Largesse

Largesse | Edward Colless, editor-at-large

Largesse is the unruly extravagance that comes with being out of bounds, an escapee, a virtuoso, or in this case an editor-at-large. It is Edward Colless’s rolling, roaming commentary, criticism and curating of things that don’t fit, that overflow, that are disowned, or that carry him away.  

Pre-face | Edward Colless

Pre-face

Back in mid 2020 Melbourne had gone into a ‘stage four’ lockdown. The city was under curfew; office buildings and shops untenanted, the streets and parks deserted other than with police patrols or with eddying remnants of dead leaves left over from autumn. Behind this silent blackout, a second wave of Covid-19 was loudly peaking in Australia upon the advent of a new even more lethal variant called—like the portentous code-name from a laboratory in an apocalyptic computer game—Delta. By that time in Australia, throughout six months of the pandemic, there had been over 600 deaths out of more than 25,000 cases. Rounding up the mathematical average, that would be 3 deaths from 150 cases per day. Callous as it sounds, that’s improbably slight when compared to our current situation in May 2022, in which there are, daily, some 50,000 cases and an average of 40 deaths from the virus. But these numbers actually don’t count now. (Only if you accept the sleight of hand that points to the lower percentage of deaths per infection rate.) Even the landmark of one million deaths in the US captured news feeds for barely the morning’s slots.

In Australia, in the so-called post-Covid era of self-care and self-management of the contagion, case numbers only record voluntary public PCR testing. Mortality rates now spin on the specious deployment of a preposition: death from Covid or death with Covid. The latter provides the Malthusian excuse of those ‘underlying health conditions’ for a death, such as being immuno-compromised, with Covid being simply an adjacent if inopportune infection. As this provides health policy with a neoliberal default to personal, individual responsibility, the pandemic is weirdly being rendered invisible, recast as an endemic condition we must learn to live (and die) with. Of course, in mid 2020 there was no effective remedy for those desolately segregated and suffocating on ventilators in ICUs. Nor vaccines. Our only measure of protection back then was to slow the transmission of the infection in the hope of eventually eradicating it by social isolation, quarantine and through the universal adoption of face masks. All three of which, but the last most of all, becoming the stakes in a ravaging culture war too familiar to warrant replaying.1

And back in mid 2020, in the depth of that lockdown and its consuming fog of dread, I was writing the essay about face masks and Covid-19 that follows this anachronic preface.2 In this dark time, following a enjoyably gothic-tinged exchange with Mark Feary (director of Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne) during a chance encounter in an empty park, Mark emailed me a photograph of a child’s gas mask that he’d bought some years before at a Berlin flea market. It’s a breathtaking and compelling image; appropriately, for an unnerving and entrancing object. It dates, according to Mark, possibly from WWI; and in his elegantly casual photograph of it, cushioned on what looks to be luxurious and softly moulded white bedding, it certainly displays the archaeological poise and melancholic aura of an ancient industrial artifact. But also, it undeniably (to any but the timid) has the temper of a cherished if treacherous fetish.

As a relic it seems to offer an apotropaic or magic protection in addition to its actual defensive function. As a fetish, however, its voodoo-like power of malefic influence lures us into some imaginary or imaginative transgression of nature. It’s evidently small, though not miniature. While it’s grotesquely like a toy—macabre as such a plaything would be in scaled-down steampunk cosplay—its grim purpose is poignantly, and with a degree of obscene horror, unmistakable and palpable. We lean over a bed—or hospital cot—to gaze into its empty, baleful eyes. And what is, reciprocally, in our eyes? Nurture; custody; uneasy caution; dismay at a Kakfaesque metamorphosis; or even the inflammation of erotic phantasy? It could be a child in a crib or an imp hatching from a cocoon: this ambiguity makes the object oscillate, sullenly animate, brooding and unsafe in the way a totem feels inhabited by something other than what it is made from. Some surplus to its material body. Something alien. It’s as if the apparatus is the carapace of a creature with no expression other than a sinister rasping breath coursing through its impudently exposed—strangely aroused—ducting. Comatose but also disconcertingly responsive. Suffering, but also capable of infecting us. It could so easily be an exquisite emblem for that phase of the pandemic, for the respiratory jeopardy that came with stepping outside into the clear air and into the sparse company of strangers on the street whom one inevitably suspected of carrying the contagion.

