The image of the veil in social theory


Social theory draws energy not just from the concepts it articulates but also from the images it invokes. This article explores the image of the veil in social theory. Unlike the mask, which suggests a binary account of human conduct (what is covered can be uncovered), the veil summons a wide range of human experiences. Of special importance is the veil’s association with religion. In radical social thought, some writers ironize this association by “unveiling” religion as fraudulent (a move indistinguishable from unmasking it.) Baron d’Holbach and Marx offer classic examples of this stratagem. But other writers, notably Du Bois and Fanon, take a more nuanced and more theoretically productive approach to both religion and the veil. Refusing to debunk religion, these authors treat the veil—symbol and material culture—as a resource to theorize about social conflict. Proceeding in three stages, I, first, contrast the meanings of mask and unmasking with more supple veil imagery; second, identify anti-religious unveiling that is tantamount to unmasking; and, third, examine social theories of the veil that clarify the stakes of social adversity and political struggle. Du Bois’s and Fanon’s contributions to veil imagery receive special attention.

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  1. 1.

    “Iron cage” is Talcott Parsons’s translation of Max Weber’s “stahlhartes Gehãuse” (shell as hard as steel), summoned in the climax to The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (Weber [1904–05] 2002, p. 121). Weber’s own image is more complex than Parsons’s translation implies. Steel is modern, whereas iron is ancient. A shell enables mobility, whereas a cage confines its agent. I discuss these and other peculiarities of stahlhartes Gehãuse in Baehr 2001.

  2. 2.

    Daniel Rigney (2001, pp. 204–205) identifies six criteria for appraising the theoretical worth of a metaphor.

  3. 3.

    The limitations of “liquid modernity” as an image are examined in Turner 2010, pp. 101–103. “Dark times” is associated with Hannah Arendt’s (1968) book of this title. Over the past thirty years, the term has been applied copiously to life under every American administration. But if life, say, under George W. Bush was “dark,” what was life like under Stalin in the thirties? Darker? Not that darkness is always an exaggerated or lachrymose term. In some contexts, it may prompt disquieting reflection: “You fragment of life, what did you amount to? ‘How great a darkness shrouds our days!’ [quoting Lucan, Pharsalia IX:13–14.] Blessed is he who even then will have no regrets about his life’s fragment” (Herder [1774] 2004, p. 97).

  4. 4.

    For a description and critique of these techniques, and of unmasking in general, see Baehr 2019a.

  5. 5. Beyond the acts of covering a person or an object, the OED records among the following figurative variations on veil: to cloak or cover in darkness (night); to obscure something as in a mist, cloud; to hide or conceal something from the knowledge of others, disguising it deliberately; to express obliquely a menace of some kind (a veiled threat); to mute, soften, tone down the taste, sound, etc. of something.

  6. 6.

    “… the veil of color had always been porous. The subtle and not-so-subtle advantages of light skin were a social reality, however varied and complex the manifestations, South and North,” Lewis [1993] 2009, p. 62.

  7. 7.

    The semantic affinity between veils and secrecy persists to modern times. VEIL was the CIA code word, in the last years of the Reagan administration, for the covert action “compartment”—compartmentalization being a means of sequestering sensitive information by special protocols that limit access and handling. See Woodward 1987.

  8. 8.

    Although Richard Ellmann (1948) subtitles his critical study of Yeats, The Man and the Masks, Yeats’s own memoir of earlier life is called The Trembling of the Veil (1922). In the Preface (p. v) to it, Yeats says that the book’s title derives from the remark by Stéphane Mallarmé, the nineteenth-century French symbolist poet, “that his epoch was troubled by the trembling of the veil of the Temple.” The religious allusion is plain.

  9. 9.

    This usage allows ironic adaptation. Writing about the British Soviet spy Kim Philby, his duped friend and MI6 colleague Nicholas Elliott remarks: “Outwardly [Kim] was a kindly man. Inwardly, he must have been cold, calculating and cruel—traits which he cleverly concealed from his friends and colleagues … behind a veil of false modesty” (quoted in Macintyre 2004, pp. 289–90).

