To defuse a time bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles, FBI-agent Sean Archer decides to slip on the bodylarva of terrorist Castor Troy. Troy has been in comatose state since a breath-taking chase at the beginning of Face/off and only his brother Pollux, who is under custody in a topsecret prison knows the hiding-place of the bomb and time of the explosion. To attain this important information Archer has an operation giving him the face and characteristics like hair and the voice of the terrorist at the Walsh-Institute for plastic surgery and body-transformation. Faceless Castor Troy wakes up unexpectedly from the coma and forces the surgeon Dr Walsh to implant Archer’s face on him. All witnesses and the video-recordings of the transplantations are destroyed after he set the institute on fire, so the change of faces and roles appears to be perfect. Due to tactical considerations Troy (alias Archer) defuses the bomb and thus becomes a national hero, so every following shoot-out and chase actually serves only one aim: Sean Archer wants to recover his physical identity, his face.

This is about nothing less than the inalienable core of human indentity, the question around which the whole complex of genetic- and body-techniques keeps revolving: Is there a stable centre - the ego or the transcendental subjectivity - or a stable exterior in the form of a communicative context, that stabilizes the text or the surface of signs of our body and that is left over after the withdrawal of all contingencies? To avoid outdated terms like god, the ego or the subject Francis Fukuyama uses a different term in his new book “Our Posthuman Future”.1 He talks about a mysterious “factor X”, which remains an “essential human quality” after substraction of all coincidental and trivial qualities of a person. However, this mysterious factor X turns out to be a well-known aquaintance, because fundamentally Fukuyama does mean nothing but what Marshall McLuhan says in his famous dictum “the media is the message”2, also quoting a figure of the classical avantgarde movement: cleaning a media of art, for example art or poetry, from all coincidental appearances and conscious messages - like the narrative or the illusionistic - then in the end the support of this method, the media reveals for example the plain surface of the canvas, the pigments or - in the case of language - the pure sound. Now it is known that exactly these efforts of the classical avantgarde to discover this factor X of the respective media have failed. We aren´t able to make a decision between face and mask like John Woo does in Face/off, because there simply is no hidden interior to be discovered. However, and that’s what Face/off also shows, stabilization from the exterior through a stable context - family, love, religion, or violence - doesn’t work either, because the different contexts can’t possibly be described objectively. The artists of today have been using a different strategy for a long time, namely the production of the medial core or the production of the medial context. Here art and technology are closely connected.

The efforts of classical avantgarde-movements can be described as a reaction to the effects of technology or progress. Division of labour and machine industry have dissolved the stable form of human life, divided up the individual and fragmented his body. Unity of man and unity of his body, kept up over centuries, have been decomposed and are available to recombination in form of a collage. All demands for fusing art with life and creating the new man were basically a radical reaction to this estrangement and fragmentation. Man as an avantgarde artist has become a creator, who gives an aesthetical order to the unshaped. Just because the technology to order a new human body wasn’t available at that time, these impulses were restricted on changing the human psyche and the social life. For example in an early phase the effect of a work of art was described as a bacterial infection, as contamination of the psyche, which should be the cause for a delayed but unstoppable transformation of the individual. In the further course of the development the role of the artist changed from an omnipotent creator to an engineer who forms the social future in co-operation with science and politics.

In this place the formation of a new avantgarde can be noticed, an artistic-scientific-political complex, which is thinking of rearranging man, using the means of genetic technology and body techniques. It’s the genetic engineers who are these artist/engineers, engineers who operate with the same vigorous rhetoric of health and force against sickness and weakness. Like the debates in Face/off the discussions which revolve around the use or ban of these new “anthropotechniques”3 or the breeding and forming of man with the help of biotechnology aren’t particulary innovative. Two well-known stories of creation are quoted, on the one hand a theological-aesthetical one on the other hand a biologistical theory of evolution, which gives preference to nature or coincidence. But it is not so much about the direct production of bodies, rather than the production of context which are being produced in a very radical way by a “techno - medial force in our culture”4 for a long time ago. The cinema is one of the places, where these productions of context with reference to the body are becoming apparent. All forbidden wishes and suppressed phantasies are still being carried out: for example in current SciFi- films men in black, lord of the rings, star wars, episode III - attack of the clonwarriors, minority report to mention only some of the latest examples, there are existing no isolated bodies from her context. The difference between man and machine is becoming increasingly blurred, the media are - exactly as Marshall McLuhan puts it - extensions of the body, prosthesies of body or the machines are still integrated into the human body.

