The Changing Face of Alterity: Communication, Technology, and Other Subjects

The Changing Face of Alterity: Communication, Technology, and Other Subjects


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The figure of the 'other' is fundamental to the concept of communication. Online or offline, communication, which is commonly defined as the act of sending or imparting information to others, is only possible in the face of others. In fact, the reason we communicate is to interact with others—to talk to another, to share our thoughts and insights with them, or to respond to their needs and requests. No matter how it is structured or conceptualized, communication is involved with addressing the other and dealing with the ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions of otherness or alterity. But who or what can be other? Who or what can be the subject of communication? Is the other always and only another human? Or can the other in these communicative interactions be otherwise?

This book is about others (and other kinds of others). It concerns the current position and status of the other in the face of technological innovations that can, in one way or another distort, mask, or even deface the other. Ten innovative essays, written by an international team of experts, individually and in collaboration with each other, seek to diagnose the current situation with otherness, devise innovative solutions to the questions of alterity, and provide insight for students, teachers and researchers trying to make sense of the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783488704
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/18/2016
Series: Media Philosophy Series
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David J. Gunkel is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of five books, including: Of Remixology: Ethics and Aesthetics after Remix (2016), The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots and Ethics (2012), and co-author of Heidegger and the Media (2014).

Ciro Marcondes Filho is a Professor in the Department of Communications and Arts at the University of Sao Paulo. He is creator of the New Theory of Communication, head of the FiloCom – Centre of Philosophical Studies on Communication, and has published over 45 books on journalism, mass media, cinema and philosophy. Recent books include: The New Theory of Communication (7 volumes), The Face and the Machine (Jabuti Award, 2014), Dictionary of Communication.

Dieter Mersch is Professor of Aesthetics and Director of the Institute for Critical Theory at Zurich University of the Arts. He is the author of several books in German.

Contributors: Mark Coeckelbergh, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK / Ciro Marcondes Filho, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil / Mira Fliescher, Karl Franzens-University, Graz, Austria / Alexsandro Galeno, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil / Ann Hetzel Gunkel, Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, USA / David J. Gunkel, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, USA / Maurício Liesen, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil / Dieter Mersch, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zürich, Switzerland / Jörg Sternage, Universität Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany / Tales Tomaz, Centro Universitário Adventista de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil

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The Changing Face of Alterity

Communication, Technology, and other Subjects

By David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho, Dieter Mersch

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho and Dieter Mersch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-870-4


Countenance — Mask — Avatar

The "Face" and the Technical Artifact

Dieter Mersch


What does it mean to "meet" a robot? What happens when we contemplate it, look into its face or stare into its "eyes?" How do we read the face of an avatar or understand its expression; in short, how do we respond to it? Does gaze meet gaze? What are we reacting to when we dialogue, solve problems, or fight with it? It seems that the face — German, Antlitz, also countenance or visage — is neither an image that can be animated at will nor a simulative screen open to mimetic play, but rather the opening to the Other, an "abyss" or "alterity." Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 197) described the face as the "first revelation of the Other" to whose expression we "respond." From the very first moment we communicate with one another, we throw ourselves into a veritable labyrinth. We become flustered or lose ground the instant we make contact. We carefully get a "feel" for each other, even if we only catch a sideways glimpse of one another in passing. Continuously, the face creates confusion; it takes hold of us and echoes within us long after we have shifted our attention elsewhere. To meet another person is thus, as Levinas so aptly put it, to be "kept awake by an enigma" (1998, 111) — open and ready to be unnerved or, to the contrary, scared-off or repulsed. The experience of the face is met by a fundamental "inindifference," as Levinas said. The double negation emphasizes the impossibility of disinterest. For this reason the face is always like an interruption, a "trap" or an attraction that leaves an indelible impression upon us and reminds us that we are first and foremost social beings and dependent upon others. We refer to others, desire them, and share a "world" with them, whether we want to or not. The "nakedness" of the face, again Levinas's (1969, 75) formulation, the fact that we usually present it unprotected — disclosing its insufficiency and distress, its inherent vulnerability because it exposes the bareness of our existence — also implies that it "concerns" us (regarder), attracts the gaze and expects respect (égard), but at the same time demanding distance and restraint. Levinas speaks in this context of "supplication," the expression of a "first word, 'you shall not commit murder.'" It is almost impractical to destroy a face. For this reason, confronting the countenance also has an ethical dimension. Even if we are oblivious to this fact, every face brings puts us on the trail of the initial experience of sociality that tells us, in principle, you are like me.

