Ken stalter

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What is a mask? The word refers in its narrowest sense to an artificial face. The mask emphasizes some features of the wearer’s face and obscures others. Understood more broadly, the word “mask” refers to anything that performs the same function but is no longer limited to a physical objection placed literally on the face. A mask is any device that one uses to present oneself to the world in a chosen fashion. Masks can be means of expression and deception.

A mask, by definition, cannot work a complete transformation on its wearer. It can only refigure what already exists. The power of a mask is derived from the ways in which it harmonizes the wearer’s inherent attributes, heightening some and suppressing others. The mask has the power to both purify and corrode—a fact that was well demonstrated by the cases analyzed in our class.

Our class’s departure is the virtual world known as Second Life. It should not strain the imagination to realize that Second Life avatars are masks.

Second Life is a masquerade. People from all over the globe create artificial identities for the purposes of interacting with others who have also done so. The anonymity and the ability to connect with people who are geographically distant allows Second Life users to do things that they can not or dare not do in the physical world.

Second Life avatars may look like ordinary people but most do not. The humanoid avatars tend to have the physiques of Olympian gods and be dressed in uber-stylish club wear. Other avatars may look like robots, animals, angels, demons, or aliens. The number of avatars that resemble their users must be negligible. The fantasy look gives users the freedom to behave in new ways. Perhaps more importantly for the purposes of our class, the avatar gives the users the power to be treated differently. By adopting the image of the opposite gender (or no gender), or of a different race, we experience in a limited fashion what it might be like to exist in the real world as that race or gender. We can experience how such people are treated. This is one power of the mask—to show us what it is like to be someone else.

The inevitable question is, what if that someone else were far superior to our ordinary selves? One of our early class sessions engaged the meaning of superheroes. Superheroes, super-villains, and other super-humans have a deep association with masks. Whether or not the super-humans’ particular mythology draws a direct connection with the mask and the super-power, the mask often functions as the source of power. When masked, the superhuman can exercise his or her extraordinary talents. Without the mask, the superhuman is restrained. Super-humans also show the purifying power of the mask. When the mask is donned, the complexities of ordinary humanity are washed away and only an archetype remains. Masks give people the means to crystallize aspects of their personalities and present the crystal archetype as the whole. The superhero is made good by his mask and the super-villain made evil. They are both able to hide their weaknesses and complexities.

The power of the mask to reduce or reconstruct complex human affairs is why attorneys must in a sense become superheroes. When the advocate puts a face forward on behalf of a client or cause, he must suppress his own doubts and the weaknesses of his own case. His cause must become an archetype. The attorney must craft and secure his mask even as he struggles to unmask his adversary. In the superhero film Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realizes that he must become an idea in order to become invulnerable because a mere human can silenced and oppressed. A true advocate is also an idea, a principle.

One of the most powerful masks in the legal world is prestige and it is fitting that Harvard Law School was often a topic of conversation in the class. The school relates to masks in at least two ways. First, the training received at this school is often practice in masking. Second, the school itself is a mask.

The legal training of law school is, in the terminology of theater, a form of mask-work. The honed ability to deftly switch sides in an argument is changing masks. Good argumentation is masking because ambiguities and complexities inherent in the tangled web of the formal law must be purified into workable ideal principles. This process is nothing other than the donning of an intellectual mask. Just as the superhero’s mask yields a personality archetype, legal argumentation brings forth the mask of principle.

Beyond providing training in a type of professional masking, Harvard Law School itself is a mask. The name carries such prestige that it has the power to overshadow to a large extent the actual attributes of the individual invoking the name. This process can be external, working in the minds of the public. But it can also be internal, giving those who are entitled to don the mask a source of confidence or perhaps of doubt, if they fear they will not live up to the mask they are wearing and will expose themselves.

The prestige of the Harvard Law School is a mask worn not just by the students. The professors of the school likely wield the power of that mask even more effectively.

Professor Nesson’s nascent movement on behalf of poker, another frequent topic of the course, is an excellent study in the power of masks. As I understand it, there are at least four layers of masks at work in the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society.

Professor Nesson reveals to us that one of his primary motivations for launching the poker movement was to protect the open Internet. His theory is that if legitimized in the public perception, the online poker industry could become a powerful ally of Internet deregulation and freedom. So we already see that the poker movement, even if it can be justified on its own merits, was conceived of as a mask for the larger goal of digital freedom.

A second layer of mask is added when the education rhetoric is adopted to convince parents and teachers to embrace poker. Again, this move may be justified on its own merits, but it is nevertheless a mask because it is an attempt to tie a currently stigmatized activity with an important public good. Once an activity manages to wriggle into the “educational” mask, it will enjoy wide public support.