Le visage est présent dans son refus d’être contenu./The face is present in its refusal to be contained.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini
To be or not to be masked? Depending on the jurisdiction, this remains a choice before the COVID-19 pandemic. In others, masks are mandatory in all spaces outside the house (enforced with varying degrees of rigour). As signs, they are polysemic: they suggest caution, the need for distance, a barrier before the risk of contagion; they are a vestment of solidarity with others (“I will not make you sick”), with care and health workers (“I am helping those who fight the disease”); they may indicate the infected; they are signs of fear. Independently of their varieties, they warn of danger, the danger that each person is to everyone else. Like a sovereign border, they trace a protective line around the face, the physical person, beyond which there is a threat and behind which the individual face vanishes.
Those who insist on showing their face are deemed by some as irresponsible, or courageous, or simply testify to a desire to return to something called “normal life”. Masked or unmasked, our steps give a wide berth to those we cross.
Masks have always served to hide one’s face, but also to project a face, a persona different from who or what we are, presumably in truth. In ancient Greek theatre, the actor dons a mask; in Carnival, transgressions are committed behind a mask; in rituals, masks are the vehicles of possession. However, contrary to these masks which interrupt everyday roles, the medical mask confirms and reinforces the dictates of medical-State authority. Playfulness and/or the transcendent are absent, and transgression in this case is expressed by discarding the mask.
Medical masks mark the policed, the civilised; they are a new border separating the civilised from the barbarian. They bolster the new regime of social distancing and biosecurity: the kiss by which some would greet others, along with the handshake and the hug, are suspended. To insist on such contact is to violate the individual, atomic space of physical security supposedly established by the mask. The latter is a shield against contagion, a cover behind which we preserve our physical integrity, the declared fact that we retain our physical well being. And as this latter is uniform – immunity and contagion are general markers -, the mask renders our identities common. The masked become a disciplined mass, a State created and managed mass.
These comments may appear to be thoughtless beside the presumed efficacy of masks in the containment of the spread of the coronavirus. We write however not as scientists or doctors; our interest is to try to understand what the generalised use of medical masks implies for everyday social relations, their imbrication in techniques of control and the constitution of new subjectivities. And without pretending to exhaust the subject, we insist on asking, what is lost with the use of medical masks in “public” spaces? (We set aside the question about what we might gain in terms of street politics, the undoing technologies of facial recognition and in the playing off prohibitions of facial masks in public protests).
The medical face mask looks like a snare pulled over the nose, mouth and chin; it works to catch the face, to hold it back and fix it, preventing something from revealing itself, from escaping. This is more than a matter of resemblances, more than metaphor, and addresses more than the spread of a virus. It concerns the experience of the face in human relations.
A face, as commonly understood, is comprised of the observable physiognomy of facial features. But it is not simply what it seems to be. Following the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, the face possesses a deeper significance: it reveals an other, an other who calls or interpellates me, my-self, to hear them, to attend to them, to assume responsibility for them.
What we call the face is overcharged with meanings woven into cultural, social, and political orders. We may be sexed, racialised, classed, nationalised, and so on, just on the basis of our “face”. But Levinas’ contention is that the face announces more than itself; it manifests a corporeality beyond itself, but also that which escapes orders of social meaning. The face expresses a dimension of human existence that is, in Levinas’ language, infinite, while physiognomic identities overdetermine the face in ways that confine and limit it. The face, in the latter, is subsumed under totalities of the same, such as the ethnic, racial, class, gender forms violently imposed and maintained by regimes of power, whereas the face as infinite holds within it the potential to be and not to be; it is the pure potentiality that concrete social relations dominate, but also that which escapes those relations, empties them of any permanence, and in some sense, is their measure of justice without in-itself being justice.
The infinite face is a kind of threshold marked by the constant passage of processes of totalisation and evasion. The face in this case is not a phenomenon in the world, a thing, but this point of passage that opens human existence onto what is not socially constructed and politically enforced. It renders the latter possible, but also impossible as definitive, fixed realities.
The face is thus that which grounds the possibility of ethics, a way of being in the world that is receptive to the other.
The medical mask, read in the light of Levinas, is then one further means of restricting this potentiality, of tying it down to orders of immunity and security. The now masked other is then marked as a possible disease carrying physical-biological reality, to be surveilled, traced, tracked, separated, isolated, quarantined, in some cases, let to die, and finally disposed of, alone.
If the call of the other through the face grounds ethics, the masked face transforms the other into an object of fear, someone to flee from. The medical mask, without killing us – and without necessarily saving us either -, pushes us to escape into a dark solitude where we become possibly deaf and blind to each other.
There is nothing in common between the mask against contagion and the masks of Nietzsche’s “profound spirits”, the necessary means to hide from or shelter against shallow, everyday opinion. (Beyond Good and Evil, Ch. II, 40) Nor are we the free spirits who openly and courageously embrace that there is no truth beneath the many masks that we are (Beyond Good and Evil, Ch. IX, 278), because the medical mask fuses us with our biology and places our physical health at the centre of politics. These may ultimately become Nietzsche’s “monstrous and terrifying masks” that wander the earth to inscribe the new biopolitical reality. (Beyond Good and Evil, Preface)
The path beyond it may lie in Levinas’ notion that the face of the other is a threshold, a proximity, lying between sainthood and caricature.
The answer may lie elsewhere, in Levinas’ contention that the face of the other lies between sainthood and caricature. (Totalité et infini) That is, we must learn to care for the other without seriousness.
He came to his disciples in Judea one day and found them seated, gathered, and training for piety. When he [came upon] his disciples  gathered, seated, and offering thanksgiving over the bread, he laughed. The disciples said to him, “Teacher, why are you laughing at our prayer of thanksgiving? What did we do? [This] is what’s right.” He answered and said to them, “I’m not laughing at you, nor that you don’t do this by your own will, but rather that it is by this that your god receives praise.
The Gospel of Judas