edited by Sandra Becker, Megen de Bruin-Molé and Sara Polak.
There is a trend in current humanities writing to point out its relation to the ongoing COVID-pandemic, curious on the one hand as we normally do not address the day-to-day of our contemporary moment in time quite as immediately, reasonably needing a few years to position our thinking against the fickleness of the Zeitgeist. But, on the other hand, the pandemic has had such a profound impact on all the work we have been doing that it seems impossible not to mention—from projects cancelled or changed due to travel restrictions and lock-downs or to issues becoming so much more (or sometime less) important as our academic as well as social priorities shift. Embodying Contagion, a volume of collected essays, was already in the process of editorial work when the pandemic struck, in fact it was already in the final round of edits (xiii). But how would you edit a collection on contagion narratives and not address the big one unfolding right then and there? So, in a way this volume is made even more timely because of its peculiar moment of publication, as the ongoing health crisis of COVID-19 is entering its next stage, and somehow the essays needed to position themselves against this historical backdrop—this, the experience of living through a contagion narrative, is then interwoven into the volume like a thread.
In terms of its original premise, the volume has not lost its pertinence, if anything it is heightened. In a nutshell, the volume takes up the mantle from Priscilla Wald, who had coined the term ‘outbreak narrative’ and expands it to the idea of ‘contagion’ (1-2), discussing the ‘viropolitics of horror and desire’ (2) linked to these contagions as metaphors and images to cope with social realities. As the editors attest, the fascination with contagion in our culture is omnipresent—more so after COVID—and can be read to determine our bodies as posthuman, existing “as shifting and sharing ecosystems rather than isolated and inviolate objects, contemporary culture unveils a seemingly endless series of new ways to be, to behave and to belong alongside other bodies” (3). Contagion narratives reveal our relational existence—through them, “we negotiate the boundaries between bodies that are welcome, bodies that must be confined or silenced, and bodies that must be eradicated” (4). It is this negotiation that is framed as key cultural work in the volume and that the ten essays interrogate—why do we use contagion to explore our relational selves, to each other and to our surroundings?
In terms of structure, the essays are divided into two main parts with five essays each, framed by a preface from the inspirational Priscilla Wald, an introduction laying out the idea of the volume, and a centrally important Epilogue that addresses the COVID-pandemic and its impacts as a contagion narrative specifically. In her preface, Wald is adamant in sounding the alarm, or better yet sounding out a profound ‘I told you so’ as she discusses how “woefully underprepared” (xvii) we were for the pandemic and how ignored contagions are politically—making clear in the process that the cultural work of these narratives is more pressing to recognize: “As these stories titillate us, they shape experience: who, what and where a culture locates its threats, its definitions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, its response to other cultures and to the planet” (xvii).
The first part of the volume, then, addresses “the role of epidemic fantasies in theory and reality” (4), meaning that news reporting, policy measures, or social media take up metaphors and imagery of contagion, generating meaning around these narratives. Consequently, in terms of its interdisciplinary approach, the chapters in this part of the volume are closely related to sociology and communication studies, as they determine the discourses around certain contagions and the communicated images used to generate specific reactions. In the first chapter, Peter Burger discusses how news media and medical reports are influenced by popular culture, in this case the well-established monster narrative of the zombie, to describe the impact of a new drug. What is even more perplexing is that the drug, Krokodil, seems to be as mythical as the effects of zombification it causes, leaving the scare-tactics of media and medicine to warn users off the drug more in the realm of mythmaking than actual health preparedness.
