The Religion & Culture Web Forum


March 2006
Trading Faces: A Case Study in the Science of Identity, Aesthetics, Ethics:

Transplantation and Restoration

by Brian Soucek, University of Chicago

The years immediately preceding Dorothy’s arrival in Oz were not especially good ones for the Tin Man. We might forget that he began life as a wood-cutter named Nick Chopper, a man of flesh and blood whose axe—enchanted by the Wicked Witch of the East for reasons we don’t need to go into here—attacked him and cut off one of his legs. Fortunately for Chopper, a friend was able to provide a suitable prosthesis, made out of tin. The enchanted axe wasn’t finished, however: over time it cut off Chopper’s other leg, then an arm, then another arm, after which it chopped up his torso piece by piece and, finally, his head. After each successive accident, the friend was able to make an appropriate replacement part (except, of course, for the heart, which, strangely, was never replaced). Thus did Nick Chopper eventually become known as the Tin Man. Not that those were two different people! As the Tin Man himself insists: “A man with a wooden leg or a tin leg is still the same man; and, as I lost parts of my meat body by degrees, I always remained the same person as in the beginning, even though in the end I was all tin and no meat.”1

The case of the Tin Man recalls two of the questions that were posed to us before today’s event. First, how much of one’s body is replaceable before one ceases to be one’s self? And second, do questions like this unduly privilege physical particularity as the ground of identity? The Tin Man’s answer to the first question is so emphatic that the second becomes nearly irrelevant. How much of one’s body can be replaced? The Tin Man cheerfully responds: all of it!

I would like to think a bit about whether and why our intuitions about personal identity—what it is that makes someone the same person over time—might accord with those of the Tin Man. And then I’d like to compare our intuitions about personal identity to those about another kind of entity, namely, works of art. For it is in regard to artworks, not persons—or so I’d like to suggest—that we unduly privilege physical particularity. To put the issue another (more directly relevant) way: we might imagine a person and a statue or painting of a person, each tragically losing its face. Both faces could be repaired, or now, in the wake of Isabelle Dinoire, even replaced. Yet should we do so, I think many people’s intuitions about the identity of the resulting person would diverge from those about the artwork’s identity. And I would like to discuss why that might be so.

First, a few words about Ms. Dinoire’s case. It seems to me implausible that Ms. Dinoire’s face transplant might have changed her identity, at least in the sense philosophers mean it: surely the person who left the surgical suite was numerically identical—in other words, the same person—as the one who entered. If she had a mortgage or parking tickets from before the surgery, she would still be responsible for paying them afterwards; a promise made the week before would have to be kept the week after. If the surgery truly changed her identity, presumably neither would be true. One reason Ms. Dinoire’s identity seems secure is that only a part of her body was replaced (recall the Tin Man’s loss of parts “by degrees”). Our “persistence conditions” for many physical objects, our bodies surely included, are capacious enough to allow for the gradual replacement or repair of parts, so long as the new parts are functionally incorporated. In the case of our bodies, this is true perhaps because our bodies naturally replace their parts anyway. We’re getting new “meat” all the time: were our cells not being constantly replaced, I’m told our intestines would disappear in two days, our skin would fall off in 3 weeks, and our red blood cells would be gone in 4 months.2

On many views of personal identity, this is all beside the point. On those views, much more could have been replaced than Ms. Dinoire’s face. On such views, in fact, the criterion of personal identity is not a bodily one at all. Non-bodily criteria of personal identity are familiar: the Cartesian soul is a paradigmatic example. More philosophically popular—at least at present—is that of John Locke, who rooted personal identity in continuity of memory or consciousness. For Locke and his followers, a person could survive wholesale, not just gradual, changes to his or her body. Locke himself famously imagined a prince whose memories mysterious migrated to the body of a cobbler. Presumably, the prince would have woken up one morning, gone to the mirror and, to his great surprise, seen an unfamiliar face staring back at him.

If this scene sounds familiar to us, it is because we have encountered it so many times before. We’ve seen Tom Hanks go through it in Big, or, more horrifically, read of Gregor Samsa’s experience in The Metamorphosis. If these stories make sense to us, it is because Locke’s intuitions about personal identity make a certain sense. We wouldn’t say that the cobber gets new memories in Locke’s story; rather, the prince gets a new body. If even Gregor can remain the same person after his metamorphosis, as indeed he thought he was—he felt the responsibility to go to “his” job, after all—then continuity of body cannot be a necessary criterion for personal identity.

Locke’s reason for privileging memory stemmed from his view of personhood as a forensic term: to remain the same person is to remain accountable for one’s actions. My point about Ms. Dinoire’s parking tickets and promises thus assumed a broadly Lockean view. Locke himself was concerned with the Last Judgment. If we are to be held accountable there, he thought, we have to have memory of the things for which we are being judged. Otherwise our punishment won’t be punishment; it will just be something bad that happens to us.

