Being Real at the Time of Coronavirus – I

Image Source: UCSF

Our cough has always been dangerous. Today it has become hazardous. We may still not cough humanity to death. We can certainly give it a death blow. This is why masks are used to censor this danger in our public places. Don’t trespass has become a norm. It forbids our cough or spits in public. Wearing a mask is no longer a strange thing. It does not hide our true selves. It is a way of showing our true selves. We can do things that we may not do in our life but still do them under the veil that a mask can provide. Marks set us free. Under the cover of the mask, we can do what we like.

Mask does show our true selves. It is our appearance. To appear now in public we need a mask. It is an excess that is discomforting us. This is because the mask was used hitherto to hide our face. Today we have to use it to somewhat show our face. It is indeed a paradox. Earlier the true function of the mask was to keep us hidden. It was also somewhat kept in a hidden place and used only when one wishes to hide one’s oneself. But today it cannot be kept hidden to be used under exceptional circumstances. It is fast becoming an everyday affair. Moreover, there is an injunction of the Government about its use. Anyone found without a mask will be penalised.

We have to speak and live in public from the site of our masks. Mask was a cover. It was a lie. Today it has become our only site from which we can speak the truth. It is painful that we can only utter truth through the mediation of the mask. We are to live all our public life under the cover of a mask. Masks are acquiring new life in our society. Although we can trace some semantic shifts in the meaning of mask, we still have the old meaning of a mask. It is a shield. Today masks do not just hide us from the virus. They protect and shield us from its infection. It is the best weapon of ordinary people against Covid-19

The mandatory wearing of masks in public life is but an extension of what we have been doing all along. We cannot live naked. We have an imperative of decency to dress and cover our bodies. All reality is dressed for us by our culture. We can live and relate to each other and the world only through the cultural masks that society offers us. We enjoy these masks. We semiotize and weave meaning, conduct politics as well as economics though the symbolic exchange of these masks.

Like the ancient Greek theatre, we have to put on the cultural masks that sufficiently cover us to become civilized and join the society. We have to mask our state of nature, our naked finitude, and fragility. Somehow our masks have become the hiding place for our finitude as we cover it up with a grandiose of culture, thinking that no one can match our excellence. Our masks do matter more to us than the direct reality of each human experience. The cultural order or the Lacanian big Other has the insignia of a judge over us . It can condemn us for not having my mask. This is why not many can throw away their masks and embrace other masks.

There is still another level that cultural masks can take us. Zizek indicates that this happens when we fetishize the ordinary words spoken on earth with ventriloquism of being uttered in heaven. He illustrates his point when he says, ‘in one of Marx’s brothers’ films, Groucho when caught in lying answers , “whom do you believe …your eyes or my words?” This is certainly absurd logic. But it is our predicament. We often have to face this reality. Such experiences will multiply even more in the future.

Thus, for instance, we know very well that the person in front of us is a corrupted weakling. We nonetheless respect him since he wears the insignia of the judge so that when he speaks it is the law itself that speaks through him. Michel Foucault had taught us that law had eyes that see, so we learn to self-police and mask ourselves and wait for the arrival of time when the law is silent. Zizek suggests that the law speaks. We can see the mask that hides its face. But sadly, we cannot believe our eyes, we have to alert our hearing and seek the limits of the law where it is silent and ceases to speak. Maybe we need the comfort of a mask to hide as well as become a dissident by believing our eyes over and against that which we hear.

Returning to our predicament of wearing the mask to fight covid-19, we can see that the mask that we wear has the power to unmask the masks of our society. We need this critique of masks urgently even as wearing a mask has become a new normal. Often we mask our face with the masks of our political leaders in large gatherings. But in the act of multiplying the face of that big leader through a mask, we end up erasing the real him/her. We let the real person in the mask of a big leader escape our eye as well as our mind.

This literally happened in 2001 in Argentina. It was people’s revolt. They were revolting against Carvalho who was the minister of the economy then. People came to his building wearing masks that portrayed him. It has been said that he escaped wearing a mask that portrayed his face but hid him. This is exactly what happens when we wear the masks that portray the face of the mega leader. Under the glow of this mask of the cult of personality, the reality of the person remains hidden and we are glued to the glow of the mask. Luckily the proliferation of different masks will open our eyes and minds to the reality of masks.

Masks both hide as well as reveal us and our other. They can show us how we as a society are masking our failures at the same time, we may be enabled to unmask ourselves. It has a deep message for the individual. It tells him/her that there is something in him/her that is more than the mask. No one is reducible to our masks. But masks do have seductive power and we need to stay aware of it. Let’s not get possessed by them.

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GREETINGS

Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao