In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Masked States and the “Screen” Between Security and Disability
  • Mel Y. Chen (bio)

I open with a typical poster from a hospital emergency room that advises on contingent measures taken to prevent the spread of H1N1, showing calm, gently smiling eyes behind a biological mask secured around a blue surgical cap (fig. 1). The poster reassures us—acknowledging that the sight of a mask could be frightening—that masks, benevolently, not threateningly (“you may see others . . . it does not mean that someone has the swine flu”), protect everyone.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 1.

Poster in hospital emergency room, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2011: “Masks Help Protect Our Patients, Visitors and Employees.” Photo by the author.

Such evocation of all possible parties does not at first seem a standard security apparatus, but in fact its language mimics the all-embracing appeal [End Page 76] of “for your protection” slogans found today in many security genres, from extraordinary extensions of airport search techniques to digital passcode access. This mask, when worn in health or medical contexts, is urged as necessary protection from the transmission of disease, while other masks are coded as threat—for instance, facial coverings that occlude individual features potentially thwart facial-recognition surveillance software. Masks can, in these versions, render the face unmappable to security operations of the vulnerable state.

In light of heightened contagion scares in the contemporary United States, we might consider the medicalized mask as a newer prosthetic disability form in light of the concurrence of modern public health conventions, the increasing potential for rapid transnational communicability of disease, and the significant incidence of breathable pollution for the common citizenry. But before drawing such a conclusion, we might ask: what counts, and doesn’t count, as a mask; and what is, and isn’t, disability? Mask forms and figurations are multiple and complex and deserve a closer look; the value of “disability” is similarly mobile, attachable variously to human bodies, notions, and abstract entities.

From a broad viewpoint, facial masks certainly symbolize more than illness or its possibility. They also suggest (and have historically been used to symbolize) the “horror” of disfigurement, the use of ritual, the protection of self and other. Indeed, much work has been done in drama studies and anthropology on the theatrical and ritual effects of masks. In today’s political environment, how does the role of masks in obscuring the face work within a national public? And, observing that masks can incite complex emotions from various perspectives, how does the visage itself enable, disable, or compound affect?

For the purposes of this experimental essay, “the mask” is considered quite openly. Visiting an array of mask citations (public announcements, journalistic photos, artistic re-creations, television series), I discuss questions of security and sensitivity before turning to a consideration of Levinasian facial ethics as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s articulation of masks. I propose that masks could be understood as roving, material instances of a screen, one that bars access to the visage while functioning as a device of projection for others. In specific sites, such a screen functions epistemologically to translate for or against the face, where the face is understood as a prioritized site of human engagement.

To clarify, this essay intends to undo any singularly assured “mask” [End Page 77] visual trope by running among diverse exemplars (with all their anthropological, horroristic, and ethnic trappings) to map their sensible geographies, and to ask what their often polarized and racialized valences might tell about the investments of nationalistic self-imagining. Ultimately, my hope is that the masks appear less as concrete objects per se than as screens with affective resonance. Thinking through Deleuze and Guattari and others, such screens are what I will claim most stably undergird projects of securitized, nondisabled whiteness. I discuss how this screen today might bear ever greater affective intensities, since it occupies a primary symbolic position within overlapping discourses of security.


Commonly mouthed within the post-9/11 U.S. climate is the notion that heightened security efforts, including the recently extended USA PATRIOT Act, are instituted for the “protection” of U.S. citizens. This occurs against a global terrain in...