The Assemblage Rhetoric of Face Masks in COVID-19 in China


Source: Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. Courtesy of CDC/ Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin, 2020.

Among many tools used by humans to contain COVID-19, face masks have been the most important in China since the outbreak of this pandemic. COVID-19 has empowered face masks to take the form of an assemblage and agglomerate with other human and non-human assemblages.  Such assemblage rhetoric has changed the way we think, communicate, and organize our lives as face masks are coded into social rules and people’s daily lives and disclosing their eventfulness.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused face masks to get entangled into larger assemblages beyond medical facilities, especially the power assemblage. On Feb 15th, 2020, the Task Force for the Prevention and Control of COVID-19 of China’s State Council issued Notification on Hygiene and Protection Guidelines for Shopping Malls and Grocery Stores during the Epidemic of COVID-19. Chapter 2.5 in this Notification explicitly states that: all people must wear face masks; all employees must wear face masks when on duty, and special employees should be assigned to remind every customer to wear face masks and stop anyone who doesn’t wear face masks from entering the mall or store (China’s State Council). The power assemblage represented by the Task Force has at least temporarily coded the face masks into social rules.

The entanglement of the face mask assemblage and the power assemblage territorializes and deterritorializes the component parts of the assemblage (DeLanda 22-30). Given the social rules regarding face masks, only people wearing them are accepted into grocery stores and shopping malls. During the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, face masks have become a demarcation line to distinguish “us” and “them” and a code to identify if anyone violates the social rule and has to face the consequences thereafter. People feel uneasy with no face masks when going out because they might get stigmatized as being disobedient, stupid, and selfish creatures who only care about their own habits and feelings with no considerations of others, or who have no knowledge of either the COVID-19 or face masks. By contrast, when people put on masks, they feel more secure and their conscience is not condemned. With face masks, people are part of the collective fight together against the virus. Without face masks, people marginalize themselves or are marginalized in this crisis time. Because of this, face masks have become a reminder of the collective culture Chinese people are in and the social rules they need to follow.

From a new materialist perspective, face masks become “rhetorically meaningful via the consequentiality they spark in the world” (Gries 3). This consequentiality can be traced by perceiving face masks as an unfolding event to recover the realities and changes they generate. As argued by Gries, “despite the stable appearance of things (face masks in this study) at a given moment, they constantly exist in a dynamic state of flux and are always generative of change, time, and space” (37). The consequentiality and eventfulness for face masks entwining social rules are that face masks participate in and become part of “worldish” ambience (McNely 141). In this sense, face masks are not just things, but have “qualities, rhythms, forces, relations, and movements that co-constitute being-in-the world” (qtd. in McNely 140). In this constantly changing worldish ambience, our way of learning to dwell is called attunement, inviting an ecological approach to examine humans, things, animals, and the environments where we dwell in (Ingold 173). Such attunement shows that “we frame and adjust our situatedness in concert with everyday worldlishness; in turn, we are worldish-world-forming” (McNely 141). Wearing face masks has become the new normal for Chinese and later for the world. Though it is hard to predict the futurity of this new normal constituted by face masks, new social rules, and humans, it is for sure that as long as COVID-19 persists, this new worldishness is going to sustain. Obviously, people’s attunements to this new normal manifest the rhetoric of assemblages that face masks have germinated.

The rhetoric that the face mask assemblage brings out is not only a transformative process but also a distributive and circulative process. Such distribution and circulation can happen across “a complex web of physical, social, psychological, spatial, and temporal dimensions” (Gries 15). At the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, China was in short of protective tools and gears, including face masks. Learning about the shortage issue, overseas Chinese shopped every local drug store and sent back numerous face masks to China. These face masks were distributed across China, including the epidemic center, hospitals, and other places in need. Face masks, through reassembling with the assemblage of narrative in the form of news reporting about the face masks donation, were circulating across the country and manifesting the patriotism and care of the overseas Chinese. With time passing by, China gradually put the infectious COVID-19 under control, but the situation in other countries began to deteriorate from February 2020. Wanting to help people in countries suffering the pandemic outside of China, domestic Chinese individuals, organizations, and companies started to ship face masks to these countries. In this process, face masks have transformed from a thing to a sign of patriotism, care, friendship, and a close bond between Chinese people and overseas Chinese and others beyond China. Face masks have spun out of its original assemblage of a protective tool and entangled with the complex web of other assemblages.

To conclude, as argued by Latour (179), we are modified by things and things are transformed by us too. Face masks and we are transforming each other because we have entered into a collective relationship with face masks. Such a collective relationship, in materialist account, takes the form of assemblages. Face masks, in and out of its relational assemblage with humans and non-humans, have created ripple rhetoric that is no less powerful than a discourse composed through texts or speeches.

Works Cited

China’s State Council. “Notification on Hygiene and Protection Guidelines for Shopping Malls and Grocery Stores during the Epidemic of COVID-19 (in Chinese).” 14 February 2020, Accessed 7 May 2020.

DeLanda, Maneul. Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Gries, Laurie E. Still Life with Rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment, Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Box. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

McNely, Brian J. “Circulatory Intensities.” Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, The University of Alabama Press, 2016, pp. 139-154.

About Author

Jianfen Chen

Jianfen Chen is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue. Her research interests include public rhetoric, digital rhetoric, risk communication, intercultural communication, and professional and technical communication.

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