- Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative
As I sat down at the computer to write this review, NPR was playing in the background, and a “Story-Corps” interview soon aired featuring a man who, as a small boy, had contracted polio during the 1945 epidemic that similarly infected tens of thousands. A little later that morning, I listened to a news story about Arizona’s stringent anti-immigration policies and their dampening effect on “border invasion,” a phrase that evokes scientific descriptions of the progression of a virus. In short, one morning’s news cycle richly confirmed both the topicality and the necessity of Priscilla Wald’s new book.
In Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, Wald examines the rhetorical strategies and formal devices of “the outbreak narrative,” a genre that has captivated the popular imagination at least since the emergence of bacteriology in the 1880s and that intertwines medicine and myth as it “conspicuously turn[s] the threat of disease emergence into an apocalyptic battle between heroic scientists and the hybrids who embody the threat” (257). Epidemics may lack an inherent logic, climax, or resolution, but the stories we tell about them possess all three. The “outbreak narrative” that Wald dissects in Contagious is the conventional story told to explain how such contagious diseases as typhoid, cholera, polio, HIV/AIDS, and SARS are spread first locally and then globally, only to be ultimately contained. With its fascination with boundaries, the outbreak narrative taps into and medicalizes anxieties generated by the porous national borders and shifting demographics that help to define the global village.
Some readers of Literature and Medicine may find it odd that a literary critic has ventured into territory hitherto mapped out by epidemiologists and historians of science, among others, but Wald has long called for sustained dialogue between the humanities and sciences. In a 2002 special issue of American Literature, for instance, Wald and her co-editor Wai Chee Dimock insist on the importance of conceptual exchanges between the two fields in this increasingly science-driven and science-literate age. In their co-written preface, the two Americanists identify “an opportunity for creative and productive responses to the emergence of new forms of knowledge, of cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations, all born of the necessity to address the growing entanglement of culture, technology, and science.”1 In Contagious, Wald practices many of the forms of interdisciplinary dialogue she and [End Page 96] Dimock preached. For instance, Wald attends to science as a “language system” that already intersects with other language systems, including literature, and she explores the problems ensuing when one system is translated into the other. In particular, she sets out to chart “the contact zone” between the two disciplines: the terrain of their dynamic and mutually informative interchange. As a literary critic, she subjects the sciences to a microscopic scrutiny of the sort she and Dimock wanted “to bear down on the sciences, holding them accountable for issues not necessarily expressible through their disciplinary language and not necessarily highlighted for their practitioners.”2 Simultaneously, she takes literary scholars to task for remaining stuck within the confines and conventions of their narrowly-defined disciplines and specialties, especially since, as Wald herself ably demonstrates, their skills at rhetorical analysis can usefully illuminate the discursive formations and underlying assumptions of disciplines outside of their comfort zones.
Throughout Contagious, Wald provides persuasive insights into the foundational nature of the outbreak narrative, attending particularly to the influential role it continues to play in the formation of key constructs, including culture, nation, and the bureaucratic state. As Wald shows, contagion is a recurring trope in analyses of social interactions, used to convey how social change occurs and social cohesion and social control are enforced. Globalization has sharpened the perception of human interactions and human interdependence as both potentially beneficial and life-threatening: globalization can, for instance, be blamed for pandemics and simultaneously credited with facilitating their increasingly efficient containment. Wald reveals the etymological and formative links between communicable, communication, and...