Face Masks and Politics of Vulnerability

Authors: Lukáš Likavčan, Sofia Irene

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we face an urgency to reimagine our central political values, questioning what autonomy and governance mean and might mean. Theorizing fashion and clothing might be a surprisingly relevant exercise in this manner, situating cultural practices into the relational space of planetary metabolic multitude.

In a conversation between Lukáš Likavčan, theorist and The Terraforming guest faculty, and Sofia Irene, an Eindhoven-based fashion design researcher, an exploration of fashion design’s pre-coronavirus obsession with face masks brings us closer to untangling different cultural meanings of clothing and their potential to open up new horizons of political imagination.


The semiotic realm of fashion

Marine Serre Fall/Winter 2019. Courtesy of Marine Serre

Sofia Irene: In my research on survivalist fashion, one example that frequently comes to my mind these days is Marine Serre’s Fall-Winter 2019 video campaign titled Radiation. In this video, we encounter 3D renders of virtual models outfitted in tailored upcycled clothing and aestheticized protective gear—especially face masks—situated in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Paris. One of them is collecting flowers, another one is walking a dog, a third one sits on a checked fabric: first making a picnic on it and then wrapping it as a dress. The landscape burns, the air feels toxic, yet these rendered beings do not cease to make a fashion statement in the decaying world. What are they telling us? Do they protect themselves from outside forces and influences? Or do they protect us from themselves? Or is the statement rather more nuanced?

Lukáš Likavčan: When I saw this campaign for the first time, I read it initially as a statement of militarization of everyday life. As when people from upper social classes drive SUVs because that’s how they purchase a feeling of ontological security. So to me, it occurred as a translation of this concept of security, from the context of cars or gated communities to the one of clothing.

Sofia Irene: Interestingly, the face masks shown in the campaign video are produced by the performance brand R-PUR, and sold as fully functional, luxury accessories with the classic Marine Serre motif of the crescent moon. She produces these as part of the full body ensemble, which she calls “second skin.” Just like skin, the mask can be enclosing, excluding, yet also porous. On top of that, the garment also brings a sense of security and control over how your body is perceived. What is important here is that, as a fashioned message, wearing a luxury mask—or any face covering—communicates that one is a safe, responsible person.

Marine Serre Fall/Winter 2019: All Over Moon "second skin" suit

Lukáš: That is actually a very conservative motif: “I am a responsible citizen.” Of course, it is all good as far as it helps otherwise quite stubborn individuals to change their habits. Yet, face masks are culturally ambiguous and they can be read in many ways, right?

Sofia: Before I answer your question, it is important to differentiate between “clothing” and “fashion.” Fashion is always the phenomenon that enables reading of social behavior, either in smaller or larger communities. Speaking about protective measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the mask is an item of clothing. Note that we are not strictly speaking about the surgical mask, since the surgical mask is protective gear for doctors and healthcare workers. As clothing, a face mask is an item you wear in order to go outside, to the public realm, as a citizen.

Of course, in the realm of contemporary fashion, the face mask became very popular a couple of years ago, covering the face in all its variants, from balaclavas to face veils. It even entered pop-culture vernaculars, with performers such as M¥SS KETA using masks and veils to make their statements on alienation, pseudonymity, and anti-surveillance. Right now, the masked face is a very big motif in fashion, both in the subgenres of fashion and the fashion to come; drawing from sportswear or extreme wear and bringing these genres of clothing into fashion. Fashion is arbitrary and constantly provocative: The influx of an item makes it instantly a subject to commodification, or of placing value where it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Hence even face masks are transformed into commodities, in a Marxist sense; instead of their use value, they become aestheticized objects bearing exchange value.

Still from Marine Serre’s Fall/Winter 2019 video campaign

Yet, in the context of global pandemics, what happens is a design shift, one of purpose. What we value now is not a stylized self anymore. In other words, we can make the differentiation between the stylization of yourself through a face mask and wearing a face mask as an act that aids in crisis mitigation.

Lukáš: It seems then that on top of use value and exchange value, the face mask also exists in a semiotic realm, which brings us into a space of meaning-making of clothing in the context of fashion.

Sofia: Precisely. This meaning-making is always dynamic and unstable. We can differentiate between a face mask as an item that is going to close you off from something, or bring some closure on the street, in a public space, or in the supermarket. And then we can talk about those cultural contexts where the mask is coded as an expression of civic duty, which can be interpreted both in terms of its effectiveness and in terms of its semiotics. A polemical item of defensive dressing, perhaps.

Marine Serre Fall/Winter 2019

Courtesy of Marine Serre


Shell/Shelter: A metabolic gesture

Lukáš: I have a personal account of sorts at this point: A few days before wearing a face mask was made mandatory in the Czech Republic in mid-March, when I walked outside of my flat in Prague with a face mask and entered a grocery store, I suddenly felt like a threat—like someone who was toxic and contagious, judged by how actively people avoided me and scrutinized me from a safe distance. However, my aim was not that much to communicate responsibility, but rather solidarity in good faith, which is actually close to a cultural coding of the face mask in the non-Western context, where it is a fairly uncontroversial item of clothing—especially if we consider China after the SARS epidemic in 2003, when it became an act of politeness to wear a face mask when you feel sick.

