The Hermeneutics of the Mask

The pandemic of coronavirus has put the spotlight on the mask. Masks come in all colours and shades. They have a shielding/ protective function. They invisibilize and absentify the one behind them. They offer possibilities of giving us a new avatar. The Greek theatre used the mask to build a character. Mask becomes a technology of protection and even deception. The masks, therefore, are technologies of power. They conceal our faces. They offer us the possibility of acting anonymously. Masks are accessories of bandits, robbers, terrorists and impersonators. Veils and masks also have religious as well as cultural functions. Carnival or Halloween masks are deeply cultural.

The mask as a technology of disguise has an ambiguous role. But we cannot but consider the negative aspect of masks. It has the potential of dissembling identity, spread un-truth and pursue wickedness. Some countries like France has outlawed wearing a face mask. It thinks that wearing a face mask undermines the minimum requirements for social life. This move had particularly affected Muslim women. Thus, we might also that there is what we may call mask phobia in several places. But we cannot forget that masks do have a transforming function. They offer us a new mode of being. Therefore, it is often argued that the evil in the mask is associated with its use of it. It is the contexts of its use that provides the moral grammar for us to do our moral calculus concerning masks. Hence, we have the challenge to unpretentiously unmask the semiotics of masks in our society.

The semantics of mask differs from civilization to civilization and hence, we have to sensitively recognize this difference as we follow the semiotic trajectory of covered faces lest we may be accused of universalizing the local. Perhaps, we may have to consider mask as a semio- resource and look at it as signifier. Maybe when the mask becomes a master signifier, it becomes a technology of communication. Mask, therefore, belongs to the semio-sphere. In fact, the opposite is also true. All signifiers are nothing but masks. They hide more rather than reveal reality. Masks often can operate as master signifiers. A master signifier is signifier that refers to its self. It becomes a point of convergence where seemingly endless chain of signifiers are fixed or anchored.

This means master signifier operates as a point de capiton or nodal point which functions to button down meaning and ensure a smooth exchange of signifiers. Masks, therefore, can become a point opens and closes. It closes one the slide of deferred meaning and opens another slide of deferred meaning. New form of life and meaning radiates out and organizes itself around the mask. Mask does not represent reality but opens possibilities of myriad relations with other signifiers. Masks enables the person to embrace personalities that are distant from one’s original person. Mask, thus, provides a temporal point of fixity that enables us to play the character or the avatar that one chooses or is forced to choose by our circumstances. This kind of distantiation along with anonymity/ hiding/ shielding has now become normal at different degrees because of the social media platforms like the facebook, Instagram, whatsaap etc. Even chats , emoji, images, videos and audio clips provide different levels of anonymity for the voice and hence, perhaps we seem to like to mask our voice as we enjoy writing and sending emojis, pictures , videos during our chats on the web.

Masks therefore, is not a representative but is a performative signifier. Hence, there is always libidinal investment in the employment/ use of the mask. There is a libidinous gratification and feeling of safety when one lives behind the mask. While we discuss what mask does to the one who lives behind it, we still have to discuss what it does to those in front of the mask. The mask evokes divergent meanings and come to signify a great many things to a great many people all of whom remain identified with or against what it is thought to signify. It is like the Greek theatre where the mask acquires a life of its own and portrays a character on stage. Depending the kind of regime of power that is at work, the levels of manipulation work within the field of signification. It depends on the way the person behind the mask knits together different signifiers and provocations that lead those in front of the mask to performative responses. Masks, therefore, has an incarnate function from both its behind as well as its front. It is able articulate a large number of heterogenous signifiers and evoke multiple meanings. It acts as point de capiton uniting the one behind as well as those in front of the mask.

Mask thus becomes a site of producing a chain of signification initiated by the one behind the mask. It remains indeterminate until those in front of the mask are able to make sense of it . There is also a relation of fantasy and libidinal intensity to the mask. It fascinates both the one behind it and those in front of it. There is a play of imagination, desire, libidinal and fantasmatic aspiration of those who are invested in the dynamics of the mask. Mask therefore can become a focal point of multiple investments for those behind as well as in front of it. Mask produces affect sand embeds us into its multidinous workings. It can also become a counter-point when we are able to umask the mask. Conter-point is a point of interrogation of the hiding and shielding workings of the mask. This is why no mask is perfect hiding place.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao