Faces on posters, too many choices
What was the mask?
The subtitle is deliberately premature. In Britain, masks are still mandatory for enclosed spaces, including the classic nonsensical compromise of wearing them in the pub whenever you stand up from the table but not at the table (so much for the theories of airborne transmission last year’s daily TV briefings gave such gravity to). It’s unclear at the moment if the much-trumpeted roadmap that would lead to the end of social restrictions in late June will get rid of masks, given the government’s simultaneous baleful whispers about the “Indian variant”. Some people, we’re told, will keep wearing masks long beyond the necessity indicated by the science, and we need to be very understanding about it. And yet it’s possible now to look back on the process by which face masks acquired their all-consuming meanings, with such astonishing speed, last spring as something peculiar and artificial, taking on the specific lineaments and logic of a specific, terminally ailing, society.
Masks, in fact, are the most revealing object of such a process, because in their function in a public health context they possess no meaning. Anthropology tells us that many objects do things and in doing so acquire and articulate meaning: the club wielded by a tribal chief may be an instrument to enforce his will on other members or other tribes, but it also designates his place, as wielder, in the social hierarchy. In the British context, the torrent of meaning almost preceded the function: the coronavirus doesn’t care about your reasons for wearing a mask, which is effectively just a piece of fabric impeding the inhalation of viral droplets (although famously not aerosols), but mask-wearing took on the character of a voluntary act of communal protection before a consensus even emerged about its practical usefulness. This was especially the case in the interval between the movement of the coronavirus beyond Italy and the British state’s mandating of social distancing and masks. In the US, the CDC gave advice in February on how to wear masks but didn’t mandate them, while the Surgeon-General famously warned people not to wear them, only to reverse this stance a few weeks later. Social distancing, reduced contact and wearing face coverings developed, before lockdown, as a corollary of open and explicit distrust of the public health establishment. Further left friends construed mask-wearing as an act of collective self-defence in the absence of any state support, while stray social democrats longed for wartime production laws to make masks more available to medical staff. Going to the supermarket in late March, the numbers of people wearing masks would vary from a small fraction to 60% day to day. By May, the Washington Post had decided, it wasn’t just a public health necessity but an avenue of self-expression, with the volte-face dismissed with “now we know better” handwaving. Posts from influencers and edgier models showing off couture masks blossomed as one variation of content about segments of pandemic fashion (“wfh fits”, “fashion as self-care”, “what to wear to the corner shop” etc). Posters familiar with the mask-wearing habits of east Asia’s urban centres expressed satisfaction that they’d been right all along.
So started a long trajectory that peaked, perhaps, with ubiquitous “wear a mask” exhortations in Twitter usernames, Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter berating the readers of her Instagram captions to confront the irresponsible, and media retailing the foiled kidnapping of Gretchen Whitmer over Michigan’s lockdown just ahead of a projected Biden election win. It developed, in other words, not as the expression of a “moral economy”, still less as a “popular delusion”, but still registered the meanings of each. (Similarly the much-discussed “mutual aid” of last spring was often less genuinely mutual aid than longing for such a thing to emerge out of networks of concerned WhatsApp messages.) These meanings are hard to place, seeming to exist mostly in the hothouse of social media and its columnist outriders. And yet many of them would be recognisable to ordinary mask-wearers, even if they don’t identify with them, especially after their taking-up last summer by the UK government in its attempt to appear competent in disease control. (The “look into their eyes” campaign, which confronted even the diligent mask-wearer with the faces of living corpses, was a carbon copy of much centrist-to-left histrionics on Twitter.) They can be seen most clearly in the accounts of those fixated on them as a symptom of apparent social pathology.
Take for example Amber Frost’s long, aloof and barely coherent piece in Damage last spring. It offers a revealing variation on the anti-woke case against masks. For Frost, they are not just the embodiment but the tool of a moralism that has replaced any actual or putative politics of class power:
the corporate and culture industries’ obliviousness to suffering is reflected in a marked phenomenon of social shaming, which doesn’t stop at insisting others wear masks, but scolds anyone who dares admit that this isn’t fun. After posting an Instagram story bitching about the masks, I received a slew of nervous texts and direct messages from people who also hate the fucking masks, but felt guilty about saying so, or had already said it and were instantly reprimanded. … Strangely, all the admonitions came from progressives and lefties, the sort of generally supportive therapy-culture inflected types who are always giving others (and to no less extent themselves) “permission to feel your feelings.” Now these same people think your feelings are self-indulgent—apparently abandoning their defense of narcissism and irrational contempt for stoicism. Before the crisis, their “tolerance” was always on display because “it’s ok to not be ok”; now they are severely intolerant of any emotional expression or sentiment that suggests that their idea of a utopia is actually a dystopia for the vast majority of well-adjusted people who are not pathologically anti-social.
