A Radical Mask
On myths, masks, and a sensuous materialism.
Despite the amount of academic reading and citations[…] it should also be remembered that I’m not attempting to create archaeologically-accurate reproductions of real masks, but rather to use my imagination and a substantial amount of “artistic license” to re-imagine and invent a mythology for personal artistic reasons. My research on the subject helps me keep a toe-hold on possible realities (52)
Drawing a parallel between the burgeoning of new ideas in the current period and that of the aftermath of the English Civil War, Paul Watson in his art book (photography and drawings) Myth and Masks writes of ‘a similar mode of radicalism and revaluing at the moment,’ as being one now engaged in ‘talking about landscape, rewilding, pscyhogeography, archeology, myth, and hauntology, as well as politics and government.’ (100) It is into this context, as well as the ‘broad church of related interests’ (120) dubbed the English eerie, in which he places his art and blog essays.
I am inclined to agree with his assessment of our ideological spheres as being especially ripe with alternative possibilities, both disturbing and emancipatory. Indeed, it was in that precise spirit that I have previously contributed an essay on utopia and England to Watson’s zine Rituals & Declarations. These concerns, with place and our situatedness, have long obsessed me (from before I even first academically turned to utopian studies). But the framing got me thinking again about another pet topic; the left (or socialists) engagement with such (and similar) thematics.
Myth and Masks
Let’s put a placeholder on that topic to admire what Watson brings to this subject. Firmly interested in radical politics, he ties this together with his aesthetic concerns not as a substitute or an aside, but as a complement. He appreciates how the ways in which we engage with representing the world to ourselves is reflective of a wider association of values and perspectives. To take the subject of this particular book, the mythic mask, he observes how a
modern Western reading of the situation—that the mask merely signifies that someone is “playing a part”—is not universal, however. In different cultures, separated by time or geographical distance, the mask is understood to transform the wearer into a different character. The mask-wearer becomes the puppet, not the puppeteer. (31)
In this interpretation, mask wearing becomes apart of understanding, rather than an atomised performance of dressing up. So for example, ‘the primal priest/priestess would be a strange figure—only partially human as they would have to shed some of their humanity in order to understand the non-human.’ (81) The photography captures this sense; some are stark such as the black bird and robes of the Badb Catha photo series and drawing, or the Death Mask series, others explode in colour as with the autumnal The Oak Leaf Mask or truly eerie Untitled (moss figure).
A particular favourite of mine is the charcoal and chalk on paper drawing The Blindfolded Seeress 4, based on another photography series. This one prompts a fascinating tangent on the subject of this figure, and the symbolic resonances of the blindfold: ‘The blind seer/ess is a common mythic archetype—including the Graeae, who had just one eyeball between them, Tiresias prophet of Thebes, and Odin who sacrificed an eye for wisdom. The general explanation seems to be trading normal sight for second sight.’ (70) (I am currently considering doing a series of essays on the costumes and helmets of the computer game Elden Ring, which will certainly touch on the subject of masks but also specifically blindfolds and sight more generally.)
Central to all of Watson’s engagements is an understanding that ‘liminality breaks down when it is perceived, when the quantum wave function collapses.’ (110) So many of these pictures hint at more than they literally contain. The use of masks here is apt, as he explains when he talks about preferring them over digital creations of human-creature hybrids. It is the owning of the process of mask wearing, something beyond perception, an embodied and ritualistic facet, that so many of these pictures seem to be foremost about.
For a Weird Socialism
Two friends and comrades of mine have separately but in discussion with me, more and more been circling the subject of how socialism should engage with the tricky issues of the sensuous (as in Marx’s phrase, sensuous materialism) in the current clime. Because as much as Watson is right to highlight the explosion of radical thought in recent decades, it feels as if my portion of radicalism has hit a relative cul-de-sac of disinterest in these types of questions, the questions around a sensory engagement with the world and what it means for today’s battles.
The far right, on the other hand, has had no such issue. While all it dose with questions of our embodied nature is whip up nihilistic hate, fascism is not timid at all on the subject. This is evident from transphobes founding their prejudice on trumped up concerns for biology to misogynistic Men’s Rights groups addressing the mental health crisis around the pole of a crisis of masculinity and often with a particular fixation on sex and sexuality.
My point is not that the left lacks attempts to addresses biology, mental health or sexuality. The oppressed, especially the more organised oppressed, have always addressed these topics. The queer community does so with an honesty and rawness that is powerful, for obvious reasons. Trans people are highly sensitive to navigating biology in a way that is not only direct, but one that wonderfully stresses extending agency. But these concerns are not being picked up by organised Marxists with much relish. (My own little group, ACR, has in many ways felt like a nice fit for me precisely because questions of this nature are not seen as distractions.)
Marxism, as I see it, should seek to develop a research project that is not passive, that changes the world in the course of the research. It does so, I would argue, through an understanding of situated knowledge creation that cannot be separated from the process of struggling with others. Such a tradition then needs, must, be concerned with problems of hope (as Ernst Bloch was), of human development (in the spirit of Lev Vygotsky) and yes of myth and place and the wild and the myriad ways in which we are haunted by the past.
It should be concerned with sex and shame and anger and rituals too, with the everyday in Henri Lefebvre’s sense. It should be as concerned in these things as it is in the big picture stuff. Indeed, it should see the two (the most abstract renderings of declining profitability and how daily life is organised) as inseparable. Marxism, as I have been suggesting, has all the analytical tools to say a great deal on these subjects, and its organisational crisis (the very limited influence Marxism holds in a world itself in crisis) demands addressing them.
But it does not with much consistency. And certainly not in way that translates any insights into the world of practical organising. If this is not overcome, if a Marxism cannot come into being that offers genuine nurture and hope, then I fear far rights engagement with the weirdness of the world, with the messiness of people navigating their creatureliness, will be left unchallenged. And we will all be impoverished, or worse, in that eventuality. It is time for socialists to wear masks, to play with myths of the self and our connections (and disconnections) to the world.
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