These developments can be examined very well in a genre like the monster-film. Originally, the monstrosity as such had to fulfill its main objective, that of to admonish from the cassical root word monere for the term monster.5 The horrible should admonish the people and influence their actions and behaviour. So the classic ending of the horrorfilm is the killing of the monster and the restoration of the order. But the return to the old order is presupposing in silence the existence of meaningful rules or a valid context. If it isn´t possible to establish this sense or it has to be produced, then the figure of the monster is losing all tragic and dramatic sides6. Neither the actors nor the spectators of a new generation of monster-films are really horrified seeing just monstrous bodies - the monster can also be a good friend with whom you talk about an oddball of the human kind or simply go out for a beer.

This conception of monstrosity has been around since the beginning of the modern age in which the grotesque body is seen as a juxtaposition to the classic ideal of the human body with its distinct borders between body and world. Examining the relation of a literary work to its context, the Russian literary searcher, Michael Bachtin outlined a new semiotic literary theory. “Fundamentally there is, in an extreme understanding of the grotesque motif, no individual body. The grotesque body consists of penetrations and elevations, which represent the seed of another body, it is a stopping-off place for eternally renewing life, an unexhausting receptacle of death and impregnation”.7 Bachtin, who outlines this view in his books about Dostojewski and about Rabelais’ poetry of the body, understands the individual body as a special case, an “island” in the “vast ocean of grotesque views of body”8. It is no accident that for Bachtin the scene of this body-blending and carnivalesque masques is the folk culture, one can say the low art of the renaissance culture. Not single living faces (or discourses), but deadly masks (or ideologies) were stage-managed in the grotesque carnival body and were saved from transistoriness. Exactly these masks were produced and embodied in complex plays of media, technique and politics, for example like the “illusion-plays”9 of Hollywood.

At this point the death of Castor Troy and the return of Sean Archer into his body is unsatisfactory for the audience because since the beginning Archers face and person had been also an embodiment of a mask. This mask had to be produced by director John Woo, the studio, his team and especially by the stars John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Whenever we might have located an identity, or recognized a face, then another displacement begins, a new mask appears, of course the complex figure of the star or the star-director is only another embodiment in the maskplays of our complex cultural strategies. 


1. Francis Fukuyama Das Ende des Menschen, München, 2002,p. 56.

2. Marshall Mc Luhan, Die magischen Kanäle, Dresden, Basel,1995, p. 21.

3. Peter Sloterdijk, Regeln für den Menschpark, Frankfurt am Main, 1999, p. 42.

4. Jacques Derrida, Marx´ Gespenster, Frankfurt am Main, pp. 90f. (Derrida mentiones an ensemble of at least three dispositivs or locations - the political, tele-technical and the academical culture – that is organizing and controlling the statements in the public area.)

5. Peter Sloterdijk points out that the root of the term monster is not the latelatin monstrare (to demonstrate), but the classical monere (to admonish). Sloterdijk, Peter Sloterdijk im Interview, available http://www.tagesspiegel.de.

6. Boris Groys is recommending a calm happiness with regard to the increase of pictures and words beyond a clear sense. Boris Groys, „Die Heiterkeit des Monströsen“, in: Groys, Logik der Sammlung, Wien, 1997, pp. 205 – 213.

7. Michail Bachtin, Rabelais und seine Welt, Frankfurt am Main, 1987, p. 359.

8. ibid., S. 361.

9. Elisatbeth Bronfen, Heimweh: Illusionsspiele in Hollywood, Berlin, 1999.




This scenario of imagination, made into a film in 1997 by director John Woo starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, demonstrates exactly how the film-industry or rather the complex apparatus of Hollywood produces a reality, which satisfies the secret imaginations of our mass culture: the dissolution of the human body, the medial extension of its parts or the integration of engineering into the body by abolishing the separation of man and machine. Although Face/off shows impressive techniques of body-transformations, for example body-screening, a morpho-genetical matrix of the face, laser-amputations and integrated throat-microphone chips for the imitation of the voice, the plot always assumes that there is a difference between face and mask, role and life (this is its actual topic) or rather that there has always been something to stabilize the body from inside or outside. In the beginning of the film a battle of words between Archer and his pubescent daughter Jamie makes this plain: Archer: You are changing your appearence every week, your style and I can´t see who you really are. Jamie: I´m just me, nobody else, but of course you don´t have an idea who I am.