The unnerving but enthralling eroticism of this prosthetic, for me at least, invokes an especially haunting image from an old episode of Dr Who. The eponymous character of ‘The Empty Child’ (2005) is a lost little boy in a gas mask who roams the blacked-out streets of a bombed London suburb during the 1941 Blitz of WWII.3 He creepily moves in the dark like a zombie, and repeatedly utters—with the tone of a plaintive but dreadful ghost—one muffled, solemn question through the mask: ‘Are you my mummy?’ But any sympathy for the child is dispelled when the Doctor realises that the mask is not simply worn by the boy but, horrifically, is genetically grafted into his face, supplanting his facial features. ‘Don’t let him get near you,’ warns terror-stricken Nancy, a young woman who claims to be his older sister. She shepherds the lost orphans of the neighbourhood through unoccupied houses into safety from the bombing, and away from the unearthly boy’s determined and importunate pursuit of her. Killed by a bomb, the boy should be dead, she explains. And his undead condition is contagious, with a nearby hospital ward full of his victims; all who, regardless of age, in gruesome chorus similarly ask through the hideous orifice of their identical gas mask faces for their ‘mummy’.

Under the Doctor’s forensic investigation, we learn that an alien medical device, itself a robot doctor from a future war—hidden, by the time travelling pirate who stole it, among the debris of the Blitz and which when activated moves in a cloud of nanobots—attempted to rebuild the body of the dead boy. But lacking a human blueprint, it assumed the gasmask to be his face and then proceeded to imprint that hybrid on the other bodies it found. The empty boy’s defacement was a remedial treatment for his death, a medication that risks becoming universally infectious. What was also rebuilt was his inconsolable compulsion to seek out his mother, a zombie-like drive that is transmitted to the other victims. What kind of organ, in that mesh of mask and lungs and mouth, could exhale the sounds of that infectious desire?  An Oedipal contagion. Nancy finally confesses the secret that she is indeed the story’s object of desire: she is this lost boy’s unmarried mother, the mother he has been asking for and which she has been disowning. Her denial coagulates as a stigma, blotting the empty face of the child.

In the end, her harvested DNA provides the nanobots with the equivalent of her fertility: a new corrected, legitimate template for the resurrection of the dead and the universal provision of redeeming maternal desire. ‘No one dies this time,’ declares the hysterically triumphant Doctor. Unconvincingly, however, it must be said. The bombs still rain down. ‘Before this war began,’ says the doctor in charge of the zombies in the hospital ward, ‘I used to be a father and a grandfather.’ That loss will not be recovered. The lost children remain orphaned. This is no fairy tale but a horror story, even at its upbeat conclusion. The restoration of facial recognition conjoins with that of reconditioned natural familial order, but under the condition of an unnatural—or alien—sexual act, one that leaves the mother virginal and delivers the empty boy as the incarnation of an unknowable and unseen agency, signalling visitation by an alien father. ‘Are you my mummy?’ is a demonic demand—rather than the angelic coercion—of the Annunciation, the obverse indecent side of that fable; it’s uttered through an obscene sexuality of the mask in an infernal vortex of the child’s unclaimed monstrosity. The child’s gas mask is an ambivalently dextrous sexual organ accompanying this deliriously improbable wedding. In Mark’s haunting photograph, I see this organ uncovered, blossoming as a flower of evil.

Perhaps it was this Antonine phantasm, assailing me in the isolation of lockdown, that spurred the writing which follows. But another prefatory image must also be introduced, and conjoined with the mask, cheekily here. And it is as vexing for me as it will be for you. It’s a small pen and ink Symbolist drawing I would attribute to Australian artist George Lambert of a siren-like mermaid swimming in cyclonic rapture at the prow of a boat (a seduction or a collision?)—which I too found, unnoticed and unclaimed, in a flea market of sorts a few years before Covid. It’s undated, but I’d like to think it has the same vintage as Mark’s gas mask. The eccentric assignation between these two images—which I’m compelled by dark impulse to officiate however casually—seems to me destined by some occulted chance rather than purpose. They entangle as if in an alchemical wedding, or in the montage of Duchampian found objects, or as in an esoteric poetic figure from Lautréamont. Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella …. My rendezvous with the phantasmic mermaid is another story altogether, a post-face perhaps; but for a dangerous liaison with the mask, please read on ….