Is the above also true for our interaction with robots or avatars? Can they similarly become a "counterpart" that we meet "face to face," like the intermediary incarnation of Indian mythology from which the motif of the avatar stems? Or is there a fundamental separation, an unbridgeable gap, as if two inaccessible territories faced one another? Masahiro Mori (2012) made a similar claim as early as 1970, a claim that reappears in Jasia Reichardt's 1978 study Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction. Mori theorized an "uncanny valley," an unease that erupts when technical artifacts become too close to us and their appearance all too familiar. Our acceptance or approval of robots — and avatars — correlates directly, Mori postulated, with their lack of resemblance to us. The more they look like humans, the more they awaken revulsion. It seems we can accept animated dolls, animals, or automatons only if they are not "ghosts" or doppelgangers that we are unable to control. Otherwise the question of their autonomy arises, their "social" status and the respect due to them, depending on the specificity of their differences. The "uncanny valley" is our discomfort at their sameness and it exists in principle for all technical or digital devices with which we interact. Thereby the true question is what exactly does "inter-action" mean, in particular what is "in between" and what can we "share" in its spatium.

In the same vein, the relation between human and machine or simulation and "life," or the possibility of their mutual confusion, is also up for discussion, in particular the question of photorealistic rendering or 3-D models of "people." The problem is not so much whether machines — or computers or robots — can think. Alan Turing attempted to determine just that with his test, which tellingly works with curtains behind which the concealed competitors are asked to make decisions meant to reveal which one of them is, without a doubt, a technical structure (Turing 1950; see also Hayles 1999, xi ff.). Decisions however take place below the threshold of the discernible, for which reason Turing was content to contest that once a machine passed the test, we had no more reason to deny that it "thinks." However the entire construction already presupposes a decision-logical arrangement and thus encircles its own argumentation. The error is thus rooted in the set-up of the experiment itself, which operates within a binary logic where undecidability implies un-difference — but undecidability and indistinguishability are not the same (Mersch 2013). Indeed the greater problem by far is situated before thought at the level of perception, which Turing intentionally precluded from his experiments and which reveals, in a reflection on artificial skin or a "dead" eye, a difference that thwarts deception. If we speak only of "similarities" we have already accepted that distance and distinction. But the question is whether — perhaps in the near future — analogs will exist that not only defy understanding and recognition of distinctions, but also exhibit reactions and affects similar to our own, so that, as some science fiction movies suggest, we despair of trying to detect them. Or put another way, might we, in our meetings with artifacts — avatars or acting and speaking machines — possibly develop the same deep-seated desire and disquiet, and repulsion and attraction we experience in confrontation with human "people?" If we answer in the affirmative, we need moral standards for these meetings, a second posthuman ethics to stand alongside ethics as the prima philosophia that Levinas attempted to formulate. In developing robots and avatars are we confronting ourselves with digital twins that, once and for all, deprive us of our uniqueness — a further metaphysical humiliation beyond Copernicus's revolution, Charles Darwin's model of evolution, and Sigmund Freud's theory of unconscious — and reawaken doubts about our singularity? Or is the human face in contrast unique and irreplaceable — enjoying a distinct form of encounter that could never occur with technical devices, images, or other objects and apparatuses?


Today, there seems to be a tendency to believe that the former is at least likely. Posthumanist ethics, which aim to oust human beings from their central position — either as cognitive subjects with privileged access to the "world" and to the "truth" or as actors in a reality populated in the main by, as Graham Harman (2007) put it, Other objects — seemingly postulates a symmetry that denies both human exceptionality and the genuine asymmetry of human sociality. In that paradigm, there is no reason to favor humans over artifacts or things. Important instead is the analysis of mutual networks and relations or, in the words of Timothy Morton (2008, 2010), of unnatural ecologies, in which people are at best one node among others. As the problem is too complex for the scope of a single chapter, the following focuses on one key aspect, the problem of identity or difference in the relationship between "alien" objects such as robots or avatars and human beings. By "robots and avatars," I mean machines that seem to act and communicate autonomously as well as digital figurations that serve the purpose of resembling humans or taking over some of their features and functions. This analysis is further restricted to a concentration on, paradigmatically, the similarity or dissimilarity of the human face and the "face" of the avatar, whereby the mask shall serve as both parallel and mediator. The goal of these explorations is to disturb the seeming plausibility of a posthumanist movement that posits itself as avant-garde and assumes their sameness. In contrast, the chapter at hand insists there is a difference in our manner of relating — if not necessarily in our relationships. It claims that the experience of the face is a "model" for an experience of alterity that precedes all experiences of things or artifacts, even when they look deceptively like us. In short, I uphold the primacy of an asymmetry that stems not from the ontological supremacy of humans over things, but from our relationships to others, which are different from our relationships to objects or non-humans, even when the latter are artificial systems which looks like humans. In fact, we owe our relationships to things or automatons first and foremost to our primary relationship to the Other, so that a constitutive difference opens between the Other and the others (in the sense of the social). Or, put another way, we are interested first in others and only secondarily and derived from there in the world we share with them or in a "nature" that presents itself to us as that which we did not make and are nevertheless a part of. There are, therefore, two different modes of relationship, the relation between humans and non-humans (things), which is intentional, and the (social) relationships between humans, which are either active or passive but both founded in their prior ability of responsivity. It is for this reason that myths personalized natural things, in order to move them closer to our understandings and behaviors.

