face-on-off-spearl Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other

You can buy my book directly from the University of Chicago Press here; it’s also available from amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many independent bookstores.


“Although only about 30 face transplants have been performed, Sharrona Pearl believes that the procedure – and the ways it has been represented in films and television – touches on crucial ‘questions of the self, the relationship between mind and body [and] cultural negotiations of self-presentation and manipulation’. It may also lead us to think again about the design of digital avatars and how ‘faces in advertising and other media [are manipulated] to elicit behaviour from viewers’. This book charts the strange territory that has been opened up by the advent of face transplants and claims it may be ‘time to come up with a new ethics of the face’.”

(Times Higher Education)

“Sharrona Pearl‘s new book is an absolute pleasure to read. Face/On looks closely at facial allotransplantations (FAT), commonly known as face transplants, in order to offer a careful and fascinating study of the stakes for changing the face, and the changing stakes for the face….  [S]parklingly written and well worth a read!”

(Carla Nappi New Books Network)

“This is a significant and timely book. Since 2005, more than 40 face transplants have taken place globally, and each has brought medical, ethical, emotional and sociological challenges. Pearl offers an important contextualisation to debates about the surgical challenges, seeing social discomfort around the procedure as part of a broader and more fundamental bias about facial identity…. Sharing stories of those who have literally lost (and gained) their face, Pearl writes beautifully and polemically, with a genuine passion for her subject, in particular for the ‘humanity of the faceless, who through disfigurement or transplantation may be denied respect by, and engagement with, human society; snubbed, rejected, humiliated or “left for dead”’.

(Fay Bound Alberti, Social History of Medicine)

Face/On looks at the cultural representations of face transplants. It is a fascinating account of media discourses particularly concerning the issue in the United States. In a refreshing writing style that keeps her own voice strong, Pearl promises not only to reveal the mechanisms of institutional normativity by discussing the media discourses about face transplants but also to use the chance ‘to reimagine what the face means’. . . . As with many topics Pearl touches, she inspires curiosity to look further.”

(Andrea Zittlau, H-Net)

“An expert on physiognomy, Pearl delves into the multiple ethical and social dimensions of face transplants touching on questions of self-identity, and peer and social identification….This book is an interesting read for everyone and closes the gap between science fiction and the realities of modern medicine. Sharrona Pearl raises socially relevant questions and issues in modern medicine, psychology, philosophy and science, and makes the reader think not only about the faces of other people, but how we look and judge others and how we look at ourselves.”

(American Journal of Transplantation)

“Written in a voice that is punchy, personal, ruminative, probing, and always crystal clear, Face/On shows how face transplants raise some of the oldest mysteries of identity and embodiment. Not only an inquiry into medical and media ethics, it is also a philosophical consideration of identity, a cultural study of popular discourse, an exploration of intractable questions about health and beauty, and a consideration of what it means to be an enfleshed being. Always poignant and funny, Face/On is illuminating.”

(John Durham Peters, author of The Marvelous Clouds )

“In this thoughtful and engaging exploration of medical, cinematic, popular, and literary representations of the face transplant, Pearl deftly shows what is at stake when faces are surgically changed as well as how these stakes have changed over the past century. Face/On powerfully confronts the societal abnegation of the faceless, the disfigured, and the visually different, compelling us all to rethink how we imagine humanity.”

(Kathy Davis, author of Reshaping the Female Body)

“Pearl has provided us with a new chapter in the history of modern identity. Beautifully written, Face/On offers both a history of medical transplants and an account of philosophical and theoretical investigations of the relations between face and self.”

(Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure)

Book Overview

Are our identities attached to our faces? If so, what happens when the face connected to the self is gone forever—or replaced? In Face/On, Sharrona Pearl investigates the stakes for changing the face–and the changing stakes for the face—in both contemporary society and the sciences.

The first comprehensive cultural study of face transplant surgery, Face/On reveals our true relationships to faces and facelessness, explains the significance we place on facial manipulation, and decodes how we understand loss, reconstruction, and transplantation of the face. To achieve this, Pearl draws on a vast array of sources: bioethical and medical reports, newspaper and television coverage, performances by pop culture icons, hospital records, personal interviews, films, and military files. She argues that we are on the cusp of a new ethics, in an opportune moment for reframing essentialist ideas about appearance in favor of a more expansive form of interpersonal interaction. Accessibly written and respectfully illustrated, Face/On offers a new perspective on face transplant surgery as a way to consider the self and its representation as constantly present and evolving. Highly interdisciplinary, this study will appeal to anyone wishing to know more about critical interventions into recent medicine, makeover culture, and the beauty industry.

Sharrona Pearl is Assistant Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain and editor of Images, Ethics, Technology.