Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge A Panoply of Reason: Anti-Epidemic Masks as Visual and Material Technologies
25 April 2017
Prevalent today in the context of infectious disease outbreaks like SARS or Ebola, anti-epidemic masks have been employed in the last 100 years as personal protection equipment by health workers and the public. On the one hand, these devices, which range from the simple cotton face-mask to full hazmat suit-fitted apparatuses, are seen as indispensible tools in the struggle against epidemics. On the other hand, they function as potent visual symbols of biological danger faced and indeed thwarted by technological modernity. But could these aspects, the one material the other visual, be more than simply indexically connected? This paper will explore the emergence of the anti-epidemic mask through a historical anthropological approach of its invention and material as well as visual employment in the context of the 1910-11 Manchurian plague outbreak. Asking how anthropological approaches of mask and masking may help us understand the emergence and establishment of this technology, the paper will show that the rise of the anti-epidemic mask was rooted in its configuration not simply as a guard against recently discovered bacterial or viral agents, but most importantly as a panoply of reason. Key to this process, it will be argued, was the reframing of centuries-old uses of masks in the context of plague outbreaks, dating back to the "beaked doctor" in Renaissance Italy, as steps towards "medical reason". It was on the basis of an extensive re-inscription of visual sources relating to such early modern technologies that the anti-epidemic mask would come to be an apparatus aimed at blocking germs, and at the same time, at catalyzing a passage from unreason to reason.
Christos Lynteris is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded research project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic. A social anthropologist, he is the author of The Spirit of Selflessness in Maoist China and Ethnographic Plague: Configuring Disease on the Chinese-Russian Frontier.
Co-organized with the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, HKU.
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