Sofia: Yet, whether we talk about responsibility or solidarity, we can still see how the mask approximates a function of a shelter, or even better a shell. Both imply a defense, a closing off, going in. Just the word “shelter” screams of architecture and with clothing being this ever-mobile object, I’d come closer to delineating the face mask as a shell. In addition to the gesture of imminent defense, a shell also elicits a feeling of freedom. Hence, we can see how as an individual garment worn outside, there’s a transformation of a mask into a social object, potentially linking us to other people through the material relations it affords.

A shell affords an aptness to the body without having gained any skill (it is just properly suited for facing the outside). That is a difference between a shell and gear, because gear is linked to a skill, to an ability that is potentialized through the item. That is the moment when the narrative of the face mask breaks; it brings no skill, so it is not gear. It cannot be used to conquer some space or master a situation. As a material shell, it is a preemptive tool of immunization, which leads us from the realm of semiotics to a very biological context.

Images courtesy of Romana Drdova

Lukáš: This brings me to the question of how counterintuitive is the reason to wear a face mask from the liberal, individualist point of view. You do not wear it to protect yourself, but to protect others—even if you have no symptoms of a disease, and you might very well be a completely healthy individual. By doing so, one problematizes one’s own individuality, one’s knowledge and transparency of one’s body to oneself; one places themselves publicly as a vulnerable body. In the philosophical framework I have introduced in my recent book Introduction to Comparative Planetology (2019), such a gesture can be interpreted as a statement of one’s own exteriority. We can call such a moment a metabolic gesture.

These days, we face an almost absolute, external necessity, embodied in the coronavirus. It is an exterior agent that we don’t fully understand, even given our best scientific accounts. It’s an opaque entity, taking part in something that we can, for the sake of the argument, call metabolic multitude, echoing Benjamin Bratton’s introduction to the English translation of Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics (2006). Of course, the virus itself doesn’t have a metabolism. It actually needs other organisms to survive. So it hijacks metabolisms; not only individual metabolisms of the body, but also the social metabolism, which is very easy in the cosmopolitan, globalized world. One line from Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014) offers a surprisingly relevant description of such a situation: “That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”

Sofia: “Hijacking” enables an action that is also ominous, right? The sudden disruption of the social metabolism—the metabolism whose existence we usually take for granted—makes this metabolism finally visible. In response to that, we engage in all these acts of prohibiting something to come into our body, but also out of our body. But first of all, it exposes our vulnerability.

Image courtesy of Romana Drdova

Lukáš: Perhaps not only the vulnerability, but also we are exposed to ourselves as not having the situation of our bodies fully under control. Such a situation of limited control ceases to have its negative connotation. Instead, we can see an emergence of a new frame of reference, a communication of some kind of mutuality. We admit that we are all bodies first, and that these bodies—in the spirit of Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt—become inseparable from their environment.

Sofia: This reminds me of J. G. Ballard, who has given an account of an imagined fashion to come, when he said “one skin too few” in relation to the natural environment and how to navigate through it. And he even adds that “a fully sentient being should wear its nervous system externally.” Here, we also encounter the limits of self-governance, because in the context of face masks, the message is not as simple as communicating a sense of responsibility for your fluids by covering your nose and your mouth. It’s more like damage control, rather than full control of the situation.

Without dismissing the architectural aspect of these inside-outside dynamics in the current situation, the affirmation of vulnerability is also highlighted in how we mitigate the spread of the virus by being sheltered inside. As we become isolated, it is the figure of the shelter that is present once more, as a less malleable form of shielding, compared to the shell. The shell, in this case, acts as a flexible membrane.

Lukáš: On the one hand, one might say that clothing replaces architecture as a means of immunization. Commenting on his famous TV Helmet (1967), Walter Pichler said: “We have regarded clothing as being the first layer of architecture: clothing as the first covering and only then the room.” That statement becomes problematic today, because shelter—as an artifact of nomadic architecture of immunization—is only secondary to shell. In other words, clothing has affordances that cannot be explained architecturally.

On the other hand, there is still an aspect of architectural isolation in quarantine, but in fact, I would argue that we have been more alone before this great isolation, when we were stuck in this illusion of separate subjects with full agency. Now we realize that we are also enmeshed in the metabolic multitude, and we cannot help ourselves to do otherwise. The boundaries of subjectivity are getting very liquid and perforated, and we find ourselves in a state of immersive isolation, when we lose the track over the outside.

Image courtesy of Romana Drdova


Towards a politics of vulnerability

Sofia: Coming back to Marine Serre’s campaign, we see these rendered beings walking around co-existing with an environmental threat, but there’s never this aspect of human interaction or avoidance—either for a good or a bad cause. It’s always this isolated being: as it is walking alone and dressed up, it also becomes an embodiment of a survivalist psyche, one that is motivated by self-affirmation. That’s the statement of securitization, a very neoliberal semiotic operation, pointing at the atomization of society. It’s an affirmation of self-fashioning alienation.

