Accepted Paper:

Masking, ambivalence and humour during the Covid-19 pandemic  
Felicia Hughes-Freeland (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

Masking has long been a source of anthropological interest. This paper draws on ritual and performance theory to consider dichotomised responses to mask-wearing in the UK and USA, and explore how visual humour both expresses and transforms that structural opposition.

Paper long abstract:

Masking practices are famously polyvalent in their applications and interpretations. During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic of 2020, mask-wearing, along with social distancing and restricted movement, has been a key measure introduced by governments to contain the spread of infection. Within the crisis of contagion, masking creates a crisis about self and other, individual and society, structure and agency, key oppositions within social theory. Theories from anthropology, ritual, and performance (i.a. Cohen 1993, Napier 1986, Emigh 1996, Gell 1975, Girard 1972, Kertzer 1988), including structure and process, explain masking practices in a pandemic that can be characterised as a long liminality (Van Gennep 1909 then Turner 1966), adding to the sense of ambivalence and dislocation that culminates in masking. The ambivalence around masking as a prophylactic precaution can be elucidated with reference to anthropological approaches to masking practices across the world that call into question of personhood, power, and society, from possession drama in Bali (Emigh 1996) to carnivals and masquerades across Europe (Trentini 2009-17). These existential, metaphysical and political elements help to account for the highly polarised responses to mask-wearing among the public, particularly in the UK and USA. This opposition is modulated by visual humour, which reflects and deflects binary attitudes to masking. This humour can be associated with the carnivalesque as a performative dramatization of ambivalence about the boundaries of the self in relation to society and its power structures. The methodology is a new form of armchair anthropology, in front of the computer screen.

Panel P08a
Mask: the Face of Covid-19
  Session 1