The mask and the toilet paper are two of the daily objects that took on new life during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the toilet paper drama resolved itself after the first few weeks, the mask kept on accumulating significance and proliferating as one of the defining cultural objects of the pandemic. Accumulation is a useful analytic to think about this as the accumulation of significance can be traced back to the accumulation of different contexts, controversies, tactics and politics which the mask articulates. What has been astonishing is how these varying contexts have converged during the pandemic, at times reinforcing each other, at times undermining, while generating novel forms and usage. I will try to list a few of these contexts and trace their interactions.
At the forefront, of course, has been the use of masks to contain the spread of the virus. Health department guidelines translated into government orders implemented by its ideological and repressive state apparatuses. It has been fascinating to see the entire history and controversy of the Social Contract played out around the usage of the mask. The usual rhetoric has been that the use of masks protects not just oneself but others from oneself, thus we give up some of our freedom to make the society function and enjoy greater freedom. This tension between enforcement and appeal has been mediatized in multiple ways. One Santa Barbara restaurant notice, for example, writes in bold black letters that masks are “required to enter” while follows it up with “I keep you safe. You keep me safe. Everyone stays safe,” written in cheerful fonts.
On the other hand, there has been the outright refusal to wear masks in the name of personal freedom led by Trump himself. An example analogous to above would be one restaurant notice from Berea, Ohio proclaiming “To better serve our customers, our staff will not be wearing masks. If you have a problem with this, please come back to us at a time when you feel safe to come out.”
In America anti-maskers have repeatedly invoked the twin logic that America is a free country and wearing a mask is not what God intended. The mask mandates are subsequently termed as “devil’s law” or “communist dictatorship.” In one of the widely circulated anti-masking videos from Palm Beach, Florida, one woman argues, “I do not wear a mask for the same reason that I do not wear underwear. Things gotta breathe.” While all of this is laughed off as stupidity, there’s a deeper irony that is opened up by this. The anti-masking protests invoke what Achille Mbembe has called “the universal right to breathe,” the same right that has been historically denied to large swathes of population: “a premature cessation of breathing, everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression.”
Mbembe’s above response to the pandemic, written in March last year, assumes a chilling prophetic quality in the light of the murder of George Floyd one month later which literally enacted “the premature cessation of breathing” through the violent chokehold which has been a historically favored form of police brutality and killing of black citizens. While the murder of George Floyd enacted the literal attack of the respiratory tract, the BLM movement in the wake of the killing reenacted the use of face masks in the context of activist movements and protest on the ground. Masks have served two important functions in street protests worldwide. On the one hand, masks and masking techniques have been used as protection against tear gas and other chemical weapons of the state invoking the long history of chemical warfare. In very recent history, masks have proliferated as both image and technique to combat increasingly aggressive forms of state violence from Kashmir to Palestine, from Hong Kong to America. On the other hand, in more recent development, masks have been used to resist biometric technologies of facial recognition employed by the state to identify protesters. Facial recognition has been used extensively in Hong Kong protests; during the CAA protests in India, Delhi police used the Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) which was originally designed to locate and identify missing children. During the BLM protests, NYPD reportedly used facial recognition technology to track down black activists. Masks have been the usual mode of resistance against facial recognition as a practice of what Zach Blas calls “informatic opacity.” Blas’s art project, Face Cages, accordingly, dramatizes the technology of facial recognition in a visceral physical form of representation. What has been telling about the BLM is the convergence of all these masking techniques at a single moment: from the medical protection against the virus and tear gas to identity protection against twenty first century capture technologies. These twin modes of the mask, the medical and the military, fall under the larger category of an immunity politics, argues Yigit Soncul. The mask here articulates the “tensions between absence and presence, image and embodiment, inhabitability and uninhabitability, contagion and immunity.”
The third context in which the image of the mask came to dominate was the masked firefighter fighting wildfire. The pandemic has seen two of the biggest wildfire seasons in Australia and California in their respective history. For a couple of weeks in September, 2020 the American public media has been enchanted and awed by different shades of orange – from violent forest burning to the tinted skyline of San Francisco.
The aestheticization of disaster often masked the plight of the affected, the complication of evacuation due to an already ongoing disaster. The mask is an alibi for thinking; my main point is this: the compounding of disaster for certain groups of people. Another example of this, close to my reality, was the Amphan cyclone that hit Kolkata and neighboring districts in May 2020 which effectively ended the state’s resistance protocol against COVID. The compounding of disaster shows that people are differently affected by them; “differentially entangled”, in the words of Elizabeth Povinelli. I personally don’t like the term pandemic much; I still prefer the epidemic (just the term, not the thing). Our quick recognition of pan-ness or global-ness can have the effect of erasing the fact that any crisis, however global, always manifests itself in local intensities.
This could well be the end of the post, but I want to make a final point regarding the mask. And this has been very specific of COVID-19 – the transformation of the mask. In the contexts I have listed before the mask does what it’s supposed to do, that is, to block movement of things, whether biological or chemical or informatic. But with time the mask became an item of clothing, an item of fashion, a medium of communication from a medium of blockage. Like a screen that both hides and displays, the mask too has come to stop and enable communication at once. One can point out numerous examples here. My professor, Melody Jue, for example, writes about the use of clown masks in a short story to make children laugh. My own favorite example of mask communication (which was also an example of mass communication) has been Naomi Osaka’s honoring of black victims of racism during the US Open (see featured image). For each match leading up to the final, she wore a different face mask with the name of a black victim who has been murdered by the police or white men. What’s been most interesting about her messaging is, once again, the convergence of a pandemic, a deep history of racial violence and protest tactics, in other words, the medical and the military.
Blas, Zach. 2018. “Informatic Opacity.” In Posthuman Glossary edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. London: Bloomsbury Academic. https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/24032/1/Informatic%20Opacity.pdf
Jue, Melody. 2020. “Science Fiction in the Time of Face Masks: On Chen Qiufan’s “The Smog Society.”” In “Thinking Through the Pandemic: A Symposium.” Science Fiction Studies 47, no. 3 (November): 321-376. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.47.3.0321#metadata_info_tab_contents
Mbembe, Achille. 2020. “The Universal Right to Breathe.” Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/
Povinelli, Elizabeth. “The Four Axioms of Existence.” The Program in Critical Theory. Podcast. http://live-critical-theory.pantheon.berkeley.edu/?event=rhetoric-fall-colloquium-elizabeth-povinelli-the-four-axioms-of-existence
Soncul, Sukru Yigit. 2019. Facial politics of images and media: Mask, body, immunity. University of Southampton. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/437090/