A prime example of this distinction can be made by examining the meaning of the face. For us, as literary scholar Peter von Matt (1983) has said, the face is the "condensed image of the humanum" and at the same time the absolute heteronomy that embodies that which is completely inscrutable. In the face we meet the trace of the "God who passed" as Levinas (1986, 359) pointedly stated, for which reason its "nudity" and "infiniteness" demand an ethical stance. It is the prerequisite and the basis for every social relationship. Walter Benjamin (2010, 19) claimed almost the same, calling the "human countenance" the "last entrenchment" against the disappearance of the "aura" in a world of "technological reproducibility." The face's "fleeting expression ... beckons from early photographs for the last time." "It is" Benjamin continued "no accident that the portrait" — like painting in early modernity — "is central to early photography," rather than the perfect illusion of a space constructed by means of mathematical perspective. Similarly, Bela Balazs (2010, 38-41) — as later developed by Gilles Deleuze in his books on cinema — believed the facial close-up to have a particular "emotional" status and claimed it was more central than landscapes. He even believed facial expression to be a universal language of emotion that could not be replaced by any aesthetic of the sublime, no matter how impressive.


The difficult concept of the aura — using Benjamin's (2010, 19) definition of "the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be" — thus coincides with the way in which alterities, as the site where all types of relations are constituted, are at the center of Levinas's critical phenomenology. Levinas sought in particular to bypass Husserl's insistence on an always subjective "intentionality" by means of privileging answering or the more passive "responsiveness" (Waldenfels 2007). Here responsio comes before intentio, thus intentionality is rooted in responsivity. Relating is therefore not an actio of an acting subject, but develops from the site of the Other as a primary event of answering — without us knowing what we are responding to. The same is true of the aura. It cannot be forced, Benjamin (1997, 147ff.) states in his analysis of Charles Baudelaire, but appears as a recusant surprise. Likewise, comprehension of a face is not a conscious act, as long as I turn toward it curiously. Rather its attraction happens, it takes me by surprise and pierces me with the rapidity of an arrow. For this reason the face — like the aura — cannot become the object of a gaze, just as the idea thereof cannot come out of myself. Rather, it never truly arrives, remaining, as Levinas also said, "infinitely" transcendent. This infinitude and transcendence is its most radical denial. That experience, drawn from twentieth-century Jewish scholarship, can by no means be dismissed as exceptional. To the contrary, its "anticipation" of the "absolute otherness" of the Other gives it clear primacy over every other form of relationship, especially encounters with things, technical objects, or avatars, which can at best be deduced from it. To be more exact, it is important to distinguish between relationships and relations. The latter can be formalized by functions, they prove to be Zu-Ordnungen (attributions, literally toward-orders), correlations or configurations of points that express affiliations, not Zu-Wendungen (attentions, literally toward-turnings) around which our relatings have always gravitated.

The same perspective is incidentally shared by other philosophical positions that see the experience of the face as the primary site of human relationships. As only one example, allow me to cite Georges Bataille (2002, 63): "Nothing is human in the unintelligible universe outside of naked faces which are the only open windows in a chaos of strange or hostile appearances. Man only escapes his insupportable solitude at the moment when the face of one of his fellow men emerges from the void of all the rest." Art historian Hans Belting (2013, 25ff.) has made similar observations about faces and masks. The critical point being — and this is what makes these analyses so fruitful for our context — that the relationship between symmetry and asymmetry is turned on its head. It is not we who, through the power of our decisions or desires, turn our gaze to the Other; we are already in their horizon and have entered their realm before they arrive, so that every relationship presumes the "originality of the face" without which, Levinas pointedly stated in Totality and Infinity (1969, 202) language "could not commence."

