Archive for December, 2016

How (not) to write about contagion

(With intended nod to this piece, which came up in class yesterday.)

Heather Schell, a Stanford University graduate student in the late 1990s who now teaches writing at George Washington University in DC, wrote what I think is my favorite critique of Preston’s Hot Zone only a few years after it was published. Her piece pre-dates both the full flowering of Internet culture (and its viral information metaphors) and 9/11 — both of which would wind up playing a huge role in how contagion metaphors work, especially for US-based writers, in this century. So in many ways her essay seems prescient. I think it helpfully highlights the task before us, not simply to evaluate the scientific accuracy (or entertainment value) of non-fiction writing like Preston’s, but to ask more specifically how it works and to what ends.

Schell focuses a large part of her analysis on the role played by “Africa” in texts like Preston’s, which she contextualizes most thickly in relation to US AIDS-discourse of the ’80s and early ’90s:

The repeatedly imagined introduction of killer viruses from Africa to the United States appears to spring from an analogy with AIDS (although many scientists and cultural critics have shown that assigning an African origin to AIDS is problematic). However, the explanation is more complex than simple mimicry. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s journalistic account of the AIDS epidemic, opens in Zaire during the 1976 Ebola epidemic, describing the illness of an early AIDS victim, before returning to the United States to follow the development of the AIDS epidemic. 31 His book was published in [End Page 101] 1988, and the film version, with a much stronger emphasis on Ebola as the originary African virus, appeared in 1993. So who inspired whom? Reports of earlier Ebola and Lassa fever epidemics offer no explanation for the repeated trajectory of the opening sequences. The origin does not really matter so much as the paucity of imagination revealed by these consistently structured introductions, which display the reification of African origins for killer epidemics. Richard Preston so wholeheartedly internalizes this assumption that he travels to Africa to look for the origin of the Reston outbreak, despite the fact that he knows that the infected monkeys were shipped from the Philippines, where the disease is endemic.

As she notes, the ultimate concern in texts like Preston’s, even if never states outright, is US national security, and these texts end up contributing to an “imagined community” of US readers (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term, which we’ve used before in this class) grounded both in border maintenance and in a sense of vulnerability that nevertheless confirms a sense of public health, even if tenuous:

Even authors who do not focus on Africa frequently retain the assumption that viruses are foreign entities, possibly even anti-American. This foreign genesis is structurally emphasized in Peter Jaret’s [End Page 102] National Geographic article on viruses. 35 Jaret reports visiting eight places—four in the United States—in the course of preparing his article. With the exception of a group of students volunteering to contract colds, all the ill people he mentions are encountered abroad. Americans with AIDS enter only as one slide of an infected lymph node and one solitary statistic about U.S. HIV infection rates (placed in perspective alongside the still more ghastly rate of international infection). Even Jaret’s summary of the disease’s discovery makes no mention that AIDS was first reported in the United States.

Schell develops a concept of “viral geography” to account for this sense of fear of invasion/infection among US readers and writers. Preston and other similar writers, she notes, often provide maps of African or Latin American countries, even when they are not the primary focus of their narratives:

Maps provide a good example of the persistently African geography of these viral narratives. Preston’s single illustration is a map of central Africa, though one might easily have expected a map of the Reston, Virginia, vicinity, given that area’s primacy in his story. Still, one instance alone could be disregarded as coincidence. Radetsky’s book has many illustrations, including graphs and sketches of viruses; nonetheless, despite all his lengthy discussions of viruses lurking in the United States, China, South America, and Japan, he too includes only one map—of Africa. Garrett at first seems to break the pattern, with five maps accompanying The Coming Plague: one of the United States, one of Amazonia, and three of Africa. On the academic side, Emerging Viruses, edited by virologist Stephen Morse, includes twenty-eight articles, numerous charts, graphs, and tables—and a map of Africa, with the Kinshasa Highway as the only identified landmark. 36 In addition to affirming a particular origin story for viruses, the maps suggest that Africa is particularly unknown and unknowable and therefore requires special visual aids. 

