more about masks

 I have been exploring the mask as a metaphor for high-stakes reflection. Having begun with two categories of mask – disguise and performance – I have now identified six (overlapping) genres:

Protective masks are worn while doing dangerous work (fighting or welding for example). Armour is an interesting sub-genre because it is both protective and a display of strength designed to intimidate the enemy. Different cultures had different traditions of armour design – European armour tended to be anonymous, while Japanese armour was designed to look vicious and frightening.

The idea of a person’s ‘true self’ or, in some cases, their deformity, being hidden behind a mask is an extremely common metaphor in art, literature, popular culture and in everyday life. Power is also often described as being ‘masked’: “Modern ‘power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’ (HS 86)” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982, 134). The image here is called “The Treacherous Patriot Unmask’d”, from the National Portrait Gallery collection.

Theatrical traditions around the world involve performers donning masks to portray different characters. The distinction between performance and disguise is extremely blurry, but we might say that disguise is primarily intended to hide something, while performance is primarily intended to show something.
The death mask (Mary Queen of Scots’ is pictured here) constitutes a physical trace or archive of the person who has died. It is obviously not for the person it represents, and nor does that person have any say or control over the matter – making it an interesting route to exploring agency and archive in online reflective practices.

“Demon masks are still used in healing rituals in Sri Lanka… One of the most powerful cures… is a masked performance in which the demon associated with the ailment, and others who may also have played a role in causing it, are made to appear” (British Museum, online). Formal, ritual performances involving masks are transformative in the moment, but may also have a lasting impact on communities and individuals.
The scold’s bridle (pictured here) was used in Scotland from at least the mid-sixteenth century to punish women for talking too much, nagging, or inappropriate speech – it worked by restraining and sometimes injuring the tongue . Other forms of punishment involved masks which simultaneously restrained or injured the wearer and publicly humiliated them .

The extent to which online reflective practices can be understood as masks is an issue I want to explore more, and I hope to use these metaphors as structuring elements in my research.


British Museum. Changing Face: masks from the British Museum. retrieved 16 December 2007. <

Dreyfus, H., & Rabinow, P. (1982). Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Padstow: T.J. Press Ltd.