I Suddenly Thought of Your Face

I Suddenly Thought of Your Face

[Bricoleur is the pen name of an anthropologist and blogger who also goes by the pseudonym, Ma De-wa. A frequent contributor to the anthropology group blog published in Taiwan, guavanthropology, Bricoleur is also a photographer and a connoisseur of bad puns. They are currently collecting a list of media personalities who have a degree in anthropology. As is the practice on guavanthropology.tw, they contribute to the group blog without revealing their identity. I have followed that practice in my translation of Bricoleur’s blog post.

The group blog, guavanthropology.tw is a vibrant space for anthropological discussion and often takes on important social issues. Aimed at a broad Mandarin language reading audience, it may unfamiliar to most readers of anthrodendum—but a few authors have contributed to both group blogs.

In “I Suddenly Thought of Your Face,” Bricoleur engages in a kind of meta-commentary, bringing together several discussions of face masks, faciality, and anonymous yet intimately felt connections to publics to encourage readers to consider how a simple technology for halting the spread of a virus might pose wider questions. Whether we think of wearing masks as a necessary caution, a species of magical thinking, or an extension of biopolitical modes of control, “I Suddenly Thought of Your Face” provokes us to think about what we mean when we suddenly—or not so suddenly—think of someone’s face during the Covid crisis.]

Today I’d like to post something very brief about “the face.” My title alludes to a novel by Hong Kong writer Huang Bik-wan; however, I do not plan on discussing her book. Neither will I discuss what Levinas has called “the face of the Other” nor Delueze and Guattari’s notion of faciality. Rather, I want to discuss the face under a protective mask.

In March, Covid-19 began to spread in the United States. From the East to the West Coast, in the North and in the South, colleges and universities one after the other stopped holding face-to-face classes and moved to remote instruction. Students left their campuses. Meanwhile, Taiwan loosened restrictions on mailing protective face masks abroad. I suddenly thought of sending a few cloth face masks to friends in the US.

One of these friends wrote back, saying, “Over here very few people wear masks.” Naturally, one reason was that toilet paper, medical masks, rubbing alcohol, and hand sanitizer had already been snatched up by hoarders. Still, for the most part Americans felt that masks were either for medical personnel or the sick to wear. Another friend said that even though few people wore masks, the more they looked at reports concerning the pandemic, the more they thought that it might be necessary to wear one. A third friend’s response was more curious. They said that they had found industrial masks in their garage and would wear them as needed.

I couldn’t help wondering: was the industrial mask part of a Halloween costume of some years ago?

Because I didn’t have a sense of what “industrial masks” were, I looked up an image online. They ranged from masks shaped like safety helmets to something worn by Bane in the Batman movies. I thought that regardless my friends could use the masks, so I went ahead with my plan and sent a few to them. Fortunately, one could still readily buy masks in Taiwan.

My friends in the US had a point.

When the situation in the US was not yet serious, the Surgeon General requested that people not wear masks: masks had little use for most people to prevent infection, he said, and should be retained for medical personnel who needed them. The American CDC stressed handwashing and social distancing, as well as avoiding large assemblies of people. Neither recommended wearing masks.

A recent article in the Atlantic on face masks contained the following remarks on mask wearing:

“In the West, I think we need to overcome—I wouldn’t call it a fear of the mask, but [the] stigma with a mask,” Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, told me. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I was carrying a mask in the airplane but I was too ashamed to wear it.’ Where does this shame come from? Is it because people will think you are a wimp? Because people will think you are ill?”

If you wear a mask in a British supermarket, “people react strangely,” for a number of possible reasons: the association with East Asian countries, a suspicion that you’re using something that others are more in need of, a concern that you’re wearing it because you’re ill and shouldn’t be there, a conviction that you’re “unnecessarily spreading panic.”

For Asians and Asian Americans living in the United States, wearing a mask might invite attacks or dirty looks from people on the street. Ever since SARS, Americans have connected masks to Chinese and Southeast Asian people. Perhaps it is a function of xenophobia. Masks connect to demonization of “China being the source of contagious diseases, and Chinese people spreading them.”

Lest we forget, many countries have laws that forbid covering the face—laws that stipulate one cannot do anything that will obstruct facial recognition in demonstrations, public assemblies, and public places. Countries that have such laws forbidding masks are more numerous than we at first imagine.

Recently, however, the Trump administration has changed its attitude from refusing masks to taking a “wait and see” approach. The WHO, the US, and the EU have all started to accept masks. But the cultural connotations of masks have not changed. Masks represent Otherness, collectivity, sharing in public weal and woe. They may even be a symbol of Chinese modernity.

As another person for the interview mentioned above noted, “In Hong Kong today, if you do not wear a mask in public, you will be stigmatized and treated with discrimination, not only because people will fear that you are an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, but also because you have not taken on the ethical duties of citizenship.”

