Can masks help to stop the spread of the coronavirus? Other than in China, Japan, or Hong Kong, this question is currently being debated in a most controversial manner in Germany and other Western countries. Admittedly, a group of young journalists and other celebrities initiated the #maskeauf campaign, calling on the public to wear masks outside the home. The German city of Jena obliges its citizens to wear masks in public, and Austria decided to implement similar measures for the time after the lifting of the lockdown. Yet these measures remain controversial – far more controversial than other regulations related to social distancing.
Advocates of masks argue that droplet infections could be prevented or at any rate decreased if everyone wore masks in public. Because of their current scarcity in Western countries, these campaigns do not refer to medical masks. Instead, readers are exhorted to sew their own masks from washable cotton fabric.
Opponents, by contrast, make a number of claims. Not only do they narrow down the debate to medical masks, suggesting that an obligation of wearing them would be tantamount to reducing this precious good even further, thus undermining solidarity. Others rejecting masks for medical reasons claim that they would only help protect individuals other than those who wear them (assuming that only the infected should use masks) – an argument that would be immediately invalidated if everyone resorted to masks. Some assert that masks would encourage tendencies of hoarding due to the anonymity conveyed by them. At times, however, opponents also claim quite unabashedly that other than in Asia, the prescriptive wearing of masks could simply not be introduced in Europe for cultural reasons.
The Mask as the Other
This essentialist argument – a mask as unsuitable for European societies – is instructive. Its reading of face coverings reveals a mechanism of Othering characterizing recent debates on forms of veiling in Islam. As suggested by a look into travel writing on Western Asia and North Africa and portrait photography from this region, however, this discourse draws on a much longer tradition. Nineteenth-century Western travellers like Helmuth von Moltke or Mark Twain compared women in full-body veils to ghosts or dead bodies. Early studio photographs in the context of emerging tourism in the region showing fully veiled human figures convey a similar image.
As travellers and photographers seem to have agreed, veiling divested the individual of the individual, and more than that, of freedom itself – a focus very different from that of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who, travelling at the beginning of the eighteenth century, had claimed, equally generalizing, that women used the anonymity bestowed by veiling for expanding their sexual agency. Nineteenth-century travellers, by contrast, embraced a negative view of the veil – not just because they read into it a lack of life and liberty. According to Meyda Yeğenoğlu, it irritated them for yet other reasons. On the one hand, it seemed to enable the wearer to conceal her true nature. On the other hand, it allowed her to see without being seen, thus investing her with power.
European Masks: Exceptionality and Status
To some extent, this disapproval of forms of face covering is puzzling. Face covering, after all, was not an unfamiliar phenomenon in European cultural history. During masquerades and carnivals, it allowed men and women to temporarily shed moral constraints. In a medical context, it protected its wearer from contracting illnesses, last but not least by means of the fragrant herbs hid in its beak. In a military context, facial veiling was common at an even earlier stage. A knight’s armour often covered the face in its entirety except for a narrow visor. Fencing masks bestowed full-face coverage. In early modern times, the vizard protected the pale complexion befitting upper-class women: a mask, often made of black fabric, with openings only for the eyes kept in place by a mouthpiece. During the nineteenth century, women wore a veil, albeit a transparent one, on their day of marriage, in church, during burials, and in mourning. From the late eighteenth century onwards, masks facilitated swimming and diving. A century later, they provided protection from poison gas.
Admittedly, these forms of face coverage shared two aspects: they were worn but temporarily and/or only by upper-class men and women, thus leaving the majority of society unveiled. Masks, or so Mikhail Bakhtin argues, were associated with the transitory, with metamorphoses, with the infringement of natural boundaries. As long as they remained temporary or a prerogative of social elites, forms of facial covering, therefore, were acceptable well into the nineteenth century and beyond in Europe.
Visibility, Individuality, and the Modern State
Why was large-scale use of facial covering so suspect to nineteenth-century European observers, then? Visibility, or so scholars of cultural studies since Foucault have emphasized, was a core aspect of the modern state. While the idea of the panopticon influenced the architecture of factories, prisons, and other establishments mainly in theory, the development of criminological photography, aided by the inventions of Bertillon, and the passport, accompanied by a photograph from the 1910s onward, made a decisive contribution in this direction. Far more recent are the introduction of the prohibition of disguise (as laid down, for instance, in German law), and CCTV. Finally, the technology of facial recognition offers a maximum degree of visibility in both physical and virtual space.
At the same time, the idea of the individual turned into the very foundation of self-declaredly liberal and secular societies. This individual was to act autonomously, only to be restricted in its liberty where this liberty infringed upon that of others. In practice, this individual was male, middle-class, white. Other groups within society saw far more limits imposed upon their agency. The presence of these limits, however, did not taint the idea of individual freedom as the core ideal of modern societies. Apart from the liberty of belief, opinion, and congregation, the modern individual, again on the level of law, enjoyed liberty in choice of dress as long as it was not read as a religious signifier. Dress codes, at least in terms of sumptuary laws, were a thing of the past, and law would only return to regulating apparel under Nazi rule.
Facial covering, on the other hand, came to be associated more and more with the cultural Other since the nineteenth century. In this context, masks from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific became objects of fascination. They were interpreted as symbolizing religious rituals and social orders not based on the idea of the individual but of life courses structured by rites of passage. Masks became coveted objects in European collections. They inspired modern painting, sculpture, and photography. In European and American daily life, however, facial covering became more and more absent. Even headgear, once a sign of respectability, was on the wane. In Western societies, showing one’s face became tantamount to communicating authenticity and honesty.
The Apotheosis of Western Public Health
At the same time, colonialism helped spread the idea of Western hygiene as superior. It found expression in urbanization where the modernization of Paris initiated by Haussmann, with its sewers, street lights, visual axes, and boulevards became a model for cities around the world, including non-European ones. It seeped into medicine whose Western notions did not completely replace other forms of knowledge but came to dominate academia nonetheless. Even in food hygiene and chemistry, Western standards took the lead. Domestic science became a central part of the curriculum among Western educational actors in imperial contexts. These and other parties were also dedicated to implementing Western standards with regards to bodily cleanliness. In practice, these concepts never fully replaced other notions, not just because colonial powers oversaw their implementation only half-heartedly due to racism, economic reasons, and sheer lack of power. Instead, these cultural encounters gave rise to the emergence of hybrid or pidgin knowledge. From a Western perspective, however, one’s own notions of hygiene appeared superior nonetheless.
What’s in a Mask?
Apart from the fact that Western governments hardly took precautions for the case of an epidemic, it is these two reasons – the belief in the superiority of one’s own notions of public health and the rejection of facial covering -, that obstruct the acceptance of masks in the present situation, although medical experts in Germany and elsewhere come to stress more and more the advantage of masks, and masks even turn into a bone of contention between Western states. The argument against the wearing of masks, or so a glance into nineteenth-century travelogues suggests, is a deeply orientalist one. While there is little doubt that the spread of the virus could be slowed down if everyone wore a mask in public, cultural preconceptions with a long historical tradition impede the implementation of this pragmatic solution. The fear of losing face is too paramount. Even campaigns for the use of masks, therefore, champion individuality, in all likelihood hardly just because of scarcity, in stressing the creative potential of sewing one’s own mask. Oscar Wilde is perfectly right in claiming that a mask is more telling than a face.