Face Value: Physiognomy, Portraiture, And The Making Of Subjectivity In Francophone Literature And Visual Culture

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Romance Languages
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This dissertation examines representations of the human face in Francophone literature and visual culture. Of all the discourses that have dominated discussions of France’s colonial subjects, nineteenth-century physiognomy was among the most popular. Imperial expansion in the 1830’s and the development of physical anthropology transformed the “science of faces” into something it was originally not: a tool for classifying racial types rather than a study of individual, idiosyncratic features. In the following century, Levinas profoundly reshaped how to approach and understand faces. While his ethics has often been framed as a critique of physiognomic description, Chapter one produces a reading of the two that explores some of their less-discussed commonalities, arguing that both ultimately theorized the face apart from its lived experience. The next three chapters examine how current Afro-Caribbean authors such as Max Elisée, Révérien Rurangwa, and Assia Djebar have engaged with this intellectual legacy and articulated, often as a counterpoint, their own imaginaries of the face. Proceeding through a series of case studies centered on portraits of Tutsis, chabins, and (un)veiled Muslims, this dissertation interrogates the modalities through which racial and gender differences have been inscribed on and performed by the body. It is not a history of Francophone portraiture per se, nor is it a history of the face. Rather, it provides a partial inventory of how Francophone artists have positioned themselves within the network of Western discourses on the face, and more specifically, how they have borrowed, re-appropriated, or bent the codes of physiognomic portraiture, using the face as a heuristic device to explore what it means to be human.

Lydie Moudileno
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