Did the CDC Reveal COVID-19 Mask Wearing as a PR Performance of Late Capitalism?

An unidentified man drowns in mask and simulacra at Belgrade's 'Hotel Moscow.' Graphic designed by Bullfrog.

Mask off.

The CDC yesterday announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks at indoor or outdoor gatherings. Those living directly under the American Empire, rather than one of its proxies or satellites, will be the first to enter the “new normal” arising from the “new normal” of the pandemic. India meanwhile is hit with a surge of new outbreaks and virus variants, while even European countries struggle with vaccine rollouts.

The CDC’s announcement, however, is welcome news and provides a framework for containing the pandemic within a historical timeline, rather than continuing on indefinitely with uncertainty. Part of the significance of the CDC’s announcement is its symbolic nature: The mask has become the dominant image of the moment, carrying with it a myriad of complex political interpretations, narratives, and reactions. Everyone is required to wear the mask when in public, and the very thought of the object and what it represents (safety or tyranny) remains a divisive issue to those stuck in different ideological encampments (collective compassion versus rugged individualism). Videos of confrontations over the mask went viral over social media.

While a virus exists in abstract (even depictions of the coronavirus’ form remain difficult to comprehend), the mask is a simple real-world object (created by human beings) transformed into iconography, into cultural aesthetic by designer brands like Dolce & Gabanna and political messaging by government agencies.

The mask is universally recognized and understood symbolism: A global zeitgeist.

What the Mask Says About ‘Market Stalinism’

In Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the late-theorist wrote about the material world melting into public relations.

Fisher outlined what he coined “market Stalinism,” wherein the bureaucratic functions of capitalist enterprises produce surveillance practices and auditing among workers much like a Soviet style system. To Fisher, the appearance of performing routine measures within institutions (whether it’s an accredited university or publicly-traded company) had replaced any purpose the acts themselves served—what was left was symbolic exchange.

“In capitalism, that is to say, all that is solid melts into PR, and late capitalism is defined as much by this ubiquitous tendency towards PR-production as it is by the imposition of market mechanisms,” wrote the theorist. “The result is a kind of postmodern capitalist version of Maoist confessionalism, in which workers are required to engage in constant symbolic self-denigration.”

New forms of “constant symbolic self-denigration” arose during the pandemic as day-to-day minutia was further consumed by self-corrections, auditing, and social policing; by temperature checks, by medical questionnaires, by enforcing mask mandates. Workers making minimum wage still wear masks all day, not able to fully breathe as they service white-collar professionals afforded the luxury of home offices, reciting bureaucratic questioning on whether they’ve exhibited COVID-like symptoms. Individuals encountering office buildings face the same line of questioning from another human being on the opposite end, required to follow automated systems for a greater societal good.

The acceleration of certain economic trends during the pandemic is not limited to the mass adoption of digitized services: Auditing measures have increased significantly for all social and professional interactions. And like most auditing carried out under late capitalism, the new measures adopted during the pandemic appear nonsensical and part of a social performance, behavior transformed into theatre, for “all that is solid melts into PR.”

Is putting on a mask to walk several feet to a restaurant’s table, only to take the mask off to eat for an hour, and then put the mask back on to leave the establishment, anything other than a social performance? 

Is it sensical for an airline to cram a plane full with mask-wearing passengers, who are allowed to remove their masks to eat tiny portions of food provided to them by flight attendants? 

Outcomes are secondary to the representation of working toward outcomes. Reality is framed around performance, and institutions demonstrating they have taken the proper precautions to avoid an attack against their foundation by any potential individual damaged by the conditions of the system. In an era where capital has overtaken the natural world, and the natural world exists at the mercy of capital (“conservation” efforts, for instance), reality is one of simulation; its resulting phenomena are copies of copies of copies. The COVID-19 pandemic arose from the conditions of capitalism, regardless of whether one accepts the premises of the World Health Organization (that the virus reached humans from bats via an “intermediate host species” sold in Wuhan’s food markets) or various other origin stories.

In all cases, capitalism set forth the conditions allowing the virus to penetrate and spread. The coronavirus is a simulation of a virus previously found in “the natural world,” the containment efforts by human beings functioning as simulated responses based on auditing and performance.

But the ultimate simulated deterrent against the virus, “the mask,” is itself compromised by the very conditions which created the virus: the nature of capital. For all the scientific studies indicating that masks lower transmission between human beings (which for clarity, we are not disputing here), there are troubling isolated findings about contaminants in their makeup, flashing like glitches in a matrix of narratives which have transformed the mask into today’s zeitgeist.

Scientists at the Swansea University found disposable masks released heavy metals and fibers when submerged in water (a brief news cycle covered by the BBC and other leading media institutions). Like the coronavirus, many of these masks originate in China.

“We need to look at how they are produced, how we can test these, and how to standardise their quality,” said one of the scientists involved in the research.

The government of Canada meanwhile recalled masks made of graphene which were distributed in healthcare settings, noting these particles had “some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals.”

“The potential for people to inhale graphene particles from face masks and the related health risks are not yet known, and may vary based on mask design,” the advisory reads. “The health risk to people of any age is not clear.”

The deterrent deployed against the immediate and pressing catastrophe arising from capitalism spins off new problems, making reality fluid and difficult to pinpoint. Viewed through the lesser of two evils principle, and taken to the very extreme, what we were offered during the pandemic was a Faustian bargain few recognized as such: Does one choose the likely risk of contracting a deadly virus originating from bats and food markets, or does one choose the very unlikely risk of contracting lung cancer from the contaminants of a mask possibly produced in a sweat shop next to the food markets?

While the answer to the dilemma is obvious based on consequentialism (the coronavirus has killed almost as many Americans as Vietnam, Korea, and World War II combined), the deterrent lingering as performance serves no function. As the CDC reshapes today’s global zeitgeist into period piece imagery, the PR performance reveals itself as performance. Once understood as performance, the power the symbol holds in the public’s imagination crumbles.

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