The Multiple Faces of Representation

By Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, University of Oxford and Odile Ammann, University of Fribourg 

The face of the Other – under all the particular forms of expression where the Other, already in a character’s skin, plays a role – is just as much pure expression, an extradition without defense or cover, precisely the extreme rectitude of a facing, which in this nudity is an exposure unto death: nudity, destitution, passivity, and pure vulnerability. Such is the face as the very mortality of the other person. 1



Representation is never a word. Its deceitful individuality is a precept to the repressed many.


Representation consists in trusting the eyes completely (but whose eyes?), privileging the face at the expense of the body – the body proper – whose dweller is never absent but absented.


Representation persistently leans on othering. It leans until its entire body is above the Other.


To represent is to say, in the language of the absolute, loudly, so loudly, “this absence of the Other is precisely its presence as Other”.2


Representation has more than one face. In German, the verb ‘to represent’ can be translated by darstellen (to display, portray, express), by verkörpern (to embody), or by vertreten (to replace, act on behalf of).3 The third of these conveys the legal meaning of the word representation: to act on behalf of, with legally binding effects. Consequently, the many other layers of the word vertreten reveal the complexity and manifold connotations of this term. Such equivalents are ‘to be present besides others’; ‘to defend a point of view’; ‘to stumble’; and, finally, ‘efface’ and, thereby, ‘to bring into an unsightly state through stomping’.


Representation lies precisely in detecting the face and presupposing its disfigurement. Without the face, the represented is not present by means of his sheer presence, but to a large extent is there(in) at the expense of his presence. These two propositions are what precipitate the finitude of the face. Indeed, the representer portrays it as a defining element that not only represents the whole, but equally nullifies it.


Can a face with a body that is barely visible claim to be the face of an entity? Or is it the deferred face of a deferred body? The refugee face is both the animate and the inanimate of a face. It is the animate in its potential to be ‘such as’, ‘as’, and ‘like’ a human face. It is inanimate in its association with, inherence within, and clattering against the antithesis of a human – or simply the beast.


The verb ‘to represent’ has the clatter of a slap; of an abrasive touch that aggravates the touched and lingers. As it always touches the face and nothing else, it abates the distance between the slap and the face. Hence, this process can reach the status of an experience.


‘To represent’ also consists in not giving the face time with itself. The representer manipulates it in a way that asserts its disappearance from its body. Despite the suggested neutrality of the infinitive ‘to represent’, representation always occurs in the past; the past of the past, the farthest past, as if representation were always akin to the ritual of burial, a burial normally preceded by an insignificant death.


The refugee is never the representer unless in death. The refugee dies alone, and this lonely death, singular and subjective, suddenly becomes that of all.


But will this death retain the face in its fullness, in its entirety?


The face of the refugee is no longer part of the proper body, but the trace of a presence. Everything returns to the origin, that is, the body.


The face is the only part deemed worthy of representation, regardless of the body.


The represented exists on his own, a shadow, an attained nothing, devoid of parameters. Like a scarecrow, veiled by twigs and straw, he scares off other strangers and guards the fields of the citizen.


If the skin were to speak, it would utter the language of disappearance, not the nonexistence of the self, but the suddenness of the face’s image.


What if the refugee were born without a face?



Visit our latest blog series page here for other pieces on representation and displacement. 

You can  read more of Yousif’s poems, and hear a selection of his readings, by visiting our creative archive.




1 Levinas, E. (1987) Time and the Other (Trans. R.A. Cohen). Pittsburgh: Duquense University Press. p. 107.

2 Levinas, Time and the Other, p. 94.

3 For the manifold meanings and connotations of ‘representation’ in German, see ‘Vertreten,’ in Duden (online edition at; and Spivak, G. C. (1995) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Eds B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and A. Tiffin, Post-colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 24-28.


Featured Image: Children waiting (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 

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