In the original, existential sense, identifying with the mask transformed the individual into a person. Persona, in Latin, denotes the entire semantic phylum of the mask, from the physical object to the role, all the way to a personality’s social and political standing and status. In shamanism, the mask can establish links to supernatural forces and is a sign of respect (“Shamans and Dancers with Masks,” in: The Shape of Things, 1999). In architecture, the building wears a public manifestation of the mask in the form of its facade (“Fassaden: Masken, Personen,” in: Haller, 2. Symposium Intelligent Building, 1991).
Traditional gestures relating to the mask – in connection with its design, production, and use – are intersubjective and historical; they play roles in the scenario of history. And they are theatrical. These gestures are typical both of participants (masked people, carnival dancers, actors) and of observers (audience, critics, theorists). The dialectical relationship between the two can be seen during carnival in Rio de Janeiro, for example. The mask is also characteristic of politicians – actors and actresses on the stage of public events. For most authentic or “real politicians” (Bodenlos, 1992, p. 187; translated from the German), says Flusser, the mask is more truthful than the personality it conceals. The gesture of taking off the mask leads to irrationality of catastrophic magnitude, as it did when culture allowed its mask to fall, as at Auschwitz (Post-History, 2013, p. 7), resulting in a “carnival of death and the infernal” (Bodenlos, p. 29; translated from the German).
Flusser nonetheless points to a gesture which, in his opinion, has not yet been studied, as it constitutes a “new,” post-historical and nontheatrical gesture: the gesture of turning a mask around and looking at it from the “wrong” side. This gesture is the subject of one chapter of his phenomenological essay on gestures (“Die Geste des Maskenwendens,” in: Gesten, 1991).
Turning a mask around is a gesture peculiar to a system’s functionaries, who devote themselves to programming (for example, programming Rio’s carnival). While the aesthetic, cultural, and political aspects lie on the mask’s exterior – the false “true” face that lends the individual identity – the negative, ethical aspect appears only on its interior, which is not meant to be seen. This truly “false,” forbidden side reveals the error in a negative dialectical relationship. The gesture of turning the mask around exposes the program in which it was designed, disclosing its function in the drama, its origin, and its structure. In being turned over, the mask is no longer an object placed before the face, allowing it to be manipulated outside theater and history and thereby “surpassed.” The gesture of turning the mask around is thus a gesture of playing with history.
For Flusser, the gesture of turning a mask around radically alters the question of the subject’s identity in the post-historical era. It is no longer a question of the identity beneath the many masks the subject wears, but predominantly a question of the “I” as “that ideological hook for hanging masks by their inner sides, just as the mask appears to be that ideological exterior from which the ‘I’ is observed” (ibid., p. 133; translated from the German).