COVID attire, mimesis and the limits of rationalism[1]

Over the past few weeks, airport travel has had the feel of a global game of musical chairs, with everyone scrambling to find their seat (i.e., return home) before the music stops – namely, countries close their borders and airlines suspend international flights. Many remain standing (stranded), but I was one of the lucky ones, managing to get a last-minute flight out of Sydney on March 22nd back to London via Kuala Lumpur, just in time for the COVID lockdown here. The changes in air travel since my departure to Australia only six weeks ago were striking. I’m not talking about the row of seats I had to myself on every flight (a phenomenon I last experienced circa 1996) but the occasionally startling COVID attire on display at the airports I passed through in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Heathrow.

Transiting passengers were garbed in an eclectic array of sports masks, ski goggles, safety glasses, sperm suits,[2] plastic gloves, plastic bags and raincoats. Especially at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, with its streamlined modernist architecture and bright lights bouncing off the abundant reflective surfaces, I started to feel like a spectator with a front-row seat at an apocalyptic fashion parade. As the following photos attest, many of the outfits I witnessed managed to pull off the same blend of uncomfortable and inventive that characterises high fashion itself. Notably, the protection these outfits provided seemed as much talismanic as literal.

As Christos Lynteris observes in his work on plague masks, the prophylactic function of such masks can’t be separated from their symbolic function. Lynteris notes that in China – where their modern form was pioneered – anti-epidemic masks were a marker of medical modernity. Their widespread contemporary use in East Asia since the SARS virus also speaks to their meaning as a gesture of solidarity. In Lynteris’s words, ‘Members of a community wear masks not only to fend off disease. They wear masks also to show that they want to stick, and cope, together under the bane of contagion’.

Until very recently, the meaning of face masks in Euro-American contexts was markedly different. Connie Wang highlights the uncertainty, fear and xenophobia such masks have long elicited in the USA, along with the ‘sudden swerve in meaning’ the coronavirus has produced. The speed of the transition is evident in the growing array of Instagram influencers (sorry, ‘influenzers’) posing in masks, which has been widely discussed in the media in tones veering from neutral to appalled. In the face of intense global demand and the normalisation of face masks the coronavirus has engendered, their usage as a witting or unwitting signifier of ‘otherness’ is perhaps disappearing (although it has been a central feature of discourses on the virus itself). However, it is increasingly treated as a sign of the intrinsic irrationality of the public.

Irrationality is something of a leitmotif in analyses of the coronavirus – especially in discussions of so-called ‘panic buying’. However, Lynteris notes that treating responses to the virus as ‘irrational epidemic panic’ does little to help us to understand the nature of epidemics, which are not simply biological events but social processes. For example, while the declared irrationality of toilet paper hoarders makes for amusing memes and songs, it doesn’t help us understand why toilet paper has been so sought after during the pandemic. As Grant Jun Otsuki illustrates,[3] this requires an attentiveness to the symbolic meanings of toilet paper itself and the political economy within which it’s embedded. Likewise, the array of coronavirus attire on display at airports tells us something interesting about conceptions of risk and contagion.

No anthropologist writing about this topic can avoid referencing Mary Douglas’s work on conceptions of purity and danger and risk and blame. According to Douglas, contemporary notions of cleanliness are not merely the result of scientific knowledge about the relationship between dirt and disease. To take an example from David Inglis’s A Sociological History of Excretory Experience, there’s no scientific requirement that toilet paper must be white. This is explained by the colour’s cultural associations with purity and cleanliness, which make it far more appropriate for the business of anus-wiping than, say, red.[4] Likewise, while the WHO and the NHS have emphasised that frequent hand washing is more effective in preventing coronavirus transmission than the use of masks, the run on surgical masks speaks to the symbolically charged nature of the body’s openings (noses, mouths, etc.). As Douglas notes, margins and borders are culturally dangerous: ‘We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolise its specially vulnerable points’.

This also serves to explain the concentration of coronavirus clothing at airports. While the global circulation of people via air travel – and, to a lesser extent, cruise ships – helped put the ‘pan’ in the coronavirus epidemic, the sense of danger air travellers experience also lies in the fact that airports and airplanes are liminal spaces. In the same way that the margins of the body are experienced as especially vulnerable, border zones produce a similarly heightened sense of vulnerability.[5] One just needs to compare the hyper-visibility of coronavirus clothing at sparsely populated airports and its relative absence in overcrowded supermarkets during the same period to see the very different ways in which ‘risk’ is experienced in these settings.

But why raincoats and plastic bags? These clearly mimic the images of personal protection equipment that have circulated widely in popular culture – from Hollywood films to media reports on SARS, Ebola, and, most recently, the coronavirus itself. Moreover, in the many parts of the world where personal protection equipment is currently in short supply, healthcare professionals are indeed having to make do with raincoats, garden gloves, plastic bags and snorkelling equipment.