The geographic imagination produced by such textual features emphasizes the fear of traveling viruses, which links paranoia about outbreaks to a sense of insecurity produced by globalization. (Preston’s text gets at this early on: “A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth” [16].) Schell elaborates:

Viral geography enters virology in the increasing concern about the “importation” of exotic, foreign viruses, with air traffic and highways as particular threats. Krause emphasizes their responsibility in his abstract: some epidemics recur due to “changing life-styles (including increased international travel).” 39 Although epidemics can be caused by “changes in the patterns of human behavior, social organization, urbanization, and agriculture . . ., the most important factor is the spread of microbial organisms from points of origin as a result of the migration and travel of their human hosts.” 40 This fixation on travel represents a consensus among virologists concerned with emerging diseases, to the extent that even viral transmission is understood as transportation. Morse coined the term viral traffic for “movements of viruses to new species or new individuals.” 41

But this metaphor is problematic, as she argues by turning again to Preston:

The metaphor of viral traffic is in some ways oddly incongruous, because viruses, unlike many other microorganisms, have no means of locomotion. Rather, the image originates in the causal explanation of epidemics: “Inevitably, viral traffic is enhanced by human traffic. Highways and the subsequent human migration to cities, especially in tropical areas, can introduce once-remote viruses to a larger population. On a global scale, similar opportunities are offered by rapid air travel.” 46 One suspects that, for Morse, human traffic not only enhances viral traffic but is in fact synonymous with it. Martin Kaplan, a former secretary-general of the World Health Organization, commended Morse’s new phrase “viral traffic” as “apt.” 47

This association between epidemics and modern travel reappears in The Hot Zone and other popular science narratives. Preston cautions that urbanization has released a flood of viruses from the African rain forest—a message that initially seems concerned with the fragile ecosphere and human destruction. However, he ultimately narrows the origin of emerging viral epidemics to one Ur-cause: the paving of the Kinshasa Highway, which “turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century. It has already cost at least ten million lives, with the likelihood that the ultimate number of human casualties will vastly exceed the deaths in the Second World War.” 48 The Kinshasa Highway is defined in Preston’s glossary as “AIDS highway.” 49Readers are left to infer that the [End Page 105] boundaries between the “silent heart of darkness” (Preston’s term) and the civilized world should have been maintained, given that contact might actually mean the destruction of the world. Facilitated transportation between the alien world of inner Africa and the rest of the world is blamed. Peter Jaret also assumes that HIV “has changed the world,” and he similarly traces a passage out of Africa (after a brief fling with the promiscuity narrative) as his narrative of disease transmission: “Truckers infected by prostitutes carried the disease from city to town to village throughout the heart of Africa. Infected air travelers spread it to other continents.” 50 Notice that increasing urbanization per se is not a threat, but increasing movement from Africa to the rest of the world is. A recurring image of Africa’s getting out pervades the texts. This is a very new, postcolonial fear—until recently, Europeans and Euro-Americans imagined that they had to travel to Africa themselves if they wanted to be in danger.

There’s a lot more to Schell’s essay, including discussions of sexuality and the boundaries we imagine between humans and other animals. Her conclusion is an apt way, perhaps, to wrap up this course:

Our current fascination with viruses springs from our worries about the future. Ultimately, the metaphor of the virus represents our possible fates—the disintegration of self or of nation; Armageddon; the triumph of multiculturalism and the global community; the ecosystem’s anger at and vengeance for our meddling; the loss of [End Page 131] the unknown; or the escape of the unknown into our society, where everything familiar will be destroyed in its path. We might indeed be coming to see the world as an integrated system, but such integration jeopardizes boundaries many had believed to be real. Viral discourse raises the possibility of a type of global busing, bringing the foreign into our neighborhoods through infection. At the same time, fear of such change (especially change conceptualized as disease) could successfully stall it. Boundary thinking might seem stale to theorists, but it is not static. People who crave boundaries can make boundaries real. Therefore, we must not rely on the current cultural vulnerability to questions of identity as the onset of some automatic process that will ultimately dismantle traditional inequities.

