How literature helps us interpret the human face

In the first chapter of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Emma (1815) Emma Woodhouse, the beautiful and intelligent protagonist of the story, describes the marriage of her friend and former housekeeper:

“Each body was on time, everyone was in their best light:
not a tear, and hardly a long face to see
. “

Emma by Jane Austen. From an engraving by Greatbatch, after painting by Pickering. Photo: Culture Club / Getty Images

This seemingly simple and now familiar expression – having or making a face – is just one of the ways that facial rhetoric shapes our experience as readers and, by extension, the way we understand and interpret emotions, the human expression and subjectivity beyond the page.

The face has a long and complex history in the visual arts, psychology, religious studies, computer science, medicine, and other fields.

Our faces help us to articulate relationships with one another, with the divine, with different forms of cultural, racial and ethnic similarity and otherness, as well as with other species.

We see faces all the time.

We assess them against changing cultural norms of beauty, normality or disfigurement and, through a series of complex cognitive, perceptual and technological processes – like painting, cinema, social media and, increasingly, people. facial recognition technologies.

While images of faces dominate many cultures and visual traditions, descriptions of the face in literature have long been crucial in conceptualizing the human experience.

Authors, narrators, and characters constantly “read” the faces of other characters – they identify, interpret, describe, respond to, pathologize, question, and misinterpret them.

These interactions tend to be studied only piecemeal and only as they occur in individual texts.

Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the ‘Mona Lisa’ at the Louvre in Paris. Image: Getty Images

Our research project, Literature and face: a critical history, studies the cultural history of the face of medieval literature to contemporary literature.

We looked at long-range facial representation models, the history of facial rhetoric, and the broader cultural contexts from which we can consider the meaning of the face and understand facial expression.

Literary texts also shed light on the historical origins of many facial phrases that we now use on a daily basis.

Jane Austen’s use of ‘long face’, for example, has a complex semantic and philosophical history where the expression has evolved from a use in purely descriptive terms to a more complex symbolic term that refers to disposition or disposition. the overall mood of a person.

The practice of assessing a person’s character from their outward appearance – especially that of the face – is known as physiognomy, which comes from the Greek terms physis meaning “nature” and gnomon meaning “judge” or “interpreter”.

This concept was developed by the German anatomist Francois-Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828).

It is one of many diverse disciplinary areas that intersect with the description of faces in literature and was widely accepted by the ancient Greeks and during the Middle Ages.

Another influential example is that of Charles Darwin The expression of emotions in humans and animals (1872) where he presents a set of principles around facial displays which, as he describes, “represent most expressions and gestures unwittingly used by man and lower animals”, suggesting that these expressions are universal.

About a century later, psychologist Paul Ekman published a series of studies in which he attempted to codify a facial analysis system, determining that there were six, or perhaps, seven main facial expressions considered universal in all cultures.

These are anger, contempt, fear, happiness, interest, sadness, and surprise.

Wooden box containing sixty small phrenological heads made by phrenologist William Bally of Dublin, Ireland, to illustrate the theories of physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). Image: Getty Images

The central idea behind these texts is that our inner states can be deduced with precision from outer signs. This presumption has a long and contested history in which the quest for facial generalization has been widely recognized as a discriminatory practice.

Literary texts, such as novels, plays, and poetry, help us understand the ways in which individual faces are viewed through specific historical and cultural frameworks.

Textuality and narration also mediate the face in often subtle and indirect ways, deviating from the often generalist and taxonomic objectives of other texts.

In Oliver twist, for example, Charles Dickens recounts a time when Mr. Gamfield (the chimney sweep), “cast an arched glance at the faces around the table, and, observing a smile on each one, gradually began to smile himself. “

By experiencing this scene, readers are invited to the illusion of sharing the understanding of the face – and the collective response to it – with the author, narrator, and other characters.

In this way, reading faces in literary texts encourages us to participate in an act of intimate imagination that is also quite social when we consider the tension, sentiment, social cues, and decorum of different historical and social contexts.

It’s no surprise, then, that cultural, historical, and literary understandings of the face can also help us think about modern issues related to digital capture and surveillance of faces.

Illustration of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist Asking for More Food by James Mahoney, 1836. Photo: Getty Images

The growing ubiquity of artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology and the rise of so-called ‘tools for recognizing affects or emotions“have led experts to wonder how the field was so quick to assume a direct link between a person’s emotions and the physical signs expressed on their face.

Affect recognition tools are currently used in airport security checks, during recruitment processes, in software designed to detect psychiatric illnesses and in police programs that claim to predict violence.

So what are these systems based on?

Many systems for recognizing emotions, share a similar set of plans and foundational assumptions. They assume that there are a small number of distinct and universal emotional categories that humans unwittingly reveal on our faces and “that can be detected by machines,” notes Kate Crawford, senior researcher at Microsoft Search and guest professor at UC Berkley.

Literary texts crucially show us the dangers of anthropomorphizing technology.

Through symbolism, irony, innuendo, tone and metaphor, as well as shifts in gender, style and expression of gender, race and sexuality, literature complicates and intensifies the interaction. and human expression to provide multiple ways of interpreting human beings and their worlds.

Some of the world’s largest tech and surveillance companies have launched new facial recognition tools. Image: Getty Images

We become aware of this complexity at the end of Act 1, Scene 7 of Shakespeare. Macbeth when Macbeth says:

Far away, and make fun of the weather with the most beautiful show:
The false face hides a lot what the false heart knows.

Here, when Macbeth decides to assassinate King Duncan and take the throne of Scotland for himself, he does not speak to Lady Macbeth who stands nearby, but rather addresses himself, revealing the ability deceptive and misleading of the face in the context of social and political upheavals. fight.

Shakespeare reminds us that the face can tell several stories at once, depending on who is looking.

By tracing the evolution of semantic and rhetorical conventions of the face in literary texts, we can better understand how reading literature contributes to our capacity for empathy and understanding of others – as well as revealing how patterns of recognition and sociability have changed over time and in different cultures.

Literature and the Face: A Critical History is a discovery project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) and led by Professor Stephanie Trigg of the University of Melbourne in collaboration with Dr Joe Hughes and Dr Tyne Sumner of the University of Melbourne and Professor Guillemette Bolens at University of Geneva.

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