“When I tried taking off the mask, it stuck to my face,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his poems (Fernando Pessoa / Álvaro de Campos, “Tobacco Shop,” in: The Poems of Fernando Pessoa, 1986, p. 89). Pessoa, whose name in Portuguese interestingly means “person,” became famous for inventing a dramatic kind of poetry, creating many pseudonyms or personae.
Vilém Flusser also points out that the concept of person and personality is connected to the concept of the mask. For example, in Gesten [Gestures] (1991), in the section “Die Geste des Maskenwendens” [The Gesture of Turning a Mask Around] wearing masks means playing a role in public; it is a means of seeing without being seen, or of being seen without seeing oneself. This way, history is seen as a stage, on which we play roles, and also as a game, in which each person dresses up in costumes as they wish: while some follow programs, wearing certain types of clothes and making gestures that are preprogrammed, others invent their own programs or even subvert them (see the chapter “Our Clothes,” in: Post-History, 2013).
Based on plays and the stage, the use of masks (personae) determines public matters (res publica) and politics: the use of masks depends on both the relationship between public and private and vice versa (for instance, the publication, which is a means of transforming what is private into public, of presenting oneself as a persona). The poet was right, after all. We are all wearing masks, and this is what defines our personality and our relationships with others. “One is what one is only by wearing (dancing in) a particular mask, by the other members of the tribe recognizing the mask and giving it its due.” (The Shape of Things, 1999, p. 105).
For Flusser the question is who designs (or programs) the masks (personalities) we wear, since they no longer come from traditions, like the masks of indigenous Brazilian tribes, but rather from the industrial production system. Or whether there is even any point in knowing what is behind masks. Maybe the best answer is Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which is how Flusser unmasks Homo sapiens.
Original article by Adalberto Müller