Thursday, August 08, 2013

First Blush: The Talking Face and disambiguating my research projects

I went to a meeting yesterday of our school's research committee where we were discussing the need to workshop grant applications early. They are mostly due in February, and all too often our committee and the grant shepherds receive drafts to look at in January, by which time it is far too late to give feedback of the structural kind (i.e. re-shape the inquiry and the disciplinary orientation; find a new writing partner or research team, etc.).

While I'm not ready, just yet, to declare the overall shape and orientation of my application, and I am very far from having a draft ready to be looked at, I'm going to stick with my intention and blog a little about what I am thinking about, at any rate. So, I'm making a start. 

When I sought advice from the research office about eligibility, etc. they said the main issue for me would be to make sure my new project did not overlap too much with the work I am doing in the Centre for the History of Emotions. This is a big logistic stumbling-block, but I think I am close to finding a way around it.

One of the projects I am working on in the Centre is on the expression of emotion on the human face. I was planning to write a book that (like my last two books on Chaucer and the Order of the Garter) ranged from medieval to contemporary culture. So, I was thinking about a chapter on Chaucer (medieval poetry), Shakespeare (early modern drama), George Eliot (nineteenth-century fiction) and then perhaps someone like Oliver Sachs (modern non-fiction). And I may yet do that, though I am now thinking I will focus just on medieval English literature.

The new project would emerge from that, but would be quite different, I think. I can't decide whether to call it The Talking Face or The Speaking Face. 

This would definitely be a long-range project, that would stretch at least from western medieval tradition into contemporary culture. It's built around the figurative trope by which a face is read as saying something. 

Here's an example from Jane Austen's Persuasion. 

Captain Wentworth looked round at her instantly in a way which shewed his noticing of it. He gave her a momentary glance, -- a glance of brightness, which seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, -- and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.”

So, direct speech is important here, as is the flash of sudden illumination on the face — a glance of brightness. 

I gave a talk last night at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in a series organised by the Centre for the History of Emotions, in which I sketched out some examples and possible lines of inquiry.  I have also talked a couple of times in the last few months about my favourite example from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

“To Troilus right wonder wel with alle
Gan for to like hire mevynge and hire chere,
Which somdel deignous was, for she let falle
Hire look a lite aside in swich manere,
Ascaunces, ‘What, may I nat stonden here?’
And after that hir lokynge gan she lighte,
That never thoughte hym seen so good a syghte.”

  (Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1386) 


Here it's Criseyde's changing expression that is to attractive to Troilus.  Her face speaks, though in a rhetorical question, so there is an added degree of difficulty.  I do have a chapter on this example coming out in a book from Manchester UP later this year (that's my first tick: a pre-history to the project in published form). 

But I would like to move this new project into some broader territory: viz. 

  • the relation between textual and visual representations (HUGE for me as I have no art history training)
  • the extent to which a body can speak, as well as a face
  • the relation between still and moving images (cinema??? probably not: just textual representations of moving faces)
  • what I call interspecies ventriloquism - the way we project emotions and expressions onto animals (has anyone else done any academic study of lolcats???)
  • philosophical and historical understandings of a face's capacity to speak
  • the differences (?) the novel makes to this trope; and the question of direct speech
  • the relation between text and image in medieval art at least (thinking about caption banners, banderoles, etc.)
  • possibly extending into modern graphic novels
Ok, and lots of other things. Next post I might run through my talk from last night, but for now, can I just say this is a HUGE blog post, to start talking in public about my grant application that is so early in development. 

I have also started, in an extremely preliminary way, thinking about how this project might have a digital humanities component, if only to help identify and track examples of this trope in literary texts. 

But in the meantime I am starting a little collection of examples. So, my friends, if you come across examples where faces (or bodies) seem to speak or say things, I'd be extremely grateful if you could paste them in the comments box!! I'm mostly thinking of literary texts and textual examples, but any ideas from the visual arts would also be great.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...


A British tar is a soaring soul,
As free as a mountain bird;
His energetic fist should be ready to resist
A dictatorial word.
...
His nose should pant and his lip should curl,
His cheek should flame and his brow should furl,
His bosom should heave and his heart should glow,
And his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow.
....
His fist should stamp and his throat should growl,
His hair should twirl and his face should scowl;
His eye should flash and his breast protrude,
And this should be his custonary attitude."
HMS Pinafore, G&S

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hmm. this is a good one, though at this stage it would be a bit of an outlier as far as my project is concerned because the text doesn't convert this ideal bodily expression into direct speech. Though "face should scowl" is pretty close, I must say. Thanks! Keep 'em coming!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Not really what you're looking for - in fact, not at all! - but for amusement, and because it was the first place my mind went when you said 'Shakespeare' in connection with the face - Olivia, playfully in control of the deliberate reduction of her own face to text and of how it is to be read (denying it the ability to 'speak' for itself?), but also shades of the heraldic blazon:

VIOLA: Good madam, let me see your face.

OLIVIA: Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text: but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture. [Unveiling] Look you, sir, such a one I was this present: is't not well done?

VIOLA: Excellently done, if God did all.

OLIVIA: 'Tis in grain, sir; 'twill endure wind and weather.

VIOLA: 'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

OLIVIA: O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give out divers schedules of my beauty: it shall be
inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will: as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were you sent hither to praise me?

Jonathan Hsy said...

Stephanie:

This is a really cool project idea ... I don't know if I like "The Speaking Face" or "The Talking Face" better! There are indeed many directions this might go - and I'm intrigued be possibility of this speaking-face phenom informing Internet memes (not just LOLcats).

I the interspecies quality of those memes has a curious way of troubling how we think about the rhetorical trope of prosopopoeia or "giving a face" to a speaking object/nonhuman thing.

I think, though, that photography and cinema are "up to" something different -- inclined to think about the screen as a mediating face/surface here, rather than the quality of communicative speech itself.

Jonathan

Inez said...

This is fantastic!