The face as technology

Summer 2018
DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:93.07.2017

In this article, we contribute to thinking about the emergence of the face in digital culture. Building on work in the fields of art history, cinema studies, and surveillance studies, which have long established a technological interest in the human face, we move this critical discourse on by locating in contemporary popular culture, and Hollywood narrative cinema in particular, anxieties about, and play with, the face as a new kind of digital object. By studying the face as a digital object away from its primary sites of recognition – online, in CCTV imagery, in identification documents – we encounter in narrative cinema the face as a story. In particular, the recent films of Scarlett Johansson tell stories about the face as made by and in relation to digital technology, but also in relation to discourses of celebrity, whiteness, and femininity. Johansson’s face is a generative filmic object with which to interrogate the normative conditions of the face in contemporary digital culture. It is her face that becomes the computer in Lucy (dir. Luc Besson, 2014), her face that is the alien black sheen of Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013), and her face that is the absent signified in her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013). Focusing on Johansson’s films enables us to think together the interface-object of celebrity in the contemporary, the technological face of digital cinema, and importantly, the face as primarily a gendered and raced technology in the making.