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, from 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 fatal 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, radiating 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 vigilance 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 And 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 and strenuous 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 medical 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 Covid-19 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 diagram of needles in arms next to graphs showing vaccinated percentages of populations has 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 the virus. 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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 rather a voice—as the untampered and transparent agent of command, of affect and auto-affection. This acoustic mirror is, even at a masquerade, the stable ground of self-recognition. But it 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, in one of it most notorious manifestations, 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. The women are betrayed not by word of mouth but from the vagina—which in Diderot’s story, unlike the alimentary hole of the mouth, cannot lie about its appetite.14
The conspiracy theorists call the Covid-19 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 Covid-19 mask instead throws the voice, and in a darkly oracular rather than oratorical cast. Detached from the face and the 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 an 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 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 mask is symptomatic of something beyond (or beneath) any dispute with the straightforward medical facts of its value in public health. Their 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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.