I hardly intend to decide here whether Locke’s account of personhood is an adequate one. Instead let me ask: how does any of this relate to works of art?

Whatever qualms or controversies may have arisen in the wake of Ms. Dinoire’s transplant, I would argue that the standards surrounding the restoration of artworks are even more unsettled. Such standards have proven notoriously variable not just over time, but also from country to country and museum to museum—even among individual museums’ particular divisions, in fact. As recently as the 1960s at the British Museum, missing parts of Egyptian sculptures were still being restored—that is, replaced—while in the Greek and Roman wing, restorations made (i.e., parts added) during the previous century were being removed.3 For much of western art history, restoration meant recarving or repainting. Now, certainly in sculpture, perhaps less so in painting, it would be considered scandalous to make a replacement for some missing part. No one is about to put arms on the Venus de Milo.

So why is it that works of art don’t get repaired in this way—at least not anymore? In part, our modern reticence stems from embarrassments of the past. Take the famous Laocoön Group in the Vatican Museums. When it was unearthed in the early 1500s, it was in good condition except for a few missing pieces, such as Laocoön’s right arm. A replacement arm, raised and outstretched, was sculpted and attached. It remained a part of the sculpture for over 400 years. It was not until the early 20th century that the original arm was found—and found to be bent backward.

The Laocoön example gives us caution. As restorers, we don’t want to impose our own ideas on the work, so we favor restraint. But this can’t be the only reason, for of course we could imagine examples in which we know everything possible about the missing part. Perhaps, like so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures, the work has even been scanned, its form digitized. In that case, we could make a replacement practically indiscernible from the original. Should we then do so?

This is where restoration ethics really starts to split. There is widespread agreement that any work done should be reversible—changes we make now should be easily identifiable and removable by future generations. But many go further to insist that changes should be readily identifiable to the viewer. In painting, this might involve using brushstrokes all going in the same direction, or filling in a missing area with neutral colors. In sculpture, restorers often use a modern material, set slightly back from the surface of the original.

Obvious here is the difference with face transplants, where the ‘restoration’ is meant to be as inconspicuous as possible. Ideally, Ms. Dinoire’s transplant would be completely unnoticeable; when it comes to artworks on the other hand, restorations that hide themselves flirt dangerously with charges of forgery. Ultimately, this is the driving concern in cases where repairs could be carried out with full information—cases unlike the Laocoön. Say that we replace the face that flaked off the canvas with inpainting that exactly resembles the original face. Later, the legs flake off and we do the same. Repeated enough times, we might eventually end up with a painting that looks exactly like the original, but which consists of not a single speck of the original’s paint. There would then be no difference between that and any copy we might make. Whatever our standards of restoration, surely that isn’t acceptable.

Our intuitions in these two areas thus seem to have parted ways. In the case of persons, philosophical theory and popular entertainment combine to convince us that identity can be maintained despite bodily changes, however radical. In the case of artworks, overly extensive repainting or recarving leads to something else: a copy or forgery. The reason for this difference is evident: one the side of persons, something is maintained through all the physical changes. For Locke at least, this, again, is memory or continuity of consciousness. Art simply seems to lack any equivalent. After all, what of the artwork might persist if none of the work’s paint or stone or marble were to remain?

Actually, I would like to suggest that there are a number of possible answers. In fact, give me your favorite aesthetic theory—your favored account of what makes artworks important to us (as art, not as investments or sentimental heirlooms)—and I suspect you will have given an answer. People say they value artworks for their beauty or their meaning, their expressed emotion or their “significant form.” But (arguably) each and every one of these things can be found just as well in the perfect copy as in the original.4 I have yet to hear someone argue that what we care about in painting is the paint itself, or that a sculpture is valued (again, qua sculpture) for having that marble rather than a qualitatively identical piece. The history of aesthetics, from Plato to contemporary theorists like Arthur Danto, has often centered rather on the question of how artworks differ from everyday objects—that is, from the ordinary material that both constitutes and surrounds them.

This, finally, is why a consideration of artworks proves relevant to a discussion about personhood. The philosophy of art is concerned with entities which, like persons, are embodied but (at least on most theories) are also more than that. The question of how soul and body relate isn’t just a question about persons; Kant and Hegel, among others, analyzed artworks in exactly those terms as well. The complex relation between, say, an idea and its sensuous realization in art (as Hegel might have put it) is matched and, in fact, paralleled by the mind/body problem, or by issues surrounding agency and our being-in-the-world. Despite our initial intuitions, our lingering suspicions about face transplants perhaps give us reason to revisit accounts (like Locke’s) that separate personhood from the body. But so too should we question those who, in regard to art, make the reverse mistake: that of fetishizing the work’s material. This is where the “bodily” criterion of identity really has a hold on us. Face transplantation raises issues deeper than merely aesthetic ones. But then, so too should aesthetics.

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