That also means that there is no dialogue or communication worthy of the name that was not first "attuned" by the primary experience of the Other and their face. This is why the response precedes the intentio and gives intention its specific modality. The face becomes a site of non-intentional "immediacy," it is "evidence that makes evidence possible" as Levinas (1969, 204) continued, and is not transferable to objects, because the face is neither a medium nor does it speak to us through a "mask." The face provokes us, it comes at us and holds us captive in the literal meaning of fascinans, and solicits a reaction or positioning that first makes us to that which we are.


This structure of primordial non-intentionality, which I would like to propose as the third initial thesis of this exploration, can also be applied — as seen in Balazs and Benjamin — to pictures, photography, and film, as long as they show faces. The "originality" of the face and the concurrent initial responsiveness seems to be etched into these depictions from the very beginning. Observing or watching means participating, in the meaning of both taking part and having recourse to. Nevertheless it seems logical to assume that in our era of digital plasticity, with almost limitless possibilities for manipulating or editing images with programs such as Photoshop or through mathematically generated random simulations, an effect takes place similar to that which Benjamin diagnosed as the "decay" or "destruction of the aura" in the age of "technological reproducibility." Are we still dealing with faces, with a "countenance" in the literal sense of a counter-gazer? In Benjamin's diagnosis, reproduction causes objects, on the one hand, to lose their "unique existence," while, on the other hand, the experience of singularity is subject to a ruthless appropriation or "getting a hold of" objects in a "facsimile," (Abbild) which he claims "differs unmistakably from the image (Bild)" (Benjamin 2010, 15-16). Jacques Derrida has made similar assertions about technological repeatability, which can only ever produce the same — the series and thus the stereotype. Apparently, image and facsimile — the image of apparition and the facsimile of representation — or that which Husserl named the Bildobjekt (image object), need to be separated from one another, whereby the loss of aura marks the defamiliarization of all relationships, which vanish when an object loses its uniqueness through technological reproduction. The generation of virtual images in the form of avatars and the destruction of a person's aura go hand in hand because the transformation of the face into an image and its free alteration by means of digital figuration leaves out that which Levinas (1969, 192-193) discussed as "alterity" — the moment of radical "transcendence" from which stems the always ethically charged rigorousness of having to respond. We can also express this as follows: That which paradigmatically resounds or "resights" within us from the human face and is perhaps, as we shall see, still present in the enigmatic form of the mask — the alterity of the face — denotes exactly that mysterious dimension that fades in confrontation with the technical apparatus or avatar or robot and that haunts us with increasing unease. Our relationship with the face differentiates it from the avatar. We act differently with people than with artifacts and machines. We relate to them in another way. We see them differently, consider them differently, and handle them differently. We must therefore assume their genuine incomparability. We are, thus, confronted with disparate relational modalities.


Excerpted from The Changing Face of Alterity by David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho, Dieter Mersch. Copyright © 2016 David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho and Dieter Mersch. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements / Introduction, David J. Gunkel, Ciro Marcondes Filho and Dieter Mersch / Part I: The Face of the Other / 1. Countenance—Mask—Avatar: The “Face” and the Technical Artifact, Dieter Mersch / 2. Digital Exchanges: Ghosts and Gifts, Mira Fliescher / 3. Performative Modalities of Otherness, Jörg Sternagel / Part II: Facing Others / 4. Alterity, Machines and Eros: A New Vision of Communication as a Happening, Ciro Marcondes Filho / 5. Game Over: About Illusion and Alterity, Maurício Liesen / 6. Facebook and Rolezinhos: Alterity, Communication and Visibility, Alexsandro Galeno / 7. (De)Facing Alterity in the Digital Age: “The Real Problem” in the Social Interaction of Digital Natives, Ann Hetzel Gunkel / Part III: Interfaces and Other Faces / 8. Alterity and Technology: Implications of Heidegger’s Phenomenology, Tales Tomaz / 9. Alterity ex Machina: The Encounter with Technology as an Epistemological-Ethical Drama, Mark Coeckelbergh / 10. Another Alterity: Rethinking Ethics in the Face of the Machine, David J. Gunkel / Index / Notes on Contributors

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