By Vyvyan René

In Sanatorium, Abi Palmer likens illness to a ‘lack of access’ to the world. But could we view this feeling of being ostensibly unmoored from reality as merely a different manifestation of it? Ableism is a prerequisite for the doctrine of optimum productivity and consumption endorsed by capitalist ethos, rendering healthcare essentially meritocratic. For women, BAME people, marginalised genders, queer people and anyone lacking cultural capital, who consequently struggle to be taken seriously by medical professionals (an experience that Palmer vividly evokes), performative illness becomes a grim necessity.

‘Not having much access to the outside world, I began to lose perspective, dressing myself in charity shop floor-length gowns and placing elaborate pearl arrangements in my hair… After dressing I fell back down exhausted and reclined all day on pillows until it was time to take the pearls out.’

For this reason, it is not sufficient simply to be sick, one must also appear to be; to the capitalist, sick is a social role, a job which requires its own uniform or outward mask. In the absence of any other person, the role of the Ill must be played to oneself. Illness is not just metaphor but aesthetic (or dysthetic) in which the person’s own individual needs are subordinated to capitalist social expectation. To Palmer this radically different outfit choice constitutes a ‘[loss of] perspective’, but floor-length gowns and elaborate pearl arrangements, shunned for their impracticality in daily life, are an ironically practical choice for one who spends ‘between 18 and 24 hours a day in bed’ in a society where the worth of an individual is measured by what they produce.

COVID-19 has already become an aesthetic – #plaguecore

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag describes the ideal metaphorical disease as a ‘perfected sublimation of feeling… [which] was also thought to make the sufferer sexy’. She cites the Romantics: ‘You continue to wear a consumptive appearance,’ writes Shelley to Keats, as though tuberculosis were an accessory. If the retro-eroticism of floor-length gowns and pearls are clothes of convalescence to Palmer, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, how does one dress for coronavirus?

COVID-19 has already become an aesthetic – #plaguecore. Tumblr abounds with advice on how to cultivate your ‘plaguesona’ by owning accessories like lavender perfume, shelves full of interesting things in jars, houseplants and leeches, as well as providing guidance on how to balance your humours and which essential oils to put on your facemask to prevent miasma. Like Palmer’s pearls, #plaguecore is characterised by a cultivated quaintness, a vintage whimsicality that passes over modern face coverings in favour of the distinctive beaked plague doctor masks of the 1600s.

An image tagged #plaguecore from tumblr. Credit: a-literal-fucking-dyke

There is a paradox at the heart of the illness aesthetic. A seeming manifestation of capitalist and ableist logic, yet also a comforting form of self-expression, a reiteration that despite its suffering the body is still one’s own. In psychoanalytic terms this is conceptualised as the psychic envelope — Freud’s ‘contact barrier’, Winnicott’s ‘border membrane’ — that encloses a person, helping them to withstand possible trauma. The face mask is an extreme expression of the barrier at work, and as such features prominently in horror. Infamous 2005 Doctor Who episode ‘The Empty Child’, for example, features gas masks that cease to function as protective garments and instead become viral agents in their own right. The masks become fused to the faces of their owners, obliterating them physically and psychologically. They have ceased to wear the illness aesthetic; it wears them.

Here too, though, there is dual significance. In concealing the wearer’s features, masks also exaggerate them. The gas mask and plague doctor mask are characterised by their emphasis of the eyes and nose, allowing for a sublimated skinface beneath the hypervisibility of the surFace. Deprioritising the individual in favour of external markers of sickness, it’s a fitting metaphor for dysthetics as a whole. The importance of finding a self-presentation that meets one’s own needs when ill is movingly realised when, at the sanatorium, Palmer finds herself applying bolder makeup than usual: ‘I think I am becoming one of the old women who wear turbans and full make-up in the hot tub. I think I understand why now. It is nice to remember that you have a face.’ A reminder that the aesthetic ‘statement’ so often relies on a young, white, conventionally attractive, gender-conforming and implicitly healthy body to make it.

Featured image credit: ginger-rat, via Tumblr

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