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Mask – Part 2

by on July 15, 2013

In this post, I would like to both further the original ideas contained within my first ‘Mask’ post and create a reply of sorts to Matt Cawson’s excellent blog post: A Million Mask March. Firstly, I’d like to thank Matt Cawson for his interesting and informative post and the discussion which his post has created between my original post and his recent reply. I think that this truly identifies the importance of both this blog and protest itself as it creates dialogue and ongoing discussion. Without this ongoing debate, protest and discussion would become stale and inert. His post has also taught me many things I didn’t know or highlighted dark areas of thought: another very important function of discussion.

Secondly, I would like to state that any comments I made in my previous blog post about the use of the Guy Fawkes V for Vendetta mask being used as part of a conservative function in protest, was directed at the appropriation of the mask by the media, businesses and unthinking protestors who use it as an easy brand to associate themselves or others with protest. This identification does not include the majority of Anonymous protestors/supporters, as this mask has become an image strongly associated with their ideology and ‘uniform’ and, as such, has invested this icon “with symbolic (rather than exchange) value, with some level of meaning, by means of the sincere gesture”, as Cawson has suggested. In a fairly recent example of a business using protest imagery in order to get attention for its products, an advertisement company (JWT) hired by Vodafone claimed that Vodafone had helped inspire the revolution in Egypt. The Stagecoach Bus Company has also recently utilised revolutionary symbols and iconography in flyers and advertisements, in order to advertise ‘revolutionarily low prices’. These attempts to include revolution in the sales tactics of companies are mainly, I believe, to ‘jump on the revolutionary bandwagon’, as one recent commentator put it, and to capitalise on the current mood.

I completely agree with Matt Cawson’s point that: “It is absurd to suggest that protesters with an anti-capitalist agenda will somehow be able to exist outside of the clutches of capitalism and have refrained from all financial activity (a ‘gesture’ of that magnitude would be suicidal)”, although I believe refraining from some types of financial activity is possible and beneficial to protestors. Many of the choices which people make when purchasing or consuming have already been pre-decided by companies and businesses and so the ‘choice’ which is made is often chosen from only a handful of options. I feel that protest and discussion seek to open and recognise that there are many more choices which can be made. The contrasting decisions ‘to buy’ or ‘not to buy’ are legitimate and quite fundamental choices, which can have deep consequences for the individual. Some protests have sought to highlight and trouble this choice, albeit only for a temporary period. One example is ‘Buy Nothing Day’ in which participants protest excessive consumerism by not buying anything for 24 hours on a set date. Although it is only a temporary gesture, I think the protest raises very interesting and important ideas of choice and conscious consumption. Another fantastically defined and exacting protest is currently being carried out by Jess Allen. Allen’s month-long Trackivist performance ‘All in a Day’s Walk’ involves Allen sustaining herself only on food which is grown, harvested, processed and obtainable within walking distance from her home.  Again, although this performance is perhaps not sustainable in the long term (which is partly the point), it truly highlights many very important and humbling issues about choice and the (un)consciousness of consumption.

I think there is a choice that exists which determines what people buy, where they buy it and how they use the purchased objects. When people decide to buy food, for example, they make a choice to buy food from certain shops or supermarkets. This choice can often depend on either ethical concerns (i.e. whether the shop supports or ignores movements like Fair-trade, the Anti-Sweatshop movement, Organic, etc) and also price, as many don’t have the choice to shop in ‘high-end’ supermarkets or shops due to the expensiveness. Within the shop, there is also the choice of what to buy as there may be a preference of certain brands or a preference again over price. After deciding what to buy and where to buy it people also decide to use the food in a certain way. Potatoes, for example, have many varied culinary and additional uses, but when peeling potatoes, what do people do with the peeled skins? Throw them away or use them to make crispy potato skins?

So much for the consuming of essentials such as food, clothing and drink, but what about when purchasing things which could be seen as at the ‘periphery’ of essentials, things associated with entertainment and ‘spare-time’, acting perhaps as the antithesis of ‘purposeful’ consumption. Although I don’t wish to denigrate the V for Vendetta mask as a mere entertainment ‘toy’ (it has far too powerful a symbolic message for that), for some the mask could be seen as on the periphery of essential consumption. I think that the same three questions could be asked of these ‘nonessential’ purchases as well: where do I buy them, what do I buy and how do I use them. The same questions about location and brand apply when purchasing these items: do I buy them online and save money or do I go to the local shop and support local trade? Do I buy the cheaper brand and forgo quality? This, I think, chimes in with Matt Cawson’s idea of buying his V for Vendetta mask second-hand in order to at least delay the inevitable rattle of the coin entering the corporation’s coffer.

I think that it is the last choice decision which is particularly interesting here: how do I use the thing I have bought? Protest and dissent is no stranger to reinventing the imagery and equipment of capitalism: the ‘Situationists’ called it détournement: that is, using the imagery, expressions and apparatus of capitalism against itself.

