Hi, guys. It’s been a real pleasure to make our way through this semester together. While we were watching Contagion I was reminded of thesetwo posts from last semester that commented on the film and the science behind it. In a comment on the first of those posts, I made a few observations and asked a couple questions the movie raises for me:
I’ve seen the film now four or five times and I’m still trying to sort through the logic of the final scenes. On the one hand, it would seem that global capitalism has rendered us more vulnerable than ever: both in terms of how food is produced and shipped and in terms of global air traffic potentially spreading a virus between major global cities. That seems to be the point of tracing the spread from the bats (dislodged by developers) to the pigs to the hotel chef to Gwyneth, the swanky casino/hotel patron. (Also, is there some suggestion that she may have deserved the infection due to her infidelity? Or perhaps her gambling?) This chain of transmission — from food prep to credit cards — seems to send the notion that every touch, every transaction is potentially deadly. But Laurence Fishburne’s little speech at the end to the janitor’s son about the history of the handshake ritual (Nemesis, anyone?) seems to suggest that the film doesn’t want us to abandon such demonstrations of our non-threatening human exchanges. Is it just that we need to keep washing our hands between handshakes?
A friend of mine, Caleb Crain, wrote about Contagion for The Paris Review back when the film was first released. Note the cameo appearances in his review by Defoe, Camus, and none other than Arthur Mervyn! Caleb’s more extended reading of Arthur Mervyn can be found in his book American Sympathy. But I thought you’d appreciate some of his connections:
Contagion has been praised by science journalist Carl Zimmer for its realism—for showing such details as the sequencing of the fictional MEV-1 virus’s genetic material in order to trace its phylogeny. But how did Soderbergh keep his plague from becoming too real? I’d say it’s by limiting moral ugliness to the villains—to nameless looters in masks and to Jude Law, who plays a scurrilous blogger, branded with a crooked front tooth by the make-up department, for ease of identification as a pariah. When I was a teenager, I read La Peste, Albert Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian town, because I was entranced by the moral certainty of the hero, a doctor who never seemed to factor the risk to himself into his decisions. How noble!, I thought. Years later, as a young adult, my sexual awakening took place in the shadow of a plague that, in those days before triple-combination drug treatments, killed within ten years almost everyone who contracted it. (Soderbergh’s MEV-1 only kills one out of four of its victims.) In the shadow of AIDS, Camus-like moral certainties turned out to be hard to find; all the gay men I knew worried about risks to themselves. Not worrying about such risks seemed to constitute a moral failing; on the other hand, surviving, too, seemed a somewhat guilty endeavor. In graduate school at the time, I found myself reading and rereading one of America’s first Gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown, set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797. The book’s paranoid mood and untrustworthy hero seemed timely. Moralizing was ubiquitous but unhelpful; virtue and villainy seemed mixed up in oneself.
How does Soderbergh play around with the major tropes we’ve discussed all semester? (Think of the play on communication — words — and communication — of disease, in the movie poster above, or the role played in the film by governments in containing information or establishing quarantine or seeking cures.) You can read the rest of Crain’s thoughts here. But I wonder if you’ve got some answers of your own after 14 weeks of thinking about these issues.
I apologize that I’m putting up a post so late, but these finals have been the most stressful yet! What I plan to do after finishing is watching old episodes of Doctor Who. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a British science fiction television show that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Though I feel the new seasons are not up to standard, at least the special effects are better than they were in the 60s and early 2000s.
I was reminded of one of my favorite episodes during last week’s discussion, when we talked about the perspective that a plague could be a good thing. Remember that crazy guy Abel from Zone One (with the college-sophomore socialist slant) who claimed that “The dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living” (Whitehead, 153). We also discussed that perhaps plagues and epidemics are the Earth’s way of cleaning up and defending itself from its most dangerous terrorizers – humans.
Well, this episode, called “the Empty Child,” features a terrifying plague that transforms ordinary humans’ faces into gas masks, and reduces them to zombies who can only repeat the phrase “are you my mummy?” (Yes, very British). I won’t spoil the plot too much, but if you have time to watch both parts of it (it’s easy to find online), you’ll find that the plague turns out to be similarly well-intentioned.
Best of luck with your finals (and grading them, Professor), and I hope you have a wonderful summer!
As we end our class with the novel,Zone One, I found some interesting and significant quotes from the book that we can contemplate on. Here is the 1min video clip that you can view to see these quotes. While I was looking at these quotes, I was reminded of one of the lines in the last passage in the novel that we read during the last day of the class:
Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things.
It just made me to think that the end of our semester/ end of our contagion class is not the end, but the opening for the awaiting next new semester/ using of our knowledge that we gained from Contagion in other new areas like the “cracks that are no longer cracks but the new places for things.” It is similar to how the season of winter ends and spring begins.
Other than the quotes, I found a very short book trailer for this novel! While I’ve seen many movie trailers, I have never seen a book trailer. So, I thought you guys might also be interested to watch this trailer!