Of course, personal protection equipment (and its makeshift variants) is intended to be worn under very specific conditions in order to ensure that its prophylactic qualities are not compromised. Coronavirus attire, on the other hand, typically mimics the look and feel of such equipment, without necessarily mimicking its protective qualities – at least in any literal fashion. In this respect, the mimicry evident in coronavirus attire is best understood as a form of mimesis in the sense that Michael Taussig describes: ‘wherein the replication – the copy – acquires the power of the presented’.[6]

The concept of mimesis has a long history in anthropology – tracing its roots to Sir James Frazer’s discussion of sympathetic magic in The Golden Bough and the two principles he suggested underpin it: the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contact or Contagion. In the former, ‘the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not’. Magic, for Frazer, was therefore based on a series of mistaken associations. It was the ‘bastard sister of science’: an elementary form of reasoning evident in the ‘crude intelligence not only of the savage, but of ignorant and dull-witted people everywhere’.

Subsequent anthropologists were highly critical of Frazer’s characterisation of magical beliefs and practices. For example, Bronislaw Malinowski saw magic as a functional response to uncertainty. Its use, he argued, was limited to contexts where rational techniques couldn’t be relied upon to produce a certain outcome. E.E. Evans-Pritchard likewise highlighted the role of magic in dealing with unfortunate chance events, although he simultaneously insisted that magic formed its own system of thought and must be understood on its own terms. Expanding on these ideas, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that magical thought is characterised by a ‘science of the concrete’. Thoroughly empirical, it is based on a series of associations between sensible properties and intangible qualities. The practitioner of magic was thus a ‘bricoleur’, making do with ‘whatever is at hand’ to fashion new constructions of reality.

None of this is to say that we should simply invert the prevailing emphasis on ‘irrational epidemic panic’ to assert that these beliefs and practices are actually rational and logical after all – a tendency evident in some of the analyses of panic buying and ‘magical thinking’ in the wake of the pandemic. The point is that we can’t reduce beliefs and practices about the coronavirus to the problem of reason (either its presence or absence). Instead, there has to be a place in studies of health and medicine for what Bruce Kapferer terms ‘the realms of unreason’: one that treats such beliefs on their own terms, rather than binding them to the question of rationality.

What if magic is not merely the provenance of the ‘savage’ and superstitious (Frazer’s view), or something we resort to in the face of uncertainty (Malinowski’s), but an intrinsic feature of the human condition? Taken seriously, this should challenge the prevailing Jekyll and Hyde approach to disease prevention, where rationality is invoked to counter ‘irrationality’ (primarily via health education campaigns). As Clare Chandler and her colleagues, writing about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, note, it’s important to ‘question the assumption that biomedicine must correct local logics and concerns, and the effectiveness of using standardised advice for non-standardised situations’. Thus, a more useful literary analogy for health promoters wanting to understand so-called ‘magical thinking’ might be Frankenstein’s monster instead. Rather than a split personality battling between the forces of reason and unreason, it is instead a separate entity – fully formed and with its own logic – albeit one that remains inscrutable to science (and mobs with pitchforks).[7]

This article also appears on the University of Roehampton Blog


The piece draws, in part, on arguments presented in my chapter on ‘magic’ in Social and Cultural Perspectives on Health, Technology and Medicine: Old Concepts, New Problems.

[1] My biological anthropologist colleague Todd C. Rae insists that social anthropologists always follow a distinct format for paper titles: an ambiguous title followed by a subtitle consisting of three things. I have been forced to conclude that he is, in this matter at least, quite right – although he is dead wrong about cannibalism (it’s real) and contractions (they’re acceptable).

[2] I recently learned that this term is not universally recognised. As an Australian national living outside the country, my fallback defence is always, ‘well, that’s what we call it/how we do things in Australia’ (although I have learned that this works less well when there are ‘helpful’ Australian colleagues around to contradict me). However, I suspect that it might be more to do with the fact that I come from a family of geologists and that is the term they seem to prefer.

[3] In what will come as a surprise to no one who has ever met me, I was very keen to write a blog post on toilet paper. Sadly, I have nothing to add to Otsuki’s post, although it does serve to explain why this piece is full of tangents about toilet paper (and anuses).

[4] This is why the ‘Dump on Trump’ toilet paper never caught on, except as a novelty present gathering dust on bathroom shelves. The symbolism of ‘dumping’ on Trump is countered by the symbolism of using Trump’s face to clean one’s arse. This also explains why entirely valid observations regarding the benefits of washing over wiping fall on largely deaf ears. At the end of the day, the actual mechanics of arse cleaning are clearly less important than its symbolic dimensions.

[5] The analogies between the borders of the body and the borders of the nation are best illustrated by the obsession of US Customs & Border Protection with displaying the finds of body cavity searches.

[6] One doesn’t have to look very far to see evidence of mimesis in operation. As every drug manufacturer knows, the appearance of drugs is as critical to their efficacy as their chemical components themselves.

[7] For the record, there’s no mobs with pitchforks in Shelley’s book, but that’s only because Twitter hadn’t been invented yet.