As a quick sideline here, I think it is worth mentioning de Certeau’s ideas about ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’. In his work The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau describes the way in which individuals transform and adapt their surroundings by “poaching” on the territory of others; that is, by using the space of others for their own devices (de Certeau, 1984). By this, he does not imply that individuals are inherently selfish and eager to ‘use’ others but that individuals constantly change and modify things which they ‘consume’.

In his analysis of this (un)conscious adaptation of everyday life, de Certeau (1984) identifies two major notions: ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. Strategies are the structures of power which ‘producers’ (political parties, businesses, banks, city councils, for example) create and allow to proliferate in everyday life. Faced with these strategic structures, individuals living within these strategies use their own everyday “hunter’s cunning” to engage in ‘tactics’ which are used as ‘metis’ or “ways of operating” (de Certeau, 1984). These tactics utilize the gaps within strategies: tactics cut across rules, texts and environments created as strategies and individuals use the opportunities to their own advantage. In de Certeau’s ideas, simply walking the streets of a city can be filled with a subversive intention.

In both détournement and de Certeau’s ‘hunter’s cunning’, a V for Vendetta mask, rather than simply expressing the serene and ambiguous grin and rosy cheeks could be ‘subverted’ in order to challenge and transform the original image in any number of ways, therefore keeping the original anonymity whilst adding layers of personal or group personality and ideology. This is obviously not necessarily applicable to Anonymous as it is the group identity which legions of protestors wearing the same mask creates which is so powerful in their protests, but I think that the subversion of the mask is essential and salient for others wanting to do something similar. In a recent event at MadLab in Manchester, the revolutionary potential for all kinds of everyday objects was displayed in a quickly, but thoughtfully, assembled Mini-Exhibition on Tear Gas defence methods. The fact that a face mask can be just a face mask and a lemon can be just a lemon, and that both can be effective defences against Tear Gas exposure really highlights just how ‘hunter’s cunning’ can make everyday decisions about buying and consumption into ‘tactical’ choices, right down to where you buy your coffee.

I think there is another slightly left-field choice that could be made in terms of consumption here, and that is the choice to make it yourself. This choice can be made to a certain degree with food; growing, picking, making and cooking your own, for example, but is possibly slightly risky as any potential danger could not only ruin your choice-making but also your everyday well-being. When considering other consumables, however, I feel it is a much more ‘do-able’ decision. What could be better than going to a protest which is against capitalist means of production, industry and excessive consumption than wearing a mask you made yourself? The process of creation is in itself a protest as it is a rebuff of the products of industry and the actual process is one that can be shared, making it a de-individuating and communal experience as well.

Matt Cawson also suggested that: “Some mask practitioners on the more esoteric wing of mask practice, such as Keith Johnstone, suggest that mask-wearing induces a sort of pseudo-shamanic trance in which the impulses come from the mask rather than the wearer (a sort of transformation or possession), but this is a very specific effect in a very specific set of circumstances, and is not, as laurencemalt1984 seems to imply, comparable in any way to the use of the mask in the context of protest.” I am certainly not a mask expert and so Matt Cawson undoubtedly has far more experience and knowledge about this subject than I do. In a perhaps haphazard way, I was trying to link this idea of ‘trance’ or ‘possession’ to the popular notion of the ‘threat’ of the mask, in that popular conceptions of masks often focus on the anonymity they provide and of the threat which those wearing masks could pose. In this popular conception of masks, the wearer has ‘free-rein’ to enter a dangerous ‘trance’ of destruction and outrageous activity. This is not my personal opinion but a construction which seeks to denigrate and outlaw the mask and its use.

Lastly, I want to stand in solidarity with Anonymous, Matt Cawson and protestors around the world, as Matt Cawson says, the masked face of Anonymous protestors doesn’t hide or promote secrecy, it “makes a political point about equality and collectivism versus individualism and alienation”. This is something I greatly believe in and I believe that although all protestors may have different interests, faiths, beliefs and political affiliations, it is the being together which is important.

I think that protest is so powerful because it opens up and promotes discussion; it does the complete opposite of what much of the ‘strategic’ closed processes of businesses and authorities do. In order for protest to be able to continue this opening of debate and discussion, its own processes and methods must also be part of the discussion. Without this discussion, processes become stale and inert. That is why I thank Matt Cawson for his reply to my own post, because, without it, this discussion would also become stale and inert.

References:

Allen, Jess. All in a Day’s Walk. Accessed: 14th July 2013 http://allinadayswalk.co.uk/

Cawson, Matt. ‘A Million Mask March’, Phronesis. 13th July 2013. Accessed: 14th July 2013 http://politicalphronesis.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/a-million-mask-march/

Certeau, Michel de (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press

Daily Spud. ‘Spud Sunday: Gimme the Spuds’, The Daily Spud. 1st April 2012. Accessed: 14th July 2013 http://www.thedailyspud.com/2012/04/01/crispy-potato-skins/

Shenker, Jack. ‘Fury over advert claiming Egypt revolution as Vodafone’s’, Guardian Online. 3rd June 2011. Accesssed: 14th July 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/03/vodafone-egypt-advert-claims-revolution

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