“One of the most significant facts about humanity may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to a live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” —Clifford Geertz
“… the practically incantatory task of naming nonexistent objects.” —Samuel R. Delany
Most Americans, or at least most who have not heaved the delirious events of the last few years right down our great national memory-hole, agree today that the whole thing with the Manis and the Pedis, and the late-coming Derrières, was little more than an opportunistic stunt. But I disagree. I see it as a vivid demonstration —like Nuer ghost marriage, like the Vikings who put on bear skins and transformed into wild animals before their murderous raids, like the Aboriginal Australians who discern a causal role for the tjurunga board in human procreation, like the air-guitar championships of Finland— of the infinite flexibility and creative genius of human culture.
Who can forget those first outrageous Trunks in early ‘25, when some small band of kids began claiming that the locus of their true identity was to be found not in their faces, but in their hands and feet, and that their identity documents should, accordingly, show nothing but those neglected extremities? And then when they started referring to the great majority of us, who had always simply assumed that the face works well enough for ID-ing purposes, as “the Facials”?
It was useless to insist to them that our preference for the face has something to do with the hundreds of tiny muscles that constitute it and that reveal the most minor fluctuations of mood. It was a complete waste of time to dwell on the power of the face to tell profound stories of our character, our life-course, our irreducible ipseity. It was in vain that the old guard held forth on the evolution of a specialized mechanism of the human brain for highly acute facial perception and recognition. For the Manis and Pedis, the great majority of us, who simply take for granted that the face is “where it’s at” were in fact only one identity group among others, and we were going to have to learn not only to live alongside our Mani and Pedi peers, but actively to affirm what many took to be their newfangled, counterintuitive, and perhaps even incoherent conception of themselves.
And who again can forget the culture-war battles that swelled over the matter of driver’s license photos, when some young Pedi in Durham, North Carolina, walked into a DMV and proceeded to take off his shoe, holding his bare foot up before the camera? In no time Fox and MSNBC took their natural sides, and the firebrands in the state legislatures began speaking as if the fate of civilization hung either on affirming or denying that the personhood of a person might be precisely located in the big-toe. And the kids with their impassioned rhetoric did not help anyone to keep a level head, with their wild claims that they had known with absolute certainty, since the earliest dawn of their childhood memories, while playing “This Little Piggy”, that, as one MPA put it: “Those toes weren’t just toes. They were me.” “Facials have toes,” went the new mantra, “but we Pedis are toes.”
Of course by early ‘26 all ID-ing, in airports and on highways and in bars, was anyway being done by ambient DNA readers, so the controversy over what appeared on our vestigial old driver’s-license and passport photos was in the end only symbolic. Yet the symbolism proved simply too powerful for average Americans —or even a good number of the first-wave MPAs— to tolerate, when the Derrières appeared on the scene, started insisting it was hate speech every time some hapless Trunkster left out the accent grave from their name, and set about shoehorning their long list of demands into a newly updated MPDA platform.
The Derrières reasoned that, in evolutionary terms, the human face is really just an ersatz rump, which only became perceptually salient to our early hominid ancestors as female estrus was little by little selected away, and human culture came to be founded on the presumption that the “upper face” is more interesting than the lower one — that, as one gubernatorial candidate in Georgia put it, a hot-headed anti-MPDA Republican, “there’s just not that much to see down there. A single crack, if we’re being honest. Can’t even smile.”
The Derrières, obviously, disagreed. “Stare at my ass long enough,” one MPDA told Rachel Maddow, “I mean, just make that little effort to get accustomed to it, and you’ll see it’s who I really am.” But this proved one step too far for many viewers, and ended up alienating average people from continuing to support the movement, which had begun, after all, from the reasonable-enough insight that there might be better ways to anchor our individuality than through our faces. “You’re gonna call me a ‘Facial’ just because I’ve had it with folks walking into the DMV and mooning the camera?” a guest said on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. “What is this country coming to?” “I’m not a Facial,” one popular new slogan went. “You’re just an asshole.”
Soon enough, of course, the Derrières themselves came to look like just another flank of the rear-guard, if you will excuse the pun, as younger and ever more radical questioners of Facial supremacy —or “prosopocentricity”, as some academic theorists had taken to calling it— came on the scene and challenged the way we go about things. Chat forums were overflowing with strange new claims by adolescents calling themselves “translocs”, who purported to believe that they had been endowed with a migratory locus of personal identity within their bodies. “My locus changes like at least 40 times a day,” one thirteen-year-old wrote. “Sometimes I can feel it moving lol. Like from my elbow to my pinky.”
Others, who dubbed themselves the “alocs”, claimed there was no particular part of their body that anchored their identity any more than any other. “It’s just like everywhere,” one teen wrote. “I don’t see why they have a right to insist on taking a picture of my face when I know it’s everywhere.” But public opinion only really started to turn when the “metalocs” came on the scene, claiming that the locus of their identity could be found, some or all of the time, somewhere physically separate, and often quite remote, from their own physical bodies. “When I went for my learner’s permit,” one teenaged Trunkster wrote, “I told the DMV I wanted a picture of this otter that was all bendy and weird that I saw when I was like 12 with my dad on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. I mean, that picture is so much more me than my actual face lol.”
It all seemed rather silly and harmless to most people, but the backlash inevitably grew, as right-wing opportunists latched onto the more excessive claims of the kids in order to push the argument that we were witnessing a sharp decline in traditional moral virtues. Some of them even began citing abstruse French theory, notably Emmanuel Levinas —or at least some simplified hand-me-down version of the same—, to argue, in effect, that “all ethics is grounded in face, facial… in faciality”, as one Nebraska state assemblyman, some rough-hewn old duffer in a bolo tie, struggled to enunciate on C-SPAN.
The red-state rabble-rousers tried as they could to catalyze this issue into electoral success, but for the most part, after some initial frenzy of manufactured outrage, Americans just shrugged, preferring to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude vis-à-vis the MPDTAM+ community. The stakes were just too low — especially, again, with all the ambient DNA settling the matter of who we are every time we pass by one of those ubiquitous readers, quite apart from how any of us might prefer to think of the question of personal identity.
It was a good deal harder, by contrast, to prevent real social cleavages from emerging upon the arrival of the Nocturnals.