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Haunted faces

October 26, 2012

Images, from top to bottom:
Still from the 1965 French television series Belphégor: Le Fantôme du Louvre;
Kenza Drider being arrested by French police following the niqab ban (photo: EPA).

This weekend I’m in Providence, Rhode Island for Terror and the Inhuman, a conference at Brown University’s Department of Modern Culture and Media. I’m giving a paper called ‘On the Hauntology and Anti-Humanism of the Covered Face,’ extending on a work-in-progress on surveillance, microsurveillance, and dataveillance regimes. The first image above is a still from a highly popular French television series from the 1960s based on the French horror demon character Belphégor, who is said to haunt the Louvre Museum in Paris in a mask. As mentioned in the abstract below, ‘Belphégor’ has became a slur leveled against Muslim women who appear in public in the face-covering niqab.

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On the Hauntology and Anti-Humanism of the Covered Face [Abstract]

In the preface to his volume on simulation and simulacra, Jean Baudrillard gives an account of the mobilization effort to exhume the mummified body of Ramses II, after years of neglect in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The mummy’s corpse was flown to Paris to be exhumed and examined. The symbolic order that had been able to conserve Ramses for forty centuries, Baudrillard points out, made the West panic at the thought of not being able to save it. The mummy carried “an inestimable worth because it is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning; our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view.” In laying out some of the contents of the “stockpile” of this new visible order this paper will draw from a larger project on politically and sartorially encoded values of the human face. I trace the disinterred corpse of Ramses II to modern demonologies that deny personhood or interiority to wearers of a face veil, such as the masked French horror character Belphégor that haunts the Louvre Museum in Paris. “Belphégor” has become a pejorative term to describe women wearing the niqab.

A special finding in my study is that as increasingly repressive measures against the religious uses of face covering proliferate in the European Union, so too have European appropriations of Muslim sartorial codes, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as hijabization. Anglo-European or Western women covering their faces in fashion editorials, advertisement campaigns, editorial layouts, and the 2001 film based on the Belphégor demon have been highly contemporaneous with this debate. I uncover how certain cultural sectors have been endowed with a license to the spectacular and the unusual unlike the actual streets of Paris where religious face covering is viewed as a monstrosity by the larger public and an illegality by the French government. A study on Islamophobia in French society showed that over 70% French opposition to the integration of Muslim practitioners. As the face has taken on socially constructed values about civil inclusion the niqab becomes an extension of disloyalty whereby clothing has symbolic allegiance and is the most materially connotative “Muslim” signifier. This supports the paper’s hypothesis that while European practices appear de facto and de jure Islamophobic, it is the rupturing and visible demon Muslim presence connoted and denoted in the niqab that is perceived to be the ultimate barrier to European unification.

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