  10. 10.

    More precisely, removing the mask serves to reveal the truth of falsehood.

  11. 11.

    In a previous chapter, Augustine grieves the “thick mist shutting me off from the brightness of your face, my God” (Confessions II. iii. [8]). I use the Chadwick translation of Augustine 1991. Fogs and mists are a common substitute for veils in sacerdotal literature.

  12. 12. I owe this reference to John Levi Martin.

  13. 13.

    The sculpture is housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris,

  14. 14.

    [1852] 1908, unpaginated.

  15. 15.

    On Latimer’s “double consciousness,” see also pp. 35, 42. The expression was common in Eliot’s milieu. Helen Small, the editor of the Oxford edition I am using, describes the origins of this concept in early British physiological psychology, notably the work of Sir Henry Holland (1788–1873). Eliot also used the term to describe herself, as the sociologist Herbert Spencer attests in his autobiography (details in Eliot [1859] 1999, pp. 94–95). Modern sociologists are more familiar with Du Bois’s rendering of double-consciousness, on which see below.

  16. 16.

    The mask in masquerade is also erotically charged. Tolstoy ([1904] 2004, p. 615) describes its allure to the corpulent Emperor Nicholas I whose “senile sensuality” is aroused by a masked woman. Not that it is the mask itself that briefly fascinates him; it is the person it conceals, a woman with a “beautiful figure” who speaks through the mask in a “tender voice.” Figure and voice belong to a twenty-year old Swedish virgin, whom Nicholas proceeds to ravish in his private apartment.

  17. 17.

    D’Holbach 1819 The quote appears at the end of chapter 1. It is notable that d’Holbach does not present unveiling as a general concept; we are not yet in the realm of modern social theory. Unveiled (dévoilé) only appears once in his text, and that is in the title. “Veil” appears twice: in the quotation above and in Chapter VII (“Of the Mysteries of the Christian Religion”).

  18. 18.

    Feuerbach [1841] 1881, p. x “To unveil existence” is Marian Evans’s (George Eliot’s) plausible translation of “Dasein zu enthüllen.” Enthüllen might also be translated as reveal, expose and uncover.

  19. 19.

    Veil is a favored motif of concealment, as in Marx’s ([1867] 1992, pp. 90–91) contrast between the integrity of the British factory inspectorate and the makeshift improvisations of their German contemporaries. “The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, quite wretched. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of Medusa’s head behind it.”

  20. 20.

    Although the conservative defense of veiling and drapery function “as an implicit attack on the metaphors of light and transparency” (Muller 1997, p. 21), it bears noting that leftist writers have their own critique of transparency that owes almost nothing to veil imagery. This critique, in several modalities, is documented in Geroulanos (2017) and Jay (1993).

  21. 21.

    Although he often mocked the conservative Burke, the radical Hazlitt was one of those rare spirits capable of seeing the best qualities of those he opposed. “It has always been with me a test of the sense and candor of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed [i.e., acknowledged] Burke to be a great man” (Hazlitt [1807] 1991b, p. 54).

  22. 22.

    It is not unknown for men to cover. An example is the Tuareg, a Berber tribe that frequents the Sahara. Men over sixteen wear the litham in the presence of women, parents-in-law, old people, and strangers. On this tradition, see Murphy 1964. Judith Adler brought to this example to my attention.

  23. 23.

    More generally, hair-scarves of various kinds have covered the public heads of women in Europe and the Near East since before the Christian era. It is modern women who are exceptions to this sartorial code.

  24. 24.

    See Corcoran 2000, pp. 63–65 on the history and multiple meanings of this term.

  25. 25.

    More rarely powder blue, as in Afghanistan. Pashtun women in both Afghanistan and Pakistan wear the sadar, a garment that covers women from head to foot. On the significance of veiling as protection against overexposure, see Black 2011, p. 37.

