Commonplace · vol. 5 · no. 1 · October 2004

Christopher Lukasik
The Physiognomy of Biometrics
The face of counterterrorism

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Terror is not faceless.

—Joseph Atick, CEO Identix, 2002


Susanna Rowson’s postrevolutionary novel The Inquisitor, or Invisible Rambler (1788, 1793) recounts the experiences of a wealthy gentleman who, after complaining about the amount of duplicity in the world, is mysteriously given a ring that can turn him invisible. With the power of invisibility, the gentleman boasts that now "I should find my real friends, and detect my enemies." And that is more or less what happens. Over the next three volumes of the novel, the gentleman’s morning walks provide him with numerous occasions to use his invisibility for the benefit of mankind. He exposes rakes, protects the innocent, and saves lives from ruin. Sometimes the gentleman intervenes after witnessing an immoral act while invisible, but far more often he first suspects someone and then investigates the person’s behavior invisibly. His ability to follow the duplicitous before they execute their designs is integral to the novel’s imagination of social order and justice. Yet, if his invisibility is what enables him to spy on people unobserved, then how does he know whom to watch and whom to ignore?

When biometrics look to a face it is to identify a person, when physiognomy looks to a face it is to identify that person’s permanent moral character. Yet, each attempts to control mobility and the instability it brings to the social order by turning to bodies in general and faces in particular.

He knows, we later learn, because he is a physiognomist. "I never cast my eye upon a stranger but I immediately form some idea of his or her dispositions by the turn of their eyes and cast of their features," he explains, "and though my skill in physiognomy is not infallible, I seldom find myself deceived." Indeed, nearly all of the people the invisible rambler suspects eventually behave as their faces predicted they would. Throughout The Inquisitor, faces reveal seducers, gamblers, idlers, dissimulators, and a variety of crooks and fortune hunters. For Rowson at least, a person’s face becomes the probable cause for the rambler’s surveillance.

The idea that a person’s face could belie his will and disclose his character can be traced to Johann Lavater’s enormously popular Essays on Physiognomy (1775-78). At least twenty editions of Lavater’s Essays were published in English, including two in America, before 1810. By 1825, American periodicals had featured no fewer than seventy articles on physiognomy. Lavater’s distinction between pathognomy (the study of man’s passions and his visible, but impermanent facial expressions) and physiognomy (the study of the correspondence between man’s moral character and his permanent and unalterable facial features) limited the power of people to manipulate the reception of their image in public, since it disassociated expression from character. Since Lavaterian physiognomy read moral character from unalterable and involuntary facial features, it created a visual system for discerning a person’s permanent moral character despite his or her social masks. Readers of the 1817 Pocket Lavater, for instance, learned how to look at the features of various white male faces in order to discriminate "the physiognomy of . . . a man of business" from that a "a rogue."

The Man of Business, opposite page 63 in Johann Caspar Lavater, The Pocket Lavater, or, The Science of Physiognomy (New York, 1817). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

By turning to physiognomy as a way to detect vice, expose dissimulation, and undermine social mobility in their novels, Rowson and other postrevolutionary authors reproduced Lavater’s opposition between a model of character read from performance and one read from the structure of the face. In contrast to the revisable, performed, and voluntary self of the fortune-hunting seducer Cogdie, for instance, The Inquisitor posits the permanent, physiognomic, and involuntary one used by the invisible rambler to unmask him. This opposition was foundational, I would argue, to how the postrevolutionary novel in particular and early American culture in general imagined the structure of social relations. The physiognomic distinction of the face opposed the functional, almost incidental relation of a person’s body to genteel performance that texts such as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography promoted and, as a result, it challenged Franklin’s idea that the acquisition of his social and political power was as universally available as the acquisition of his conduct. With the rise of physiognomy, the sphere of agency from which a person’s moral character could be known shrunk from the range and quality of his actions to the contour and shape of his face.

I begin with The Inquisitor’s invocation of physiognomy and surveillance to "find my real friends, and detect my enemies" because its attention to the face, social goals, and underlying logic are similar to those now surrounding today’s science of biometrics (which includes but is not limited to facial recognition systems). This is not to say that biometrics and physiognomy are the same. When biometrics look to a face it is to identify a person, when physiognomy looks to a face it is to identify that person’s permanent moral character. Yet, each attempts to control mobility and the instability it brings to the social order by turning to bodies in general and faces in particular. These two sciences, eighteenth-century and twenty-first, share, in other words, a commitment to the idea that the body does not change, and they seek to ground a person’s essential character or unique identity in that idea of the body’s permanence. In so doing, however, both insist on a false opposition between a model of character that is performed and one that is corporeal. The persistence of this opposition may help to explain why the failure of biometrics to provide security seems to have no bearing on the perception that they provide security nonetheless.

next this issue home