Notes

1. Except in one respect: to mention philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s provocative pitch into this battle. On 26 February 2020, the Italian journal Il Manifesto published Agamben’s ‘The state of exception caused by an unmotivated emergency.’  This was followed by several essays on his blog, clarifying but also developing his initial claim that the Covid-19 pandemic—as a plague level infection—had been invented. Agamben’s essay was prompted by governmental response to the rapidity and extremity of the pandemic’s toll in Italy which, as unprecedented extensions of state power (in curfews and lockdown and employment suspension), he called an absolutist crystallisation of the ‘state of exception’ in danger of becoming a norm of governmentality. This normalisation of a biopolitical totalitarianism is, he argued, conducted in the name of survival—or, in Agamben’s more familiar terms, under the exclusive rule of ‘bare life’—over any other valuation of life. The complaints against his intervention, notably by intellectuals who otherwise would be more than collegial, blazed in the blogosphere. For sure, Agamben drew incorrect equations between seasonal flu mortality rates and Covid-19 rates. And it wasn’t just the numbers where Agamben had a problem, but also with his estimation of the kind of virus that Corona and its novel form of Covid-19 are. As one respondent to his blog pointed out, seasonal flu follows parameters of mutation that allow us to penetrate its mutations and vaccinate on a repeated spectrum, whereas coronavirus—certainly in 2020—is an opaque singular entity, one that is so novel we don’t know what it’s effects may be even on those who recover. But to be fair, Agamben’s argument is not a sophistic abstraction. Netanyahu’s early deployment of phone tracking technology to trace Israel’s population throughout the pandemic was a stunning example of Agamben’s point; and in Australia, with the ubiquitous QR codes at entrances to public spaces, it became a standard for tracing and tracking human traffic, if to the purpose of governmental duty of care to its populace. But ironically, the abandonment of QR code trace and track mechanisms in public health coincide with the neoliberal shift in government responsibility and its economic costs to self-care. Agamben’s remarks addressed the panic of a global pandemic—as a ‘state of fear’—in which populations accept extreme delimitations on their freedom for the sake of an endless survival rather than recovery. On the other hand, and as an aside to this argument, Slavoj Zizek mischievously enjoyed, with a dose of Schadenfreude, the irony that right-wing governments were forced into Keynesian economics on an astonishing scale, larger than that of the Great Depression. Yet, it’s worth noting that Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg insisted that their economic injections into the collapsing economy were only technical modes of intensive care ward treatment, a matter of survival not growth. The Australian Liberal-National Party’s budget throughout Covid-19 was not a compromise with socialist policy that they had been forced into. Ironically it was a state of exception that the government had declared, where they asserted there could no longer be time for parliamentary politics. There was only the technology of keeping the economy alive, if in suspended animation on life support. It would be facile to compare Agamben’s argument to Bolsonaro’s conspiratorial accusation that Covid-19 was a media hoax, or Trump’s naked denialism in his insistence throughout 2020 that the US should simply go back to work (using snake-oil treatments for what he and the alt-right considered was equivalent to a mild cold). Nonetheless, there’s an uncanny similarity between Agamben’s analysis and the bellicose polemic of right-wing libertarian protesting against lockdowns and mask mandates that acquired momentum throughout 2021 in Australia, colloquially dubbed with appalling irony ‘freedom marches’ against so-called government overreach. It’s hard to imagine Clive Palmer and his cronies in the United Australia Party reading Agamben the way those grey cardinals of the White House and Kremlin, Steve Bannon and Vladislav Surkov, admitted to reading leftist postmodern theory for inspiration that truth is an epiphenomenon of discursive power. Decrying government overreach eventually became an election pitch for the LNP as it tried to steer its accumulating failures of public health policy into a fanciful post-Covid and post-truth return to normality, which presumed Australians, in Morrison’s words, were fed up with government interference in their lives. Thankfully, with the federal election of a Labour government on 21 May 2022, the electorate showed that they could interfere with the complacent self-entitlement of the LNP and showed that this story now duly warrants nothing but a footnote, if an imbalanced and overlong one.

2. A version of the essay was presented at Dark Eden: the Sixth International Transimaging Conference, University of New South Wales, 6 – 8 November, 2020.

3. This was the first script for Dr Who by celebrated writer Steven Moffat, for the highly successful revival of the franchise launched in 2005 under executive director Russell T. Davies for BBC (Wales), featuring the ninth incarnation of the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston). The title, ‘The Empty Child’, was an allusion to the very first episode of Dr Who from 1963, ‘The Unearthly Child’ which initiated the perennially ambiguous sexual/parental relationship between the Doctor and his ‘travelling companion’. Moffat’s script, characteristically baroque and dark, won a Hugo Award.


