Notes (on Faciality)

Text for Jake Chapman’s book Pity is Treason (Urbanomic), based on my experience of queuing to see a dead queen. Faces, currency, blockchains, counterfeiting and the illegality of printing money, ‘national mourning’, smileys, and, in a weird way, perhaps some cute/acc precursors…


The Face is a Horror Story. Twenty-three hours in, Vaughan finally lost control of his bodily functions. What made it all the more galling was that they had almost made it. His particular detachment of the creeping horde had just made its triumphant entrance onto Lambeth Bridge, on the far side of which, under police supervision, the broad stream of human slurry was being extruded up and down Tower Gardens through a series of crowd-barrier leats into a six-lane security marquee, the final processing module before the Inner Station. Vaughan’s bowels had liquefied as he watched the masses shuffling boustrophedon through this makeshift intestinal tract, while at the same time his depleted brain became overrun by unanswerable questions concerning the drab cavalcade percolating obediently across the bridge. What did they all want? What manner of cultural catastrophe, what mutation in the collective unconscious, could have triggered this mass urban migration? Of what was this vain exodus the vanguard? Or, if it was a symptom of decadence, the mere tail end of something, then what was wagging it? Dr. Chapman had warned him that, once the device had been deployed, there was no going back. But perhaps it was time, if it was not already too late. In any case he could no longer hold it. Everything would have to come out.


New Body Plan. After the explosion came a slow slide. Sensory organs and neural cells aggregated, sinking imperceptibly in a direction that would come to know itself as forward once the alliance of creeping and gobbling had been consolidated. The one-dimensional oceanic preorient of time parted to let in something nightmarish, a terrible asymmetry unleashed upon the beatific radial sleep of ages. A new vector sallied forth, already shaping an unready world around its predatory axis. ‘The catastrophe of the post-Cambrian—bilateral symmetry and cephalic trend: sensory organs and neural cells concentrated at the anterior extremity of the organism. Neuronic-sensory-alimentary migration yielding antero-posterior-directed mobility. Back and front, heads and tails…’. But the involuntary audience of Dr. Chapman’s impromptu lecture were becoming increasingly impatient with his so-called explanations. ‘When do we get our money back?’


The Worm Turns. In the measured tone of a physician delivering an unwelcome diagnosis, Fuckface enumerated its recommendations: sterile, contactless, faceless action at a distance. As the biofinancial consultant explained patiently, everything had been in place already, infestation merely furnished an accelerative alibi. The Programme was done. Paper cotton was out but polymerization didn’t go far enough. Viral sickness piggybacks on value circulation; fomites are passive vectors, as effective in spreading sickness from hand to hand as they once were in disseminating the sovereign’s image across the colonies. Well, good news, the latest developments had rendered both unnecessary. Currency had freed itself from face and hand alike. From here on in, it was not so much the plague that threatened us as our own imminent obsolescence. One imagined this last observation delivered with a wry smile, but behind the pointed plague-mask it was difficult to tell for sure.


Does the Angle Between Two Faces Have a Happy Ending? O hideous phylum, atrocity heaped upon another trocity! Dip far enough into the past and the storied ramifications of trauma bulge and pop one by one, anal beads of convulsive realisation. But there is worse ahead, or at least an inverse revulsion. A cold, bright, shadowless fear like pixelated metal. Something’s tacking backward, coming the other way. Goading, impermeable gaze inscribed in a circle of accomplished perfection. Two dots above an arc, a leering formalism from the protracted end of humanity. Who can say what it wants? And then, strung out between the ideogrammatically pellucid cheer of that abominable abstraction and the flatworm’s feebly probing translucent stump with its lenseless eyespots, equidistant between arche-ancestor and synthetic neonate, halfway between slimey and smiley, dead centre, the dream’s umbilicus, there she is, the most recognisable face in the world, eyes twinkling like black holes: Everyone’s Granny.


