Masks: Protection or imposition

Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies

On the vaporetto, Venice, September 2020
© Eva Krems

After the initial irritations, we have become more or less used to wearing protective masks in public places. Nevertheless, the obligation to do so seems to have remained a stumbling block that has attracted extreme emotional reactions, for example in demonstrations against state measures aimed at combatting corona. Masks are anchored in culture in many ways. For example, they were worn by the actors in the theatre of ancient Greece, so that the figure depicted could be clearly seen even by distant spectators. In many cultures, masks play a central role in cult and ritual, where they offer people the chance to transform themselves temporarily. Masks are worn in carnivals, where they conceal identities and allow people to playfully accept a different identity. And, finally, the wearing of masks is associated with the criminal milieu; for example, the classic bank robber in films wears a mask that is of course black!
The image of medical staff wearing protective masks in the operating theatre may also have negative connotations when one thinks of serious illness. And yet such masks stand for hygiene, medical standards, and protecting the patient. Is the rejection of everyday masks so great because they constantly remind us of sickness and death? Or is it the restriction of freedom associated with the obligation to wear masks that causes such contrary reactions? However, there is also certainly a creative and humorous use of the everyday mask in terms of the colours and forms that it can have. The following articles examine mask wearing from different disciplinary perspectives, and show that the present obligation to wear a mask is embedded in a cultural context that is consciously or unconsciously part of the debate.

© Public Domain (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the versatility of masks in African societies. By anthropologist Dorothea Schulz

Unlike the masks that we are currently obliged to wear, the meanings and effects ascribed in African societies to “masks” worn in various ritual contexts indicate that all these elements of covering for the head and face do not have their own intrinsic meaning, but rather derive this meaning from the social context in which they are used. There is a striking parallel here to the Muslim veiling of head (and sometimes body), which is debated in the German public domain under the terms “veil” and “headscarf”: More

© CC0 1.0

The extraordinary career of the Plague Doctor. By literary scholar Pia Claudia Doering (Romance studies)

The beak mask worn by the Plague Doctor is of secondary importance in medical history. This is clearly demonstrated by the work of the medical historian and director of the German Museum of Medical History, Marion Maria Ruisinger. From the perspective of cultural history, however, the plague mask has become very well-known and is firmly anchored in collective memory as a symbol of the danger of infection emanating from epidemics, but also of illness and death. More

© Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

The plague mask. On Death in Venice once more. By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German studies)

Why does the very obligation to wear a mask cause such resistance among people? Because it is simply unpleasant? Because it causes our glasses to fog up? Or because the mask reminds us of something that we prefer to repress? Death, for example? First of all, the masks to be worn every day hide part of the face and restrict the possibility of reading the face of the person opposite. Like theatre masks or masks in carnival, where you do not know who is hidden behind the mask, masks seem to de-individualize the person. More

© gemeinfrei

No masks, but magic – magic papyri as protection against sickness. By historian Matthias Sandberg

The current, sometimes emotionalized, debate on the pros and cons of wearing masks as a protective measure against the unrestricted spread of Covid-19 touches on the issue of the value of solidarity and actions of solidarity within society. Values, norms and rules of collective coexistence in the time of the pandemic, such as punishment for non-compliance with the AHA formula, are sometimes interpreted as unacceptable reprisals and as an unjustified attack on individual liberties by the authorities. The insight that protecting oneself and protecting others are linked reciprocally does not seem to have reached everyone. More