Ze liked this passage from the book:
“The face brings a notion of truth, which in contradistinction to contemporary ontology, is not the disclosure of an impersonal Neuter, but expression: the existent breaks through all the envelopings and generalities of being to spread out in its “form” the totality of its “content,” finally abolishing the distinction between form and content. This is not achieved by some sort of modification of the knowledge that thematizes, but precisely by “thematization” turning into conversation.”
Ze understood this concept of face as the seeing of another making the seer realize their own finite nature, but simultaneously presenting the potential to ‘overflow’ itself and reach into the infinite. Merely seeing was not enough, one had to engage with the other and its alterity, being was in the exterior. Conversation was the way to do this, through conversation you were momentarily infinite. This, alongside some other readings on aesthetics by Levinas, where he talks about art needing criticism to crack it open, filled zir with hope. Ze would ask Sam if he could install the artwork in zir new flat and ze would try, through having a conversation with the artist, to break through the artwork’s rigid plasticity.
Sam had just finished putting up the picture. “Sam…” ze said, “Do you mind if we talk about your work?”
“Of course not,” he said, and they each took a seat. “Actually, I’m surprised you didn’t ask me about it when I came round before.”
“I didn’t want to at the time…I wanted to experience it on my own terms, to make something of it myself,” ze said.
“That makes sense,” he said.
“You see, at the time, I was going through this thing, where I thought that everything I experienced in life was only partially revealed to me, there was always something behind it that I couldn’t get to. Art seemed to be concerned with those issues, perhaps even transcending them. But now, I can’t really get past this feeling in your work,”ze said.
“It’s funny you should say that…It’s kind of what I’m going for,” he said.
“What do you mean?” said Ze.
“Well I find that I get the forms for my work from objects, or arrangements of them, that surprise me…they usually seem to be stuff that’s on the floor or re-appropriated or used in a different way to that of their original function. It’s like stuff that’s been discarded has a new life outside of the soci-economic landscape that they are typically appreciated in. For example: a cigarette butt squished on the floor, or another one next to it with its filter paper unraveled seem to tell you something else about cigaretteness than, when they’re in their commonplace setting. Not only that, but they form relationships with the plastic straw next to them. They have all these new relationships in their arrangement on the floor. They inform each other about each other and in turn inform you about themselves.” He said all this, like it was something he had said many times before. “I know what you mean about things only being revealed in part though…it’s something I feel is still leftover, but I don’t see it as the object itself, just a standpoint for more potential,” he added. “So what do you do in the studio then? Are you just trying to copy the objects?” ze asked. “No, not exactly…I sort of keep these new forms in my head, live with them for a bit…I chose the ones that suggest a way of working with paint and the support. I like them to suggest new ways to use the materials. Then, I sort of think through these new forms with my thumbs, so to speak. I like to keep them at a visceral level, not think about them too much,” he replied. “Why do you have to use paint then? Couldn’t you just present these objects or photos of them?” ze enquired.
“I like paint because it’s fluid and when I’m working with the paint in this way it feels right. The liquid aspect of it feels like I’m playing with the memory of the forms in actuality…the sculptural elements in them, for me, are just like mark making, trying to find another mark… like the pants and blocks in this one…” he turned and pointed to the work on the wall. “They make you consider it as being less of an object and more as an event, I reckon…Normally, paintings are all one unified surface. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I like the way the sculptural nature of them makes you want to walk around them, to be able to find new relations by yourself…In saying that I do see them as images as well…I guess the paint also acts as a veil, it conceals where the work came from, but I don’t do that to make the work inaccessible. I like there being something familiar about them, to draw you in, but using the paint illustrates, for me, that there were things lost in the time between seeing the forms and working through them. On the other hand I also see it as a gain, because you have this new thing or visual event. At some point I was wrestling with the idea of titling them, but I didn’t like that idea…it makes them seem more like nouns, not verbs. I thought of the titles being the things that they came from, so you would possibly drop it, and look elsewhere for meaning, but this would have only made the works a reference to a source, it wouldn’t have allowed them to be or do something in their own right. He asked if he could smoke. Ze nodded, and he lit up. “So when you finish them or sell them, aren’t you just discarding them like the people who threw the stuff on the floor? Aren’t you just making them renter the world of commerce?”ze asked, with an air of frustration in zir voice. “I guess so, I never really thought about it like that… I mean I don’t make much money on my art - I have another job to make money as well… I don’t really see why art has to be so heavily scrutinized in that respect… The art market is different beast though, and maybe I would think about it more if I wasn’t at the bottom of the food chain. I don’t care about discarding the works, for me, the most important moment was making them. I see it as a type of freedom, when I make my work. I get to negotiate life on my own terms in the studio…”
Ze interrupted: “Don’t you feel like you have some responsibility to the viewer? I mean that by leaving this mute thing on a wall, aren’t you just being confrontational, egotistical even? Expecting them to ponder over your genius? Aren’t you just dangling a potential site for them to overflow into the infinite, but leaving it at that, never engaging, always withdrawing? Isn’t talking about art and discourse more important? To open up the artwork, or even to make work that addresses these issues would be better, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t see it like that. I see language, and even thought to some extent, as an abstraction of something that has its own, for want of a better word, language…” His voice was wavering slightly now. “Also, I don’t see artists as being that special. I think that everyone should try and make or do something… Maybe this imperviousness you speak of is infinity?” He posed the question rhetorically.
