Post-coronial Studies. “None of us is safe until all of us are safe”: biopolitics of the mask

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di John Snyder

Larvatus prodeo

René Descartes

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned on 21 June 2020 that “none of us is safe until all of us are safe . . . We know that the pandemic is much more than a health crisis, it is an economic crisis, a social crisis, and in many countries a political crisis [whose] effects will be felt for decades to come.”[1] Among the many radical transformations of economic, social, and political relations that have occurred or are underway in the West since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, the institutionalization of the public wearing of masks should be considered as among the most significant. As of today (23 June 2020), masking has become a new practice of everyday life for billions of humans worldwide. In much of modern Asia, of course, covering one’s face in public with a medical mask has long been widely accepted. The globalization of this norm has now reached neoliberal America, although not without controversy. Here—with the rapid breakdown of global supply networks—medical masks have vanished from the open marketplace, and a flourishing and totally unregulated trade has arisen in do-it-yourself face-coverings of every ilk.[2] The iron regime of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault long ago famously termed biopolitics, “understood as a political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject: ‘to ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order’,” has been seriously called into question by the chaotic response to the pandemic around the globe, nowhere more evidently than in the United States.[3] In this essay I will look briefly at the biopolitics on these shores as concerns the novel planetary norm of masking.

Masking the nose and mouth may have a significant role to play in public health in the era of coronavirus, but the leading public health agencies in the US have surprisingly little to say about, or to do with, standards for cloth face coverings, whether produced in factories or homes. The government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) succinctly states that cloth masks should include “multiple layers of [breathable and washable] fabric,” and recommends cotton fabrics for this purpose.[4] The rest is left up to producers and consumers to decide. The basic tenet of masking—namely, that doing anything at all to try to slow the rate of person-to-person transmission is preferable to merely doing nothing—may seem reasonable, and the potential effectiveness of cloth face coverings in disrupting the chain of transmission has found some support in recent research appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.[5] At the same time, however, the introduction of masking has intersected with a number of flashpoints in current US culture and society.

In the Italian language it is possible to distinguish between una maschera and una mascherina. The former term—’maschera‘—may refer to full-face or half-face masks, whose uses may range from the theater to the military to sports. The mask has long been deeply embedded in the cultures of the peninsula. Almost anyone familiar with Italy would recognize instantly the respective masks of Arlecchino or Pulcinella from the Arte tradition, or the ghostly Venetian bauta, or the death mask (maschera mortuaria) of the Renaissance starchitect Filippo Brunelleschi, to mention but a few prominent examples.

The latter term—’mascherina‘—instead most commonly designates a small mask for a specific practical application, such as surgery or woodworking.[6] Article 1 of the Dpcm of 26 April 2020 clearly refers to this sort of mask, which can be subdivided in two groups: surgical or respirator masks.[7] With a deluge of new laws promulgated during the pandemic, the Italian state has sought to stimulate and regulate national mask production and commerce, guarantee availability to consumers, control retail prices, and establish severe sanctions to be applied to those who violate the current rules of masking. Not surprisingly, these efforts by the state have (unlike the lockdown itself) been less than fully effective. Additional regulations and proclamations from the Regional governments have only generated further confusion surrounding masking in Italy. Videos of post-lockdown throngs on the nighttime streets of Rome, Naples and elsewhere rarely show more than a handful of revelers respecting current government mandates in regard to face-covering or social distancing.

In the meantime, for both ecological and economic reasons, washable and reusable cloth face coverings have become increasingly common in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Although cloth masks may cost the consumer more to purchase than disposable manufactured mascherine, they can be fitted to the human face, which exists in an infinity of sizes and shapes, much better than the one-size-fits-all throwaway surgical mask. Photographs of the re-opening of Venice to mass tourism in mid-June 2020 are striking for the numerous styles of cloth face coverings employed by locals and visitors alike.[8] It is logical to assume that this situation will continue even after the end of the national emergency, currently projected for 31 July 2020, because the pandemic will likely persist long after that date.

