As lockdown eases and face coverings become mandatory in certain situations, Harriet Barratt uses object relations theory to consider the emotional responses that the mask engenders.
I am sitting on a bus in early July wearing a cloth face mask with a hand-drawn parrot on it. It’s exhibitionist, and beautiful, and cost over the odds. I’ve tied it too tight, and it’s making my right ear throb; I have a slight sense of asphyxiation, just enough to feel surreptitiously panicked. Having only recently returned to public transport, I’m glad the mask is there. I also resent it. Each person who gets on, a mixture of masked and unmasked, is immediately enmeshed in this tiring, new dance of noticing and interpreting and judging one another’s choices.
So much of our public discourse to date, both anecdotal and administrative, has focused on the face mask. Initially tied up with supply shortages and quality grades, these early responses have spored out into overlapping emotional, political and cultural concerns – Do I really need to do this? How many layers make you a responsible citizen? Can I really just cut up a sock, and are mine anywhere nice enough to display? Conservative protestors in the US, following historical precedent, claim that mandatory mask-wearing constitutes an infringement of their civil rights and bodily autonomy. This is despite the inherent contradiction with the same political stronghold’s support for strongly instrumentalised health policies such as abortion control (as multiple Tweeters put it, ‘oh, NOW, it’s “my body, my choice”’). Public health commentators draw a direct parallel with common responses to that other contested barrier method, the condom: ‘I don’t like the way it feels/smells/looks’; ‘Going without just this once can’t hurt’; ‘Real men don’t wear them’. Parodists have been quick to respond on social media, with one posing as a Titanic passenger who complains that a lifejacket hinders him using his arms, ‘and it looks kind of girly’.
Emotional responses to medical objects are always contingent upon mood and context. It is perfectly possible to feel deep gratitude for your blood glucose monitor one day and to begrudge its perpetual presence the next. People name their portable oxygen tanks, and even dress them up, then relinquish them for improved models. Prosthetic limbs become both trusted friends and tiresome obstacles within the same mental landscape. Equally, our relationships with material objects are always implicitly political, tied up as they are with global production processes, with equality of access and income, and with a delicate matrix of social perceptions and behaviours. Donald Ihde writes that it is impossible to extricate the ‘microperceptual’ – how we respond to an object as individual bodies – from the ‘macroperceptual’, those huge sweeps of politics and culture which are mirrored in (and shaped by) an object’s uses and meanings.
The face mask allows us to explore the psychical, sensory and political acrobatics we all perform when confronted with an object that is at once such a shared cultural symbol and yet so physically intimate (mine is faintly marked inside with lipstick, and presumably with traces of spit). Ihde also talks about ‘embodiment relations’, referring to the process that takes place when we start to think of an object as an extension of ourselves or our capacities (for example, a pair of glasses). Ideally, these objects become ‘transparent’ to us, and we stop being aware of their presence unless something goes wrong (the glasses become smeared, or the arm breaks). The more uncomfortable of these objects, though, can pose an ongoing ‘difficulty of embodiment’ (Ihde points to many hearing aid users’ unease in adapting to something that can feel so sensorily obstructive). It’s striking that some anti-mask protestors refer to masks as ‘muzzles’, experiencing them as bestialising objects that constrain rather than facilitate.
The huge range of customised masks we all see out on our streets shows, I think, a collective urge to maximise the face mask’s ability to become an associative thing of interest and support, rather than something that is primarily experienced as a ‘difficulty of embodiment’. In effect, by personalising our masks, we are making our use of them as objects into a psychical and social act as well as a physical one. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott saw this ability to ‘use’ an object, to allow ourselves to see it as a specific thing in its own right, as absolutely crucial to an individual’s development into someone who can build mutually supportive, two-way relations with the people and things around them.
The potentiality wrapped up in this ‘use’ is delicate, however. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion theorised that people experience ideas and emotions not only as imagined entities, but as being directed towards something. The emotion is thus ‘contained’ by a specific ‘container’ (which might itself be a person, an idea, or a cause). While Bion envisaged these ‘containers’ primarily as internalised concepts, material objects may also act as receptacles for violent or hostile emotions which cannot be dealt with in their ‘raw’ state. This process can, in fact, be creative, allowing as it does these emotions to be ‘scrutinized or dealt with in some way that would cause them to yield a meaning’. Bion’s ‘unhealthy’ adult, however, becomes fixated on these expelled emotions in their raw form, which grow in size and hostility and threaten to burst out into the external world.
Alongside its medical function, then, a face mask – or the lack of one – allows its wearer to channel, materialise and signal co-operation, fear, anger or dissent. The actions of the anti-maskers, I would argue, go beyond a reluctance to have their behaviours or freedoms curtailed. Those protestors who position masks as an undermining of their autonomy or masculinity are choosing, whether consciously or unconsciously, to prioritise what they perceive as an assault on their sense of self over the threat of potentially fatal viral contagion. This assault, their response implies, is felt viscerally, and is therefore to be rejected bodily – whether through their forceful presence on the steps of institutional buildings or through the continued free-flow of their public exhalations. At its most extreme, protestors have urged communities to burn their face masks in public, fire being what is left when you have no more tools of debate at your disposal. The mask, rather than becoming even partially a protective ‘good object’ – however ‘difficult’ it may remain in embodiment terms – acts instead as a static container for diverted, unresolved, unexamined aggression.
The threat to collective health posed by the anti-mask crew, with its roots in this destructive hostility, is in stark contrast to Black Lives Matter protest organisers’ repeated calls for attendees to be safe and considerate in their mask use so as not to undermine the cause. For BLM, the face mask enables, if imperfectly, an urgently needed mobilisation against another, very real, societal danger that is finally being addressed face-on (as it were). For the ‘anti-maskers’, though, the mask itself becomes the ‘bad object’ that must be forcibly expelled. By physically gathering to vocally reject evidence-based public health expertise, this group seeks to render the face mask a non-object, an unnecessary creation that itself stands for (or ‘masks’) socio-political manipulation. In doing so, they instead argue it into necessity, creating the very conditions they fail to accept as a credible threat.
Dr Harriet Barratt recently completed her PhD on medical objects and psychoanalytic object relations at the University of Sussex. She has worked on the University of Brighton’s ART/DATA/HEALTH project as a postdoctoral researcher, and will shortly be joining York St John University’s Converge arts and health programme as Senior Research Associate.
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 Ihde, D. 1990. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, chapter 5. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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 Winnicott, D. W. 2005. “The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications (1969).” In Playing and Reality, pp. 115–27. London: Routledge.
 Bion, W. R. 1985. “Container and Contained.” In Group Relations Reader, 2(8), pp. 127–133.
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 Bion, W. R. 1984. “Development of Schizophrenic Thought (1955).” In Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis, pp. 36–42, p. 39. London: Karnac.