Ze sprung up from zir chair and started screaming and jumping up and down in a fit of rage. This conversation hadn’t gone anywhere. Ze felt that ze had wasted even more of zir life trying to carve out a space to dwell in. Before ze could say another word the chandelier ze had bought, from the Rastro, for zir new flat fell off the ceiling and crashed down on to Sam’s head. He was sitting in the chair with the chandelier on top of him not moving, with his artwork behind him. Ze took his pulse. He was dead. Ze had killed him, inadvertently, but killed him nonetheless. Ze stepped back and tried to take in what ze was seeing. It all made sense now. The artist and the artwork were both dead to zir now. They were nothing and their nothingness was comforting. For the first time, in a long time, ze felt at ease. There was nothing to understand, approach, or look for in the frozen countenance that faced zir. All that was left to do, to affirm this feeling, was to destroy the artwork. As ze gleefully smashed it to pieces, ze thought that annihilation would be zir future.
Concerning the Matter of the Face:
on the Madrid Metro.
An edited extract from a text on the Madrid Metro presented at the ‘This is Jackalope’ project launch, Madrid 2016.
…If I forget these generalised abstractions of understanding a person and only concentrate on their face, is it the place where I can gain access into another person? On the Metro bodies are mostly passive i.e. siting or standing with no gestalt created by the rest of the body. There is no corporeal communication offered up for me to understand that relates to the way my own body discovered the world. The rest of their presentation to me is materially codified, their clothes and adornments presenting me with an illusion of and allusion to what they believe to be the representation of their self the world should see is. A reinforcement of Lacan’s “Specular Image”: a coming to grips with one seeing their reflection, disbanding with their previous fluid understanding of the world in early childhood, seeing themselves as the other sees them. What they were before has a fictional double that posits itself in amongst all the other, now material, others. If this is the case, then does the face become the only truly naked part of the body? Is the face, then, not the way to enter these people’s worlds? The face that is disembodied in cyberspace is here on the Metro, but this time, more often than not, instead of a faceless voice, one encounters a voiceless face.
The face, especially the eyes, are commonly viewed as a way into a person, the window to the soul etc. as in the case of the tabloid blow up of a serial killer’s face with the words “evil” or “monster” looming above them, baring the killer’s face alongside in order to tell us we should have known all along. I cannot say I have had any real connection with someone, just by looking at their face, on the Metro. But in the trains you have a unique opportunity to get to look at a group of people, to slyly scrutinise them without having the distraction of engaging with them, offering up numerous ways to approach and reframe the way you see a face. To not see them as just another sack of atoms or obstacle in your way, as you scrabble back up to the surface.
After time spent looking at faces, or rather repeatedly glimpsing at them, they seem to refer to something other than themselves, and do not give you a revelatory insight into their beholders.
Sam noticed that in some faces there was a referral to another moment in time.
The face of an elderly woman opened and he saw her more as a mischievous child than an adult. There was an iridescent cheekiness in her eyes that jumped out at him, he concentrated on these eyes, but the expression disappeared and then jumped out at him on her cheeks, which now seemed to be smiling apart from the rest of her face, like they were remembering their first ice cream, but as soon as he had time to contemplate this the child had disappeared. The child kept jumping around. For a second it was in the hair, then in the chin. The more he tried to find the child the more in a feature the harder it became. The child was teasing him, playing a game of peekaboo. He gave up trying to find the child and realised that it wasn’t that the woman’s face was clinging on to its youth, it was there all along, a presence that permeated and refused the wrinkles and lines. It laughed at time’s attempt to weather it through days, months and years.
Sam turned around as more people shuffled into the carriage. He was taken in by the warm face of an old man. He took a second glance and realised that this man must only be in his thirties. How had his eyes deceived him again? He began scanning the face to locate the error of his previous judgement; there were no obvious signs. The puckering on the woman’s face wasn’t there. He thought he might be projecting the old woman’s face on to the man’s, like the after image from a light bulb. He closed his eyes to check, there was nothing there. When he opened them again the old man was there again, with this warmth. That was it! There was something of a total acceptance about him, was this a comfort from a coming to terms with his own death or was the old man sitting there patiently waiting to enjoy retirement?
These faces were pointing away from themselves sublimating their current forms for another temporal node. It couldn’t be seen in bags under the eyes or a glowing complexion. They negated their present for a desired moment in time. An apex where flesh, bone, desire, decay, action, rest… All of it collapsed into alignment.
Helena had long had a theory of the face exhibiting a duration of time that related to place. When She moved away from her hometown, she discovered that a number of people, in this new city, had a certain set and arrangement of bodily and/or facial features that seem to belong to that area. They stuck out from the rest of the place’s inhabitants, as if they had been instilled through generations of people staying there. They were the real locals. Not all these features were the same, and she thought that there must be many different facial/corporeal expressions of the same area.