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In English—to speak only of one among many European languages lacking the semiotic resourcefulness of Italian—a distinction similar to that between maschera and mascherina does not exist. Because of ongoing shortages in the manufactured mask market, however, this distinction has nevertheless forced its way into public discourse on the pandemic in the US. Expressions such as “face covering” or “cloth face covering” have rapidly gained currency in mainstream English since the arrival of the novel coronavirus. These circumlocutions may have long existed in the medical community, but their use by government agencies such as the CDC has given them extraordinary prominence in the language of daily life. Unlike its European counterparts, the Federal government has imposed no national laws, requirements or standards concerning masking as an instrument of public health policy, limiting itself to recommendations only. At the state level, authorities in California—with the largest population in the nation—only this past week began to mandate masking of the general public in certain circumstances. (Any business with a license issued by the state must comply with current state public health regulations or risk closure.) No medical or respirator masks have been provided by California to any of its citizens other than health-care workers, not even in essential industries such as food distribution, and until now no one has faced any state sanctions for failing to mask in supermarkets or pharmacies.

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Until 18 June 2020, indeed, the state government simply urged its citizens and businesses to cooperate voluntarily in masking:

If available, and controls such as barriers to block or create physical distance between the employee and the customer are not feasible, employers should provide face masks to workers in the grocery industry with regular close contact with the public, such as cashiers, pharmacy workers, and baggers. Employers should train and encourage workers to wear the face covering of their choice voluntarily while at work. All residents are also encouraged to wear a face covering outside of their homes.[9]

The language of this proclamation, in the midst of the greatest health crisis of the twenty-first century, is remarkable for its laissez-faire tone even by laid-back local standards. For months the government of California—the wealthiest and most influential of all 50 states in the Union, and by itself one of the most important economies on the planet—has done little more than express the hope, as coronavirus sickened and killed citizens and residents, that all Californians would voluntarily comply with this new practice of covering the nose and mouth.

This, of course, did not occur. Typically for the US, local authorities have served as the front line in dealing with civic emergencies. Since February California counties, municipalities and localities have been empowered to compel compliance with masking and social distancing through local ordinances (“no mask, no service!”), or to use police to close public spaces (such as beaches and parks) where there is inadequate voluntary compliance. Some have done so, most notoriously Los Angeles County; many others have not. Finally, faced with a rising rate of infection as lockdowns ease, as well as with incontrovertible evidence that many Californians were venturing out in public with their faces uncovered, on June 18 the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, mandated masking in many public indoor and outdoor settings statewide. Enforcement of this mandate, however, remains—in practical terms—impossible.

The term ‘mask’ may serve as a metaphor for many sorts of concealment or disguise (as, for example, in the idiomatic Italian expression “cavarsi la maschera”). It is, however, beyond reasonable doubt that any mask that is not a metaphor is meant to cover the face in whole or in part. Why, then, the apparent redundancy of “face/mask” in contemporary English? Looking again at the above passage, we can see California authorities grappling with the linguistic conundrum so easily resolved in Italian by deploying the diminutive suffix -ina: whenever masking is mentioned, the companion term ‘face’ is invariably reiterated. Looked at through the lens of its language, Anglo-Saxon culture seeks to affirm the uninterrupted presence of the face beneath that which covers it. A mask may hide or occult, of course, but the trope assures us that the face behind it has not been erased; rather, the face continues to be present, and to remain self-identical, even when others cannot see it.

Looking yet again at the language of the above declaration from the California authorities, “face masks” and “face coverings” clearly refer to different things. The term ‘face mask’ signifies actual medical masks or respirator (N95, FFp) masks, i.e. mascherine of the sort used in the US by health-care workers, manufactured in accordance with national (Food and Drug Administration [FDA]) and international standards. ‘Face coverings’ are everything else, whether home-made or mass-produced, that has a purported health-care purpose but is not a medical mask (for instance, a veil may cover the wearer’s face, but is not a face covering in this sense).

