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Unmasked: Covid-19 and the Cultural Dimensions of the Debate on Mandatory Face Masks

Unmasked: Covid-19 and the Cultural Dimensions of the Debate on Mandatory Face Masks

Can masks help to stop the spread of the coro­na­virus? Other than in China, Japan, or Hong Kong, this ques­tion is curr­ently being debated in a most contro­ver­sial manner in Germany and other Western coun­tries. Admit­tedly, a group of young jour­na­lists and other cele­bri­ties initiated the #maskeauf campaign, calling on the public to wear masks outside the home. The German city of Jena obliges its citi­zens to wear masks in public, and Austria decided to imple­ment similar measures for the time after the lifting of the lock­down. Yet these measures remain contro­ver­sial – far more contro­ver­sial than other regu­la­tions related to social distan­cing.

Advo­cates of masks argue that droplet infec­tions could be prevented or at any rate decreased if ever­yone wore masks in public. Because of their current scar­city in Western coun­tries, these campaigns do not refer to medical masks. Instead, readers are exhorted to sew their own masks from washable cotton fabric.

Oppon­ents, by contrast, make a number of claims. Not only do they narrow down the debate to medical masks, sugges­ting that an obli­ga­tion of wearing them would be tanta­mount to redu­cing this precious good even further, thus under­mi­ning soli­da­rity. Others rejec­ting masks for medical reasons claim that they would only help protect indi­vi­duals other than those who wear them (assuming that only the infected should use masks) – an argu­ment that would be imme­dia­tely inva­li­dated if ever­yone resorted to masks. Some assert that masks would encou­rage tenden­cies of hoar­ding due to the anony­mity conveyed by them. At times, however, oppon­ents also claim quite unabas­hedly that other than in Asia, the prescrip­tive wearing of masks could simply not be intro­duced in Europe for cultural reasons.

The Mask as the Other

This essen­tia­list argu­ment – a mask as unsui­table for European socie­ties – is inst­ruc­tive. Its reading of face coverings reveals a mecha­nism of Othe­ring charac­te­ri­zing recent debates on forms of veiling in Islam. As suggested by a look into travel writing on Western Asia and North Africa and portrait photo­graphy from this region, however, this discourse draws on a much longer tradi­tion. Nineteenth-century Western travel­lers like Helmuth von Moltke or Mark Twain compared women in full-body veils to ghosts or dead bodies. Early studio photo­graphs in the context of emer­ging tourism in the region showing fully veiled human figures convey a similar image.

Alge­rien, 19. Jh.; Quelle: sarrazins.fr

As travel­lers and photo­graphers seem to have agreed, veiling dive­sted the indi­vi­dual of the indi­vi­dual, and more than that, of freedom itself – a focus very diffe­rent from that of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who, travel­ling at the begin­ning of the eigh­te­enth century, had claimed, equally gene­ra­li­zing, that women used the anony­mity bestowed by veiling for expan­ding their sexual agency. Nineteenth-century travel­lers, by contrast, embraced a nega­tive view of the veil – not just because they read into it a lack of life and liberty. According to Meyda Yeğe­noğlu, it irri­tated them for yet other reasons. On the one hand, it seemed to enable the wearer to conceal her true nature. On the other hand, it allowed her to see without being seen, thus inves­ting her with power.

European Masks: Excep­tio­na­lity and Status

To some extent, this disap­proval of forms of face covering is puzzling. Face covering, after all, was not an unfa­mi­liar pheno­menon in European cultural history. During masquerades and carni­vals, it allowed men and women to tempora­rily shed moral cons­traints. In a medical context, it protected its wearer from contrac­ting illnesses, last but not least by means of the fragrant herbs hid in its beak. In a mili­tary context, facial veiling was common at an even earlier stage. A knight’s armour often covered the face in its enti­rety except for a narrow visor. Fencing masks bestowed full-face coverage. In early modern times, the vizard protected the pale comple­xion befit­ting upper-class women: a mask, often made of black fabric, with openings only for the eyes kept in place by a mouth­piece. During the nine­teenth century, women wore a veil, albeit a trans­pa­rent one, on their day of marriage, in church, during burials, and in mour­ning. From the late eigh­te­enth century onwards, masks faci­li­tated swim­ming and diving. A century later, they provided protec­tion from poison gas.

Admit­tedly, these forms of face coverage shared two aspects: they were worn but tempora­rily and/or only by upper-class men and women, thus leaving the majo­rity of society unveiled. Masks, or so Mikhail Bakhtin argues, were asso­ciated with the tran­sitory, with meta­mor­phoses, with the infrin­ge­ment of natural bounda­ries. As long as they remained temporary or a prero­ga­tive of social elites, forms of facial covering, there­fore, were accep­table well into the nine­teenth century and beyond in Europe.