After a while she started trying to isolate what features in the face could make up this whole. The problem was, when she came across one of these faces, she never had the chance to take down some observational notes or discretely photograph them with her phone; she definitely wasn’t going to whip out a tape measure. Then she would forget, until she saw another one. When she did see one, and started to study it, she couldn’t fix on a feature that explained it. Each time she paid attention to a nose or an ear the general idea she had had slipped away.
As a result, she never talked about it to anyone for fear as being perceived as a eugenicist. In private she thought it might have something to do with genes, but she found this idea unpleasant, it reminded her of the jokes people in neighbouring provinces used to make about the incest and stupidity that existed in her own community.
It was only when she had moved away from her hometown that this idea about faces, time and place had played on her mind. When she moved away to study she began to see that people from the city, alongside fashions that were specific to the area, shared a commonality in their faces. When there was no obvious clothing that denoted someone’s provenance she would guess if they were local or not. Many times, at the organic fruit and veg market, her prediction was sonically affirmed by the local accent.
When she returned home for the holidays, over the next couple of years, she began to see forms of locality that were specific to her own region. She considered why this was happening and thought the phenomenon must have been there all along. It was just that in being part of the amorphous whole of her town, having never lived anywhere else before going to study, she was incapable of seeing it.
This was coupled with an intensification of the way she heard the accent that pertained to her place of birth, a sound she had never paid any attention to before. In surrounding herself with all these new forms and sounds she could almost strip away the content of what was being said and listen to the melodies of these accents. Occasionally she heard the alterity of her own voice in her head, as if she was set apart from it, and it left her with the shuddering cringe that hearing her own recorded voice evoked in her.
This all seemed to be adding weight to her theory; accents were like faces in that they aimed away from themselves. An accent was a cultural instrument that played the sounds resonating from the spatial cavities within the body. It addressed the inner being performed in the outer, reflecting it back into an identity that personalised its difference from others on the basis of being part of a collective.
She felt ashamed. During her teenage years she had consciously changed her accent, to sound more like the middle-class strata of her high school. At the time she was proud of her ability to do this; it was no mean feat changing all the vowel sounds. It had also stood her in good stead, she believed, for having a slight edge over other less well-spoken applicants. She had heard about students being asked to “tone down” their accent in interview practice. But now she thought she’d got it all wrong, since changing her accent she had become too easily influence by the intonation of others. Now, when she returned home, all her old school friends taunted her that she sounded Northern. When she was at university, some people gave her a hard time about her being Southern. There was a snobbery, but with different connotations. In a move for social mobility that seemed to be promised in homogenisation, she had become dislocated.
After considering this, the accents strengthened her view on faces. She felt inauthentic and homeless. These faces radiated out from their bone structure, through the skin, pointing to where they had been imprinted on by the expressions of generations that had acted out their lives in the same environs. They were unlike an accent, in that they couldn’t easily changed, like when some British people move to the U.S. and pick up a twang in a relatively short time. These faces had more had something more than just the ancestral characteristics she had seen jump across the generations on a wall of family photos. There was something else that brought them together, a united past that haunted them. They held a compressed density that defied chronological time and activities being done in different instances.
At the same time they suggested a future that they carried themselves toward from always having been there. The past was in it, but there was something about the different way it imagined itself in a new form that proposed either a novel way to deal with the challenges it may face or a reaction to suffering it had experienced in its previous incarnation. She was then struck by something that seemed less alienating. What if what she was seeing was a contradiction inherent to faces, perhaps form in general? That in a body’s individuation, that separated it off from the world, there was a calling back to a sameness that it lacked in its corporeality.
Classifying a face, relative to place and time has a turbulent history. Writing about it in prose can seem to smack of Nazi mysticism of the Fatherland. The Nazi’s used physiognomy to identify “Mischlings”, people thought to have a mix of Aryan and Jewish ancestry. The failure of this methodology was perhaps evident in the systems of symbols they had to allocate to people, so as to be able to identify them in the concentration camps. An interpretation of the idea of being able to locate people to their rightful birthplace seems particularly dangerous at the moment, when we look at the anti-immigration rhetoric used in the run up to the Brexit referendum, and the reported increase of racially motivated attacks thereafter. Also, on a more global level it is an unhelpful attitude to adopt when trying to address the current refugee crisis.
Physiognomy has not only been used to make general classifications of a people, but also to suggest that we can get direct access to someone’s personality by reading it correctly. Instead of using facial features to form groups based on a commonality of features, each face is seen as inherently different, and only gives us insight into the individual. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in an essay on physiognomy says (the individual for Schopenhauer seen as an expression of the same):
“Rather is every human face a hieroglyph, which, to be sure, admits of being deciphered — nay, the whole alphabet of which we carry about with us. Indeed, the face of a man, as a rule, bespeaks more interesting matter than his tongue, for it is the compendium of all which he will ever say, as it is the register of all his thoughts and aspirations. Moreover, the tongue only speaks the thoughts of one man, while the face expresses a thought of nature. Therefore it is worthwhile to observe everybody attentively; even if they are not worth talking to. Every individual is worthy of observation as a single thought of nature; so is beauty in the highest degree, for it is a higher and more general conception of nature: it is her thought of a species. This is why we are so captivated by beauty. It is a fundamental and principal thought of nature; whereas the individual is only a secondary thought, a corollary.”
