Reimagining the face-to-face encounter in the time of COVID

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed the face-to-face encounter was the beginning of our ethical obligation to each other. In our series Body Language, IDEAS considers the changing meaning of the face during COVID and imagines new ethical relationships for an uncertain time.

IDEAS explores what our bodies express, literally and symbolically in a series called Body Language

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed the face-to-face encounter was the beginning of our ethical obligation to each other. But due to the pandemic, people’s faces are behind a mask, or through a computer screen. Some experts say it's time to rethink whether the face should be treated as the foundation of ethics at all. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on September 6, 2021.

Riva Lehrer's fascination with the face began early. 

"It was the effect of growing up in the hospital. I didn't come home until I was at least two years old," she said. "So I think faces and words and voices became the entire texture of the world for me."

Lehrer, a portrait artist and author of the memoir Golem Girl, has spina bifida, a condition where the spine and spinal column don't close before birth. 

"I still sort of have this memory of people constantly bending over me, and those faces are bringing your fate. What's about to happen to you, if you're safe or not?" she told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. 

A portrait of intimacy, mediated through a screen 

When the pandemic began, Lehrer said she began experiencing intense "face hunger." 

"First of all, as a portraitist, feeling just a horrendous lack, but also realizing as a disabled person that because my body is unusual, I've always used my face, my expressions and my beliefs in order to do social judo or whatever martial art would most pertain to throwing someone in a different direction ... so I was completely incapacitated that way, too," she said. 

Riva Lehrer's 2020 memoir is called Golem Girl. A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore, formed from mud or clay. Lehrer says the figure resonates with her because her body has been reshaped by countless doctors, as if she, too, were made of clay. (Penguin Random House/One World/Tom O’Dowd)

"No one could hear me. Nobody could see my expressions. I was reduced to just a body … It was like when I had thrown a drop cloth or a bird cage in the world and we were just muffled."

She also had to reimagine her approach as an artist. Most of the people she paints experience stigma in some way, and in-person conversations have also been crucial to her work.

"My work is really about ethics … The product of a portrait is the relationship between the artist and the subject in the way that they're changed by becoming vulnerable to each other."

"So sitting in my studio and having all these complicated conversations, and feeding them because I'm Jewish and you have to ... figuring out for my people with impairments, what kind of chair do they need? What kind of footstools? These are crucial for the construction of a really meaningful image," she said. 

"Then along came COVID and I could no longer have anyone in my studio. And so my heart broke for quite a while." 

Then she started to think about Zoom and what relationships look like during the pandemic. 

A Zoom portrait by Riva Lehrer of Alice Wong, a disability rights activist, writer, media maker, and consultant, based in San Francisco, California. She founded the Disability Visibility Project in 2014, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture. (Submitted by Riva Lehrer)

"The most intimate experiences I was having were through this digital screen. So I wanted to do a portrait of that, of people, of the intimacy that was mediated by the screen."

One of the portraits she did was of historian and professor of bioethics at Drexel University, Sharrona Pearl. Pearl studies the cultural history of face transplants and the history of physiognomy — the 19th century pseudoscientific practice of studying facial characteristics to make judgments about someone's character. 

The portrait is a triptych. In the first panel, Pearl is in her bedroom, surrounded by dirty laundry. "We wanted to really push the slightly wacky reveals we're all going through," said Lehrer. 

After completing this three-panel drawing, Riva Lehrer became very sick (not COVID related) and she was hospitalized for nine days. 'What was just hair raising was that I never saw their faces the whole time. It looked exactly like my drawing. All these people in masks, all these people being wheeled around in beds that had all these elaborate tents over them.' (Submitted by Riva Lehrer)

"In the second one, she's in a liminal space and she's sitting by the window. There's a reflection. But it takes a minute, I think, to realize that in that reflection she's wearing a face mask. But on the inside, she's not wearing one at all. So it's that tension between inside and out.

The third is a picture of Riva Lehrer herself, as seen through Zoom. "Working ethically, I'm like, well, OK, so how can I make myself vulnerable in this case? So I said, when we're working together over these weeks. Just take screenshots of me and don't tell me, then send me one or more that you really like. And I will be forced to draw myself the way that you see me."

The face-to-face encounter

"Emmanuel Levinas has this notion that the origin of our ethical obligations to the other emerge out of this moment of the face-to-face encounter," said Pearl.

Levinas was a Jewish philosopher who wrote about the face-to-face encounter in his 1961 book Totality and Infinity. "The face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation," he wrote. 

But Levinas also focused on a specific view of the face — one that doesn't match the world we live in now. 

"It is a frontal view of the face because he wanted to make sure that we didn't have a side view that would render the face more like an object, a profile like you might see on coins or cash or money … There's no hair covering it. There's no veil. There's no makeup. He calls it bare, nude, naked," said Namwali Serpell, a Zambian writer and professor at Harvard University. 

In her book Stranger Faces, Namwali Serpell argues that instead of imbuing the face with moral meaning, or the fixed representation of an inner self, we might be better served by treating it as an aesthetic object.  (Transit Books/Yanina Gotsulsky)

Today — especially thanks to the pandemic — we regularly encounter a variety of obscured faces.

"The dynamics of who wears the mask and who doesn't wear a mask … that is creating all sorts of ethical trouble between friends and family and so on. But I don't think that that comes down to whether or not you can see someone's face. I think that comes down to whether or not you're taking the precautions to ensure public safety. So I think [it] gives the lie to the idea that we have to see each other's faces in order to make ethical judgments," said Serpell. 

We've placed a greater burden on the face than we need.- Namwali Serpell

The pandemic is also demonstrating how many ways there are to form relationships outside of the face-to-face encounter.

"It seems like we've placed a greater burden on the face than we need," said Serpell. 

That greater burden includes all the ideas attached to the face — like "identity, beauty and authenticity," she said.

"I think we have a sense in all of these different parameters — beauty, intelligence, authenticity, identity — the sense of the surface of the face somehow corresponds to something inside. You look into someone's eyes and they are the windows to their soul, for example. But I wanted to discuss the ways in which the surface and depth of the person don't always correspond."

In this first episode of our series Body Language, IDEAS explores the changing meaning of the face in the 21st century, and turns to the history of face transplants, portraiture, and the fiction of Toni Morrison to consider alternative ways of thinking about the face-to-face encounter, during and beyond the pandemic. Listen by clicking the play button near the top of this page.

Guests in this episode: 

Riva Lehrer is an artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on embodiment and the socially challenged body. She is an instructor at the School of the Art Institute and at Northwestern University in Medical Humanities. Her memoir is called Golem Girl. 

Sharrona Pearl is a historian and theorist of the face and body, and an associate professor of bioethics at Drexel University. She is the author of About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. 

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and a professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty, Stranger Faces, and the novel The Old Drift. 

Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the essay collection Trick Mirror. She wrote about the face in the 21st century in her piece The Age of Instagram Face

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. With law professor Woodrow Hartzog, he studies the philosophical and legal ramifications of facial recognition software.

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

(Ben Shannon/CBC)

This episode is part of our series called Body Language — exploring what our bodies express and repress, both literally and symbolically. Find more Body Language episodes here

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