Masks, or Until We Have Faces
Perhaps the most spiritually and psychologically dangerous development in this current mass neurosis (the new abnormal) called the pandemic is the wearing of masks. Just think about this: a mask. What is a mask? Of course, many will say a form of protection—but is it not also, as in Greek tragedy, the projection of a persona? Such are not unlike kinds of personae (also known as avatars) that have become the norm via social media and the totalizing demand that the internet turn each and every one of us into a product. We wear masks to hide our identities.
So much of our discourse now has become faceless, dealing only with eyes (often fearful or suspicious) and muffled sounds of voices. Just think how much more of a disrupture will take place if people begin wearing goggles as well, following the advice of the illustrious Dr. Fauci. We will be even further removed from the Real.
In his classic text Totality and Infinity, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas meditates on the phenomenology and attendant metaphysics of the face. “The face,” he writes, “ is a living presence; it is expression. The life of expression consists in undoing the form in which the existent, expressed as a theme, is thereby dissimulated. The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse. He who manifests himself comes, according to Plato’s expression, to his own assistance. He at each instant undoes the form he presents.”1
Masks, I submit, subvert this very human need for encounter via the countenance, the encounter with the Other. They distort our humanity. Further: the politics of the mask have divided us, pitted us against one another. But the political does this by short-circuiting our chance at human connection. Even the blind touch the faces of their friends to know who they are. As Levinas observes, “The face to face remains an ultimate situation.”2
Our current facelessness, like the inherent facelessness of social media, gives vent to, I think, our baser instincts, allowing us to be cruel without compunction, callous, ugly. When we have faces, we reveal our humanity, bearing witness to the words of William Blake’s “The Divine Image”—
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Without faces, we don’t face anything. Rather, in keeping with the metaphysics of the apparatus, we hide. By hiding ourselves from the humanity of those we encounter, we likewise hide from our own. Furthermore, the mask illustrates our enlistment as what Michel Foucault calls “docile bodies” and the masks become our portable disciplinary spaces. As Foucault phrases it, “Discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself. It is the protected place of disciplinary monotony.”3 What a sublime description of our times.
The anxiety that accompanies this enclosure of the countenance was also a feature of the transition to modernity, as the almost beatific vision of Renaissance humanism gave way to the cruelties of Hobbesian pessimism, Cartesian duality, and the punitive theology of John Calvin. Shakespeare’s Hamlet articulates this stirringly:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”
Let us have faces, for then we have each other.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, 1969), 66.
2. Ibid., 81.
3. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans, Alan Sheridan (Vintage, 1979), 140.