Thus it isn’t the masks themselves, unpleasant though they are, but other people’s feelings about your feelings about the mask that are the problem. Like the revolution of Christian morality itself, as Nietzsche presents it in The Genealogy of Morals, the individual action, through which the subject can live a heightened and interiorised drama of feeling, realises itself as a rigidified social structure, in which consciousness coming to reflect upon itself and its relation with the external world does in the form of an internalised set of taboos. Shame and guilt, Nietzsche speculates, begin really as a social debt, a figure of how the individual is diminished by their reliance on the credit of others, which by the reversal that “herd morality” represents the “strong” (ever a nebulous and unhistorical category in Nietzsche) are ensnared in the debt of the social majority. A problem here—as it was for Nietzsche—is that Frost is getting exercised not just about the negative and oppressive feelings she might be subject to, but about other people’s feelings about those feelings. Meta-arguments like this are typical of 21st-century left discourses that occur almost exclusively online, with no reference to the mechanisms of social redress and correction that once existed in the hands of workers—that is, the exact sort of argument Frost so elaborately bemoans. And yet, we can see in her ravings the clear outline of a problem: that the morality of masks is the local instance of a social structure that integrates people, but only in separated individuation. It’s thus the ‘organic’ morality (internalised social stricture as sense of social embeddedness) appropriate to neoliberalism—this is perhaps the most charitable version, removed from name-calling and venom, of what Mark Fisher meant when he described the guilt-propagating machinery of the “vampire’s castle”. And if, as we’re reminded seemingly every other day, all politics is biopolitics now—that “power over life” on a micro scale is the only instrument the left or liberals have currently against the management of populations by decentralised power—then we can hardly complain if some form of projection onto masks is the form “politics” takes. Masks themselves, and the political structure of feeling in which they exist—a strange combination of “magical voluntarism” and blind trust in the state that is the form liberalism takes in the face of reactionary surges across the Western world—aren’t the core of the problem themselves, but the identification of politics with individual, expressive authenticity (which only Disney adults, Quilette columnists and “SJWs” believe in anymore anyway).
This form of morality as “bad faith”—what Leah Finnegan, in a social media context, calls “urning” (h/t John Ganz)—appears very strange, though, when we consider that the mask was one of modernity’s central symbols for the avoidance of the whole question of “authenticity”. The rise of the industrial and commercial big city made the mask a metaphor for the inability to properly know anyone, after the disappearance of what we can call, using FR Leavis’s rather compromised shorthand, “organic community”. In the marketplace, people were now constantly showing you the face they wanted you to see and saying things for professional purposes they didn’t actually believe. In the absence of any potential for authenticity in everyday life—except perhaps elsewhere, in innumerable examples from Gaugin’s Tahiti to Heidegger’s Eigentlichkeit—the mask provides an expressive reality that doesn’t tarry with such values: it provides you with a face, but one that isn’t “really” your own. Consider, for example, the mask-like faces of Cézanne, Modigliani and Matisse, Picasso’s study, through Guillaime Apollinaire, of the Louvre’s collections of African masks, or modernist painters’ fascination with the circus and commedia dell’arte. Flat, rigid, exaggerated, grotesque, the mask’s relation to the face and its expressions in modernism was one that “irony”, as it tends to be used today, doesn’t really catch. Picasso’s nudes of the late 1920s and early 1930s look, where their eyes are open, with expressions that never address the viewer, that seem to concentrate the problems involved in being a subject with a body, erotics, a finite life, holes through which to piss and shit, with the frozen witholding of showroom dummies. The mask, contrary to expectation, never really hides the face: it’s always clear that there’s a face there, it may even be clear whose it is, but it isn’t what is seen, which is this frozen, exterior replica of the face. In this sense the mask was, as TJ Clark puts it in the talk I linked above, “an act of will in a world of untruth”.
Modernity’s masks weren’t, as Frost complains of the contemporary mask, the embodiment of an individualism that embodied a false collectivity. They were, rather, an alternative to the twin ideals of individualism and collectivism in their dependence on the concept of truth. The mask discredits, defaces, covers over the false universality centred in what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call “faciality”. In a real sense, that option no longer exists: beyond the historical obliteration of modernism itself, contemporary culture wars exist to repress the dialectical. (Even the little ironies to which masks are put in everyday life—Frost ostentatiously mentions smoking and wearing make-up underneath—are absorbed in the same moment back into the managed antagonism over their ‘meaning’.) And yet, doesn’t the sheer investment in them as an image of the collective—wearing a mask as an expression, in the absence of the state as anything other than repressive apparatus, of “what we owe to each other”—show what kinds of energy could be given to a real collectivity, if one were ever to emerge from the wish-images of fashion and commodity culture? Modernity may have been destroyed and the supposedly “subversive” uses of irony with it, but the longings it gave rise to for something beyond the “bad faith” it produced remain unsatisfied.