Chairman Ma’am’s Long March. Containing multitudes yet possessed of a single rudimentary design, the sinuous thing haltingly pursued its obsessive trajectory, worming its way through the capital in the crepuscular gloom, slinking thirstily toward the pool of overlit corpse juice at its sepulchral centre. Vaughan again wondered at how the sullen masses had been mobilised like this, against all odds. Heaved out of a terminal stew of indifference, compassion fatigue and all-consuming apathy, countering the bilious gravity of a billion oily Greggs’ pasties, it had taken nothing less than total mobilisation to establish even the secondhand consensus that a national mood needed to be had. Intubated by 24/7 full-spectrum mournfesting, simstimmed into reflex response patterns appropriate to the last-ditch simulacra of a historic event, across the land subjects had downed Playstation controllers and slouched forth to undertake their final mission: twelve hours, fifteen, twenty-four, thirty-two…. What, after all, is time in the face of death? A festival of death, without souvenir T-shirts even. But what a buzz when you file past, knowing that she’s in there looking out at you, that enigmatic sidelong glance, those eyes.


Home Taping is Killing Music. ‘Gentlemen, we have a problem. Truth is, we always had a problem. The double-dealer is on the loose again.’ A murmur of disapproval swept the Operations Room. ‘The Byzantine Genitals? That Two-Faced Cunt again? Terminate with extreme prejudice.’ The General bowed his head. ‘That…hasn’t worked too well. Strategy has shifted from latent threat of violence to subtle intimidation to visual complexity and even…copyright.’ The Governor of the Bank of England avoided his gaze, as if to acknowledge the absurdity. ‘Recall, gentlemen, that when it features a fair face such as that of our late lamented Elizabeth, a poorly copied note (never mind a Boggs-standard drawing) can be identified immediately by the naked eye, so well attuned is that fine appendage to the minutest alterations of the expressive powers of the human face, the balletic variations of mimetic muscle across craniofacial skeleton…’. The General checked himself, hoping no one had noticed the faraway look which had momentarily softened his features. ‘Of course, this is just one method in our arsenal, but it was our last organic hope, and it’s been thoroughly undermined. So we pushed the constraints all the way into the infrastructure. Chapman’s publisher couldn’t print one page without the printer driver calling the cops. But it’s a losing battle, a futile arms race. Once the proles get a hold of the means of reproduction…’. One by one the distinguished faces around the table began to drop in recognition of the inevitable. ‘This was never going to work, we can’t keep patching it up by brute force.’ ‘But, with respect,’ piped up the reedy voice of the Archbishop, ‘counterfeiting is one thing, this dreadful defacing is quite another, bespeaking a want of compassion that cannot be countenanced. The device must be stopped.’


Nothing Like Having Your Face Cut Off to Disturb Your Sleep. ‘Every single one of them, I guarantee you—and it’s those dreams we’re interested in. Yes, yes, they’ll want to open the box when they arrive,’ insisted Dr. Chapman enthusiastically. He made a plausible case. To see the vacant uncrowned head dancing with putrefaction, to confirm it for oneself, to achieve optimum grieving—wasn’t it only natural? And if the powers-that-be were determined to refuse them their right as loyal subjects…. Slowly but surely, Vaughan was coming around to the idea. He thumbed the brochure again. Unique opportunities for controlled observation that will surely open up new vistas in psychopathological research. In private the doctor had been less circumspect: ‘Rather than merely intervening in ideological circuits, the true student of the unconscious must rip them a new one. Or three, or more. Again and again. Ad nauseam ad infinitum. Match them repetition for repetition, note for note. More and more. Drop after drop. Line ’em up. Form a queue.’


New Order. The pattern that had been forming over the aeons-long polar migration snapped into place and some gaseous abomination leapt out like a ghost. Seeping out from the organic stratum, the curious excrescences that had formed on the surface of the creatures’ heads started to get protracted ideas. Meatspace collapsed into a constellation of subsident internalities, invisible to the eye but irresistibly betokened by those eager little buds. And there seemed no limit to the gravity of what they could be entrusted with—freighted with uniqueness and spontaneity, willing vehicles of ethical demands, portals for mutual recognition, beyond the reach of organism or object, bright as a button, sole site for the sighting of what can never be seen but would soon oversee all…all just too glorious for words. The General tossed and turned in his sleep. Please, never let me wake up.


