Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Masking – “I Wear My Mask for You” - A Note on Face Masks

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Annerose Böhrer, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany

The Corona pandemic has not only affected global and local health politics and worldwide economic networks, but also everyday living and social interaction on all levels. A perception of the human body as both threatening and threatened becomes more and more visible in socio-material associations.

In the following piece I would like to reflect upon an object that plays a significant role in pandemic living and the ways we enact it: the face mask. Among other hygiene products like toilet paper or disinfectants, the little pieces of tissue and rubber have gained in importance. At the same time, when physical distance became the order of the day, masks became increasingly in short supply. This essay offers a brief reflection on the role of masks by following this non-human actor through ‘the pandemic situation’, focussing on: 1) how face masks might make a difference in daily life and 2) how the phenomenon ‘face mask’ has itself undergone various changes and modifications both in its physical as well as its epistemological qualities. Moreover, I would like to point out that face masks, even though they are supposed to be mainly functional, protective medical objects, have some performative aspects, which impact on social interaction and perceptions of solidarity in times of pandemic outbreaks.

Before the scarcity of face masks came to my (personal) awareness, I found a post in one of my social media accounts that wanted to call attention to the fact that people behind face masks are not necessarily sick and threatening, but more likely cancer patients or people with a comparably higher risk of getting an infection. The post apparently reacted to public hostilities against masked people, as they were supposed to stay at home instead of going around and spreading a deadly virus. An alternative interpretation of masked people was apparently to call them ‘paranoid’ or at least ‘over cautious’.

Not much later one could notice several calls for solidarity due to the scarcity of face masks caused by hoarding, which had led to a lack of such items for those who needed them for health or professional reasons. At the same time, we learned from public media that there were several types of face masks that gave different degrees of protection. This kind of clarification about different types of masks came along with the confusing statement that the ‘ordinary’ face masks that one could buy online or from pharmacies were not preventing infections. Only certain types of mask could do so, and those should be saved for medical staff.

At the time, people wearing face masks were still a rather rare sight in everyday life, and the act of wearing one came to be seen as an affront to solidarity, as such persons were considered as selfish hoarders of a scarce and vital resource of public health. When the German government decided to shut down public life, another issue became clear: the scarcity of face masks was in part due the stagnating global commodity flow caused by the closing of borders and the additional restrictions to mobility. Local companies started producing face masks of different shapes, colours and quality levels; some for medical use, some for private use (like the toy producer Playmobil, tailor shops or sheltered workshops). On social media I noticed a change from #staythefuckhome profile pics to ones with face masks stating ‘I wear a mask for you’ (and similar phrases), these being in line with the new public statements on face masks (cheaply bought, homemade or even improvised with a scarf), informing that they might not protect the carrier but they could prevent one’s own saliva from spreading in public places. Jena became the first German city that implemented an obligation to cover the nose and mouth in public.

Now, in the third week of curfew in Bavaria, more and more masked creatures become visible in public: biking, walking their dogs, taking walks or doing grocery shopping. As friends started sending me pictures of themselves with homemade, partially colourful masks on several channels, and considering the oscillating public statements on their efficacy, I increasingly felt the need to reflect upon these little objects.

So, what is a face mask apart from being an assumed ‘medical’ and protective object in the time of a pandemic?

The philosopher Reinhard Olschanski wrote a book about masks in 2001, stating that for thinking about masks (no matter which type of mask), we have to think about faces as a vital part of daily communication and identification [1]. The confrontation with a rigid, expressionless face causes irritation. Face masks as part of working clothes (or what he calls ‘masks of danger’) are, according to Olschanski, not without significance and symbolic character. Rather, the protective mask refers to a certain relation to a world which is defined by vulnerability. Thus, protective masks are the materialisation of this relation, being part of a potentially threatening surrounding [2].

Following ‘The Way of the Masks’ by Lévi-Strauss [3] we might understand better how masks and their referential systems undergo a permanent discursive shift, and how they might end up having different meanings for different people. That is, being a protective object for those who fear infection, while enabling them to move in public, the mask might be a symbol of solidarity for those who fear to infect others by their bodily fluids, while it might also be a manifestation of obeying new rules and accepting new epistemic authorities. The fact that (despite doing it online) we can hardly go grocery shopping without our bodies and thus exposing ourselves to the (new) dangers and threats that come along with our physicality, can also be reflected on using Foucault [4], when he describes the body as a merciless place that we cannot leave. He highlights our captivity in corporeality and in its deficiencies, such as sicknesses. Thus, face masks manifest the relation of humans to their corporeality: the infectious potential of mouth and nasal secretion. Even if one might not be sure about the preventive effectiveness of the mask, the transformation of the body surface can still be effective in various other ways.

The face mask as a phenomenon of separation (between one's own dangerous and vulnerable body parts, and other people) can also be considered in its ‘in-betweenness’ as every claim of a border implies looking beyond it. In accordance with Bernd Giesen [5], we might state that every limitation implies an observation of what is excluded. Thus, the face mask is a boundary between body and environment, but at the same time it points to the knowledge or presumption of the hostility to life of the currently surrounding environment.

Coming back to the meaning of the face in daily interaction, I would like to share an incident that occurred a few days ago in Bavaria. A local newspaper reported on a man getting admonished by the police for wearing a face mask and glasses, as he violated the ban of face cover-ups. Interestingly, the incident shows the multiplicity and symbolic flexibility of the face mask in an exemplary manner. While the masked man stated that he wore a mask in order to protect his fellow citizens, the police referred to a long cultural and legal history regarding masks and other face cover-ups in public as they reminded him of the ban. Thus, the incident can be seen in a vast and historically long context of struggles and governmental attempts to regulate practices of covering faces (such as the recent debates about different forms of veiling in several European countries), while flying the flag of at least ostensibly shared values. Lines of confrontation, power and uncertainties become visible in the different practices, regulations and allowances regarding who is allowed or supposed to cover their faces, by what means, at what time, and in which location. Controlling whose faces are exposed in public is after all also an exercise of power.

Presently (in April 2020), new political measures are expected to be implemented by the government. An extensive obligation of wearing face masks in public is not unlikely at this point of time, but it might also be challenging for all parties concerned on several levels. The mask, as Lévi-Strauss [6] says, is not only what it displays but also what it transforms. Or we could say: It is not just what it means, but also what it denies. Let us see where the path of the face masks leads and where we go with them – or not.

[1] Olschanski, R. (2001): Maske und Person, Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht: Göttingen; pp: 18-19.
[2] Olschanski, R. (2001): Maske und Person, Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht: Göttingen; p. 63.
[3] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1977): Der Weg der Masken, Insel Taschenbuch Verlag: Frankfurt a. Main.
[4] Foucault, M.: Der utopische Körper, in: Foucault, M. (2013): Die Heterotopien. Der utopische Körper. Zwei Radiovorträge, Suhrkamp: Berlin; pp. 31-32.
[5] Giesen, B. (2010): Zwischenlagen, Velbrück: Göttingen; p. 39.
[6] Lévi-Strauss, C. (1977): Der Weg der Masken, Insel Taschenbuch: Frankfurt a. M.; p. 132.

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