About Face

On a gray afternoon in March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the presidential oath of office and inherited a country in profound economic, social, and spiritual trouble. Roosevelt’s task that somber day was to convince a nation already three years into a great economic depression that there was a reason to hope for better times. In his inaugural address Roosevelt did not sugarcoat the situation; indeed, he pledged to “speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” While President Hoover had often resisted the use of federal sources to alleviate suffering in the states, Roosevelt made it clear that he would mobilize the resources of the federal government to address the economic and social problems of the nation.

Throughout the speech Roosevelt relied heavily on two terms with a distinctly visual inflection: “facing” and “recognizing.” In exhorting Americans to confront their anxieties about the Depression head on, Roosevelt observed that “we face common difficulties,” reminded the audience that “a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence,” suggested that the problem of unemployment is solvable “if we face it wisely and courageously,” and finally, warned that the nation must “face the arduous days that lie before us.” During the first few years of the Depression, many in government and business had buried their heads in the sand, but Roosevelt asked the American public to turn and “face” the problems of the Depression squarely and courageously. Only when Americans had faced the depression, Roosevelt explained, could they go on to “recognize” what would be necessary for recovery. Roosevelt argued that citizens needed to participate in the “recognition of the falsity of material wealth,” “recognize the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” and understand that national recovery would involve “recognition” of the necessity of interdependence.

Roosevelt’s address is revered for its clear expression of strength and confidence in the midst of a great national crisis. But the speech is of interest for another reason as well: the way in which its visual language echoes a larger cultural shift in Depression-era modes of knowledge and representation. Note Roosevelt does not ask Americans to “confront” the problems of the depression, but to “face” them implying a literal as well as metaphorical visual engagement. Similarly, he does not exhort Americans to “learn” or even “understand” that the American economy must change, but to “recognize,” to see and know the ills of the current system. Roosevelt’s choice of visual language in this speech cannot have been accidental, for the twin notions of “facing” and “recognizing” so clearly embody his purposes. Furthermore, Roosevelt’s visual rhetoric curiously prefigures the decades interest in the relationship between seeing and knowing. Indeed, while FDR’s use of visual language is primarily allegorical (and thus reflective of a philosophical tradition in Western culture that privileges the visual), the speech also prefigures visual engagement more literally. The New Deal instituted a range of material practices in which visual remedies were often positioned as a cure for—or at least the mode of diagnosis of—what ailed the nation.

Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty (ix-xi)

I keep returning to these opening passages in Finnegan’s book with some anxiety. I love the book overall, but I can’t help but see this as a fault-line. Is facing a visual metaphor at all? I don’t think so. If I face the wind, do I see it? Facing is, in my estimation, a kinesthetic metaphor. Recognizing can also be kinesthetic—if I reach out in the dark to turn off my alarm clock, I do indeed recognize the sleep button without ever having seen it. I can “recognize” an object in the dark without the aid of vision—to recognize is to know, not necessarily to see.

I begin to wonder about the utility of identifying so-called “shifts” in knowledge and representation. Debord, similarly, locates the “society of spectacle” as originating circa 1935. I don’t think it is that cut and dried at all. Visuality has been with us for a lot longer than that. The strength of Finnegan’s work, however, is in its focus on the deployment of visuals in this period. But I can’t help but see it as part of a larger phenomena—the rise of public relations. Public relations used every possible sensual mode (including FDR’s infamous fireside chats) to move people. Does framing the question in terms of a “visual turn” really tell us much of anything? I’m becoming more and more unconvinced.

Facing up to the blurry boundaries of recognition seems essential. Levinas was adamant in nothing that the “face” which moves us to ethical behavior is not the face we see.