This is the point of the distinction being silently made by the government: there is no established correlation between a “face covering” and the function of a medical or respirator mask, which is to protect both the wearer and others in the immediate vicinity.  Whether or not improvised cloth “face coverings” successfully protect those who wear them is, in fact, of little or no concern to the highest US public health authorities. Indeed, the CDC states clearly that “homemade masks'” “capability to protect” the wearer is “unknown” at present.[10]

The practice of covering the face has, rather, the opposite aim. The cloth face cover is “meant to protect other people in case you are infected,” not to protect the wearer herself from infection.[11] The cloth face covering thus serves as nothing more, the CDC notes, than “an additional, voluntary public health measure,” at a time in which there is still a severe shortage of medical or respirator masks for health-care workers. [12] Cloth face coverings are a supplement to other, more effective measures such as universal wearing of respirator masks, which are currently impossible to produce in sufficient quantities for front-line health-care workers as well as the general public. In this optic, given the lack of respirator masks, if all members of the public were to wear a cloth face covering at all times, all would enjoy at least some degree of protection from contagion. This would be, however, the result of a collective mutual effort including face-masking as well as social distancing etc.—not thanks to protection afforded by our own individual face coverings.

State and national authorities in the US appear to presume that voluntary masking is not only a matter of common sense, but underscores a shared and valued collective identity as citizens. Face-covering should, in this sense, express national solidarity in a time of crisis, while helping to preserve rather than disrupt life as we know it. What has set off a groundswell of resistance in the US to government campaigns for voluntary cloth face coverings hinges upon deeply intertwined factors that have less to do with epidemiology than with the contested significance of the practice of masking itself, in turn inseparable from the impossibility of collective identity and national solidarity in post-coronial America.

First, to speak of public health is to invoke the notion of the public “good,” greater than that of any individual. The “public” is composed of persons who are for the most part unknown to any single one of its members, yet whose collective well-being is acknowledged to take precedence over that of the individual. The fury now being displayed by segments of US society at the new global norm of masking has to do not only with the traditional Middle American contempt for coastal intellectual elites, i.e. the scientists, experts in crisis management and policy-makers who have called for the institution of universal face-covering. The controversy over masking instead calls into question the very nature of the public and who should belong to it. Face-coverings appear as the visible sign of a pact between citizens, an act of recognition that, volens nolens, the wearer is connected with unfamiliar, often geographically, economically or culturally remote groups, whose interests nevertheless intersect with those of the wearer, especially in a time of national emergency. Thus face-coverings signal acceptance of the practice of masking because the wearer (whether tacitly or not) concurs with the principle that these other groups, and those who belong to them, ought to be equally respected and protected as part of the public. Although its objections are couched in the language of “personal freedom” and “the [constitutional] right to choose,” the revolt against this new norm constitutes a rejection of this principle of national solidarity.

Many Americans are suffering severe economic distress caused by the recent lockdown, to be sure; the unemployment figures for June 2020 are staggering. This, however, does not tell the entire story of the pandemic. Of those who have fallen ill and died of COVID-19-related causes in the United States thus far, a disproportionate number have been members of minority groups, above all African-Americans.[13] More than a century and half after the end of slavery, systemic racism persists in US society. The mostly masked and unarmed multiracial crowds who surged into the streets of American cities and towns after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, demanding an end to injustice and to police violence against minorities, on the one hand, and the mostly unmasked, sometimes armed, largely white crowds demanding an end to lockdowns and other government mandates, on the other, offer a study in contrast in attitudes toward the biopolitics of masking.

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In the United States, however, this contrast cannot be framed strictly as a matter of ideology, political party affiliation, geographical location, economic class, or degree of education. The anxiety over face-covering triggered in parts of the US population may be attributed in part to the enigmatic presence of a largely invisible biological phenomenon, or to pressing economic hardship, or to a lack of clear messaging by the national government, or to disruption of the ordinary flow of lived experience. These possible causes cannot be disentangled, however, from the profound fear of loss of self-identity (a≠a) that masking itself has come to represent for many.

