What can a mask do? Is it really always the case that masks simply conceal or disguise what lies beneath? This article suggests alternative ways of thinking about the possibilities of masks, and what they might mean for the representation of identity, as well as for the potential of collective political action. Rather than concealing difference, how might the cover of a mask actually allow or permit difference beneath?

Debates in queer and feminist theory persist over the utility, as well as the limitations, of intersectional approaches. Such approaches consider the importance of multiple characteristics, including race, class, gender and others, that affect the ways in which subjects are formed and situated in society. This kind of analysis also considers the meeting points of overlapping systems of oppression. Originally devised by feminists of colour, most notably Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality aims to displace a universal female subject and take proper account of crucial differences other than gender, particularly racial difference1. The representation of these intersecting differences is understood to be politically vital in countering universalising discourse that assumes a subject’s default whiteness, maleness or heterosexuality, amongst other privileged identities.

With its focus on the pragmatic discussion of lived identities and concrete oppression, intersectionality is considered by many to be the most politically productive means of social analysis. Yet even some of the strongest proponents of intersectionality are wary of its limitations: Jasbir Puar, perhaps most notably, shifting from a singularly intersectional approach to one of tension between intersectionality and a Deleuzian theory of assemblage2. The limitations of intersectional analysis that Puar points to include a reductive effort of epistemological capture with regards to identity, which she describes as ‘premusing and producing static epistemological renderings of categories themselves across historical and geopolitical locations’3. An analysis of assemblages moves away from the representation of stable characteristics and vectors of oppression, and towards action, events or meetings taking place between bodies. Assemblages emphasise motion, incompleteness and the destabilization of specific descriptions of identities. To cite Puar, assemblages demand consideration of the limits of representation and of ‘what is prior to and beyond what gets established4’.

While both intersectionality and assemblages have their own benefits and restrictions, one can convincingly argue of the violence of such stabilising claims to identity. Just as unacknowledged universalism can erase difference, attempts to describe and define identities can obfuscate lived reality and erase nuances by reducing them to categories and types; sometimes to little more than metaphor.

Even in queer discourse, with its efforts to dismantle rigid boundaries around identity categories, the treatment of individual characteristics or behavior can often become stabilized until they are little more than metaphorised linguistic play. By way of example, consider the treatment of “transgender„ as symbolizing multiplicity, subversion and a proliferation of gendered possibilities aligned with queerness on the one hand, and “transsexual„, as representing a kind of political stasis, assimilation and complicity with normative, essentialist structures on the other. This division is often reproduced, and must be recognized as a deceit that has little to do with individual lives or experiences. This supposed opposition certainly does not speak to situated realities, or allow for the complexities of individual lives, but is rather a metaphor that valorises ‘one’ identity category over the ‘other’. At worst, these sorts of strategies could be understood as producing divisions that could only be welcomed by a neo-liberalist agenda: in this case, the division of a community of shared experiences or affinities with an impressive heritage of radical political action. Attempting to name further and further specific differences simply creates more distinct categories, rather than allowing for difference itself. This sort of proliferation of categories can then become a barrier to political movements that had not previously required self-sameness, but simply a common goal or common enemy. Solidifying identity, then, may create divisions and prevent collective action. Queer discourses, despite their wariness of rigid identities, can also sustain them and in doing so may erode the possibilities of difference itself. Rather than providing the liberation of marginalized subjects through greater mainstream visibility or access to political representation, attempts to represent the complexities contained by identities may also obscure and constrain.

Like Crenshaw’s intersectionality, Beatriz Preciado’s transfeminism is also concerned with the displacement and deterritorialisation of a universal female subject position with multiplicity and difference. Yet rather than intersectional analysis, Preciado calls for a process of disidentifications or strategic identifications5. Preciado shares Puar’s concerns over the difficulties or even the impossibilities of representing difference, as well as the limitations posed by representation itself. For Preciado, real ‘differences are not ‘representable’ because they are ‘monstrous’6. That is, difference is monstrous to representation precisely because it cannot be elucidated or tamed by language.