I would agree with the thought of nature part, as faces on the Metro do appear to become ideas of forms hovering around nature’s mind’s eye exposing themselves on one face and then reconfiguring themselves on another as different passengers board and alight the train. The faces become abstracted representations of the many faces of face-ness. It seems from this extract that Schopenhauer places more value on the face in this way and considers what lies beneath as unimportant. However, he later goes on to clear up his thoughts on that issue, insisting that their formation is derived from their experiences:
“If any one, on the other hand, will be content with a psychological explanation, let him ask himself what kind of physiognomy can be expected in those whose minds, their whole life long, have scarcely ever entertained anything but petty, mean, and miserable thoughts, and vulgar, selfish, jealous, wicked, and spiteful desires. Each one of these thoughts and desires has left its impress on the face for the length of time it existed; all these marks, by frequent repetition, have eventually become furrows and blemishes, if one may say so.”
From my experiences on the trains, I am not too sure if the faces reveal any sort of essence about their owner’s personhood or soul, which for Schopenhauer are inseparable.
Juan sees so many different faces in the faces on the train. The problem is that they all seem to be projections of a sort of cultural stockpile of images he has acquired over time. For the most part they are anachronistic references: an extra in a period drama, a character from a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, a sitter in one of Velazquez’s peasant paintings or one of the rabble in Goya’s works. The only narratives he can create for them are reimagined cinema clips of a rancher wolfing down some ambiguous looking food. Contemporary characters, if they do pop up, seemed to just be numb casting stereotypes: a mafia badass or a businessman sociopath.
On other trips the faces become not human, but animal, the whole of the face does not relate to one species in particular, but hints at reptilia, amphibia, rondentia, equidae, hominoidea, pices and aves via a part or parts of a face or body. There are fragile napes with soft wisps of hair referring to mousiness. There is chubby-cheeked, goofy chipmunk-ness; robust long necked and athletically limbed horsiness; the exhibition of beaky nosed and glaring eyed hawkishness; scrawny necked, bug eyed baby bird-ness; well-weathered, pinched in lips without dentures turtle-ness; flat headed apelike-ness, enhanced by a severe underbite; mbuna-esque, sumptuous mouths with round innocent eyes or a sweaty, gelatinous wink to the blob fish.
Juan has realised that this taxonomical breaking down of faces into parts can be even further abstracted. It seems like a watered down experience related to experiments that report the almost psychedelic morphing of faces and a sense of disassociation due to internal projections of the unconscious on to the other person’s face when stared at for periods of 10mins or longer, which he has recently read a study about, carried out by Giovanni B. Caputo, 2015.
Juan thinks his experience is less intense, possibly because his gaze is not fixed, due to his fear of inciting a confrontation or appearing creepy. Consequently, he is left with a continually flittering pattern of impressions about a face. Sometimes, he sees faces leave the human and the animal altogether and become bits of flesh cut and pasted on to each other: a small, pointy nose lost on one moon face appears on another streamlined, angular visage with different results. He sees skin stretched and pinned back next to an epidermis that sags and swings on a skull. Not only is there a complete gradated range of seemingly all the possible expressions of furrowed brows; bulbous conks; pugnacious lips; long, dangling lobes, accentuated by gravity’s encouragement and pendulous earrings; minuscule chins; vast, abyssal eyes and all their opposites and in-betweens, but also the apparently infinite spatial arrangements that punctuate these features which become characteristics themselves. Tiny philtra and elongated mentolabial sulci that are sharply interrupted by the narrow horizontal incision of wafer thin lips or a wide nasion that pushes the eyes out horizontally, right up close to just below the temples, or an unusual sense of downward thrusting verticality derived from a long dorsum of the nose, which ends in a downward pointing nasal tip that forks into the two nasolabial sulci, forming uninterrupted lines that taper out, joining with the corners of the mouth and then carrying on down the marionette lines which have a further visual effect of descending from the jowl development that hangs off them.
All these forms aren’t separated, they all move in and out of each other, like the T-1000 when it falls into the molten metal at the end of the film, they endlessly take on new manifestations, in what Juan feels, to be an attempt to escape death. Each face has no particular meaning in itself, each of them only has any bearing in relation to another, and this significance is continually replaced by looking at another face. Juan sees himself melting into these forms, so much so that he can’t feel himself as a self. He is just a string of endless impressions and sensations like everything else around him.
If we have already said that physiognomy is politically problematic, why is the problem any different when it comes to thinking about an individual other? Physiognomy was something that was fashionable in Schopenhauer’s time, the nineteenth century. This was, however, not the first period that had an interest in it. Pythagoras (500 B.C.) was said to have judged a student’s intelligence on their appearance and would accept or turn them away on that basis. In the 1600’s Giambattista della Porta published De Humana Physiognomia which contained illustrations of human faces next to animal ones with similar features, proposing that they also shared character traits. In Schopenhauer’s time, Johann Caspar Lavater had artists like William Blake illustrate his culturally biased conclusions on a person’s character being embodied in the face. Ezechia Marco Lombroso’s concept of criminal atavism claimed it was possible to determine a person’s potential for criminality through a set of “subhuman” anomalies. Duchenne de Boulogne, sceptical of the face’s ability to reveal moral character, as was Schopenhauer, resorted to photographing people while administering electric shocks in an attempt to locate the soul in the face in relation to the gesture. During this process he stumbled upon the configurations of muscles involved in a genuine smile, later dubbed the Duchenne smile.
The encounters of the face presented up until now do not appear to lead to an understanding of what lies beneath an inaccessible other. In fact, repeatedly objectifying faces seems to make them become something more other than what I originally perceived as alien. Maybe the Metro is not the right place to see faces, perhaps there are just too many of them. Schopenhauer had instructions on the right way to approach a face; I have followed the ones about not talking to the person, but not on watching them alone.
These seemingly endless reformulations of understanding a face could be a violent reaction from one’s own ego, aimed at undoing the unmanageable confrontation of too many others that presents one with a threat to their own subjectivity. This subjectivity then goes into overdrive, scribbling a kind of graffiti on the faces, where the line continues being drawn on to the next one in order to deface them all. Perhaps this is a type of subconscious revenge on others for showing one the possibility of one’s own mortality through their own death.
But if a person’s psyche resists being uncovered by objectifying the face, why are there commonalities between what our characters saw in them on the Metro, and the negative historical connotations of physiognomy? I have to admit that I thought about all these things on the Metro without any knowledge of physiognomy’s history. It was only when writing the part about faces referring to their geographic specificity that I felt a sense of discomfort, and some vague rumblings of Nazism, that I looked into it. Maybe all I am doing is applying deeply embedded cultural meanings related to the face, in an attempt to penetrate the other. The sort of leaps one might take when trying to find meaning in a piece of art.
Physiognomy was eventually derided as a pseudo science, but it has recently had something of a come back in scientific studies, such as one carried out by the University of Delaware. The research suggests that men with a higher facial Width-to-Height Ratio are more likely to be, among other things, racist. They propose that a wide face with a compressed verticality, is due to high levels of testosterone, which increase one’s likelihood to break social mores in a quest for social dominance. The widened face is allegedly perceived as threatening by viewers, and when asked about what views this person held on people of different races, viewers thought they were more likely to be bigoted. This response apparently correlated with data collected on the owner of the face’s own views on race. There is however a caveat to this research: the correlation only worked between those who expressed explicitly racist views. When people with varying face shapes were tested for ‘implicit racism’, an unconscious association of negative thought with a different race, it was not so easy to spot. Therefore suggesting the kind of prejudice that implies systemic racism is a problem that remains more difficult to weed out of society.
This study seems to ironically invert physiognomy’s tendency towards inciting sentiments of racial superiority and prejudice. It perhaps asks us to question how far intuition can be used to gain an insight into another. Yet this seemingly benign or socially progressive study has the same propensity to stigmatise and alienate the other as previous thoughts, including my own in this text, if picked up as a politically charged piece of information upon which to act. One could imagine the possibility of a group of ant-fascist vigilantes walking around looking to find wide faces to beat on. Alternatively, wide faces could weave their way into a cultural subconscious, which leads to implicit exclusion in society, like obese people being more unlikely to be unemployed. On top of that there is the questioning of the motivation for publishing or not publishing these studies in the media.
By isolating certain features on a face, science, albeit unintentionally, also isolates that person by reducing them to a set of values that don’t relate to them as a whole, reinforcing intuitive propensities to objectify the other, and intensify alienation. In science’s attempt to be objective it leaves itself open to being passively taken up by an ideological narrative. Lyotard addressed this issue in The Post Modern Condition: a Report on Knowledge:
“What happened at the end of the eighteenth century, with the first industrial revolution, is that the reciprocal of this equation was discovered: no technology without wealth, but no wealth without technology. A technical apparatus requires an investment; but since it opitimizes the efficiency of the task to which it is applied, it also opitimizes the surplus-value derived from this improved performance. All that is needed is for the surplus-value to be realized, in other words, for the product of the task performed to be sold. And the system can be sealed in the following way: a portion of the sale is recycled into a research fund dedicated to further performance improvement. It is at this precise moment that science becomes a force of production, in other words, a moment in the circulation of capital.
It was more the desire for wealth than the desire for knowledge that initially forced upon technology the imperative of performance improvement and product realization. The “organic” connection between technology and profit preceded its union with science.”
This unwitting union of science with neo-liberal capitalism or other smaller narratives that feed it, has perhaps even more damaging effects on our ability to make contact with the other through the face. Walter Benjamin proposed that the photographic reproduction of faces entering into capitalist circulation reduced the power of the original facial expression. Its loss of “aura” and inability to “perform” in front of an audience dehumanised it. This dehumanisation of the face has continued in scientific and technological advancement.
