(un)masking the contagion through social alchemy: crafting the air and manipulating the self to prevent the destruction of an (un)imagined future

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Air, one of the “fourfold roots” expounded by Empedocles’ philosophy, has been at the centre of much debate and concern in the UK as the waves of the Covid-19 Coronavirus outbreak crash and break all around us. With conferences cancelled, universities moving online and travel bans enacted, the air has taken on great significance in 2020. This significance however, is twofold, with: 1) the air being an inhalable life-giving-gas, potentially laced with this invisible virus, and; 2) the air being a digitised aether filled with social media, online selves and (mis)information about said virus. Taking social alchemy as forms of human intervention in Air, this paper will investigate the binary nature of this online/offline duality to ask critical questions as to the nature of Air in our lives. This will Include asking whether the contagion of digital fear is as, more or less dangerous than the offline contagion of Covid-19. Masks, and the concept of masking, will also feature heavily in this paper, with ethnographic examples being drawn from the author’s own digital fieldsite situated within Instagram. In times of crisis, attempts to regain lost control of one’s environment consume the daily lives of individuals living towards an (un)imagined future. This paper will specifically consider the intersection of Air, human craft and attempts at empowerment in the face of the immense ontological character of the non-human force that is Air.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventASA2021: RESPONSIBILITY - Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, Scotland (online), St Andrews, United Kingdom
Duration: 29 Mar 20212 Apr 2021


Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
CitySt Andrews
Internet address


  • Anthropology
  • Social Anthropology
  • Digital Anthropology
  • Fashion Anthropology
  • Menswear
  • Tailoring
  • Mask
  • Face Covering
  • Mask Wearing
  • Fashion
  • Instagram
  • Social Media
  • Covid-19
  • Coronavirus
  • Pandemic response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Gender Studies


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