An epidemic future might mean that we have to pay attention to peoples, cultures, economies, and ecologies outside our own national borders. Unfortunately, an insistence on perceiving international relationships in terms of infiltrating viral infections limits the effectiveness of our response. D. A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins has recommended the development of a “network of international centers to detect the emergence of dangerous diseases and, if possible, to contain them.” 144 Morse further suggests that “development agencies should be educated to include emerging-virus considerations when evaluating major changes in land use or when making decisions that will alter ecological equilibria or population densities. It may even be possible to develop regular ‘viral impact assessments.’” 145 While this proposal has some value, it targets only one factor of our experience of disease. According to the World Health Organization, “it becomes more and more clear that morbidity and mortality due to these infectious diseases are as much a function of the state of human development than they are of the virulence of the microorganisms which are their biological cause”; populations living in poverty suffer from a disproportionate share of epidemic diseases. 146 Insisting on some [End Page 132] inherently foreign viral geography might serve to prod us out of our myopic nationalism, but it can also be too easily marshaled as spurious proof to bolster preexisting prejudices. Disease surveillance thus offers only a partial, problematic solution to a quandary that will remain unresolved until we are ready to perceive our complex engagement with the world through a different metaphor.

How have these tendencies in writing about contagious disease (perhaps especially in the US) evolved in the last 20 years? We’ll discuss the rhetoric of homeland security and wars on terror in relation to Preston’s more recent treatment of Ebola.


“A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out.”

Viruses and diseases can play an important role in maintaining evolutionary order. Although it is difficult to imagine a worldwide epidemic that could thin out the human species, it has already occurred many times in recorded history. Richard Preston first published an article titled “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” which talks about the outbreak of a mutated strain of the Ebola virus that appeared in the U.S in the winter of 1989. Later, he wrote The Hot Zone, which is based on on the article.

The section “The Shadow of Mount Elgon” begins with the description of the history of viruses, and the outbreak of Ebola virus and also the Marburg virus. It first introduces Charles Monet, a Frenchman who lives in Mount Elgon in Western Kenya in 1979. He goes with his lover during winter holiday for a camping trip to the national park in his city and explores Kitum Cave, a tourist site. After the trip to Kitum Cave, Monet develops a headache. Three days later he starts vomiting. He is so very sick that his housekeeper fears he will turn into a zombie. Preston uses personification as a way to describe the disease rather than describing its symptoms in clinical terms. He writes, “Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” This helps transform the nonfictional work into a dramatic narrative because the disease is actively engaging in the destruction of Monet’s personality and not just his physical body. Over the course of the book, the author frequently changes narrative point of view. Why is that?

Dr. Shem Musoke tries to treat Monet but Monet’s vomit cause Dr. Musoke to become sick. The virus then spreads out and infects different people. Dr. Musoke was infected because of his concern for his patient, and the workers are also infected because they work in a factory that makes vaccines. They are infected with the virus for their action of aid of others. The act of selflessness is dangerous because diseases spread because of humans’ negligence. Chance plays a significant role in determining how a virus is spread. The virus hits indiscriminately regardless of age, personality, or sex. Although a disease’s spread can be attributed to chance, the outbreak of viruses can also be caused by laziness. Is the disease spreading because of the act of selflessness, chance, or both?

“People performed all kinds of small rituals before they walked through that steel door. Some people crossed themselves. Others carried amulets or charms inside their space suits, even though it was technically against the rules to bring anything inside the suit except your body and the surgical scrubs. They hoped the amulets might help ward off the hot agent if there was a major break in the suit” (74).

Four years after Charles Monet’s death the narrative shifts to a Victorian house in Maryland. Major Nancy Jaax is a married female working in the U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease in Biosafety level 4 hot agents. She is working on an Ebola experiment. The narrative perspective here switches to Nancy’s inner monologue. Preston refers to the issue of sexism by showing how Nancy faces discrimination at the institute because of being a woman in the science field. Why didn’t Nancy get infected with the virus? What is Preston trying to say?

Finally, it is ironic that human beings develop viruses just to later develop cures and vaccines for them. We are constantly striving for new technologies even if it means potential annihilation of the human kind. Biological warfare is one of the reasons for that. However, these kinds of warfare can easily backfire since they cannot be controlled. In what ways does technology hinder our growth as human kind? And moreover, what role does greed play in the spread of contagion? Are our governments obliged to control that kind of greed?

– Noora, Odera, Dayin, Nada

Kino der Toten


Whitehead’s Zone One is definitely an unusual post –apocalyptic scenario set in New York. The novel opens with the narrator describing Mark Spitz’s dream of wanting to live in New York City.  We as the audience are walked through a pre-apocalyptic Manhattan apartment that belonged to his uncle. A considerably wealthy man, living the New York City high life, his uncle’s apartment makes Spitz dream about residing in the heart of the city. Fast forward to the apocalypse, and none of his wealth mattered. All of New York City slowly evolved into a wasteland.

