This is an extended version (more than twice the size) of an essay soon to be published in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies (this entry will be updated with a link once it is published). University of Toronto Press remains the copyright holder of the content. This essay was finalized on June 16, 2020.
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1. Visualizing The Non-Medical Masks
Insofar as “theory” once meant “to look attentively” at what becomes visible, a theory of the COVID-19 pandemic would be concerned with how it is visualized1. This question is important not just for the specialized field of visual culture studies (Bildwissenshaft in German)2. On it depends our collective capacity to think about the current crisis and, just as importantly, to imagine a future beyond it3. Some systematic efforts have already been made to reflect on the many ways in which the pandemic is visually represented, such as the joint initiative between the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut (Holert 2020a)4.
This short post is concerned with a specific issue regarding the visibility of the current pandemic. One of the main characteristics of the virus remains its invisibility, which quickly spurred rhetoric about the “invisible enemy.”5 This invisibility in turn has significantly shaped many of the measures put in place in most countries to mitigate the spread of the virus: mandatory or voluntary quarantine, reduced circulation, physical distancing, hand hygiene, et cetera.6 Among those measures, one is all the more visible because it makes faces disappear: the now ubiquitous non-medical mask worn by the general population in many countries.7
It is beyond the purview of this short contribution to properly examine the rich literature dedicated to the concepts of mask and face, or to study how masks vary from one culture to another.8 Instead, I approach the function of the mask by taking a detour and examining a painting from the early 16th century.9 The goal is to bring to the fore the fundamental ambivalence of the mask, the fact that it is never merely one, simple thing, whether it is meant to express, to conceal, to protect or a combination of all of the above. Following this detour and coming back to the present situation, I suggest that the non-medical mask—which comes in many shapes—may well be primarily a response to a biological threat, but only insofar as this response also raises questions regarding politics.
2. Sua Cuique Persona
At the famous Uffizi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi), in Florence, there is a peculiar painting attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561; see fig. 1).10 Dated circa 1510, it has been described as one of the most singular and enigmatic objects in the history of European painting (Baader 2000, 116). The painting depicts an elaborate composition meant to mimic a low relief sculpted in stone, probably marble. Its composition evokes Renaissance grotesque motifs, arranged symmetrically on the vertical axis. At the top are two fish-like creatures, graciously intertwined in frolicking curves, their joined tails supporting a fire urn. They in turn are teetering atop one of the two main features of the entire composition: a massive rectangular block arranged horizontally just above the middle point of the frame, on which is carved, in classic Roman square capitals, the words SVA CVIQUE PERSONA (sua cuique persona), meaning “to each his/her own mask” or “to each his/her role.”11 A bright mask—appearing to answer the Latin inscription, although equally enigmatic—is suspended just below the block. Amidst a composition that is mostly made up of deep ochre, monochromatic tones, the mask jumps to the fore and constitutes the other main feature of the entire painting. Closer inspection reveals how the mask is tied, on each side, to the horns or fins of the two sea lions or dragon-like creatures flanking it, looking away themselves (although the two leather-like cords securing the mask do not seem to be under tension from its weight). The mask’s features are very delicate. Cheeks and lips show subtle pink shades, giving it an almost lifelike appearance; the mouth is half open as if it is about to speak; the nose is rendered realistically, and seems to protrude slightly from the mask’s otherwise very smooth surface; individual hairs can even be discerned in the thin eyebrows painted above the eyes. However, in this detailed depiction of a human face, one crucial feature is strikingly missing: two gaping holes are found where one would expect to see gleaming eyes.