Visi­bi­lity, Indi­vi­dua­lity, and the Modern State

Why was large-scale use of facial covering so suspect to nineteenth-century European obser­vers, then? Visi­bi­lity, or so scho­lars of cultural studies since Foucault have empha­sized, was a core aspect of the modern state. While the idea of the panop­ticon influ­enced the archi­tec­ture of facto­ries, prisons, and other estab­lish­ments mainly in theory, the deve­lop­ment of crimi­no­lo­gical photo­graphy, aided by the inven­tions of Bertillon, and the pass­port, accom­pa­nied by a photo­graph from the 1910s onward, made a decisive contri­bu­tion in this direc­tion. Far more recent are the intro­duc­tion of the prohi­bi­tion of disguise (as laid down, for instance, in German law), and CCTV. Finally, the tech­no­logy of facial reco­gni­tion offers a maximum degree of visi­bi­lity in both physical and virtual space.

At the same time, the idea of the indi­vi­dual turned into the very foun­da­tion of self-declaredly liberal and secular socie­ties. This indi­vi­dual was to act auto­no­mously, only to be restricted in its liberty where this liberty infringed upon that of others. In prac­tice, this indi­vi­dual was male, middle-class, white. Other groups within society saw far more limits imposed upon their agency. The presence of these limits, however, did not taint the idea of indi­vi­dual freedom as the core ideal of modern socie­ties. Apart from the liberty of belief, opinion, and congre­ga­tion, the modern indi­vi­dual, again on the level of law, enjoyed liberty in choice of dress as long as it was not read as a reli­gious signi­fier. Dress codes, at least in terms of sump­tuary laws, were a thing of the past, and law would only return to regu­la­ting apparel under Nazi rule.

Fang Maske, Louvre; Quelle: wikimedia.org

Facial covering, on the other hand, came to be asso­ciated more and more with the cultural Other since the nine­teenth century. In this context, masks from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific became objects of fasci­na­tion. They were inter­preted as symbo­li­zing reli­gious rituals and social orders not based on the idea of the indi­vi­dual but of life courses struc­tured by rites of passage. Masks became coveted objects in European collec­tions. They inspired modern pain­ting, sculp­ture, and photo­graphy. In European and American daily life, however, facial covering became more and more absent. Even head­gear, once a sign of respec­ta­bi­lity, was on the wane. In Western socie­ties, showing one’s face became tanta­mount to commu­ni­ca­ting authen­ti­city and honesty.

The Apotheosis of Western Public Health

At the same time, colo­nia­lism helped spread the idea of Western hygiene as supe­rior. It found expres­sion in urba­ni­za­tion where the moder­ni­za­tion of Paris initiated by Hauss­mann, with its sewers, street lights, visual axes, and boule­vards became a model for cities around the world, inclu­ding non-European ones. It seeped into medi­cine whose Western notions did not comple­tely replace other forms of know­ledge but came to domi­nate academia none­theless. Even in food hygiene and chemi­stry, Western stan­dards took the lead. Domestic science became a central part of the curri­culum among Western educa­tional actors in impe­rial contexts. These and other parties were also dedi­cated to imple­men­ting Western stan­dards with regards to bodily clean­li­ness. In prac­tice, these concepts never fully replaced other notions, not just because colo­nial powers oversaw their imple­men­ta­tion only half-heartedly due to racism, economic reasons, and sheer lack of power. Instead, these cultural encoun­ters gave rise to the emer­gence of hybrid or pidgin know­ledge. From a Western perspec­tive, however, one’s own notions of hygiene appeared supe­rior none­theless.

What’s in a Mask?

Apart from the fact that Western governments hardly took precau­tions for the case of an epidemic, it is these two reasons – the belief in the supe­rio­rity of one’s own notions of public health and the rejec­tion of facial covering -, that obst­ruct the accep­tance of masks in the present situa­tion, although medical experts in Germany and else­where come to stress more and more the advan­tage of masks, and masks even turn into a bone of conten­tion between Western states. The argu­ment against the wearing of masks, or so a glance into nineteenth-century trave­lo­gues suggests, is a deeply orien­ta­list one. While there is little doubt that the spread of the virus could be slowed down if ever­yone wore a mask in public, cultural precon­cep­tions with a long histo­rical tradi­tion impede the imple­men­ta­tion of this prag­matic solu­tion. The fear of losing face is too para­mount. Even campaigns for the use of masks, there­fore, cham­pion indi­vi­dua­lity, in all likeli­hood hardly just because of scar­city, in stres­sing the crea­tive poten­tial of sewing one’s own mask. Oscar Wilde is perfectly right in clai­ming that a mask is more telling than a face.