  26. 26.

    The covering of Noah’s nakedness by his sons, Shem and Japheth, who walk backwards so as not to see him, is described in Gen. 9.20–24. The covering or הַשִּׂמְלָ֗ה is translated in King James as “garment.” I follow

  27. 27.

    I am drawing on Norman J. Cohen’s Masking and Unmasking Ourselves. Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing and Identity (2012). The title of the book is infelicitous, however, because of the paucity of mask imagery in the Hebrew Bible. Unmasking is a modern concept; it is anachronistic to apply it to biblical interpretation.

  28. 28.

    A writer may lack religious faith but recognize faith as authentic. Neither Max Weber nor Emile Durkheim disdains religion. Nor do they call it, as Marx did, an illusion. Both sociologists refigure religious concepts (charisma, the sacred). “It is true that I am absolutely unmusical religiously and have no need or ability to erect any psychic edifices of a religious character within me. But a thorough self-examination has told me that I am neither antireligious nor irreligious” (emphasis in original). Max Weber, letter of February 9, 1909, to Ferdinand Tönnies, cited in Marianne Weber [1926] 1988, p. 324.

  29. 29.

    “I believe in God, who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers.… I believe in the Devil and his angels. ... I believe in the Prince of Peace” (Du Bois [1920] 1999, p. 1).

  30. 30.

    But “double” appears often, as in double self (mentioned once), double life (twice), double thoughts (once), double words (once), double aims (three times), double movement (once), double system of justice (once), double ideals (once), double duties (once), double social classes (once), and double faced (once). “Self-consciousness,” to which double consciousness is opposed, appears three times.

  31. 31.

    Brent Hayes Edwards (in Du Bois [1903] 2007, p. 209) points out that, “in African American folk culture, it is believed that children born with a caul (a membrane from the placenta covering the infant’s face at birth) are gifted with prophetic and psychic abilities.”

  32. 32.

    On five types of black-white separation, see Souls, chapter IX (“Of the Sons of Master and Man”), pp. 475–492.

  33. 33.

    Veiling was also a personal reflex. Writing of the younger Du Bois, David Levering Lewis ([1993] 2009, p. 99) observes that the “veil had become part of his raison d’être,” a “buffer between himself and others that allowed a lonely young intellectual to glorify his own race in order to better combat the glorification of race by others.”

  34. 34.

    I owe this point to a Theory and Society reviewer.

  35. 35.

    Here is John Wesley’s commentary: “Now we see—Even the things that surround us. But by means of a glass—Or mirror, which reflects only their imperfect forms, in a dim, faint, obscure manner; so that our thoughts about them are puzzling and intricate, and everything is a kind of riddle to us. But then—We shall see, not a faint reflection, but the objects themselves. Face to face—Distinctly. Now I know in part—Even when God himself reveals things to me, great part of them is still kept under the veil. But then I shall know even as also I am known—In a clear, full, comprehensive manner; in some measure like God, who penetrates the center of every object, and sees at one glance through my soul and all things.”

  36. 36.

    “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan. And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea. And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar” (Deuteronomy 34.1–3, KJV)

  37. 37.

    A Theory and Society reviewer cautions against lumping Judaic and Christian traditions together. The same reviewer wisely points out that, in English translations of the Hebrew bible, veil conveys at least two Hebrew terms: פרוכת (as in the veil that separates the holy from the holier) and מסכה (a veil that is spread over nations). Similarly, the Encyclopedia Judaica states that “In the Bible there are several terms usually translated as veil. However, the exact connotation for these terms is not known, and they may refer to other garments used to cover the face as well. The term צָעִיף is used of Rebecca (Gen. 24.65) and Tamar (Gen. 38.14, 19). Other terms used in the Bible for veil—though the meaning is not always certain—are צַמָּה (Isa. 47.2; Song 4.1, 3; 6.7); רְדִיד (Isa. 3.23; Song 5.7) and רְעָלָה (Isa. 3.19); cf. Shab. 6.6, where Arab women are said to go out רְעוּלוֹת (veiled), which implies that Jewish women did not. The מַסְוֶה worn by Moses after descending from Mt. Sinai to screen his radiant face (Ex. 34.29–35) was some kind of mask; the leper had to cover his upper lip (Lev. 13.45), by pulling his head-cover over his face (cf. MK 24a).” Not conversant with Hebrew, Du Bois used the terms available to him in the King James Bible translation.

