BY Tom Holert in Features | 21 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146


Anonymity and iconography in contemporary protest culture

BY Tom Holert in Features | 21 MAR 12

Öyvind Fahlström Mao-Hope March, 1966, 16mm film still. Courtesy Sharon Avery-Fahlström Collection

Of the many thousands of anonymous faces in a crowd, which would be the one you would notice first? For protestors active in the current global manifestations of civil unrest – be they keen to remain incognito or to render themselves highly visible – this question is crucial.

Research in visual cognition and social psychology has demonstrated that faces displaying extreme emotional states, particularly anger and anxiety, are detected far more quickly than those bearing happy or neutral expressions. This anger–superiority hypo­thesis was sustained through various experiments conducted by psychologists in the 1980s. Test subjects were asked to identify ‘emotionally discrepant faces embedded in crowds’, and it was observed that people with threatening facial expressions stood out most. Resorting to the unconscious mind – or, perhaps more accurately, to human instinct – researchers concluded that these perceptions arose as a ‘result of a pre-attentive, parallel search for signals of direct threat’.1

In advancing this research, the specific elements of angry faces were isolated and schematized: a downward-pointing, V-shaped brow proved unequivocally to be the feature deemed most indicative of threat in these experiments. One wonders whether Alan Moore and David Lloyd were apprised of the importance attributed to this form when creating the imagery for their comic-bookseries V for Vendetta (1982–88). In both the books and the 2005 film adaptation, the anarchist-revolutionary protagonist dons a Guy Fawkes mask whose sardonic smile is strikingly V-shaped. Currently, the Guy Fawkes mask is a near-ubiquitous presence at protest marches, and it certainly stands to reason that the threatening effect elicited by Anonymous or the Occupy movement – punctuated with grinning, V-shaped visages – is connected to the perceptibility assured by the anger–superiority syndrome.

Yet, while someone wearing a Guy Fawkes mask may pose a threat to the direct beneficiaries of the current financial system, all others encounter that figure – somewhat contradicting the idea that this kind of face unequivocally signals danger – not as a threat or even as subject or object but, according to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as something very different: they see it as the possibility of a world to be grinned at. This possible world, they argue in their book Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (What Is Philosophy?, 1991), is not, or not yet, real but exists nonetheless: ‘It is an expressed that exists only in its expression – the face, or the equivalent of the face.’2 A face, in this very specific sense, does not belong to a body or a soul whose emotional states are obediently translated into an expression. Instead, it is an energizing and transforming force, a pure and autonomous expression void of sense or meaning.

Liberated from the normative understanding of the face as a signifying feature on which thoughts, feelings and affects are arranged to ensure their legibility, Deleuze and Guattari considered the face, and, more particularly, the intensive face, as a moving assemblage of pulsating parts. Contrary to the ‘faciality’3 of the Western Christian anthropological tradition, which presents the face as the fundamental semiotic device, defining humanity and subjectivity as personality-come-face, Deleuze and Guattari proposed a reconsideration of the face in terms of what it does, not what it shows. That is to say: they looked at the face in terms of its psychic and social effects – at the way it transforms those who encounter it. 

The power of the face as a site of a supposedly truthful expression (of determination and invincibility, say) becomes particularly palpable precisely in those revolutionary or otherwise disruptive moments when it utterly fails – when the organizing force of a political or religious leader’s face loses its grip. In such an instance, the collective imaginary withdraws its willingness to believe what the face stands for, and the people start to contest it. Since the upsurge in demonstrations in 2010, the number of incidents involving the public defacing of portraits, burning of effigies and defiling of images has reached new levels. The political fate of dictators such as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi had been anticipated and celebrated visually, and indeed viscerally, by protestors bearing placards of the leaders’ crossed-out faces on the streets and squares of Cairo and Tripoli, tapping into a long tradition of effigy disfigurement. 

Occupy Wall Street poster. Courtesy Occupy Wall Street

Crucially, however, in our historical moment it appears that no-one anticipates any new faces to be held up in rallies and demonstrations to replace the old ones. In some instances, in fact, portraits of today’s political leaders are being used against themselves – by being shuttled back and forth in history, for instance. During the Moscow protests of December 2011 and January 2012, Vladimir Putin’s face appeared in the streets and on the covers of magazines in images in which his facial features were merged with those of long-time Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev. In November 2011, Shepard Fairey, famous for having designed the ‘Hope’ poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, released a mash-up version of that poster for Occupy, which featured the Guy Fawkes mask.

Today’s revolutionaries have turned to strategies of image-smearing and leader-less anonymity. Past practices of carrying pictures of Karl Marx or Che Guevara through the streets seem to have no resonance among activists anymore. Nowadays, only a few would get the specific humour of Öyvind Fahlström’s 1966 Mao-Hope March performance in New York, in which the artist filmed his collaborators carrying placards of Chairman Mao and Bob Hope through the streets, while a professional radio reporter collected statements from baffled passers-by. At the time, the event was easily legible as a farcical comment on the strategies of Pop art and propaganda, and as a critique of just how interchangeable the facework of politicians and entertainers had become in the age of mass media.

Fahlström’s Happening stems from a phase in the history of public protest that is long gone. Nowadays, although the placards may be individually designed and hand-crafted from beige cardboard, inscribed with felt-pen slogans and held aloft by protestors filled with pride and anger – just as they have been since the 1960s – the leaders’ faces are either obscured or omitted, and sometimes rendered in the photographic style of a fashion blog.

The urge to question the ‘faciality’ of leadership has superseded every desire to worship the portrait of the charismatic revolutionary – or the charismatic dictator, for that matter. The power of the image has turned against those who have always relied on the force of their countenance: the time frame within which politicians’ faces appear jaded and attrite seems increasingly brief. Simultaneously, communities of unknown faces have risen in prominence in the era of Facebook and the omnipresence of the web-based thumbnail portrait. The anger of these unknown faces in the crowd, however, and the threat they present are immediately visible and palpable. A blog such as ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ documents the emergence of a new genre of testimonial self-portraiture, which juxtaposes accounts of individual anger with anxious and threatening faces, partly orentirely defaced by hand-writing, and introduces a new register of the expressive: mute yet angry, eloquent yet baffled.

Seemingly, individuals are beginning to resist the ‘facial machine’, the subjugation to a relentless commodification of the face. ‘Choices are guided by faces, elements are organized around faces: a common grammar is never separable from a facial education,’ as Deleuze and Guattari observed in A Thousand Plateaus (1987).4 Yet a new ‘education’ seems to be emerging these days, a post-charismatic, post-leadership anti-faciality.

1 Christine Hansen, Ranald D. Hansen, ‘Finding the Face in the Crowd: An Anger Superiority Effect’, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 54 (6), June 1988, pp. 917–24
2 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 17
3 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 127, p. 184ff
4 Ibid, p. 179

Translated by Allison Plath-Moseley