Unmasked (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 36)
This is the thirty-sixth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH
By Kimberly Juanita Brown
The United States is unmasked. Like the videos of white supremacists marching down public streets armed and angry, the incessant images of white women white-woman-ing, and the streamlined indifference emanating from the White House, we are seeing, in real time, the façade dissipate. What is left in its place is the “second sight” W.E.B. Du Bois offers as the violent navigation of blackness-amid-white supremacy.[i] Be it the individual refusal of a layer of protection or a temporary acquiescence to the reality of the viral droplets in the air we all breathe, the mask, as we know it, is off.
“I know your kind,” the protagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian says to Sproule, the unfortunate survivor of a battle under a captain named “White.” “What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.”[ii] Unmasked in all of its viral isms (race, gender, class, citizenship, ability, etc.) the visual presence of face masks to thwart the transmission of the coronavirus (and a particular violent resistance to wearing them) represents a toxicity that must be denied. And so it goes: in grocery stores, town halls, parks, pharmacies, and everywhere in between, bad actors emerge, spewing out all of the sickness within. [iii]
Picture one scene: June 9, 2020, a Board of Supervisors meeting in Orange County, CA to discuss the face mask mandate. The people (almost exclusively white) are not pleased. A woman stands at the microphone, reading from a piece of paper. “You are kneeling,” she says, “on the necks of the people, and you are continuing to act in a thuggish manner.”[iv] She is met with applause from the crowd. It is certainly not the first time, and it will not be the last time a white person has used black death as the symbolic reference point to advance a ridiculous and dangerous demand. The meeting takes place fifteen days after George Floyd’s videotaped killing by Derek Chauvin, the man so certain of his power he doesn’t even bother to take his hands out of his pockets to steady himself during the act. I know your kind…
The mask order was rescinded two days later.
There is something visceral about the refusal to place a protective barrier across the mouth and nose, to disregard specific advice from the scientific community, and to do so in the name of “freedom” or “just because.” In the barrage of images on social media and via news feeds all over the U.S. there is the jarring, disruptive visage of the figure averse to acknowledging that a deadly virus is killing hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. For this figure, denial functions as a route through and around what was taken for granted, namely, that death happens elsewhere; it happens to others; and they are in control of life and death. For these figures, they want their normal back the same way that they want their country back—without delay and devoid of accountability.
“I’ve developed an aversion to that word normal,” Dionne Brand writes. “Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal…who would one have to be to sit in that normal restfully, to mourn it, or desire its continuance?”[v] You might be someone another would describe as wrong…all the way through.
What is there to see in the violent resistance to wearing a mask in public spaces where other people dwell, work, live, and move about? Everything. It only seems like an odd pandemic anomaly, yet it speaks to a much longer history of ruination—a centering of white supremacy that is, like Sproule’s arm, full of puss and excreting an infection he will not acknowledge is killing him.
But it is, it is, it is.
[i] “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois writes, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, 2.
[ii] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, Vintage International, 1985, 66.
[v] Dionne Brand, On Narrative, Reckoning, and the Calculus of Living and Dying, The Star https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2020/07/04/dionne-brand-on-narrative-reckoning-and-the-calculus-of-living-and-dying.html
Kimberly Juanita Brown is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. She is the author of The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary (Duke University Press, 2015). She is currently working on a book about the history of photography and its relationship to antiblackness. Tentatively titled “Mortevivum: Photography and the Politics of the Visual,” the book examines images of the dead in the New York Times in 1994 from four geographies: South Africa, Rwanda, Sudan and Haiti.
July 26th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes