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Unmasking Domination: Protesting Publics and Popular Culture

Open Panel

Abstract

This paper focuses on protest movements’ use of masks as a means of articulating polyvocal dissent. Jurgen Habermas maintains that the public sphere should be an inclusive and universally accessible discursive arena. Moreover he argues that political debates within this space should be characterised by reason, sincerity and transparency. Consequently the wearing of masks in public spaces has traditionally been interpreted as a duplicitous and/or frivolous barrier to communication. However this paper will argue that rather than eroding traditional enlightenment ideals, the wearing of masks is a popular cultural form that reveals the hidden power dynamics of ‘political inclusivity’. The first half of this paper will analyse the ways in which organisations committed to armed resistance, protesters willing to provoke the violence of the state and activists engaged in non-violent direct action have deployed masks to expose the usually invisible boundaries of the public sphere. The second part of this paper will deploy Kevin Hetherington’s notion of the Blank Figure in order to further explore the ways in which this cultural form creates transformative in-between space. It will argue that these spaces facilitate the possibility of thinking differently by signifying the presence of a deliberately unspecified absence. It will conclude by arguing that the mask creates a mechanism through which a plethora of previously excluded voices can articulate a range of nuanced (and sometimes contradictory) protest positions.