Author: Joe Clifford is a postgraduate student in the Development Studies department at the University of Auckland. He is also affiliated with the Australian National University. His current research focuses on the appropriation of a mutual aid project by the state in Indonesia.
For those of us in the ‘Western’ world, wearing face masks was likely something we rarely did prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, over a year since our first experiences with lockdowns and public health responses dominating public life, masks are ubiquitous. For some, instructions to wear masks in public places have been an opportunity to chart new courses in fashion or have simply been a minor inconvenience in the effort to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.
Alternatively, for others in more libertarian and sometimes conspiratorial groups, the face mask has become a symbol of the overreach of the state. They argue that it is not the state’s role to decide their own personal appetite for risk with regards to exposure to covid. Anand Pandian, an anthropologist who has been working with members of American conservative circles, has recently written in The Guardian how masks have become symbols mapping political polarisation in the United States. Pandian’s informants even refer to masks as “face diapers” and as fitting neatly into a narrative of the United States entering into a “heedless slide into totalitarian culture”, characterised by “ever-expanding state control”. There has also been widespread controversy around the Governor of Florida banning mask mandates in the state.
I suspect for many of those reading this blog post the opposition to wearing masks seems deeply irrational and perplexing. Likewise, I have found these sentiments troubling and an affront to my own sense of community and ethics. For myself, wearing a mask has become a way of publicly presenting my commitment to stopping the spread of viruses and an acknowledgement of science and evidence as a guide to public health policy.
So how has the face mask become a symbol of such divergent meanings?
Webb Keane and affordances
Webb Keane’s theory of affordance is, I believe, a useful one for understanding the ethical-cultural battleground that the face mask has become in some places.
The idea of affordances has a history not in anthropology but instead in psychology. The psychologist Gibson first developed the concept in order to understand how the same object may provide different uses other than its telos, or designated purpose. For example, while a book invites us to read it, we may just as well use it as a paper weight. The possible utility afforded by or to an object thus shifts depending on our perception of it.
Webb Keane builds on the psychological insights of Gibson, who was interested in the perceptive limits of actors, to understand how different objects might come to be caught up in social and cultural meanings alien from the ends they were designed for. Locating his theory of affordances in wider theoretical arguments from semiotics, Keane asks us to consider the sociality and politics that can be contained within objects.
The ethical affordances of the face mask
Opposition to face masks has not been confined to libertarians or those on the conspiratorial right. Giorgio Agamben, whose work on the state of exception has been highly influential in the critical social sciences, has argued consistently against the public health responses that would impose an emergency and limit rights in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Agamben in his book Homo Sacer argued that we are all moving closer to, or in fact living in, a permanent state of exception. This state of exception is in part premised on the state taking bare biological life into its political calculus. Bare life for Agamben is the politicised version of our biological lives. Sovereignty for Agamben is deeply connected to the ability to include or exclude certain types of life within a polity. The pandemic, and the emergency responses are key, then, for analysing contemporary practices of sovereignty in Agamben’s framework.
In one article on the pandemic Agamben argues that the hiding of our faces diminishes and lessens public life. For Agamben the covering of the face results in seeing one another as potential spreaders of disease rather than as another human being.
Key to Agamben’s argument is that we consider the epidemic as politics. I agree with this assessment that crises and their framing are inherently political. However, the face mask seems to me as much a commitment to public life and shared social concern as it seems to be a devaluing of human sociality to Agamben. Instead of the face mask as a sign of our collective rebranding of one another as vectors for viruses I see them as shared commitments to one another’s health.
The face mask, then, affords alternative social and political meanings based on our ideological readings of the current pandemic. While I doubt affordance theory can be used to convince those who choose to disregard science and important public health measures, I think it can show why masks have become such a touchpoint for controversy.
Ultimately, this of course points us to wider questions around how to manage divergent politics and interpretations when pandemic responses require such high levels of buy-in from populations. Pandian rightly points out that the actions of those who refuse masks and vaccines impact us all in a very real sense, regardless of our political or ideological allegiances.