Production of the Face is Necessary in Order for Certain Assemblages of Power to Be Actualised. In an abortive attempt to capitalise on his own chronic repetition compulsion, Dr. Chapman had at first marketed the device to psychiatric clinics as a sort of extreme art therapy for paranoid schizophrenics, but after the initial police raids its extralegal aspects had become clear enough and he had resorted to hawking it online to unsuspecting dupes, industriously producing copy after copy at lightning speed and shoving them into envelopes before they were even dry. He met the police officers at the door brandishing a dentist’s invoice, a dollar bill, and a badly drawn one-sided pound note. The prosecution ran its course. As a pompous art historian explained to the Daily Mail’s chief is-it-art correspondent: ‘Supposing that the primary function of art in modernity was to reassure oneself of the possibility of extracting objects from the mere commerce and repetitive homogeneity of mechanical reproduction, releasing them into a unique “here and now” in which subjective sovereignty and the uniqueness of the oeuvre, if you will, stood as mutual guarantors. Then surely Chapman’s experiment was quite exemplary.’ The Financial Times, more pragmatically, noted its effectiveness as a pricing mechanism for this auratic transcendence: £200 (coincidentally, the modest fine levied against Chapman under the Currency and Banknotes Act 1928) minus £10 equals exactly £190 worth of art. Upon receipt, a number of disappointed buyers, including notorious halfwit quibbler Andrew Gaston, challenged the valuation, but legal fees had already swallowed up all the ostensible profits.


Upriver. ‘Colonel Kurtz, you must understand, here in the strife kolonies, out on the edge of empire, there is no coin of the realm. Everything runs on promises passed from hand to hand, paper-thin indices for deposits encrypted deep in the white capital.’


Black Hole Sun. The worms raced one another deeper into the black hole as Fuckface watched impassively through the microscope, increasingly bored with the whole protracted affair, even though there had been new developments. Originally poked into the world in order to feel things out, gather information, peep and creep, the faces, as a side effect of neural-sensory concentration and positive feedback, had begun to transmit as well as receive. Those curious little wigglers would spend days locked onto one another’s facile gazes, mesmerised as if peering into another dimension. The experiment had only served to prove the point. Retrospectively, it was indeed as if everything had taken place solely in order to arrive here. But of course, it would look like that if the Programme was designed to secure the future absolutely (which they must have known was impossible). If it looked like all of this had been put together by design, that was but one of the effects of its startlingly momentous contingency.


Don’t You Open That Trapdoor. Surely entities without faces have no right to economic agency. But in the terrible hours before dawn, as the wilting General tinkered fruitlessly with the newfangled machine, he had caught a helpless glimpse of the inevitable, and the inevitable had not looked back at him. The whole goddamned beautiful structure would crumble into this pitiless lattice coordinated by no one, and although value would be preserved, there would be no saving face. He recalled bitterly how he had laughed it off when, during his final days of service, Chapman had burst into his office to harangue him in that peculiar shrill robotic monotone: ‘Disable currency-function while increasing exchange value. Rescind fungibility by serially debasing functionally identical units into non-fungible tokens through rectificatory defacement. Exterminate! Exterminate!’ A rather theatrical way of going about it, but Fuckface had been dead right in its analysis of the situation. It was the end. Even if the event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. The General puffed and wheezed as he reclined into his high-backed leather armchair. His pendular jowls drooped yet lower, his distinguished eyebrows quivered, his angular jaw fell, and the bloodshot eyes that had seen so much spun up into his skull like cherries on a fruit machine.