These reports might have some truth, but they seem not to have noticed that in Hong Kong last year’s anti-mask law led to an enormous political disturbance. Although the conditions of the pandemic have shifted the politics of mask wearing considerably, the controversy surrounding the constitutionality of the anti-mask law is still unfolding. We should also not forget that even in late January, with the Covid-19 crisis emerging, the Hong Kong government maintained many restrictions on face masks.

How might we understand these controversies about masks, even in mask friendly countries like Hong Kong?

The mask is a sign with a close correspondence with the face, itself an index for identity, identifiability, expression, individuality, and otherness. Behind the face is a world, an “entire history.” Chao En-chieh has written on this topic in a blog series on Covid-19 appearing on Discover Society, in which she discusses the subjective symbolism of the face in relationship to masks:

For a while, many Western authors explained to the world that the weird habit of wearing surgical masks in Asia was a manifestation of a cultural norm of solidarity. Their assumption was since it couldn’t be scientific, it had to be cultural. The standard “scientific West, cultural rest” scenario. Mask wearing has been presented over and over again as a false but “symbolically valuable” “myth” that comforts poor, conformist Asians, until very recently.

The truth is that the West is just as cultural as the Rest. There has been a kind of face-centrist self-formation, where the face is the “natural symbol” (Douglas 1967) of the liberal subject. A deeply entrenched fetishism about the face, a kind of semiotic ideology that celebrates exposed faces and resents the face-covering images associated with “oppressed” Muslim women. With the mask on you are a lesser you (or a greater you, if you are Batman). Either way, the mask transforms the person into someone else

Face masks could be the center of many kinds of research. We might also bring up surgical mask diplomacy, the political economy of surgical masks, or the global supply chain of surgical masks….

The virus presses in on society’s weaknesses, just as it attacks places of weakest resistance in the body, causing each polity to tighten at the borders of its sovereignty, “trying to call the world to a stop through a kind of force that nothing else could exert.” It has attacked medical systems, eldercare, social gatherings, mobility and travel, the global economic system, all at the cost of human lives.

In its treatment of the pandemic, political power tends to treat human lives as individual units of accounting, expressions in each day’s rolling figure of infections and deaths. Thus, the epidemic is both distant (an abstract set of statistics) and intimate (a formless danger right beside you). Nonetheless, neither biopolitics nor necropolitics can easily comprehend the epidemic or the break in everydayness that has followed in the epidemic’s wake. Here in Taiwan, on the margins of empire, we can see that wherever the virus has gone, the effects that stand out have been disparate, different in Italy, Spain, the United States, England, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Turkey, Iran….

We can observe these differences in intellectual commentary. French philosopher Nancy points out, the virus has changed the conditions of our existence, “communizing us.” Arundhati has even claimed that the pandemic is a “portal” or “gateway” through which we are entering a new world: the epidemic has forced us to reimagine what the world will be like once the pandemic ends.

Even as I respect these authors, from the vantage of Taiwan, I find this kind of imagination a bit too optimistic. Yet, as Taiwanese people often say, we do not have the right to be pessimistic.

Face masks are a type of protective gear, representing safety, protection, and resistance. They are a symbolic medium that covers individual characteristics (even as customization lets surgical masks also express one’s individuality), erasing what makes one identifiable. In the face of increasingly oppressive regimes, the mask anonymizes activists. Under its unifying sign, activists create spaces of freedom and resistance, particularly in countries employing facial recognition systems. I prefer to have the freedom to hide my identity. To rulers, the mask represents a blockage, something that obscures transparency and surveillance. But to those who resist, this blockage is a limited kind of safety.

I don’t have a daily lineup of face masks as some of my friends do; but as someone with allergies, I have a fondness for masks and keep more than a few around. As a result, I remained calm throughout the mask famine of a little while ago. As a result, I might have missed out on something. A friend who keeps a running count of her face masks brought to my attention an experience of “epidemic community” that she describes as follows:

The masks that my neighborhood pharmacy has distributed recently have all been leopard print masks. Thus when I go to the market or out to buy noodles at a streetside stand, I will always brush shoulders with a granny wearing a fashionable leopard print mask. The epidemic has mixed things up so that this small city with many retired people has become on trend. I think of this as the result of the relationship between the epidemic and an imagined community. Imagined communities cause mutual enmity and love. The epidemic has caused us to be distant from each other but has also brought us closer. The ‘epidemic community’ causes people to discover their similarities, but also to discover their differences.

My friend described this sense of intimacy as “knowing that we are all comrades in arms” (actually, I think it should be in distress!). She also reminded me that “even as the epidemic separated us from each other, it actually joined us anew. Or we could say that it reconfirmed that not only are we who live in this small city closely related to each other, we are also related to the world—and much more than we imagined previously. Didn’t you mail masks to your friends in the United States? If it weren’t for the epidemic, you might not have thought of them.”

I laughed and said, “I think of them often. I wonder if they miss me very much, though.” Perhaps the masks will be the medium of our imagined togetherness, while separated by the virus.

*Note: The links and images were added by the translator, DJ Hatfield