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To wear a face covering implicitly threatens to subvert the individuality of the wearer, of which the face serves as the most prominent signifier. Hence the extraordinary proliferation of styles, shapes, colors and materials for cloth face coverings that have appeared on the market in the months since the pandemic struck. Although in some cultural contexts masks may serve to indicate distance from others (as was the case for the early modern Venetian bauta, for instance), the new practice of universal mandatory masking is a marker of proximity. And herein lies a key to the biopolitical dimension of the masking versus anti-masking controversy in the United States. The face covering designates its wearer as identical to billions of other humans, of every race and religion, who are also subject not only to the coronavirus contagion, or to the mandates of authorities, but to the unstoppable, impersonal workings of globalization that inexorably brought the virus into their lives.

In the context of the US anti-masking movement, the practice of face covering seems to threaten—on a symbolic level—to efface the most visible sign of inherited and inherent privilege, i.e. white skin. Even more, however, is at stake for these men and women. Face-covering affirms the principle of absolute non-difference of all citizens everywhere in the world, for without a vaccine or a cure, no one is exempt from the universal rule of masking. The current occupant of the White House refuses to wear a mask, or to be seen covering his face, as he seeks to tap into this vein of anxiety among his political base in the US heartland. He claims to represent them and their interests through his singularity: the contagion cannot touch him, as it really cannot touch the true America that he embodies. Of course, this is nothing other than a political fiction that must be sustained by elaborate and costly precautions to create a sanitary cocoon around him. Those voters who embrace anti-masking perceive a threat not only to the racial status quo, but to their supposedly unique identity as Americans, i.e. their belief in their own— and their country’s—essential difference, outside and above the currents of world history (often called “American exceptionalism”).

That which may at one point have seemed to exist only in some far-off part of the planet has, in a few weeks’ time, revealed itself to be anything but distant. Globalization’s long reach, in the form of the invading “foreign” virus and the countermeasures to it, now extends to every American’s own body and face. Space, time and identity have been, or are in the process of being, restructured—with or without the consent of the individual subject. The inevitable conclusion, which may be disturbing for some but liberating for others, is that these are impermanent, non-foundational categories, as are the hierarchies built upon them. In the post-coronial era there is no escape—at least for now—from this universal leveling. In the US, this sudden change has led to ressentiment against the rule of masking, as well as against the concomitant loss of any claim to the privilege of exceptionalism. The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a body blow to myths upon which American mainstream political discourse and civic identity have long been grounded. The SARS-CoV-2 virus may have first come to this continent from overseas, but it has thrown a harsh light on the virus that was already here. It will be our difficult task, in the months and years to come, to see to it that neither will survive.


[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHeuCidoLUc&list=PL9ZxsXshsb1YqgmqT76Lzx5QLcLjmCXeA&index=18&t=0s (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[2] https://www.gq.com/story/where-to-buy-face-masks (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[3] Rachel Adams, “Michel Foucault: Biopolitics and Biopower,” https://criticallegalthinking.com/2017/05/10/michel-foucault-biopolitics-biopower/ (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-make-cloth-face-covering.html (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[5] Stutt ROJH, Retkute R, Bradley M, Gilligan CA, Colvin J. 2020. “A modelling framework to assess the likely effectiveness of facemasks in combination with ‘lock-down’ in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.” Proc. R. Soc. A 476: 20200376. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspa.2020.0376 (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[6] The term ‘mascherina’ has numerous other specialized meanings in Italian, from ‘sleep mask’ to ‘costumed child’ to ‘radiator grill’, but none of these are likely to be confused by Italians nowadays in designating medical masks.

[7] In its response to the tragic pandemic the Italian State—true to form—could not resist the temptation to create a highly complex hierarchy of masks of this second type, divided between dispositivi medici (Dm) and dispositivi di protezione individuale (Dpi). The Dpi are further subdivided between two classes of “filtering face pieces,” namely FFp2 or FFp3. See, for instance, https://www.aboutpharma.com/blog/2020/05/04/mascherine-come-dpi-e-dm-la-normativa-non-e-sempre-chiara/ (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/jun/17/tourists-return-to-venice-as-lockdown-eases-in-italy-in-pictures (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[9] https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/facing-your-face-mask-duties-a-list-of-51239/ (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[10] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/face-masks.html [my italics] (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[12] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover.html [my italics] (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

[13] https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race (link confirmed 22 June 2020).

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