Namwali Serpell

Assistant Professor Fellow
Photo of Namwali Serpell

If evolutionary biologists, the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, and social media networks are to be believed, the face is crucial to our human relations. Lévinasian philosophy in particular, which takes the “face-to-face” encounter as a fundamental paradigm for ethics, has recently come to influence the terms of aesthetic and literary criticism as well. Namwali Serpell’s (English) book project, “Faces: Unintended Pleasures,” reads the face not as a locus of subjectivity, but instead as a mediated and mediating thing. Serpell considers a set of texts obsessed with strange, layered, nonhuman, and absent faces, including Hannah Crafts’ 1850 passing novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative; nineteenth century biographies of Joseph Merrick (“the elephant man”); Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho; Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man; and Jonathan Glazer's 2013 film Under the Skin. Drawing on the psychoanalytic concept of disavowal, Serpell charts the different kinds of pleasure we take in our failures to read uncanny faces.