In all, the chapters in this part discuss more the effects on representation that certain images of contagion generate. For example, in chapter 2 Sara Polack discusses how the zombie and its use by the CDC generated a specific public response in the US towards the Ebola outbreak and it’s the vilifying of patients and heath care workers. Chapter 3, by Madison Krall, Marouf Hasian Jr. and Yvonne Karyn Clark explore the Zika outbreak and how its connected contagion imagery generated a specifically militarized response, not one centered on care and health, but one on security and dominion. Angela Smith in chapter 4 then moves away from viral contagions and onto more socially determined contagions. In her discussion of disability, she focusses on click-bait and like-farming on social media as a form of contagious marketing that helps to generate money by unethically exploiting disabled children and their families. And lastly, in chapter 5 Francis Ray White explores the connection of obesity and climate change, which is generated through a contagious resignification in social and tabloid media. In all, these chapters are insightful and show how much the fantastic narratives of contagions, for example zombie outbreaks, generate images and metaphors so powerful, they can be used by media to manipulate not just the immediate reaction to diseases but also be used to construe harmful conspiracies against any minority group.
In the second part of the book, the essays turn away from lived reality and towards fiction, focusing on “epidemic theories and realities in fantasy” (4), that is the representation of contagion in fictional works such as novels and tv series. In chapter 6, Sandra Becker discusses the depiction of science and scientists in the tv series The Strain, revealing the anti-intellectual sentiment in its portrayal of the protagonist, a scientist and researcher of the CDC. Megen de Bruin-Molé, in chapter 7, explores several current developments of the zombie in her discussion of identity and autonomy. Using the contagion narratives of zombie fiction, she offers a development from the monstrous and invasive “zombie horde” to the “more recent ‘friendly’, self-aware zombie” (160). Both chapter 8 and 9, written by Mica Hilson and Astrid Haas respectively, deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its representation in online fiction and drama. Hilson explores the online stories of what he terms “gay contagion fiction” (181) and how they complicate mainstream depictions and their simple messages of avoiding contagion. In her chapter, Haas returns to the 1980s/1990s dramatist Larry Kramer and his work, exploring how the dramas fit into American discourses of individuality, self-management and contagion surrounding the AIDS epidemic and its connection to images of gayness.
Lastly in chapter 10—and I want to single out this essay for a longer discussion, because it is the only one in the volume that clearly states the connection of contagion narratives to utopian and dystopian worldbuilding—Elena Gomel explores how “historical memory becomes a source of physical disease in fantastic fiction” (220). That is, she argues, that not a specific “polluted body of some enemy du jour” is the source of contagion in contemporary fiction, but “the historical process itself. Time becomes the pathogen” (220). Her first example is The Giver by Lois Lowry, a dystopian YA novel, which Gomel argues, makes history a physical and painful experience for its protagonist Jonas. History, in the novel, is contagious and connected to “pain, suffering, and inequality” (225), while its utopian moment lies in the blissful ignorance of history that the rest of society enjoy. Gomel’s second example, M. R. Carey’s novel The Girl With All the Gifts, which she reads as a “dynamic utopia” (226), tracing its new society by building on a “future that is the source of contagion” (227), that is a fungal infection that kills all humans to give a new, zombie-like generation of children its utopian moment. And lastly, Gomel turns towards two ghost fictions to discuss the contagion of history in the form of World War I ghosts, that is soldiers of the “forgotten war” (229) flooding our contemporary reality, as “History has come back with vengeance” (230). In the essay, Gomel thus claims that through fantastic contagion narratives, we “articulate the twin anxieties that haunt our post-historical era: longing for the past and fear of the future” (232).
In sum, Embodying Contagion is a centrally important work that articulates how in our contemporary moment, we engage in contagion narratives, both in media discourse and fictional storytelling. Using the metaphors and representations of contagion, we express our cultural anxieties about our posthuman existence and the lack of stable boundaries that it brings. It is especially the curious moment in time, in the midst of an, as of yet undetermined, ongoing pandemic that makes the essay resonate so well with the reader. Though in terms of utopian studies only Gomel’s essay explicitly features theoretical discourse of utopia, all of the essays gesture towards the apocalyptic and dystopian foundations of contagion narratives and thus make this volume an interesting read for any scholar in the larger field of speculation within cultural studies.
This originally appeared in Utopian Studies:
Schmeink, Lars. “Review of Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse.” Utopian Studies 33.3 (2022): 515–18.