The Mask vs The Uniform

24TH May 1916



As the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire night-club where he and his fellow Dadaists regularly worked their audience into a fury, Hugo Ball was no stranger to the power to shock, but even he was unprepared for the horrific, abstract masks created by Marcel Janco for the performers to wear in the show. Ball wrote in his diary on this date, ‘They are reminiscent of the Japanese or Ancient theatre, yet they are wholly modern’:

‘They are designed to make their effect at a distance and in the relatively small space of the cabaret the result is astonishing. We were all there when Janco arrived with the masks, and each of us put one on. The effect was strange. Not only did each mask seem to demand the appropriate costume; it also called for a quite specific set of gestures, melodramatic and even close to madness. Although five minutes earlier none of us had had the remotest idea of what was to happen, we were soon draped and festooned with the most unlikely objects, making the most outlandish movements, each out-inventing the other. The dynamism of the masks was irresistible.’

‘Inspired by their Protean individuality’, Ball says, from this simple set of glued and painted cardboard cut-outs the Dadaists created entire personalities for these masks, improvising dances to fit their forms. Or rather, they gave themselves over to the personalities they found within them, for the mask is always productive and efficacious, containing and giving rise to an identity that subsumes its wearer.

‘It is a fact’, Roger Caillois opines, ‘that all mankind wears or has worn a mask’. This accessory is commoner than the lever, bow, harpoon or plough, he says: ‘whole peoples have been ignorant of the most ordinary tools. They knew the mask’. The mask, of course is central to the festival, representing in its rituals the gods, spirits, and ancestors who first created the world. As Caillois explains (and as Ball had already discovered) the mere act of putting the mask on causes one to be possessed in turn by it:

‘The eruption of phantoms and strange powers terrifies and captivates the individual. He temporarily reincarnates, mimics and identifies with these frightful powers and soon, maddened and delirious, really believes that he is the god as who he disguised himself, cleverly or crudely in the beginning. The situation has now become reversed. It is he who inspires fear through his possessing this terrible and inhuman power.’

Thus the individual is transformed, becoming prey to the powers that animate the mask. ‘No doubt the wearer of the mask is not deceived at the beginning’, Caillois says, ‘But he rapidly yields to the intoxication that seizes him. His mind enthralled, he becomes completely abandoned to the disorder excited in him by his own mimicry’.

That the loss of the sacred function of masks in the west was also the loss of an entire world view was perhaps never made clearer than in the 15th December 2014 Paris sale of Navajo relics. Having failed to legally stop the auction of seven sacred masks the Navajo nation was forced to travel to Paris to bid on them so they could be returned to Arizona and dismantled and buried. As Rex Lee Jim, vice-president of the nation, explained, these were not works of art to be displayed but were instead ‘living and breathing beings’. In the west the mask as sacred being and force was replaced by the mask as secrecy and covering. Mikhail Bakhtin traces the change to the Romantic era when, ‘stripped of its original richness’ the mask acquired a different meaning and use: ‘now the mask hides something, keeps a secret, deceives’. The Romantic mask, he says, loses its regenerative powers to become something somber, hiding ‘a terrible vacuum’ or ‘nothingness’.

This is precisely how the secretive mask of the hacktivist group Anonymous was perceived by power. Watching a live BBC News interview in 2011 with the ‘Occupy London’ protestors camped outside St. Paul’s I saw the presenter question several spokespersons. She reserved her greatest scorn for the figure in the Anonymous mask, asking ‘Why are you wearing that? What have you got to hide? This is a democracy, why won’t you show your face so we can see who you are?’. She missed the point entirely. This was an ancient not modern use of the mask: it wasn’t hiding an identity, it was asserting one.