New York City is unique in many aspects of its pace, people and culture. In a city that never sleeps and is always in motion, what was the author’s intention of situating the narrative in New York? Could it have been any different if it were in some other city?

Mark Spitz, the protagonist, is the most average guy. He wasn’t the best of the lot neither was he the worst. “He was their typical, he was their most, he was their average” ( Whitehead, 11). This average guy is part of the sweeper force comprised of other civilians. This raises an interesting question, why were regular civilians placed in-charge of a critical task of eliminating the zombies? Why didn’t the Marines handle the task completely when they had the chance?

Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder appears multiple times by far and is an significant issue in the novel. In the interview with Whitehead, this is how he defines PASD:

“It seemed that if the world ends and everyone you know is mostly dead, you’d probably be a little bit bummed out… so the remaining psychiatrists have come up with the diagnosis of Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, the symptoms of which are insomnia, sleeplessness, eating a lot, eating too little, irritability. Basically, it’s like a case of the Mondays. The things that were making you stressed out before the apocalypse are pretty much the same after the apocalypse.”

The zombie apocalypse seems to turn everyone into a kind of zombie. Not only do they have the symptoms, “The soldier sprang in and out of a fetal posture, collapsing and exploding, smearing his body through a clump of vomit.” (68), they also get the mindset of it. Those who survived, who suffered from PASD, seem to take up the mindset of the stragglers which they cling too hard to the world they used to know. The memories of the horrors during the apocalypse made them act in irrational, unpredictable ways akin to the mindless zombies. Something interesting is that the abbreviation PASD sounds similar to the word “past”, which corresponds to the situation they’re in– dwelling in the past. This notion is further emphasized through the multiple flashbacks appeared throughout the book. DIfferent from previous readings that have clear markings to highlight different narrations, such as the use of Italic in Dream of Ding Village and wavelike frames in Black Hole, these flashbacks often start and end without warning which makes the reading quite confusing. What is the intention of the author to write it this way?

Whitehead portrays two types of Zombies. Those who eat flesh (majority) and those who become “Stragglers” (minority). The latter travel to a place that was once meaningful during their lives. They stay there, in their disturbed states, slowly dying although in no need of food and a threat to no one. The Straggler makes it easier for Whitehead to stress the similarities between real zombies and figurative zombies stuck in their own routines.  To what extent is the zombie a dead metaphor for an unfulfilled person or a mindless consumer, and is Whitehead successful in giving this metaphor new life?

Zombies in zone one are not treated as zombies of a single entity but rather each is their own even though they are separated into two types. If we compare the way zombies are set in this universe to for example zombies in a show/comic like The Walking Dead or of video games like Resident Evil; there are varieties of Zombies but they all have the same purpose of being used as props for setting a survival based story where the zombies are nothing but dangerous. where the zombies are presented with no history, they are just dead dangerous beings.However, Whitehead steers away from that cliche and creates a new type of Zombies called Stragglers whose purpose is to just go back to a place that was once meaningful to them and just stay there. This in a way is kind of sad as the comparison between the zombies and the living has been drawn, there are people who care about nothing but achieving and working and becoming just part of a repetitive zombie like routine who are represented as almost a single entity, the skells. Whileas the Stragglers struggle to stay in places where they once belonged, where their memories still lie. Is there something bigger to be seen in Zone One about the way that humans and society functions that Whitehead is challenging? Is there a reason to empathise(sorry) with the zombies considering they are technically dead but are still showing human emotion?

In popular media, zombies are easy targets. They are easily killed without motive, thought or moral repercussions. Whitehead emphasizes this aspect of the mainstream zombie narrative by making every person in Mark’s team see something different when they kill Stragglers. They see their targets as their worst enemies. Mark sees himself. Can we read this aspect of the text as a meta-commentary on other zombie texts, and readers’/viewers’/gamers’ participation in those texts?

This is the website of the interview with Whitehead. Hope it helps you gain more insight into what the author thinks about his creation!

Happy Reading!