In a recent piece of writing, ‘Transfeminist Marcos’7, Preciado draws on the example of the Zapatista movement’s use of masks and shared common names, drawing comparisons with trans practices that she claims also destabilise the notion of an essential name or face. The Zapatistas (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), the armed indigenous resistance of Chiapas, Mexico, are known for wearing balaclavas or ski masks to cover their faces. In a recent communication, they describe the ‘thousands of faceless men and women’ who took part in their uprising in Southeastern Mexico in January 19948. For the Zapatistas, masks are not solely used to conceal identities – that is, to obscure – but also to produce meaning, by way of fostering a communality of purpose and collective action. In accordance with the collectivity created by their use of masks, the Zapatistas insist that their most famous public figure, Subcomandante Marcos, was not an individual but a ‘character’, ‘a ruse or a hologram’9.The name of ‘Marcos’ was not private but communal. It was shared by many individuals who took on Marcos’ mask, and is taken on by Preciado herself as she signs her piece ‘Beatriz Marcos Preciado’10. Again, this use of masks serves more than one purpose. While it offers protection against the very real threat of violence or assassination for anyone in the role of a leader, it also contributes to privileging collective action over individual leaders, and perhaps most importantly, it creates the threat of multiplicity. The Zapatista “cannot be killed, as any individual can be replaced with another willing to take on the mask; even the mask of a name can be worn by another”11.

Preciado links the Zapatistas’ use of masks and shared names to diverse trans practices such as changing given names and altering facial appearance, either through drag performance or the use of hormones. All of these practices present a political threat to the idea of stable identity maintained both by the use of private names and by the belief that a face is able to represent an individual’s nature or essence.

To consider the mask, it is also important to reflect on what it is commonly thought of as concealing: the face. Symbolically loaded, the face is a primary marker of identity often considered to reveal an essential truth or character. Even before biometrics consider the portrait, the mug shot, or even the death mask. Masks, unsurprisingly then, are similarly laden with meaning. Masks or face coverings are often seen as symbolizing threat; the threat of war, for example, is conveyed by the image of a gas mask, as the threat of contagion is conveyed by surgical masks. They are also often understood as a political threat, with many states banning the wearing of the Muslim veil in public places, or outlawing the wearing of masks during protests12. Masks can represent the threat of political collectivities (whether e.g. Arab, Muslim or anti-capitalist, anarchist) against neo-liberal individualism. If difference is monstrous because it cannot be represented, difference is often gestured towards by conjuring the figure of the monster. Those who wear masks appear monstrous in their difference; the very fact of being masked can thus be deployed to denote the wearer as adversarial, anti-social, a ‘bad citizen’.

If masks are often seen as a threat, what sort of threat could a mask pose to identity? Rather than either simply concealing, or rendering difference as uniform, I ask whether masks can in some ways permit difference. If difference is monstrous and not straightforwardly representable, could the cover of a mask allow difference precisely by virtue of avoiding stultifying efforts to capture, elucidate or represent the truth of the face?

While masks are often thought of as misleading, a deception or disguise, in promising to reveal an essential truth the face itself can be dishonest. Masks, I would suggest, do not hide any such ‘truth’. Indeed, such false promises of knowledge presented by the face can be much more deceptive than masking. Unlike the face, masks do not promise to express any such essence, neither do they demand the elucidation of identity that the face often can. Rather, the mask can erase the demands of the face that pretends to be an authentic marker of identity. If masks are usually seen as preventing intimacy, relations or genuine encounters, they could conversely be seen as belying the very possibility of a complete encounter. Masks reveal that there is never an unadulterated face, that the face is always layered with cultural signification.

Masks do not necessarily invite the question of who is wearing them (a question of representation), so much as that of why they might be wearing them (a question of action). As such, in addition to the question of how to represent shared lived experiences, one might also ask how to engage politically around such questions. To this end, I ask whether a mask might allow a collectivity of political action without demanding sameness in what lies beneath. Could masks be a way to avoid the insistence on shared identity for common political action without reverting to universalism? Could they perhaps be a way of embracing monstrous difference without trying to flatten out or explain it? Rather than concealing difference or insisting on any uniformity beneath, could masks permit difference?

