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Face Recognition: God, Barbie, and Friends

June 30, 2012

One of my very best friends has this photo for her facebook cover pic:

For a number of reasons, this is very funny to me. First, we all know this is Barbie and not my friend. Second, it’s aging Barbie, whom we all know is the 50-year-old version of the plastic doll whose face is never supposed to change, is to remain always Barbie, is never to change.

Third, we all know the fear that machines and computers and artificial intelligence are someday going to outdo us in recognizing who we are, who is who, and so forth. For example, facebook – that rather faceless corporation – is looking to buy up, just as Gil Hirsch, CEO, tries to reassure all of us in the public about KLiK, saying, “It’s not like you can point this at someone on the street and make it work.” It seems Photo Tag Suggest just wasn’t doing the trick and the Google+ Find My Face just may still be a competitive threat. So, we really are getting to the point where our software and phone apps might help us all recognize the face of Marissa Mayer telling us, “Don’t be afraid of us.” Us, of course, is Google again, and her face is one of their faces we should now recognize. And we are all less afraid because face recognition software promises to tell us not only Mayer’s name but also her gender and also her age too even if it can’t yet decide or decipher for us whether she at her age is happy or sad. I don’t have any real proof, but she at her age in that video we’ve linked to really doesn’t look afraid, does she? No, I’m not saying you must decide. But we all recognize and decide on our own anyway, don’t we? Funny.

Fourth, maybe we all recognize this face of Barbie, female, 50, perhaps happy, as that younger Barbie. And the younger Barbie is still the March 9, 1959 commercial invention of Ruth Handler. And this face of this new Barbara Millicent Roberts is really the face of the 1958 movie star, “Lilli — ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt (Lilli — a Girl From the Big City).” On the screen we recognize her face as the same face as the doll of August 12, 1955, Reinhard Beuthien’s invention, or is she his reinvention? Do we recognize what the wikipediaists tell us when we read about her? We cannot recognize their faces, but they say, “Ariel Levy refers to her as a ‘sex doll’ in Female Chauvinist Pigs and in interviews on the Lilli-inspired Barbie doll, Eve Ensler refers to Lilli (without elaboration) as a ‘sex toy’[1].” In June 1952, her face is just a “filler,” and her face is then, we might all recognize, the sweet face of a “cute baby.” Her sweet baby face is originally a cartoon face, a “Bild,” a cartoon strip picture face of a baby. You recognize her, don’t you, this very good friend of mine?

You recognize her face, her name, her race, her class, and of course her gender, her age. It’s her face and such for people, of a certain age, of a certain gender, men, young and middle aged and old, who like to read but don’t really so much like to read, because they like pictures. Her face is the face of Barbie, toy for young girls, plastic, never changing, even if we all recognize her aged, as 50 something in the photo my very good friend has for us to recognize as her facebook cover pic.

So what? What’s the point of this blogpost? Why God in the subtitle? Well, I’m still musing over the question of how St. Anselm in his Monologion came to recognize the Trinity, how sexist he makes Them, how sexist he makes Him.

And yet there’s something, without such terse proof and clear truth, that Anslem recognizes. He recognizes the face of God as something he must seek. He must pray.

In his 20th meditation, he does pray, lamenting his own soul’s “estrangement from Thy all-lovely Face.”

Without telling God or anyone how he recognizes the face of God as “all-lovely,” he meditates. He talks to himself: “Say therefore, O my soul, to thy Maker, to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one God, ‘I have sought Thy Face; Thy Face, O Lord, will I seek out’.” And we all recognize this as St. Augustine confessing to himself, or the Psalmist David as humming and strumming to himself. Yes, the face of God he recognizes as “all-lovely” and as the Face of “one God,” addressed with second person personal pronouns in relation (i.e., “thy Maker” has “Thy Face”), is the singular Face of three persons. And still Anselm recognizes the face of God in its unrecognizability, “the Presence of Thy Face” in the face of the torturous “cruel bitter absence of God’s Face”:

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me. In season, out of season, will I cry to Thee, and never let Thee rest until Thou gladden me with the Presence of Thy Face; and refuse myself all comfort; and punish myself with simply mourning over the absence of Thy Face. O Face of God, all glory! O Countenance, all light! So long as I see Thee not, so long shall my soul re main in gloom. But how long, O cruel bitter absence of God’s Face, how long wilt thou torture me?”

His very next meditation, the 21st, continues the very same way, we all recognize:

“And then say, O my whole heart, say at once to God, ‘I seek Thy Face; Thy Face, O Lord, will I still seek.’ “

God’s face to Anselm, as we all recognize, is not plastic.

I suppose, then, you recognize this post as being about how we recognize faces. How we teach our computers and smart phones to recognize faces says something about how we think we recognize faces. Babies, adults tell us, recognize the faces of their mothers and fathers very early on. And they don’t stop, regardless how old they grow to be, no matter the gender, despite sexual orientation, without regard for race, or class. And they all pursue happiness, seek it, in the faces of their friends.

This post, I’m sure you’ve recognized on the face of it, is about how dogma and dogmatism and formalism and machinery and logic that would separate people and their Creator by “difference” and technology can’t and won’t replace some of the most interesting facets of what it means to be human. It’s about how we seek and know and recognize many things.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2012 12:33 pm

    Exodus 33:20 is the controlling verse here.

  2. July 2, 2012 6:51 pm

    In his footnote on Exodus 33:11 (he doesn’t offer one for Exodus 33:20), Robert Alter says this:

    11. And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow. These two idioms for direct communication cannot be literally true because of the burden of what follows in this chapter [i.e., in 33:20] is that no man [or woman], not even Moses, can see God’s face. The hyperbole is in all likelihood a continuation of the visual perspective of the people so clearly marked in verse 8-10: as it appears to the Israelites from their vantage point in front of their tents, Moses conversing with the pillar of cloud is speaking to God as a man [or woman] speaks to his [or her] fellow.

    Despite his rather sure phrase, “cannot be literally true because,” Alter does hedge a little to use “hyperbole” and to face up to the fact that there are “two idioms” and to soften things by saying “in all likelihood.” So I would say, with David in the Psalms, Why not let Exodus 33:11 be the controlling verse?

    What is a literal face anyway? Who has one? They’re recognizable, these faces of anyBody are. And yet it’s the beholder of the face who holds that the difference over time, or the different angle (whether straight in front or from the profile on the side), or the different expressions (a smile, a frown), or a portrait (whether a photo, or an oil painting, or a drawn caricature) is the same face. So what if Moses saw the face of God? So what if David sought it? It’s the reality of talking about the face, of daring to recognize it, that is so very interesting to me.

  3. July 2, 2012 7:11 pm

    Well, one way of interpreting Exodus 33:20 is that there is a fundamental asymmetry between God and human. Assuming that we understand God of the Hebrew Bible as being non-anthropomorphic (so that he has no “literal face”), it suggests that we cannot begin to comprehend God’s face without leaving the limits of this physical universe.

    Perhaps a cat may look at a King, but to look at the face of God means death (or madness).

    In other words, the promise suggested in Job 33:26 is not achievable; and rather is crushed by the asymmetry of Job 38-41.

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