Thursday, 27 January 2011

Face-book


Don’t start mapping the archaeology of Facebook from history of social media, or stories about the history of the internet.

Start with the face. Start with the contorted expression, whether of terror or joy, or pure intoxication.

When beginning with the most banal bit of social media, do not ignore the 19th century use of photographic facial expressions for scientific purposes. Charles Darwin himself was interested in the evolutionary aspects of faces and expressions, and at the centre of much interest lies a curious book by the neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne: The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, or an Electro-physiological Analysis of the Expression of the Passions Applicable to the Practice of the Fine Arts (1862)

Face as the grounding of identity and how it is used as the iconic body part of a whole social media culture is taken to be something natural, something human, whereas already in the 19th century, it was deciphered as an index of more animal features. Duchenne worked at the Salpêtrière hospital which later became known for its hysteric (female) patients, and the variety of new media based experiments and empirical methods by Charcot.

Duchenne however already in the 1860s was using photography as a method to tap into the animal forces of the face. Photography offered him a way to capture the formal features of expressions with patients used as the models. Yet, two different time scales clashed. Photographic processes demanded a lot of time and holding the face still was difficult –Duchenne was using as his models mentally and physically ill patients. Instead of making photographic process quicker, he slowed down the body. By applying electrodes in right places of the face, the subject froze and kept the expression long enough – and becoming more than a fleeting expression, and an index for more scientific purposes (indeed, Darwin was using these photographs, and as source I have used here Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera, Oxford University Press, 2009, 81-83). Darwin himself used further engravings from the photographs, where the electrodes were removed – to look the poses slightly more…natural.

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