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.


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