Masks and the Semiotics of Identity

By Pollock, Donald | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Masks and the Semiotics of Identity


Pollock, Donald, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Masks are among the most exotic and spectacular of the plastic arts, yet their widespread use through history and in a wide variety of geographical settings has lent the concept of the mask a level of familiarity which is shared by few other body techniques. With our own long history of masks, we in the West believe that we understand masks and masking. As Guidieri noted, 'I do not know what a mask is. I do know that this ignorance is shared by others. Like others too, I know masks by the hundreds' (quoted in Pernet 1992: 160). Indeed, Western peoples, at least, seem immediately to grasp the form and function of masks wherever they encounter them, while they do not understand, or may be repelled by, the inscription of social status on the body through various forms of mutilation, decoration or somatization. Despite their essential familiarity, however, masks remain something of an enigma. Anthropologists and art historians have focused considerable attention on the general question of what masks 'do', and the significance of what masks do in particular contexts, but have not considered precisely how masks perform or achieve these functions: how masks 'work.'

In this article I take up this question of how masks work, and in particular of how form and function, so to speak, become linked in the mask. I discuss briefly some of the recent ethnographic and theoretical work on masking, and suggest that while the category 'mask' may serve as a more or less adequate concept in art or in the museum, it excludes a wide range of masking techniques on the basis of arbitrary plastic criteria. I propose that we treat the objects conventionally called 'masks' as only one of a variety of semiotic systems that are related through their conventional use in disguising, transforming or displaying identity, and that masks therefore 'work' by coordinating the iconicity and indexicality of signs of identity, as identity is understood in any particular cultural context. I describe two ethnographic cases in some detail in order to illustrate how attention to the motivation of these signs can provide insight into both the forms of the mask and forms of identity.

The perspective I pursue here is a semiotic one; I consider masking to be an aspect of the semiotics of identity, that is, one of a variety of means for signalling identity, or changes in identity. The semiotic framework, inspired by C.S. Peirce, here directs attention to the ways in which signs are motivated, to the ways in which masks, in this case, take up the conventional means through which identity is displayed or hidden. The value of a semiotic perspective for the analysis of masking is that it considers how masks achieve their signalling functions beyond the simplistic assumption that the mask and its meaning have a purely arbitrary relation. My argument is that identity is displayed, revealed or hidden in any culture through conventional means, and that masks work by taking up these conventional means, iconically or indexically. In semiotic terms, an icon is a variety of sign that bears a resemblance to its object; a diagram, for example, is an icon of that which the diagram represents. An index is a variety of sign that refers to its object, in Peirce's terms, 'by virtue of being really affected by that object' (Peirce 1931: 248); a thermometer, for example, is an index because how it displays is affected by what it displays.(1) Masks, as I will argue in these specific cultural contexts, are iconic inasmuch as they resemble, and are also indexical, inasmuch as they draw upon dimensions or extensions of their objects to signal their representation.

It may also be useful to add an introductory word about the notion of 'identity' which I use here. As Harris has recently noted (1989), there is considerable confusion of terms such as 'person', 'self' and 'individual' in the anthropological literature. She suggests that the term 'person' or 'personhood' be restricted to those whose conduct is construed as action, that is, that persons are agents of meaningful action (1989: 602); my use of the term 'identity' in this article follows from this proposal, and refers to the particular kinds of persons posited by any society, rather than the unique 'personality' or 'individuality' that some societies may attribute to individual persons, though clearly some societies may use masks to display this individual identity as well (e. …

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