In the final section of his text “In Praise of Profanation,” Giorgio Agamben discusses Walter Benjamin’s concept of “exhibition-value.” Benjamin uses this concept “to characterize the transformation that the work of art undergoes in the era of its technological reproducibility”; according to Agamben, it characterizes better than any other concept “the new condition of objects and even of the human body in the era of fulfilled capitalism.” As an example of what he understands by exhibition-value, Agamben turns to the human face: “It is a common experience that the face of a woman who feels she is being looked at becomes inexpressive. That is, the awareness of being exposed to the gaze creates a vacuum in consciousness and powerfully disrupts the expressive processes that usually animate the face.”
In a more recent text titled “Nudity,” Agamben characterizes the attitude expressed here as the “nihilism of beauty”: “common to many beautiful women,” this attitude “consists in reducing one’s own beauty to pure appearance and then exhibiting this appearance with a sort of remote sadness, stubbornly denying the idea that beauty can signify something other than itself. … This disenchantment of beauty, this special nihilism, reaches its extreme stage with the mannequins or the fashion models, who learn before all else to erase all expression from their faces. In so doing, their faces become pure exhibition value and, as a result, acquire a particular allure.” In the profanation essay, Agamben turns to the porn star Chloë des Lysses to develop his point. She is cited as an example of someone who “has recently pushed this procedure to the extreme”: “She has herself photographed in the act of performing or submitting to the most obscene acts, but always so that her face is fully visible in the foreground. But instead of simulating pleasure, as dictated by the conventions of the genre, she affects and displays—like fashion models—the most absolute indifference, the most stoic ataraxy. … Her impassive face breaks every connection between lived experience and the expressive sphere; it no longer expresses anything but shows itself as a place without a hint of expression, as pure means.”
Agamben characterizes this capacity to show itself as pure means as a “profanatory potential.” As such, “[n]either the brazen-faced gesture of the porn star nor the impassive face of the fashion model is … to be blamed.” What he condemns, instead, is pornography’s attempt to neutralize this potential; the fashion show’s attempt to divert the fashion model from the use of this potential. In Nudities, the conclusion that Agamben draws from his discussion of exhibition value is clear: “The only thing that the beautiful face can say, exhibiting its nudity with a smile, is, ‘You wanted to see my secret? You wanted to clarify my envelopment? Then look right at it, if you can. Look at this absolute, unforgivable absence of secrets!’ The matheme of nudity is, in this sense, simply this: haecce! there is nothing other than this.” (Presumably, this haecce also leads beyond Agamben’s focus on the face of beautiful women—into the faces of women as such, whether they are beautiful or not, as well as into the faces of men.) Or, as he puts it at the very end of his even earlier text “The Face”: “Be only your face. Go to the threshold. Do not remain the subjects of your properties or faculties, do not stay beneath them; rather, go with them, in them, beyond them.”
References: Giorgio Agamben. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007; Agamben. Nudities. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010; Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 2000. Image: Dan Davis, Center of the Universe, 80 x 170cm, oil on canvas, 2007.