It’s true that Anonymous had in part adopted the mask for privacy reasons. Given the famously intimidatory tactics of the Church of Scientology who filmed and harassed protestors, wearing a mask was a useful defence, but any mask could have done the job: what’s important is that Anonymous all chose the same one. Thus in using this mask the St Paul’s protestor wasn’t hiding, they were asserting their membership of Anonymous and their identification with its project. But they were also asserting something else. Because even if the protestor had taken the mask off neither the presenter nor any politician would have known who he was. He was already anonymous within the existing system and the mask served to unify all those like him: those who were unknown and excluded; those whose individual lives, opinions and needs were irrelevant to the representatives who claimed to speak for them; those who formed precisely that 99% that the Occupy movement protested on behalf of. Taking its rightful place in the public carnival of protest, the Anonymous mask transformed the existing anonymity of isolated individuals into a collective, positive force and shared identity whose expression clearly rattled the authorities.

The mask, of course, is of Guy Fawkes smiling. It is the symbol now of Anonymous in both its online and real-life existence and the brand-image too of global protest. Its story is well-known. It was derived from ‘V’, the anarchist-terrorist lead in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic strip V For Vendetta, first published 1982-85. In a future Fascist Britain with a population controlled by concentration camps, bullying police and Orwellian surveillance, V appears, to destabilize the system, blowing up the Houses of Parliament, assassinating key politicians and planning first for chaos, and then for what comes after – anarchism. This would be the freedom of each individual and their control over their own life: a passage through the chaos of ‘the land-of-take-what-you-want’ to the freedom of ‘the land-of-do-as-you-please’. V is no freedom fighter. He isn’t fighting to give people freedom, he’s fighting for the chance for people to discover and realize their own freedom.

V’s appeal to Anonymous and the troll-hackers is fourfold. Firstly, V is a comic character, and comics are cool. Secondly, V promotes a freedom from government control that appeals to the libertarian culture of the internet and to Anons. Thirdly, V is a hacker. More important than his explosive talents is his targeting of the systems of information, surveillance and communication. He secretly controls the government computer system ‘Fate’, taking down the CCTV cameras and hacking into the television station to broadcast his own message. Fourthly, we can all be V. His main appeal is his anonymity. We never learn who he is and his companion Evey refuses to unmask him in death realizing his identity is irrelevant: only the idea he represents is important. She dons his mask and continues his work and we understand anyone can do this; anyone can incarnate that idea. As V says, in a movie-clip widely shared and quoted by Anonymous, ‘behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea … and ideas are bulletproof’.

The 2006 film stripped the story of its ideological elements, raising Alan Moore’s ire, but it did add one important element, changing the ending so that masks are handed out to the public to give the image of a crowd of Vs taking to the street and overwhelming the police. As Moore commented in February 2012:

‘When the film was made during the peak period of anti-terrorist legislation the golden touch of Hollywood was, it seemed, sufficiently persuasive for the authorities to permit a massed horde of extras dressed as the nation’s most famous terrorist to cavort riotously in Parliament Square. I don’t think one need subscribe to any quasi-mystical theories about how the conceptual world of ideas can affect the substantial world of everyday experience in order to agree that, in retrospect, this could be seen as practically begging for it … It would seem that the various tectonic collapses deep in the structure of our economic and political systems have triggered waves of kinetic energy which are rolling through human populations rather than through their usual medium of sea-water. It also seems our character’s charismatic grin has provided a ready-made identity for these highly motivated protestors, one embodying resonances of anarchy, romance, and theatre that are well-suited to contemporary activism, from Madrid’s Indignados to the Occupy Wall Street movement.’

It was an image that appealed to 4Chan and Anonymous. As a ‘hacker group’ Anonymous did two things that were new. In contrast to every group in hacker history they advertised themselves widely and they opened up their membership. Earlier groups such as the Legion of Doom depended upon relative secrecy and limited public knowledge of their existence and activities, whilst membership was tightly controlled and the default position was suspicion. Anonymous is a collective but it promotes itself and its ideology as a brand, aiming for global attention. Though there are key individuals and core groups working within it, it puts forward a collective identity, both covering itself and continually expanding and renewing its numbers and operations through an open invitation for anyone to join. And everyone can. It’s as simple as putting on a mask.