Pandemia: The Dark Universal | Edward Colless

Pandemia: the dark universal

1. Face on

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask … it’s time. We have all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA (terrified, aside to Cassilda): No mask? No mask!
— Robert Chambers, The King in Yellow.1

On January 20, 2020, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in the USA activated their Emergency Operations Centre in response to an imminent pandemic threat of the novel coronavirus that had been first identified a month earlier in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province. That day the US logged its first case of infection, admitted to a hospital in Washington State. Indicative of their alarm at an impending public health crisis, the very next day the CDC tasked its medical illustrators, Alissa Eckert and her assistant Dan Higgins, to provide a graphic visualisation of the virus. At this stage, there was still very little comprehended about the virus or its disease trajectory. The CDC wanted an image, Eckert explained in a subsequent interview, to give ‘a face to the unknown’,2 and that could be used to ‘grab the public’s atten­tion’.3

What was needed was ‘an identity’ for this distinctive but invisible pathogen.4 ‘It was so important to have something that people could see and recognise,’ said Eckert, ‘there wasn’t anything else out there at the time….’5 Although potentially infectious to the scale of a global plague, this relatively unique—justifi­ably called ‘novel’—virus had at that time barely any means of being pictured by a general population other than through its repertoire of respiratory symptoms; and these were outcomes that it confusingly shared with infectious illnesses as mild as the common cold but also as possibly lethal as influenza and pneumonia. The urgency was evidently twofold: to create an image that was immediately identifiable as a hazard symbol, in the way the skull and crossbones pictogram generically warns of a poisonous substance; but also, and unlike the skull and crossbones, to specify this new viral threat with the iconic sign of a distinct entity, in the mode of an exclusive brand identification.

But there is a vertiginous semiotic and aesthetic problem bound up with this branding of such an obscure, shad­owy and exceptional menace. Consider this eccentric analogy: a police artist is assigned to come up with a picture—as a warning to potential victims, as a wanted poster for vigilant citizens and for detectives—of the ghastly, but unknown, face of Jack the Ripper. Have you seen this man? But the face of the Ripper has only truly been witnessed by the dead victims. The victim’s death and the revelation of that face are bound to­gether in a contractual, although not causal, bond. The Ripper’s face is the disclosure of a truth granted only to those who can do nothing with that truth, who can do nothing with knowledge of it. Other than die. That unrepeatable, unrecognisable facial identification forges an incommunicable mystery. Perhaps the Ripper would have thought of this sight of his maskless face—this useless revelation that con­sumed and annihilated like angelic fire any witness to it—as an expenditure without return as a gift. A gift, perhaps, of a very dark divinity.

To anyone other than a victim, the Ripper’s facial identity remains withheld: only a blank outline, filled in piecemeal from sidelong and peripheral glimpses by those who suspect they may have seen the Ripper with­out realising it, but only because they were not the object of his attention. Aggregated from shreds of evidence—most of it fleeting, perplexing, flimsy debris—a police portrait of the Ripper could only be an occasionalist symbol, analogous to the skull and crossbones signifying poison, and all the more monstrous for its imprecision and blur. Less a Cubist identikit image, forensically composed from an exchangeable lexicon of facial features, than a Surrealist and nightmarishly mutable speculation: an exquisite corpse. More faecal than facial; and convulsing between unobserved anonymity and obscene singularity. The uncertainty of the Ripper’s face would incandesce in an oneiric oscillation between two states. At one pole, it is a discrete Gestalt: a form, even if spectrally sinister because of its emptiness, but which is a recognisable synoptic sign of lethal threat. At the other pole, it is rendered indiscreetly misshapen (missgestaltet) and disfigured by missing parts (ungestalt). Two identities apparate in a phantasmal and inconsistent visage with an inconstant profusion that separates like a curdled substance.

Eckert and Higgins delivered the ‘face of the unknown’ within a week of their commission. A pockmarked, pimply, spongiform globe. A cluster of pellets cemented into a teeming clump of anonymous material. A lunar face leering out of a weightless ether, sprouting with stalks that jostle with the prickly alertness of insect antennae. Like a sea anemone, it seems blindly directionless but bristling with a hundred alert, probing sensory organs pouting from its body, erupting like sun flares. It has the unnerving alien attributes of some fibrous, pustular extraterrestrial—not just microbial—life; but, also, the rough, unexceptional uniform hulk of a ball of knotted twine. It’s a blob, a blot, a granular lump and a canker. It’s a darkly phosphorescent garden of evil flowers, condensing and budding. It’s obscene. Like the Ripper’s phantasmic face. Mutable and malignant.

The face of the virus is a horror. But it has the aesthetic tenor of literary and cinematic horrors. Eckert admits to ambivalence about her graphic visualisations of microbial menace. With the sentiment of a fin-de-siècle romantic, she resorts to a familiar theorem for combining fascination and fright in the deceptive visage of the femme fatale: ‘… “beautiful but deadly”,’ she reports, ‘…  dangerous, and I wanted to get that across, but … attractive too.’6 There may another, even more Gothic, phantasmic countenance lurking within this dual, deadly allure. Imagine the wanted poster for Mr Hyde. Recall that in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Mr Hyde is the monstrous face of Dr Jekyll’s addictive disinhibited libidinal violence; but that addiction is not only the lapse of conscious repression (a weakness of the will) but also the wilful and conscious repetition of a scientific method.7 To ‘give a face to the unknown’, the image of Mr Hyde would warn not only of his sociopathic offences but also inscribe Dr Jekyll’s methodical biological transgressions. An equivalent sign for the coronavirus would be a portrait of the virus that incorporated its epidemiological narrative—the method or storyline, the plot, so to speak, of its contagion.