Me Name Smiley Culture. The hole hadn’t always been there, Fuckface reminded itself. At a certain point it had all been off the hook, so much had been let loose that anything could have happened. But of course as usual it hadn’t. Instead, what emerged after the explosion was a blind spot around which everything had gravitated. As soon as the heads had detached themselves from the bodies and become meat-platforms for that simpering, dribbling, doe-eyed front-end, everything had begun to resonate around it in ever-depressing circles. One side of the same coin: Old Gods usurped by monotonous archons as the imperial territory was patched together. Let there be cash…the vermicular fiat of spontaneous generation relayed, in a higher dimension, into the transcendent guarantor for a whole social reality, at once iconographic propaganda for and infectious agent of empire. Decode and deterritorialize as much as you want, you’re not getting out of its gravity field—even ASCII got dragged back to the face eventually, evacuating the oral on the way, since no one knows how to pronounce ‘:-)’. Back, Fuckface wondered…or through?


sheeR–stim–poetRi–when–iou–pUll=AwAi–the–fACe. In the United Cringedom of Grand Brexit, perhaps extreme queuing was the most revolutionary gesture one could hope for. And yet, up on the podium, Dr. Chapman had worked himself into a frenzy, and Vaughan couldn’t deny the arousing undercurrents of the fanatical project into which he was being conscripted. Ending the conceptual car crash of a lecture on the apocryphal phrase of Robespierre only served to reinforce its remorseless consistency. It had reminded Vaughan of the forthright directive printed on old Chinese banknotes: Counterfeiters will be beheaded. That was the spirit, In God We Trust WTF FFS! But it seemed Chapman wasn’t finished yet. ‘Doesn’t every school kid with a felt-tip have the correct instinct when they encounter a face, especially a face of authority, which is all of them? Fuck waiting around for power to be erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. The hatred must be inscribed rigorously, repetitively, relentlessly, with raging Rotring: a right royal parade of ravenous atrocity: orbits evacuated, necrotized skin peeled like a satsuma, blackened gums rotting away, horns ripping through festering scalp, fat moustaches sprouting from lips plus dicks from heads, waxing cheeks wrinkled and shrivelled and seeping purpled ectoplasm, lips bleeding diseased pus, probosci sprouting from pimpled meatheads implanted on spiny-limbed swastick figures, faces masked and hooded ready for the chop, faces pustulating, dripping venom like gripe water, auricles stretched and knotted around the chin, eyes waggling on stalks, prolapsed sinuses, grub-ridden cancerized nasal meatus, scabby lips emitting black bile radiation…the ultimate facial…’. Dr. Chapman’s own eyeballs alternately bulged and receded, his face repeatedly sinking back into an almost featureless fleshy glob before abruptly pinging back into focus, its perfect flat circumference adorned with an immemorial glyph: two dots above an arc. Vaughan wondered what it looked like in profile. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ A single slow clap from the back of the lecture hall. By this point the rest of the audience had already defected. Fuckface waved its clipboard in the air nonchalantly, keen to bring proceedings to some sort of conclusion. ‘The face has a great future, but only if it is destroyed, dismantled….’.


Two Minutes to Midnight. The face of Vaughan’s Swatch glinted in the silvery light. Round as a coin, old moon-face, dead sky-rock, sphere of futility…as the line slithered its way down the Thames—a shrivelled cauda, the servile tail-end of an overfeatured planarian guidance system gone nova and imploded (but this news takes a long time to reach us)—the satellite had risen furtively behind the Houses of Parliament to mock the whole participative performance piece. Its bright yellow visage glowered at him, raked by borrowed light, revealing an unmistakeable physiognomy: two dots above an arc. Vaughan was momentarily startled. Perhaps some kind of advertising stunt—in rather poor taste, he reflected. Or maybe it had always been like that. He couldn’t remember any more. Moreover, there was a certainty to it that comforted him, a fresh, quiet confidence evacuated of all the boring neuroses of the past. Its beady pupils spoke mutely of the promise of freedom. The benign disc beamed its message of hope down to the waiting crowds below. Jiggle the puppet strings on the corpse of history as much as you like, the future belongs to me. All doubt melted away. Chapman was right. Vaughan knew what was expected of him.


Robin Mackay (RIP)

2022 🙂