The mask, of course, may be figural as well as literal. As many have noted, anonymity online is easy. The open nature of the internet and of platforms and postings means that individuals can hide behind any username or pseudonym they want or create whatever identity, history or personality they desire – a situation famously satirized by Peter Steiner’s 5th July 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker showing two dogs by a computer with one explaining, ‘on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog’. For critics, such systems are an open invitation to abuse, and abuse them trolls do, using anonymity, false email and IP addresses, fake identities and fake opinions to wind-up, confuse, abuse and exploit others, all apparently for their own sadistic pleasure.

The moral reaction has been regular and predictable. Since the 2010 decision by American Journalism Review to stop anonymous online comments a range of websites such as ESPN, the Huffington Post and USA Today have banned anonymity or closed comments sections altogether. In August 2013 the New York state legislature even debated a bill – S.6779 (and A.8668), labeled the ‘internet protection act’ – which would have required web administrators to remove anonymous posts from ‘social networks, blogs, forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages’. In May 2016 the UK government launched their ‘GOV.UK Verify’ scheme – ‘the new way to prove who you are online’ – enabling people with authenticated identities to access a range of services. Meanwhile others campaign for a morally-ordered, well-behaved web such as The Guardian’s rather limp April 2016 attempt to debate ‘The Web We Want’ and the self-righteous fury of the tabloid-press’ ongoing anti-troll campaign.

In fact neither legislation, government schemes or press campaigns are needed, for the entire thrust of the internet today is towards confirmed identity and away from the chaos and license of anonymity and fakery. Signing up for internet and phone services requires a real identity, but many online services and platforms have attempted to enforce a ‘real names’ policy, including Google+ and Facebook. Even this, however, isn’t necessary. As Bruce Schneier writes in Data and Goliath, data is a by-product of all our computing. Everything we do creates data (much of it metadata) which can be harvested, stored, correlated and algorithmically analyzed This constitutes a vast, legal corporate surveillance of every user to which we can add the huge scale of government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden which includes the direct hacking into the internet’s cable infrastructure and remote monitoring of technologies.

The end result is that, whether we like it or not, companies, organizations and governments have developed and continue to build an electronic avatar representing our complete behavioural activity. Every service provider, platform or company we interact with creates, stores, analyses and employs a digital simulacrum of ourselves, usually in order to customize services, aid decisions and better target advertising but the long-term civil rights implications are profound. Credit company scores already have a significant impact upon decisions about people’s lives, but when the digital simulacrum can provide a 360-degree account of each individual’s life, going beyond their finances and consumer purchases to questions of health, personal and familial relationships, political and other opinions, sexual proclivities and one’s taste in pornography, then we could have reason to be very worried.

To date legal limitations and the natural competitiveness of companies provide some protection against data retention and use and the amalgamation of databases, but we shouldn’t expect either to last as bulwarks as the corporate and governmental benefits of bringing this information together are too great. Our future is one in which we will exist within fine-grained, individual databases, sorted into informational classes with opportunities and decisions based in each context on the irrefutable facts about our lives. For the digital simulacrum will be truer than true: your doctor will no longer need to ask you how many units of alcohol you drink a week, they’ll have access to the receipts. On 23rd February 2015 The New Yorker published a cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez featuring two dogs watching someone on a computer and commenting, ‘Remember when, on the internet, nobody knew who you were?’.

This is a movement, however, that we can resist. We can, putting it simply, choose the mask over the uniform.

In Man, Play and Games Roger Caillois contrasts the mask with the uniform. ‘The uniform is almost the exact opposite of the mask, and always symbolizes a type of authority founded on entirely opposing principles’. The uniform is also a disguise ‘but it is official, permanent, regulated and, above all, leaves the face exposed. It makes the individual a representative and a servant of an impartial and immutable rule, rather than the delirious prey of contagious vehemence’. The face of order and of authority reveals ‘nothing but calm and rationality, the face of a person specially charged with administering the law’. Whereas the mask disguises identity, the uniform proclaims it, albeit not the identity of an individual, but that of a servant of order and a subject before the law that they uphold.

