Friday, October 07, 2022

The Subject Supposed to Care: On Masking, Conforming, and The Guilty Remnant

To wear a mask in a store, bus, classroom, or other public space is now to be in a small, and dwindling minority, as much as this might vary from place to place. Aside from a few holdouts, doctors offices, the place where I get my haircut, and so on, there are no mandates requiring masks anymore. That it is a minority, and a choice, is not the way that it often appears, at least to those who do not wear masks.

One thing that I have heard, and others who still wear masks hear from time to time, is the assertion, "You do not have to wear those anymore" by some bystander. Sometimes this is truly meant to be helpful, as if someone thinks we have not received the news. Underlying this correction is the unstated claim that the only reason anyone would ever wear a mask is if they were made to do so. It can only be compliance and not cooperation. What is more interesting, as the tweet above indicates, is that there is a strange tendency to interpret mask wearing as not just compliance but conformity. People wearing masks are see as sheepishly obeying rules that do not exist, and conforming to a community that is non-existent. There may, in some contexts, and situations, be some social pressure to wear a mask, but given the overall numbers that pressure would seem so small as to be meaningless. What else explains the couples where one person, usually a woman, wears a mask while the other, usually a man, does not? 

Many people have interpreted this reaction, and the hostility to mask wearing as the acting out of a guilty conscience. People do not want to be reminded of the pandemic in the first place, and on top of this, to be reminded that they could be doing more, or something, to stop its spread. Almost inadvertently "mask wearers" have become a kind of "Guilty Remnant" from The Leftovers. The Leftovers is show more people should be talking about, especially now. It takes place after 2% of the worlds global population disappears suddenly one day. The show deals with the ramifications of this traumatic event. The Guilty Remnant as they call themselves are a cult of sorts, dedicated to not letting society return to business as usual. They wear white, stalk survivors of the disappeared, and smoke copious amounts of cigarettes as if to underscore the transient and random nature of death. If we could all go at any moment why not light up? Masking could be interpreted as a refusal to let the world move on. However, there are two important differences between our world and the show. In the world of The Leftovers, no one has really moved on, everyone is struggling to make sense of an inexplicable event. In our world we have been trying to move on since before the pandemic even started. Second, in the world of The Leftovers the event was traumatic, instant, but it is over. The US still records four hundred deaths a day.

A scene from The Leftovers 

Masking could also be understood as an uncomfortable reminder of not just the ongoing pandemic but our overall dependency on others. One of the traumatic effects of the pandemic, at least on life in the USA, was the sudden recognition that none of us are "kingdoms within a kingdom," that our lives are dependent upon countless others, truckers, warehouse workers, cooks, dishwashers, etc. that for the most part remain out of sight and out of mind. The mask is a symbol of our species being, that we share the same world and live together even as we try to tell ourselves we live in isolation and separation. Which is not to say that the virus affects us all equally, the entire history of our response to the virus, from the uneven access to vaccines, to the spotty protections offered by such things as working from home, which protected a small number at the expense of many more. 

I would like to offer a third interpretation. In order to do so we must historicize the pandemic, and our response to it a little bit, at the very beginning, in year one before the vaccines were even developed, there were many calls to return to normal at any cost, that the cure should not become worse than the disease. There was an almost ghoulish demand to sacrifice lives at the alter of the economy. That is not what we are dealing with now. What is striking about the contemporary restoration of normal is that it is less ideological, less a political project, than the insistence of persistent force of necessity. No one says that we are sacrificing lives to restore the economy anymore, ghouls are at least honest, but with a shrug we just proclaim that nothing else can be done. Mandates are dropped because of the resistance it elicits from customers, the same with vaccination requirements, everything is left to a choice. We become kingdoms within a kingdom even in the face of pandemic that would remind us otherwise.

Previously, on this blog (and elsewhere) I argue that capitalism can be understood as an institutionalization of Spinoza's formula of "seeing the better and doing the worse."  We often know what the right thing to do is, but we are confronted by the necessity of doing otherwise because it will help us keep our job, make it possible to buy what we need. The pandemic is particular instantiation of this, as academic administrators drop vaccine mandates out of the fear that enrollments will decline, stores drop mask mandates because it will threaten business, and so on. Some of the people in these situations know that they are doing the worse. Of course seeing the better and doing the worse is difficult, it creates a constant schism. It is better to just do the worse and claim nothing better is possible. You see the better and do the worse long enough, you lose sight of the better. 

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