Christine Hume and Jeff Clark
Question Like A Face
(Image Text Ithaca Press, 2017)
The first time I read Question Like A Face I mistakenly omitted the “like” in its title. Question a face, I read, and so I do. Question a face, I ask myself, which is more than just a question but a command. Question a face, because there might be danger everywhere. And as the author herself acknowledges: “What kind of justice forgets that we are all dangerous?” Question a face, because sometimes the misinterpretation or mistranslation is more revealing than what we actually see or hear; sometimes the misrecognition bears fruit worth tasting. Christine Hume’s book-length essay, Question Like A Face is both a statement of the present and a questioning of the past, but it is the text’s provocation for the future that grips me, that holds me up, that makes me question myself, too, every time I read this slim book back.
In other words, “In front of the face,” Lévinas wrote, “I always demand more of myself.” It is the face of the other that resists comprehension but it is also what prevents one from residing in the unending sameness of their singular experience—the ethics of the face is what saves us, from ourselves. But Hume’s documentarian poetics reveals how, in 2017, and certainly earlier, the face no longer provides the basis for ethical inquiry into how we treat other humans. The face, in fact, is often that which is first threatened, as when Hume describes walking among the street’s reflective surfaces:
My eyes graze a gray utilities box where a man is tearing off a sticker; street artists call their stickers “slaps.” This man peels off someone’s slap in messy strips. He peels the face of a black woman…I catch her eye on the metal box. It’s her only remaining feature, her watch. It’s as if she wiped her vision here. The rest is shredded in his fist.
Tear or tear off, peel, slap, strip, catch, wipe, shred…the metaphorical violence in the moment underscores the very real violence of systemic femicide. What, after all, is the difference between the representation of bodily trauma and its re-presentation in a detached police report or click-bait headline? Both instances might each be obscuring the issue’s continuous problem in our culture, desensitizing us to the flesh that has been rendered as data or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of domestic abuse: she should have seen this coming. And see—how critical the eye becomes for Hume’s essay about the face: a mark like the question that remains. A watch keeps time on the body, waiting for the expectation that something will change, but a watch can also be a collective effort, like the communal vigilance so necessary when violence is not a feature but a fact of everyday life. “A decade ago,” Hume writes as the book’s opening line, “when I first arrived in Ypsilanti, I kept my eyes open.”
Sometimes, when I read this book back, I hear the chorus eyes without a face, and think about how Billy Idol1 was wrong, how having but a pair of eyes is not a human waste, but a human imperative. How we must always look, so as to look out for. And to look is not always to see, but that seeing is what counts.
But I want to sit here awhile longer, with my eyes open despite the dry air in the room in which I’m sitting, despite the hour or maybe because of it, I want to sit here awhile longer because this small book, like any body, contains multitudes. I want to read and keep re-reading, because there’s only 38 pages, and a quarter of them are wordless: photographs taken by Jeff Clark, images that represent the insidious stillness of the arrangement of objects in a household, pictures that resemble the ones that might be found in a police report, except in the before section, except there’s no before of a police report, except there must always be a before—the question asked, the face seen, the body unmarked, the body breathing. And in 38 pages, Hume weaves a narrative through police brutality, domestic violence, racialized reportage, desensitized consumption of mass murder, state control and state surveillance, and above all else the violation and massacre of women—“The sheer normalcy of sexual violence arrives as a slap of recognition.” And indeed this book speaks to our crisis of toxic masculinity—a moment that is hardly current but only ever timeless, a moment that cuts as it creates itself, in its own image—walking streets all named after men—the face of patriarchy, the pause between another accusation that is only outnumbered by the actual acquisition of another body by a man who, having nothing left for the hunt in an age far outliving the means of everyday survival, hunts his own instead, hunts his mother and sister, hunts his wife, hunts his daughter.
Accounting for another incident of an ex-husband who, after being locked up for aggravating stalking, hires an inmate to kill his former wife and their two sons, Hume writes, “Because there is no way to write an active sentence with her as the subject.” And then again, “Because a young woman was found dead in her bathtub.” And a paragraph later, “Because a woman runs out of her apartment, weeping.” And the very next line, “Because a girl waiting at the bus stop outside the public library gets into her uncle’s car and disappears for several days.”
This is the oft-stated because of the book, the function of Hume repeatedly insisting—beginning in the preface—that we might be the cause, implicating ourselves, surely, but also suggesting that we might take up the occasion, too, for resistance and remonstration, a reason or motive for human action. And it is these nuances, this unflinching desire to get out of the reduction of right and wrong, good and bad, dualities and binaries, and to probe deeper, drill farther, reveal the horizon between settling and unsettling, the ways in which we try to find a form for these facts or how we fail to that make me stay with this book, even if I am looking up as I read. “Because these are fragments of a communal story,” Hume writes, “we cook, work, mother, and plan, but we sleep inside someone else’s dream. We let our feelings dissipate across a screen. We listen to news without hearing the story.
Bodies, instead, become mapped, the way Question Like A Face’s cover resembles splotches of blood or patterns of movement, the way war at a distance becomes a simulation that deals in real bodies, real lives, the way our Google Earthed landscapes can track all of them every day as red dots or green dots, points of interests or predetermined precautions. “Because a woman can be blotted out or smeared into a rug’s dystopian swirls. Just check the map,” Hume urges, “where the street view is obliterated by green dots indicating reports of sexual harassment and assault . . . . Each mark is a target. Each map reveals the bleak house of gender fictions, our double-think, our beloved dualism. On one hand, how much time is left? On the other, how long will we wait?”
There are only so many ways to disappear. The questions we are left with are the ones we must ask of ourselves.
- Coincidentally, immediately after shooting the fog-enhanced, fire-lit music video for the 1984 hit single, Idol flew to perform in Arizona, where he discovered that his contact lenses had fused to his eyeballs, forcing his hospitalization, where his eyes remained bandaged for three days.