This is the sort of narrative usually required to alert and educate a populace about microbiological or viral danger. Blood transmission of malaria, for instance, is identified not by picturing a specimen of infected cells under a scanning electron microscope at anywhere between thirty to ninety thousand times magnifica­tion. The trajectory of infection is instead concisely conveyed in the now recognisably illustrative image of a blood sucking mosquito jabbing human skin. Yet, even in relatively imaginative idioms there can be an allusion to the narrative of infection. Elissa Eckert’s previous work produced for the CDC included imagery of gonorrhoea bacteria swimming in clusters resembling luminous Cthulhu-like tentacular jellyfish. Their fantastic but focused motility has a ghastly elegance, the sinister animation of which is reminiscent of the gargantuan antibodies encountered by, and attacking, the miniaturised submarine crew as it navigates a human bloodstream in the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage.8

But Eckert’s illustration of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes the disease tagged Covid-19, is starkly different to these earlier graphics. An individual virion, the famous ‘spiky ball’ hovers absolutely isolated against a neutral background (in some of its globally distributed iterations this is grey, in others black or white). Held in a shallow depth of field, it is given a dramatic perspective focussing tight on its nearest point, with six or seven of the virulent S Protein spikes of its corona poking out toward the viewer from a grey spongey mound that quickly falls away out of focus. This spatiality, mimicking the limitations of an optical microscope’s lens is, of course, as much an artifice as the object’s coded colouration, which is comparable to the palette given to deep space astronomical imaging through the Hubble telescope. The focus shift that occurs over the ‘spiky ball’ is an allusion to the analogue camera’s vision, a special effect comparable to a filter that deposits scratches or camera flare onto digital video. Analogue incidents, whether dirty or delimiting, provide an anachronistic retinal authenticity to the digital image. This artifice of authenticity, and the drama of our perspective en­counter with the object in close-up, invokes the morphology and the arresting optics of a face captured in an ID mugshot, whether for police records or for a passport. While it confronts us with a singular horror (or menace, at least), it also has the idiom of something commonplace and ubiquitous. Something inclusive but comprehensive: universal. It is an icon that, with a macabre irony, has the historical potential to be as cir­cumscribing as the similar global iconicity of the blue marble image of the earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the Apollo 17 crew. The image of Covid19 may likewise become a universal signifier, though a dark one: the universal condition of infected humanity.

2. Face off

The mask possesses equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been both handed down from ancient tines with darkness and sent back from the future with light.
—Haruki Murakami, After Dark9

 Vaccination has been one of the instruments to contain and control, while unable to eradicate, this virus. The imagery of needles in arms next to graphs showing vaccinated percentages of populations have become ubiquitous imagery in the public health campaign against the epidemic, signalling the passport and targets to ‘Covid-normal’ economic and social conduct. But there is another image that has emblematised the Covid-19 pandemic, an insignia of the contagion’s dark, spectral universality. Unlike the clear graphic narrative of a needle in an arm, the image that portrays the menace and the jeopardy of this contagion is ambiguous and unsettled: that of the surgical face mask on the face of someone, anyone, outside the sick zones of hospitals or quarantine, outside its crisis significance in the armoury of PPE.

For many, the face mask is adopted in compliance with social and civic responsibility, or as observance of law. For conspiracy theorists (claiming it to be the yoke of a global hoax) and so-called sovereign citizens (who see it as the infringement of liberty), the mask is defied and derided. The mask’s significations range from specialised medical utility to totem object in culture war heraldry. Across this spectrum of usage there is also an insoluble equivocation. If the mask is a protection for others, then it implies the wearer is infected. If it is a protection from others, then the other is infected. That vacillation expresses an ethical dilemma. In a milieu in which ‘community transmission’ and ‘contact tracing’ become the crucial vectors for govern­mental charting and containment of the contagion, the mask can signify an admission that one might endanger others, or the suspicion that everyone else is a danger and a threat. On one hand duty of care, on the other survivalist accusation.