Everything we do online either adds to the mask or the uniform. The take-off of the selfie, for example, has allowed each of us to embark on the systematic self-papparization of our own lives, documenting our to-die-for fashion sense, looks, moods, sexual appeal, travel, experiences, relationships and activities to our own endlessly-fascinated, personally-subscribed social media publics. What this doesn’t factor in is progress in facial recognition software. In March 2014 Facebook’s ‘Deepface’ software was already claimed to be as accurate as the human brain, whilst in April 2016 a Russian photography student demonstrated how he could use the app FindFace to track down the real identity of people he photographed on the street on the social media site VKontakte. Today we’re busy uploading all the information future companies, corporations, governments and other agencies need for their databases for free. Selfies are one more form working for individual and public transparency and identity, for order and for control. They are one more form working for the uniform.

As the artist Zach Blas notes, in September 2011 the New York City police department resurrected an 1845 law prohibiting the wearing of masks in public to use it against the Occupy Wall Street camp at Zuccotti park. Protestors also discovered they could be held in jail longer if they didn’t agree to an iris scan and that their bail could be affected by whether or not they permitted the NYPD to conduct the scan. It was to oppose this biometric surveillance that Blas created Facial Weaponization Suite – a range of vacuum-formed or metal-wire masks designed to confuse facial recognitions systems by using collective biometric data, thus obscuring individual identities and promoting ‘informational opacity’. The same thoughts had occurred to the artist Leo Selvaggio who, in 2014, developed the ‘Personal Surveillance Identity Prosthetic’, a 3D-printed resin mask made from a scan of his face. As he explains, ‘When you wear these devices the cameras will track me instead of you and your actions in public space will be attributed as mine because it will be me the cameras see. All URME devices have been tested for facial recognition and each properly identifies the wearer of me on Facebook, which has some of the most sophisticated facial recognition software around.’

Against the system of order and value, which wants a single, confirmed identity it can track and monitor and employ the data for its own corporate or governmental benefits, the mask represents formlessness, uncertainty, instability, chaos, transmutation and multiplicity. It is productive, creative and regenerative. As Bakhtin writes:

‘The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames…’

The mask, therefore, is chaos but so too are we. In her 1995 book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle emphasized how the internet and online games allowed individuals to express and play with multiple identities and aspects of the self, often for therapeutic reasons. ‘When each player can create many characters and participate in many games’, she says, ‘the self is not only decentred but multiplied without limit’. She’s right: we are not one identity, but always multiple. We show different aspects to different people and no-one – not even ourselves – ever knows the whole.

And that is why we are closer to the troll than we might think. The troll is a being of chaos, part of the utangard, outside of social order and morality, continuously moving between identities and facets. But we have more in common with them than we do with Facebook’s real-name profile or with our corporate digital simulacra and its algorithmic predictions. For all the harm we attribute to trolls they are the anti-bodies of a system that is aiming for perfect knowledge, perfect identity, perfect behaviour and perfect anticipation and control. Nothing the troll can do is as harmful, as destructive, as immoral and as dangerous as the singular digital system of identity that is being created.

Because we are not the Cartesian individual – a simple, singular thing that is known by our rational selves by an act of thought or reflection –but instead David Hume’s self –a bundle of feelings, sensations and impressions that cannot step outside itself to perceive a whole – or Nietzsche’s self – that pulsional product of the eddying forces of the will-to-power. We are, in our being, chaotic, formless, unstable, multiple, changeable, and metamorphic. We are not a mask that hides, but a mask that creates identity. And everything we do should add to this mask, should dissimulate identity, should break up our face the same way Blas’s masks do, the same way Selvaggio’s masks do, the same way, indeed, that Janco’s masks did. Hugo Ball again:

‘Janco’s masks, linked in spirit to and realizing in three dimensions the primitivism and angular contortions of Picasso’s cubist experiments, shared the same ability to shock, breaking up understanding the same way they broke up the components of the face.’

There is a common thread here. Dadaism too tried to break the contours of the known and the predictable, in favour of a chaos that opens up new ventures, new ideas, new possibilities, new personalities. This is the lesson we need to learn: be possessed by new masks. Reject the uniform.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s