Cloak and Dagger: Some observations on an interesting pattern in the contemporary Zeitgeist


I think few will contest the claim that the themes of Corona and racism have dominated the headlines for much of 2020. I also think—though some readers may find this belief more controversial—that the great swell of solidarity and “peaceful” protests following George Floyd’s death in May had, as its condition, the several months of lockdown measures and “social-distancing” restrictions that preceded it. The constellation of factors surrounding Corona and the measures taken to confront its spread were experienced as a prolonged suppression and oppression of people’s liberty and humanity. The symbol of the mask presents an objective correlative of imposed “facelessness,” which is to say, “suppression of humanity.” On a side note, “mask” generally connotes the pretense of a person* other than the one behind the mask rather than the suppression or concealment of the latter. For this reason, a more term more faithful to the object in question would be “veil” or “shroud.” The buildup of the tension that such prolonged oppression and suppression created primed folks to seek an outlet to discharge it. 

The event of the death of Floyd presented the perfect object upon which to project** or extroject this experience in the collective (un)consciousness. Let it be noted that identifying projection as a necessary condition of the political movement following Floyd’s death does not take a stand one way or the other in respect to the specific grievances and tenets of that movement so please understand that I will not bother to respond to any insults or accusations that I am a racist or a conspiracy theorist etcetera. In talking about human affairs, we are not dealing foremost with things other than human beings and therefore to seek to identify the psychological underpinnings of various movements is a perfectly reasonable undertaking while also not being the same thing as evaluating those movements on the basis of their specific platforms or political philosophies. 

Returning to the topic at hand: following Floyd’s death, not only did the phase “I can’t breath” achieve profound and multivalent resonance in the midst of a pandemic of “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS), but moreover, people immediately perceived in the death of Floyd, a concentrated symbol of their general experience of suppressed spirit, liberty, and humanity. In this way, they perceived an archetype in their own consciousness displayed objectively before them in the media, and they also looked on, and vicariously participated in, the subsequent death of the individual who bore it. This scenario established the conditions of catharsis that is the psychotherapeutic basis of authentic tragedy. The power of this upswelling of “fear and pity,” to quote Aristotle’s famous definition of catharsis, was intensified through its natural affinity and subsequent association with the historical institutionalised oppression and suppression of slaves in the history of the United States. Floyd’s death became a token of an entire history of iniquity, which struck a sympathetic chord with the tenor of the collective consciousness. 

Thus, establishing the direct connection between anti-Corona measures and the “anti-racist” movement that has risen to prominence following Floyd’s death has been my second premise. Again, I recognise that this view is likely to be contested by people who believe the protests and the anti-racist movement in the aftermath of the event represented purely objective reactions to the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death. But I’m not even certain that it makes sense to seek for purely objective reasons or events to account for subjective reactions to the former in this way without also taking into account the subjective conditions surrounding the event in the first instance. One may as well seek the cause of one’s reflection from behind a mirror, or, upon awakening, the culprit responsible for a barn that was dreamt to be on fire.

Finally, I would like to double back and scrutinize the relation established in this second premise. To wit, what more can be said in respect to the connection of the two defining phenomena of 2020: the current pandemic and racism? I believe that both express what I wish to call the “cloak and dagger” archetype, though I welcome the proposal of anyone with a more felicitous name for this. I have in mind a specific isomorphism in the definitions of “case” and “racism” as they have evolved in recent months. In the context of infectious disease, “case” used to indicate a condition identifiable by its symptoms, the severity of which often required the subject to seek medical assistance. Under the period of Corona, “case” has come to refer to a positive test result for CoViD-19 irrespective of any identifiable symptoms. In fact, we are advised to wear masks in public places and maintain our social distance from others just because everyone we meet is a potential clandestine vector of disease transmission. Put another way, we are to assume everyone we encounter is a “case” unless he manages to prove otherwise; unless he manages to prove that he is an “anti-case.” 

Similarly, “racism” in 2020 has come to mean something different than what has been conventionally understood by that term. I think that before 2020, “racism” referred to someone who maintained that a person’s race was a sufficient condition to form a judgement about anything other than just his race. Today, however, following bestselling books by such authors as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, “racism” has come to mean almost the opposite of what was traditionally understood by the term. Instead of referring to the structure and object of an individual’s prejudices, “racism” is assumed as a de facto condition of the collective—something inherited by every individual as a sort of “original sin” through participating in contemporary society. Thus, just as one must demonstrate oneself to be an “anti-case” to escape the presumption of being infectious, so a person must signal himself to be an “anti-racist” because “not being a racist” does not mean what it once did. Time will tell whether these definitions will continue to evolve but I wished to articulate the way it appears to me today because, as can be expected when words change their definitions and people begin to talk past one another, such a scenario threatens everywhere to divert the channels of relationship from communication to conflict. 

*Incidentally, person literally means “mask” in Latin, an etymological analysis revealing the coupling of the prefix per- (“through”) with the root sona (“sound”). The image of a player speaking through a mask reveals the logic of this connection.

**Carl Jung defines the term: 

Projection means the expulsion of a subjective content into an object; it is the opposite of introjection. Accordingly, it is a process of dissimilation, by which a subjective content becomes alienated from the subject and is, so to speak, embodied in the object. The subject gets rid of painful, incompatible contents by projecting them. (“Definitions,” CW 6, par. 783.)

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