Lukáš: The open question then is: How to avoid these survivalist gestures of securitization from the outside, and instead affirm ourselves as belonging to the outside? Jenna Sutela’s lyrics for Holly Herndon’s track Extreme Love from her latest album PROTO (2019) gain an utmost importance here: “We are completely outside ourselves, and the world is completely inside us.” While writing Introduction to Comparative Planetology, I preferred to think about the first half of the quotation as the central one; with the coronavirus traveling through the bodies of so many fellow humans around the planet, the second half seems to be suddenly more relevant. The question then is: Where to situate individual political agency in this landscape of impersonal, torrential forces?

Prada Dust Bag. Images courtesy Jenny Walton

I believe there are ways to adapt our agency to those many new normals of our era, be it pandemics or climate emergency. Adding to the corpus of recent controversies around Giorgio Agamben’s interventions concerning the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, the notion of political agency I seek is one that would be more faithful to Aristotle’s classification of the human species as political animals (zóon politikon), to the extent to which it will underscore human animality (as recently argued also by artist Terike Haapoja), and thus working towards an understanding of the political from this point of reference.

By wearing a face mask, you publicly announce that the conditions of your existence do not end at the tip of your nose. The metabolic gesture is the acknowledgement that we all are still primarily interrelated intensities of biological mass, not some invincible members of a metaphysical landing party, powered by an ethereal substance called freedom. We are just another species of political animals in the wild, vulnerable vectors of alien particles, and that is where the new notion of political agency can be fostered—in how we bond or withdraw from bondage, in order to elaborate on our own limits; in order to continually update our agency on an ever-changing cosmic background of reality.

Image courtesy of We Give You Good + Umeni pomaha

Sofia: To unpack this, how can we thread these political implications back to the emerging customary laws of face masks, hence going beyond the cultural usage that we see happening as we speak?

Lukáš: If the metabolic multitude becomes the new political arena, this arena is not discursive, but primarily biochemical. That brings a version of political agency I’ve just described, the one that is based around exteriority and vulnerability. However, it does not mean that the political agency based around cultural codes, discursivity, representation, or self-governance is to be completely neglected now. Instead, I believe that oscillations between vulnerability and self-governance will be more frequent in the future, especially when it comes to mitigation and adaptation to climate crisis. What we need is to frame autonomy in the context of vulnerability, so that we understand that rather than giving up autonomy, switching between regimes of vulnerability and self-governance means also switching between different regimes of autonomy.

These two regimes might also correspond to two types of society distinguished by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, where the latter corresponds to a liberal society of “free” individuals, while the former privileges relationality and mutualism. Although Tönnies’ interpretation of Gemeinschaft remains conservative and traditionalist, some environmental thinkers speculate whether it can form the basis of “biological community,” where people are indeed treated primarily as species of animals. I hope such a perspective can also find its non-oppressive, progressive version, aligned with the planetary reality of metabolic multitude.

The second regime of autonomy—one that is related to a progressive version of Gemeinschaft yet to be fully articulated—is based then on an idea of auto-limitation: on exercising freedom by posing limits to yourself, as well as by understanding them and maneuvering between them, and finally also by elaborating on these limits towards new modes of collective existence. For example, we will have to agree on how to impose mechanisms of communal limitation of carbon emission production, or how to frame energy consumption anew, at the level of neighborhoods or municipalities. For this, we need a cultural background that can generate a socio-political consensus on the oscillatory dynamics between the two regimes of autonomy, and practices such as the widespread social acceptance of face masks might be necessary preconditions of this—even if it is true that taken as isolated trends, they remain inconsequential. Face masks do communicate that you pose some limits to yourself; wearing a face mask is a cultural behavior that makes vulnerability socially acceptable. Once we are here, we can open vivid debates on how to build an ethical framework around politics of vulnerability, from the standpoint of the non-oppressive governance of bodies we need.

Cover image: still from Marine Serre’s Fall/Winter 2019 video campaign Radiation

Lukáš Likavčan

Lukáš Likavčan is a researcher and theorist, writing on the philosophy of technology, political ecology, and visual cultures. He teaches at the Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU, Prague, and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, where he also graduated from The New Normal education program in 2018. He is the author of Introduction to Comparative Planetology (Strelka Press, 2019), and a member of Display — Association for Research and Collective Practice, Prague. More info at likavcan.com.

Sofia Irene

Sofia Irene is a design researcher based between Eindhoven and Mexico City. She has a bachelor’s degree in fashion design and is currently coursing the MA Critical Inquiry Lab at Design Academy Eindhoven. She is looking into the forces at play between fashion, popular culture, and politics. While most of her interests at the moment lie in the field of fashion and where it intersects with daily life, she keeps a more pragmatic design practice with her production and e-commerce consultancy.

This essay is part of the Revenge of the Real special project by The Terraforming research program and Strelka Mag. Read more essays here.

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