The equivocal superposition of these images of self and other, of mortality and survival, of individual and herd, forges a complexion and ceremony of the undead. This phenomenon was epitomised in the Mussolini masquerade of Donald Trump’s photo-op, when he removed his mask on the White House balcony after peremptorily discharging himself from hospital and from the privileged regime of treatment he was receiving for Covid. That rhetorical gesture was meant as a signal of heroic immunity: a revelation of self-congratulatory sainthood or Ubermensch-overcoming of Covid. And simultaneously it was a gesture to rally the anonymous horde of his unmasked chorus: those gawping ecstatic faces tiered behind him like a celestial choir at his rallies and those who, in ferocious ecstasy, would later besiege the Capitol. Staged as coinage of a post-Covid emperor god, Trump’s unmasked visage on the balcony—sternly composed with the fatuous grandiloquence of Ozymandias’s heritage—was that of a Pharaoh entombed in mummi­fied insolence, accessorised with priestly charms. The face of death masquerading as embalmed after-life.

Whether worn or not worn, the Covid19 mask now casts its shadow across every face. But that shadow is not a veil. It is an abstraction. It is like the atomic shadows etched into walls and pavements in Hiroshima by the nuclear blast.10 The atomic shadow is catastrophic sunburn, in which a figure blocks the background from the heat and light for only a moment before being incinerated.11 Like the Hiroshima shadows, the mask is the residue of a momentary differential in exposure to the energetic burn out of the pandemic—imprinted like a glitch on the face, a face that is the irradiated ground of our catastrophe. Like those shadows, the Covid19 face mask—whether on the face or not—is the reliquary index of something extinguished: the vestige of a pre-Covid human semblance that has been obliterated. And like a relic, it has acquired an anachronic and apotropaic magic that is both prophylactic and capable of malediction. The mask becomes a miraculous icon, in the sense that Byzantine aesthetics and theology spoke of the icon.12 The mask is the shadowy but sacred visage of insulated, quarantined survival as well as mass extinction.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that these options—quarantine, extermination—are also the only ones available in the zombie apocalyptic that’s been proliferating since the millennium. Our zombies these days no longer move with the sluggish somnambulist gait that their predecessors had back in the 20th century; those unemployed slackers and bogans, drifting like zoned-out addicts back toward the scene of the crime, back to the scene of consumer desire—in suburban domesticity, in the non-space of shopping malls—and shambolically haunting these contaminated and forsaken zones of exclusion as obscenely comic victims of a localised outbreak. Like the infection that now takes only moments to incubate, contemporary zombies move at lightning speed, compelled not by the erotic urge to feast on any particular victims but by a collective yet singular rage that exponentially spreads the contagion. Zombies no longer stand for a population of enslaved workers or those trapped in the living death of dead-end social and familial roles. They are no longer lost souls.

Much as the political satire in contemporary zombie apocalyptic defers to the global refugee crisis, the superspreader momentum of current zombie plagues is viral rather than migratory.  Neither strictly erotic nor thanatological, the 21st century zombie apocalyptic is an inflation of viral reproduction toward an undifferentiated but exhausted plenum. The plenitude of an Edenic virological sovereignty. In this zombie apocalyptic, as the undead surround the archipelagos of diminishing but privileged and fortressed humanity, surging against gated compounds and bunkers like an inexorably rising ocean level, the relics of living human resistance are finally reducible, essentialized, to a survivalist ethos: humanity is that which lasts only as long as it is not yet becoming-zombie. The human is ultimately defined by this defensive negativity, like the test result that only momentarily clears one of the positive presence of the virus.

The Covid19 mask, worn or not, is the emoji signifying a negative result, the snapshot negation of infection by quarantining the face within an icon. Don’t think of its image as apparel for the face—as technical augment and artificial organ.13 Apparel would be the sleek substitute skin sported by the Phantom of the Opera to conceal disfigure­ment and a past crime or trauma. Apparel is the hood adopted by the executioner and it’s the balaclava worn by a terrorist to shield identity and guilt or culpability. It’s KISS or Kardashian make-up or Halloween cosplay. It’s Clark Kent’s horn-rimmed glasses and Zorro’s eye-liner ‘domino’. Like the prosthetic devices of Venetian masquerade these manoeuvres of modesty and subterfuge, no matter how elaborately ornate, only duplicitously interfere with facial recognition. Yet what is unhidden by this masquerade is not a face but a voice as the untampered and transparent agent of command, of affect and auto-affection. This acoustic mirror, otherwise the stable ground of self-recognition, becomes unnerving and unidentified, becomes immaterial—acousmatic—when an oracular or demonic voice emanates from a possessed body, or if the voice is thrown by an expressionless ventriloquist into their alter-ego’s mouth, emanating from the mechanical twitches of a doll’s jaw, or when an alluring magical ring worn by the women of the sultan’s harem in Diderot’s Indiscreet Jewels compels them to confess their illicit venereal pleasures, betrayed not by word of mouth but from the vagina—which in the story, unlike the alimentary hole of the mouth, cannot lie about its appetite.14   