  38. 38.

    This is the first stanza of “We Wear the Mask” (1896),

  39. 39.

    “Masked” appears once in the main text of the book ([1952] 2008, p.177) but Fanon is quoting the term, in a critical context, from an article in Presénce africaine by Jacques Howlett.

  40. 40.

    On white veils typically worn among Moroccan women, see Fanon ([1959] 1965 p. 36, n. 3). He says that as a protest against the exiling of Mohammed V by the French in August 1953, Moroccan women donned black veils. This “combat measure” was intended to exert “symbolic pressure on the occupier, and hence to make a logical choice of one’s own symbols.”

  41. 41.

    Readers coming fresh to “Algerian Unveiled” should be forewarned that the essay is, to put it generously, short on evidence. Fanon’s remarks on the sexual dreamscape of male colonists are entirely unsubstantiated. So are his assured interpretations of the minds of Muslim women. It is no mere cavil to ask of an author: How do you know?

  42. 42.

    Elsewhere, Daniel Gordon and I consider aspects of the veil controversy in France, and the role of social theorists in legislating its prohibition in the public space, see Baehr and Gordon 2013. In the present reflections, however, I put this subject to one side.

  43. 43.

    His style approximates what Andrew Abbott (2016, pp.77–121) calls “lyrical sociology.”

  44. 44.

    “Farewell Speech to the British People, at London Tavern, London, England, March 30, 1847,”, para. 15. See also para. 36 on the abolitionist and social reformer, William Lloyd Garrison. He is hated, says Douglass, for the good he does on both sides of the Atlantic. Because Garrison “fearlessly unmasked hypocrisy, and branded impiety in language in which impiety deserves to be characterized, he has thereby brought down upon himself the fierce execrations of a religious party in this land.”

  45. 45.

    For contrasting accounts of self-deception, see Fingarette [1969] 2000 and Morson 2013. For the claim that self-deception is an inherently incoherent idea, see Mele 2000.

  46. 46.

    To be clear, I am referring to the mask’s limitations as a literary trope, both in the novel and in social theory. In contrast, the material culture of the masks (and this includes paintings, sculptures, models, and photographs) is immensely rich. For studies of their symbolic complexity, see the very different treatments of Lévi-Strauss ([1975]1982) and Belting ([2013] 2017).

  47. 47.

    Incredulity is bad theory. Debunking what we find meaningless because it fails to make sense to our own frame of meaning is “stupid,” says the pragmatist philosopher. Debunking creates rather than comprehends “alien lives.” “Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals,” (James [1999] 2000, p. 267). On the anti-humanist thrust of unmasking, see Abbott 2016, p. 287.

  48. 48.

    As in Durkheim [1912] 1995, pp. 78, 264, 431.

  49. 49.

    Veils appear thirteen times in Democracy in America. Masks do not appear at all. On the contrasting approaches to religion of Marx (unmasking) and Tocqueville (anti-unmasking), see Baehr 2019b.


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Research for this article was supported by a Fellowship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Committee. Fund Code: LU301-HSS-13. I also wish to acknowledge the helpful suggestions of Judith Adler and Daniel Gordon, and the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers.

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Baehr, P. The image of the veil in social theory. Theor Soc 48, 535–558 (2019).

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  • Du Bois and Fanon
  • Images and social theory
  • Mask and unmasking
  • Religion and social theory
  • Veil and unveiling
  • Veils of color