My purpose in this essay has been to suggest ways in which the motif of the mask could pose threats to identity, as well as symbolizing tensions between attempts to represent differences and allowing difference itself. I also ask how masks can foster common political engagement that does not demand sameness. Rather than seeking answers to the many questions I have posed, I simply suggest the mask as a useful motif for exploring these issues.

I do not want to suggest a singular meaning for the mask, but rather a powerful and productive multiplicity of meaning. Masks perhaps speak more to assemblages than intersectional approaches, but importantly they do not preclude aspects of intersectionality. In fact, they can represent the very tension between these two approaches. As much as masks could be seen to resonate with Preciado’s call for disidentifications, or moves away from identity, they could also represent her interest in strategic identifications. Identities themselves could be worn as masks, necessarily de-essentialised, able to be shed and held at a distance. Masks can be put on and they can be removed. Their potential temporariness could be seen as strategic: a move away from universalism, while simultaneously recognizing inessentiality13. Masks are not watertight, but leaky. Differences beneath masks may be evident in spite of partial concealment, as the Zapatistas write: ‘one day Marcos’ eyes were blue, another day they were green, or brown, or hazel, or black – all depending on who did the interview and took the picture’14. Finally, masks can also be the symbol of political collectivity, the balaclava that fosters common action around shared beliefs or affinities. The use of masks in this sense points towards collective action based on common aims rather than identity. Masks do not deny difference, but suggest a basis for collective action along the lines of affinity rather than a shared, essential identity that those who partake in political action must live up to. Like the Zapatistas who seek to move ‘from the mocking of the other to the celebration of difference’15, masks do not universalize but allow common action through difference.

In considering the possibilities of facelessness, we might not erase but rather allow for a collective composed of difference.

 

  • 1. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” In: The University of Chicago Legal Forum Volume: Feminism in the Law: Theory, Practice and Criticism, pp. 139–167.
  • 2. Jasbir K. Puar, “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism,” 2007. In: Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press. Jasbir K. Puar, “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory”, 2012. In: philoSOPHIA 2/2012, (1), pp. 49–66.
  • 3. Puar, 2011, p. 54.
  • 4. Puar, 2011, p. 63.
  • 5. See particularly her 2003 article “Multitudes queer: Notes pour une politique des ‘anormaux’.” In: Multitudes 2/2003, (12), pp. 17–25.
  • 6. Preciado, 2003, p. 12. Translation from the French my own: “Ces différences ne sont pas ‘représentables’ car elles sont ‘monstrueuses’”.
  • 7. “Transfeminist Marcos”, 2014, Bully Bloggers: http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/transfeminist-marcos-by-be...
  • 8. This use of masks often results in the reductive view of the Zapatista movement as one that is uncomplicated anarchist in its politics. Citation from EZLN, 2014, “Between Light and Shadow”: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2014/05/27/between-light-and-shadow/.
  • 9. EZLN, 2014.
  • 10. It should be acknowledged that Preciado faced criticism from some who saw her writing on the Zapatista movement and her taking on the name of Marcos as appropriative. See the comments following her text on Bully Bloggers for details.
  • 11. Indeed, after the assassination of Compañero Galeano in May 2014, the Zapatistas announced that the ‘figure’ of Marcos was dead. (‘We think that it is necessary for one of us to die so that Galeano lives’.) In order “that Galeano lives and death takes not a life but just a name”, the figure of Marcos appeared, announced his own death and returned, announcing “Good early morning compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano”, to which the crowd responded “‘We are all Galeano!’” (EZLN, 2014).
  • 12. Banning the wearing of masks during protests was discussed by a meeting of the UK government’s national emergencies committee (COBRA) in 2011.
  • 13. Space will not permit exploration of this here, but it is interesting to consider Preciado’s figure of the decapitated philosopher in Testo Junkie (2008, Editions Grasset: Paris) as a reaction against unacknowledged universalism – the decapitation performed by taking testosterone, an intervention of difference.
  • 14. EZLN, 2014.
  • 15. EZLN, 2014.