Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Mask of Humanity

When I was in high school, I was heavily interested in photography. I spent all my free electives taking photography classes, and even helped to found a photography club at school. After school, the first thing I’d do when I got home was go out and taking pictures in the waning light of the afternoon. Most of my best photographs were of natural forms and landscapes and usually obscured—either by snow or the cover of night.

One thing I could never photograph well was people. The only good photographs I ever took of a living person were self-portraits of myself. I was never able to aptly represent another person through film, and for a long time I couldn’t understand why. Looking back on my efforts, I think that I couldn’t ever really connect with another person when I had a camera between myself and the subject. My friends that I photographed were never absolutely comfortable being captured, and I was never able to facilitate their experience. Alternately, I never even really tried to take pictures of people I didn’t know. I remember one of my teachers gave me a lesson on how to photograph other people, how to get their consent and make them feel at ease—but I never even attempted this. I was too afraid to ask a stranger for permission to photograph them.

I believe this fear and inability to capture the image of others speaks to notions of the face and the Other, as detailed in Lévinas. There exists invisible barriers between us all as humans, artifices that we wear to prevent others from seeing our true selves. To be able to take a truly great photograph, the artist must be able to break down these barriers and expose the true self of the subject. I believe that in a certain sense we all don masks that we present to the public. Different people may get to see different masks, different aspects of our persona—but few people truly know the reality of one another.

This all relates back to the idea of the signifier and the signified. I wonder if we, as signifiers, actually deign what it is that we signify. Whether or not that is interpreted is a completely different aspect of this question—but nonetheless tied to the signifier. The human face is our main source of communication—indirect and direct. Sometimes we cannot control our face and it belies things that we did not wish others to know, but we are in control essentially of its very essence.

In Maus, Spiegelman reflects this question of representation through his caricatures of race. The Jews become characterized as mice, the Nazi’s as cats, and other Germans and Poles as pigs. When we are first introduced to the author, he is with his wife and father and they are represented as mice. Later though, in the second part, we see the author wearing a mouse mask. The work takes on aspects of meta-fiction as we see the author not only describe himself, but narrate thoughts of his own mind.

The contrast in how the author represents himself dually reminds us that he is not actually a mouse, that that is only a contrivance for his art, and that we all wears masks of sorts. Perhaps he is forced to don the mouse mask because he cannot deal with the memory of the Holocaust in human terms. Lévinas writes that we are unable to commit violence to a human face—yet the Nazi’s were able to enact terrible atrocities on millions. The only way this could be done would be to dehumanize them, and this is represented in Spiegelman’s mice and cats. As an author, perhaps the only way he can confront this awful event is to put on a mask of sorts, which detaches him from considering the ability of humanity to perform such evil. In different aspects, both Spiegelman and I are unable to confront the human face in relation to art.

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