Here’s also a video, in which Whitehead talks about his novel.
This is an interesting review of the novel by Harris!
Lastly, as we discussed that people are being “zombified” (those who continue doing the mundane work, who are stuck in daily routines or rituals, etc.), I was reminded of many Koreans using the subway to go to work. The subway is ridiculously crowded especially on weekdays at about 8am and 6pm (the times when the workers go to work and leave work respectively) in Korea.
Can you think of any event or moment that reminds of people being or looking zombified in your country? I thought this would be interesting to share! 🙂
p.s. Thank you, Prof. Waterman and guys! I really enjoyed Contagion a lot! This is the best class I’ve taken during my 1st year of college! 😀
When we were talking today about us resembling zombies, I remembered this video which kind of proves the point. It is an animated satire of us looking as zombies when we are locked within the world of smartphones. It is funny so check it out. 😀
P.S. I have my fingers crossed for the embed code to work. If not, the video is hyperlinked above anyways. Have a happy reading watching
After reading Zone one at 12 am, it suddenly hit me. What if zombies were a real thing? What will we do then? While 99.999999999% of the people have no idea what to do if a zombie apocalypse was to happen, luckily the US pentagon has a plan- as always. Us Military is perhaps one of the most organized force in the world with a plan to face any situation worldwide. If you need a response for a Russian nuclear missile launch? You contact US military. If you have to rescue a U.S. ambassador kidnapped by drug lords? You also contact US military. And apparently if you found a zombie in your neighbors house you can still contact US military.
Buried on the military’s secret computer network is an unclassified document, obtained by Foreign Policy, called “CONOP 8888.” It’s a zombie survival plan, a how-to guide for military planners trying to isolate the threat from a menu of the undead — from chicken zombies to vegetarian zombies and even “evil magic zombies” — and destroy them
CONOP 8888 is designed to “establish and maintain a vigilant defensive condition aimed at protecting humankind from zombies,” according to the plan’s purpose, and, “if necessary, conduct operations that will, if directed, eradicate zombie threats to human safety.” Finally, the plan provides guidance to “aid civil authorities in maintaining law and order and restoring basic services during and after a zombie attack.”
Stay Safe, Stay educated and Read more here about how to survive a zombie apocalypse
Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”
The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments .) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.
Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).
As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way they went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.
I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:
Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.
Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:
Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.
It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.
How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? It certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucratic modernity. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.
The Whitehead/Defoe/zombie connection also pops up in this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:
What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.
Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …
Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.
What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?
For this post, I prepared two things: an interview with Charles Burns and a Black Hole Movie! 🙂
Did you know that Charles Burns is very interested in mutations? There were reasons why he was inspired by mutations. Also, remember that this comic book is quite rich with symbols? In this interview, Burns briefly talks about symbolism:
So it’s as symbolic as it is anything else.
Yeah. In Black Hole, there’s not one symptom of the Teen Plague. It’s very unique for each character. So, you have Chris – who is one of the main characters – who is literally slipping out of her skin like a snake. You know, when you are at that age you are trying to reinvent yourself, and you are trying to slip out of your life, and transform into something else.
There are more interesting questions and answers in this interview. Check it out!
Moreover, I found a video on this comic book! It’s quite short (11minutes). Try watching it! Video
At the beginning of our last class, we tried to summarise what a black hole is and how it is formed. Much to the astronomers’ and physicists’ frustration, we could not fully comprehend the phenomenon of the black hole. It is necessary to understand how a black hole works and therefore, it is only right that I share whatI have discovered about black holes.
A Black hole is a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape. On Nasa’s Website, they go into further detail about how a black hole is formed and whether or not the Earth will be destroyed by a black hole. They write:
Stellar black holes are made when the center of a very big star falls in upon itself, or collapses. When this happens, it causes a supernova. A supernova is an exploding star that blasts part of the star into space.
The video below also lends us a visual on the formation of a black hole is formed.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80HkL3EF2tc (here is the link because for some reason it will not let me add the video)
Now that we understand what a black is, what do you think the black hole is in the story? Do black holes kill us or transports us to another universe?
So when you think you can escape the gravitational pull of adolescence, just remember, nothing or no one can escape the black hole.
During our class discussions, we have come to the conclusion that there are not many adults in the story. The author had focused on the world of teenagers. This is probably because adolescents are known to take chances and sometimes irrationally take decisions. The characters continuously take chances and try new drugs without thinking of the consequences. In the video below, Dr. Adriana Galván explains how the teenage brain functions. She also implies why teenagers are more likely to get addicted to a drug at a young age.
This video, perhaps, justifies the choices the teenage characters have made. Do you think the characters (who were affected by the STD or addicted to drugs) are to blame? Are they responsible for what has happened to them?
“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future…and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness.”
Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.
We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.
With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”
“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.
The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?
An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?
Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations. There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.
The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.
“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”
What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:
“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”
Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators?