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.
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41KluMgqE9A
[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41KluMgqE9A
[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 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022

Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Centre, Kyiv) on Putin’s “World War Z” and the West’s deadly “foot-dragging”, via Project Syndicate: “The main feature of this Western condition is constant belatedness. The West has always been too late, incapable of acting ahead and instead just reacting to what has already happened. As a Ukrainian joke went at the time, ‘While the European Union was taking a decision, Russia took Crimea.’ Then as now, Ukrainians wondered, ‘What is the West’s red line? What will compel the West to act instead of waiting and discussing when to intervene?’”

Barbara Wurm on Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol, via Die Welt: “Kvedaravičius unfolded a whole spectrum of visual anthropology over a decade with only three films [Barzakh, Mariupolis, Parthenon]. It now awaits evaluation and exploration. The time will come. The films themselves make possible an infinite immersion in the matter of the world, between dream and reality, horror and everyday life, facts and phenomenal imagology.”

April 5th, 2022
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