I mentioned at the beginning of this extract that the Metro provides us with a face that is missing from our exchanges with others on the Internet. In cyberspace one is able to be a voice without a presence and therefore the responsibility of owning that voice, arguably the reason for the aggression shown in trolling. This type of violence could be the consequence of a lack of empathy induced by the virtuality of the situation, where without the face it is difficult to believe what you are saying could have any effect on the other or maybe it is just a frustration at being unable to meaningfully connect with another via a medium that promises unlimited connectivity, like the graffiting of a face on the Metro with your own projections
But this issue of science’s vulnerability when helpfully addressing the face is further compounded by the way the it is dealt with in conjunction with technology, and its cultural applications. One example of this could be representations of beauty by science. Dr Stephen Marquardt’s “Beauty Mask” is supposed to be a mathematical rendering of the face drawn from the golden ratio. This face is one that harks back to the proportions of Ancient Greek sculpture and is tested out by placing the mask on celebrities deigned to be beautiful by public opinion, usually with high scoring correspondences. This image is in turn used by advertising to sell more products associated with beauty. A continual feedback loop is created between a culturally manifested idea of beauty and its representation in scientific justification as being something universal. Whatever the value of its research, its lack of consideration about where it aligns itself culturally creates something bogus. The numbers derived to claim something as beautiful were obtained from a culturally invented idea of beauty. There are also criticisms of Marquardt’s mask that show a public preference for measurements that fall outside the golden ratio, further questioning the mask’s validity. The way the evidence is portrayed in the media does not deal with any criticisms, leaving them to be perceived as truth talking by an authority, while not being undeservedly founded in many respects, possessed by science.
Another study by Dr Christopher Solomon involved people using the EFIT-V PhotoFit software (used by U.K. police)to put together a composite of the perfect face. These composites were judged on their attractiveness in accordance to the opinion of 100 people (not a huge sample) who rated them. The results created four images of beauty: a man’s perception of male beauty; a man’s perception of a woman’s beauty; a woman’s perception of a woman’s beauty and a woman’s perception of a man’s beauty. A woman’s perception of male beauty was a more feminine perception of the same: a soft jaw line, slim face, full lips and clean shaven face, a more masculine image was recounted by men. The study highlighted the fact that the measurements that make up these forms were culturally specific, and that the same experiment in a different culture would yield a different set of faces.
While I was searching for the above scientific research, which has echoes physiognomy, I again found it problematic. Like the “Beauty Mask” the other studies rely on overlaying the findings of their research on the faces of celebrities. This seems to further exacerbate the problem that cultural ideas about beauty are caught in a loop with scientific research continually basing its credibility within socially constructed ideas of beauty. The idea of beauty being good, perpetuated in Schopenhauer’s physiognomy and social Darwinism, is continued.
This idea is further compounded by this scientific research being used as currency in the marketplace. The artist, Cristina Lucas, made a body of work, Es Capital, in which she interviews a series of talking heads that appear in videos that form part of an installation. The artist is an invisible Socratic figure, that we only occasionally hear in the background, asking questions like: What is beauty? Some of these faces, in the videos, belong to people working in fields like marketing. In their responses to the questions, they support their opinions with evidence that seems to come from the aforementioned studies. There is complicity between this scientific data and a system that is motivated to propagate a certain idea of the face.
This face, for almost everyone, is impossible, not even celebrities match up to its measurements exactly. It becomes a form that hovers in the ether, and appears as more alienating than the face sitting opposite one on the Metro. The face is transformed into something that is not you, but belongs to a phantasmagorical big Other.
It strikes me as strange that the software used to materially reveal this face is borrowed from the body that enforces its status quo. Benjamin’s concern about the dilution of facial expression in the reproduced image has been invigorated by new ways that technology has expressed the face in relation to the forces of capital.
Other examples of the face’s relationship with power can be seen in the passport. The boarder patrol guard uses the reproduction of a face to authenticate the one that stands before them, along with other data that correlates to their personhood, such as the time and place they were born and their national identity authenticated by a number given by the state. The face could be seen as the node that authenticates the reproduction of the self awarded by the state, giving you the freedom to move and meet others. However, in light of recent biometric developments in passport technology, the face is now not enough or often times you are not welcomed by a face, but a machine which takes a picture of you. Stories of identity theft and false passports being bought on the deep web doubt the authenticity of the face on a document and take even the “specular image” away.
Facial recognition technology also steals your face, realizing it in 3D and putting somewhere, where you can no longer see it or control how your image will be used. Their uncanny manifestations are as creepy as the EFIT-V PhotoFit depiction of beauty. All these technological developments seem to continuously address the image of the face as something suspect.
If the problem of objectifying a face has made images of it become associated with a feeling of suspicion in society, is it not a positive thing? The problems this text started out with, concerned the alienation that is created by the fictitious doubling of one’s being created in the “specular image”, making us finite in the gaze of the other. If the face has become immaterial, are we now not freed up from prejudices held by others related to our countenance by losing face and mistrusting it as something with the potential to be revelatory? Are we now not more able to enter into the flux of infinity?
Emmanuel Levinas would see any objectification of the face as a something subjective, therefore forming an idea about a person from isolating associations to the facial features would be doing this, and only understanding the other in terms of the I, which he days is the “same”, a finite understanding of the world. He would also probably see the abstract objectification of faces by technological development as some sort of “violence”, and not a liberation from form created by the devaluation of the face. In the dematerialisation of the face, he would perhaps suggest, that we have not rid ourselves from the prejudiced “congealing” of a face by mistrusting its ability to tell us something profound about the other, but only created a blanked mistrust of the form of the face in general, leading to further hesitation in approaching them. In Totality and Infinity he claims that the only way to experience the world in a way that isn’t finite is to take “responsibility” for the other. We could see facial recognition making the face responsible, in that being stored in big data it can come back to bite you for betraying the laws of society. However, Levinas would also probably view this as an objectifying of the face that betrays it. The ultimate “violent” act against it, the objectified image of one’s own face coming back to annihilate it, stemming from a “tyrannical” history’s understanding of the face. To take responsibility, for Levinas, one must not see the other, or themselves as a threat to one’s existence, but to “welcome” it as a chance to “overflow” into the infinite. The way we do this is by undoing the form of the face:
“…the manifestation of a face over and beyond form. Form–incessantly betraying its own manifestation, congealing into a plastic form, for it is adequate to the same–alienates the exteriority of the other. The face is a living presence; it is expression. The life of expression consists in undoing the form in which the existent, exposed as a theme, is thereby dissimulated. The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already a discourse. He who manifests himself comes, according to Plato’s expression, to his own assistance. He at each instant undoes the form he presents.”
The means of undoing the face is through language. The “face-to-face” situation is an opportunity to “desire” the face as a site from which to break into the infinite, where I can be “taught” something through its unravelling. It is in the space of exchange between bodies, in speaking, that I approach becoming something other and therefore something infinite. For Levinas the infinite is not a flowing everything, but that which is not finite, i.e. not pertaining to a subjective experience of the world.
However, to do this we need to have a sort of well coming to this “welcome”. To try and “thematise” the conversation would be to try and crystallise the discourse. This sort of discourse would be one based on “need”, which pertains to a world history of “Tyranny” where a person is only viewed as a series of actions played out in the objective world. This history makes no attempt to get to know the other, but only understands them in how they have manipulated the material world,; thus calling for oneself to be acted upon in the same way.
Levinas proposes that for the most part our interactions with others are not based on the drives of the superego, but what he calls the “enjoyment” of relations between things. This is an attitude born out of “desire” and “peace”. The correct way to encounter another, according to Levinas, as I said before, is “responsibility”. He says this is not a “thematisation” of discourse, but a “universal ground”, stemming from “fraternity”. “Fraternity” is the transcending of a “genus” or the relationship of father and son as seen as something similar, but simultaneously other. Society has to see itself as brothers in order to transcend the ego. Once we enter the space of a non-thematised discourse we can start to relate to the “inner life” of the other and “rehabilitate” subjectivity in a turn away from “egoism” towards the “unicity” of the dissolution of the self in the other.
Levinas’ work seems to fall in line with earlier thoughts in this text about the self always wanting to not be something finite that is objectified by the other. That it always tries to aim towards something else in order to be realised, perhaps the reason that we try to reach out and objectify it in the first place. We could perhaps now see my riffing on others as an attempt to “enjoy” them a “desire” (part of what Levinas says relates to the subjective “inner life”) to get to know the infinite through the other. Yet it seems that my enjoyment was malicious, as I tried to reduce the other, sometimes almost literally, to a genus. In my search for getting to know the other through the face, I have continually attempted to plasticise, and reduce it. My own thoughts and the criticisms I have levelled at other areas seem to belong to the history of violence that Levinas speaks of. The objectifying world of faces I have presented, in their technological reproduction in relation to capital, does not seem to entertain an understanding of another in the face. The removal of the face does not free up the world to be viewed as something like an immaterial flow of consciousness. If we agree with Levinas, infinity is anthropological, everything else is meaningless.
Lucía spent a considerable portion of her existence on the Metro. It had a kind of otherworldly feeling to it. This world wasn’t that far removed from the one above, a condensed version of it: time and space was broken up into stops and countdowns until the arrival of the next train. People were always on their way to somewhere else in order to get to somewhere else. This movement was structured and had boundaries like the Metro map, where routes of travel were invisibly sketched out on it, all the while with the potential to go elsewhere being dangled in front of her.
Names that she vaguely recalled from history class, like Nuñez de Balboa, now made her feel guilty after finding out that he had set dogs on the indigenous people of Latin America, which added to the anxiety of packed trains, pressing her up against someone in a way she normally reserved for a lover. Even when she wasn´t standing in a busy train, when seated, she was invaded by globular buttocks that surged through the metal arm rests on the exterior seat or the man spreading occurring on the other side. She was also often confronted by clothed sexual organs displayed in front of her gaze at an alarming proximity. Bodies were everywhere, even when she was close to getting out of the Metro they were in her way, clogging up the stairwells and corridors, which made them (people) more modular with all their lines that became grids on the tiled floor. Their shiny surfaces, like the ergonomically designed arse curves in the seats, and the darkened trajectory of the train that took you to where you were going without seeing what was on the way, so you could only feel yourself moving like a line being drawn out in Euclidean space, all of it wanted to spit you out as fast as you came in, but only as a unit posted through the turnstile.