  • Neha, Kai-Wen, Lateefa, Abdulla

What about the healthy teenagers?

Teenagers in Black Hole are portrayed somewhat similar to one another: they have same haircut, same facial features, same register in their speech, and almost all of them are attracted to sex and drug. They only become distinctly distinguishable later in the book after they have contracted the disease and undergone physical transformation that makes them look, frankly, weird. The disease is perhaps a metaphor for adolescence, and its contagion through sexual intercourse is just Burns’ way to portray sex and puberty as the gate into teenage world. Their bodily transformation, which manifests itself differently to different people, also seems to be a metaphor for formation of identity as the first stage into adulthood. After all, this disease is not lethal in any way. It just allows wild and permanent body growth that these teenagers will have to bear for the rest of their lives.

However, the above inference poses a question on the nature of the contagion: if the disease is indeed adolescence, then why does it affect only certain teenagers? Isn’t everyone supposed to go through adolescence anyway? The second question carries a subtle supposition that everyone goes through the same experience through their teenage years. Yet perhaps this very supposition is what the book wants to challenge: some teenagers can be exempted from the dilemma and the desire to be different that is so unique to adolescence. Sure, they encounter puberty, as they should, but they seem to be impervious to teenage impulsiveness. However, are they really sterile from any contagion that adolescence brings? Not necessarily. The healthy teenagers in the book clearly embody human ignorance, for they always reduce people who have the bug into an object of ridicule. The way these healthy teenagers are portrayed in groups also shows that they seem to share a common habit of always banishing people who do not fit in or meet their social standards. Yes, perhaps these teenagers can avoid the bug, but they are not totally immune to the contagion of ignorance, which seems to be infused into their mind once they step into adolescence (for kids are heavily characterized by their caring and loving innocence)


What’s with the Metamorphosis?

Needless to say, the plot of this graphic novel is extremely chaotic– we are presented with two distinct narrators whose lives seem to merge but who follow different trains of thought, the narrative of the story is messy and difficult to follow, there’s way too much nudity, and the characters within the story–being teenagers–are acting very hormonal. Amidst all the chaos, the audience is left having to tease out the moral of the story.

Since this is the first time being exposed to this text, I am stuck in a whirlwind of confusion. I can’t seem to figure out the multiple layers of isolation being presented in this text, and I sadly, can’t identify with the issues facing the teenagers because I had a whole different set of teenage problems outside the ones depicted in this novel.

However, I was particularly struck by the Burn’s need to depict changing character traits as a form of metamorphosis. Looking up the term “metamorphosis” in the dictionary, I came across the following definition:-
“(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.”
“A change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.”

Burns’ choice to depict the characters as teenagers offers some clarification as to why the characters change form. Teenage years, marking the stage of puberty, and a move from childhood to adulthood, offers group for some of “metamorphosis” within the context of the novel.

But there are also a number of flaws within this definition that are almost aggravating to me as a reader. Here are some of them.
1.) Metamorphosis based on my understanding requires a linear progression or series of stages. So an adult frog starts of as an egg, then moves to being a tadpole and then moves to being a tadpole with legs before emerging as an adult frog. There’s a clear starting point and a clear end point. This text, however, is contextualized in the middle of this progression. We are unsure of how the characters took form as children, and based on the end of the novel, we are also unsure of their end form. The idea of the “Black hole” as a metaphor stands not only for isolation, but for genuine confusion from a reader’s perspective. Added to this frustration is the fact that the experience of “teenage-hood” is also strictly contextual. These depictions are of American teenagers within a set time period so the experiences might greatly differ from other teenage perspectives across time periods and geography.

2.) There’s still no resolution as to why the concept of adolescence is depicted as an embodiment of some animal form. What is the rationale behind switching the face of a human boy to the face of a cat? Is there a reason for Eliza’s tail? Or Chris’ need to periodically shed skin like a snake? Granted the change of forms might just be temporary. But remember that metamorphosis is a linear progression–eggs–>tadpole–>tadpole (with legs)–> adult frog. You have a clear destination and every stage within the development entails some adding on of form or body part to reach that final stage of development. You can’t go from being a tadpole to being a butterfly. It just doesn’t work. There has to be some linear progression from one form to another.

I’m interested to see what you guys think.

Chiamaka Odera Ebeze (coe209).