The conspiracy theorists call the Covid19 mask a ‘muzzle’.15 Their complaint is not that it imposes a concealment of the face but that it signals prohibition or inhibition on freedom of speech. Ironically, both immunity and libertarian autonomy require a veneer or binding as tight as a glove or a condom that contains the interiority of the self in its soliloquy. The Covid19 mask instead throws the voice, and in oracular rather than oratorical cast. Detached from the face and name that binds to it, this allegedly muzzled voice becomes a growling surplus, a phatic remnant or revenant of that which was obliterated in the pandemic burnout: the breath of life and vehicle of the infection. The thrown voice of the Covid mask is the infected stain, the dark material of this choked respiratory collapse. It comes through the mask, seeping and blotting—not as an illuminating and immortalising Pharaonic revelation of the name of the face, but as an insurgent phantom, as a noise from the underside. Don’t think of this as a consoling mediumistic utterance. It is instead a contaminating, demonic spot that emerges from the darkness, from a world where there are no faces, only atomic shadows.

The contiguous identity of face with voice is persona: a term long understood to have derived from the way the ancient Romans thought of facial identity as the mask through which per the voice sounded sonare . But the threat to liberty and identity allegedly posed by the Covid19 mask is not adequately accounted for by any other mask’s routine use as a tool for impersonation or dissimulation of persona. Needless to say, the libertarians’ paranoid antagonism to the Covid19 mask is symptomatic of something beyond (or beneath) any dispute with the straightforward medical facts of its value in public health. The paranoiac fantasy seems to apprehend some enervating horror in this particular usage of a mask, as if it could become a controlling malefic graft genetically bonding or welding to the face. This imputed dark cast of the Covid19 face mask warrants a neologism for its peculiar mode of horror that is beyond the merely impersonal, which implies neutrality, and beyond impersonation, which implies a substitution. We might have to call this maculated alterity ‘unpersonation’.

And—not that we needed this—but recent etymological evidence about the lineage of persona encourages this perverse interpretation, by linking persona with the Etruscan infernal demon Phersu, related by name to Persephone, queen of the dead, and to the hero Perseus.16 This etymology leads us into the nocturnal atmosphere of the underworld, yet we would have to say that the unpersonal Covid19 mask has less to do with Perseus than with his victim, Medusa the Gorgon, whose face—alive or dead—turned any human who gazed on it into stone, and who Perseus decapitated, offering the head as a military trophy to the goddess Athena.17 Athena used her gift in her warcraft. Her aegis, described by Euripides, was armour made from the skin of the slain Gorgon.18 In Homer, the aegis was a shield mounted in its centre with the gorgoneion.19 This was the mask of Medusa’s decapitated head, a death mask captured in a grimace with hollows for its inexpressive, empty eyes and often a gaping hole for its distended mouth, from which emanated a terrible noise, an inhuman groan or shrill howling wind.20 Freud’s interpre­tation of the Gorgon’s petrifying visage as the mythological prototype for a lethal or castrating femininity reduces the gorgoneion to the sight of a genital face.21 A face that confuses and interferes with categories of appearance: human and bestial, perceptual and carnal, pyretic and repugnant. Yet it is not only the vision but also the uncanny acousmatic utterance of the gorgoneion that horrifies. Accusing the Covid19 face mask of being a muzzle is the ludicrous dissimulation of a political ruse, but the mendacious hysteria and conspiracy-fuelled outrage that focus on the mask ironically accord it a power of horror, darkening the acoustic mirror of the self. Perhaps in the culture war over the mask, it is more appropriate not to attempt to dispel this horror but to further inflict it on the mask’s opponents. Like the gorgoneion the Covid19 face mask can be a magical weapon as much as a practical shield.22 Bewitching as well as bothering, in its feral associative power of threat and dread and panic, the face mask bequeaths an unpersonal and phantasmal visage to this era, leaving its atomic shadow in the roaring darkness of our pandemic. 


Notes

1 Robert Chambers, The King in Yellow, Wordsworth, London 2010, p. 32.
2 Alice Rawsthorn, ‘Alissa Eckert on designing the ‘spiky blob’ Covid-19 medical illustration’ (interview with Elissa Eckert), Wallpaper, 26 September, 2020 https://www.wallpaper.com/design/design-emergency-alissa-eckert-designs-covid-19-illustration accessed Nov 19, 2020.
3 Cara Giaimo, ‘The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World’, New York Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/health/coronavirus-illustration-cdc.html accessed Nov 19, 2020; see also; and Ben Davis, ‘Why the Centers for Disease Control’s Creepy Illustration of the Coronavirus is Such an Effective Work of Biomedical Art’, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/cdc-biometical-art-1822296 accessed Nov 19, 2020
4 Giaimo, 2020.
5 Rawsthorn, 2020.
6 Rawsthorn, 2020.
7 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde, Norton Critical Editions, New York, 2020.
8 Fantastic Voyage, dir. Richard Fleischer, 20th Century Fox, 1966. The fictional science of this film involves an ichthyology submarine and its crew (medical and military) being miniaturised to microbe size and injected into the bloodstream of a comatose scientist to carry out surgery on an otherwise inoperable blood clot in that scientist’s brain. The backstory to this Jules Verne-like adventure is cold war politics and global military-industrial espionage. The US and the Soviet Union have both been working on the plot premise’s miniaturisation technology; and the patient, who is the only person with key breakthrough knowledge about the technology, is comatose after an assassination attempt, presumably by the Russians, during his escape to the west. The cold war politics are sustained through the story by the plotting of a double agent in the crew attempting to sabotage the mission and who is, in the climax, consumed by white blood cells. The medical intervention in an individual patient’s body is an unmistakable analogy for the body politic resisting foreign agents.
9 Haruki Murakami, After Dark, trans. Jay Rubin, Vintage Books, London, 2008, p. 51.
10 On the complex etymology and functions of the veil see Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, Berg, Oxford and New York,1999, pp.6-11.
11 See Akira Mizuta Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2005.
12 Among the extensive literature on the semiotics and theology of the Byzantine icon, see Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, (trans. Rico Franses), Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005, pp. 69-127.
13 On the apparelled face see Marion Zilio, Faceworld: The Face in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Robyn Mackay, Polity, Cambridge 2020, pp. 37-52.
14 Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp.4-24 and pp. 47-74.
15 Perhaps the most egregiously hypocritical example of this ability to broadcast a complaint of being muzzled was US Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in the House of Representatives railing against the vote on the second impeachment of Trump. Her speech—nationally televised through multiple media outlets live on 13 January 2021—was delivered while wearing (under protest) a black face mask on which was printed in white capitals ‘CENSORED’—although the word was at times obscured from the TV camera by the chamber’s microphone (and PA system) into which she was barking.
16 Jean-Pierre Vernant, ‘Death in the Eyes: Gorgo, Figure of the Other’, in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. Froma I. Zeitlin, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991, pp. 121-122.
17 On the gorgon in general see The Medusa Reader, eds. Marjorie Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, Routledge, New York and London, 2003; David Leeming, Medusa in the Mirror of Time, Reaktion Books, London 2013.
18 Euripides, from Ion, trans. Ronald Frederick Willetts, in Garber and Vickers, pp. 16-19.
19 Homer, from The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore, in Garber and Vickers, pp. 9-10.
20 Vernant, 1991, pp. 134-138.
21 Freud from ‘Medusa’s Head’ and ‘The Infantile Genital Organisation’, trans. James Strachey, in in Garber and Vickers, pp. 84-86; see also Julia Kristeva, The Severed Head: Capital Visions, trans. Jody Gladding, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, pp. 28-46.
22 A heroic exemplar of this semiotic, acousmatic and affective transposition of the gorgoneion is the ski mask or balaclava adopted by the members of Pussy Riot, notably in their “Punk Prayer” thirty-second pop-up performance in front of the altar of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, 21 February 2012. (For unedited footage go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN5inCayfnM ; for the music addition go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1s-ZN2yZzWw .) Jeffrey Taylor provides a detailed translation and commentary on the lyrics, pointing out the performance’s anti-Putin reputation is a portion only of the song’s corrosive attack on the alliance of church and state in Putin’s regime: ‘What Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” Really Said’, The Atlantic, Nov 9, 2012 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/what-pussy-riots-punk-prayer-really-said/264562/ accessed Nov 19, 2020. Needless to say, their ski mask/balaclava ironically adopted the anonymity of the terrorist, thief, hijacker and executioner; ironically because the identities of the band (notably the three unmasked in a glass cage in court) quickly became international currency during the reporting on their trial in July and August of 2012, and their sentencing to two years gaol in labour camps that were former gulags. Like the Guy Fawkes mask adopted by Anonymous, derived from the illustrations by David Lloyd for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, Pussy Riot’s knitted hood subsequently became a transnational emblem and brand. See Caitlin Bruce, ‘The Balaclava as Affect Generator: Free Pussy Riot Protests and Transnational Iconicity’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol 12, 2015 – Issue 1, pp 42-62.


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