Bodies were everywhere, but trapped in conditions that flattened them into a material to be negotiated with. They were told how they could spend their hard earned cash by advertisements or instructed by Televisions and projectors on how to enjoy their free time with cultural activities going on above ground, and book titles recommended to them on screen by fellow passengers. They were accosted by sales people, traps set by ticket checkers, and chuggers on the way in/out.
Even when Lucía wasn’t confronted directly by a body, there were traces of it. She occasionally saw vomit at the entrance/exit, or a smeared dog shit footprint on the gleaming floor. Smells also drifted through the Metro’s atmosphere. The stink of someone’s body odour was enhanced by the air conditioning in the summer. At other times a mysterious disowned fart greeted her as she boarded, perhaps its owner was the person who had just got off, all the faces in the carriage proclaimed innocence. She had seen graffiti on some of the advertisements. One of them she remembered in particular: the Metro was boasting about the cheapness of its fairs, relative to other underground rail systems, and someone had put a list of all the other living costs that were relative to that price in each city. Once she had even seen some piss sloshing around in one of the arse curves of the seats, which revealed a previously unnoticed rocking, tidal motion into the train.
Despite her original disgust at all these excretive acts, she had grown to enjoy them, sometimes catching herself smiling at them; it was because they reminded her of something that had happened. The vomit produced thoughts of a night out or the last time she’d eaten something ropey. The farts brought forward recollections of hilarious and embarrassing incidents with her friends and methane gas. The dog shit skid made her recount an incident in her teenage years, when she had met a new guy and was going back to his place after school. The whole day she had had an iffy stomach, and it was, now, on the way back to his, that the diarrhoea wouldn’t hold back. She screamed at him, “give me the key!”, and after snatching it out of his hand, striding up the street leaving a noxious trail behind her, she realised it was too late. In a desperate bid to reach the toilet inside the house, she broke out into a run. As soon as she did, and she knew this would happen, the hot liquid stool sprayed the seat of her underwear and beyond. Although this episode was originally mortifying, it was something that later made them both feel closer.
It was something coming out of someone that she enjoyed. Why then, on the Metro, in the face of all this unrequited closeness, was the commonplace exchange of speaking to another person so difficult? A rucksack slapped her in the face, and as its wearer moved out of the carriage, she looked over at the person seated opposite her, texting on their phone. Her (the person texting) lips raised into a smile. Cristina wondered what was so funny. Half way down the carriage someone was talking on a mobile, they appeared to be angry, but she couldn’t work out why. Two other people were having a conversation, but she felt unable to intrude. She got up and held down the button to get off the train as it pulled into the station. A man on the other side of the window, disfigured by some etched scrawl on the glass, agitatedly hammered at the button from the other side. She could feel his incessant tapping, vibrating and pushing her finger back on her side. “Can’t he see that I intend to get off?”
She got off the train and broke into a light jog, the information board had told her she only had two minutes minute to catch the next train on the connecting line of her route. A woman stopped her in the corridor and asked her how to find the platform for Line 1. She pointed and told her where to go. She quickened up her pace on hearing the train approaching the platform. To improve her chances of getting it, she relaxed her legs, a technique she had developed, so that she could almost flop down the escalator like a blob of jelly. She made it just in time, albeit with a crunched shoulder as she slipped in through the doors. Disguising her panting, she saw that the train was almost empty and took a seat. She waited for the thumping pulse in the back of her neck, which dominated her whole being, to subside so she could tune into her surroundings.
While things started to come back into focus, she noticed that a woman was looking at her. She attempted to make eye contact, but the woman’s eyes shifted downward. She left her gaze on her, but when the woman looked up again she felt that she couldn’t maintain eye contact and looked out of the window. This game continued for a good couple of minutes. She couldn’t think of a particular reason why she felt compelled to look, yet she was interested in this person. She couldn’t find anything to say, even though she felt the urge to speak. There was a heavy, Cimmerian fog of silence that filled the train’s atmosphere. An unspoken set of rules of unagreed upon Metro etiquette. The only people who seemed to break the rules were beggars, buskers, drunks, the elderly, and the insane. She always avoided conversations with these people, feeling that she hadn’t come to them herself. The Metro, to her, presented a sort of essence that referred to the rest of her life. This was a sort of not being connected, despite what she saw as endless opportunities to do so being all around her. The Metro and its idiosyncratic seating arrangement, that put people face-to-face, showed this opportunity tangibly. Yet the infinitesimal space between them had its own physicality that left her in a state of paralysis. All her experience on the Metro wasn’t an answer to her problem, just an intense confrontation with it, in an existential reality. Existentialism, she thought, was popular around the time the Metro was. “Am I not bringing an old problem back into a new age?”