restricted access Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (review)
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Reviewed by
Priscilla Wald. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. xi + 373 pp.

Identifying shared narratives and common themes in texts across different disciplines, genres, and historical periods, Contagious makes a strong case for the perspicacity and persistence of literary criticism as a social practice. Priscilla Wald's book affirms how the critic's attention to narrative and rhetorical patterns yields far-ranging social insights, as it articulates the ways cultural representations of epidemics have shaped notions of American national community from the late nineteenth century to the present. Wald elaborates on the convergence of science and culture in "the outbreak narrative," which she describes as a "formulaic plot that begins with identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment" (2). As Wald shows, the realities of public health scares and the social myths communicated about them become mutually constitutive, forming a conventionalized plot as applicable to scientific research as cultural forms like literature and film. Indeed, what makes health panics such as typhoid fever, HIV/AIDS, and SARS so fascinating is not simply their scientific ramifications, but that they make for powerful stories that tell of, in Wald's words, "the perils of human interdependence and the triumph of human connection and cooperation" (2).

Pulling together an archive that includes medical papers, sociological studies, and horror films, Contagious traces the variations of the outbreak narrative over the past century. Starting with a brief discussion of current events with SARS, Wald's study suggests that it is with the benefit of critical hindsight that the cues of the outbreak narrative so familiar today can be read back into previous historical moments, seeking out structural resonances between the way contemporary epidemics and earlier crises have been represented. Not only does Wald treat the obvious cases of mythic carriers like "Typhoid Mary" and "Patient Zero" (who purportedly introduced HIV/AIDS to North America), but she also provides a broader perspective on the trope of contagion and how it carried over into politics and the popular imagination, as accounts of disease and infection became allegories for turn-of-the-century immigration policy and anti-Communist Cold War ideology. Through her incisive readings of how the discourses of epidemiology appropriated cultural forms, such as detective fiction and investigative journalism, Wald describes how the science of contagious disease was translated into social terms to form public perception and influence public policy.

The overarching argument of Contagious addresses the dialectical role that the concept of contagion plays in the formation of a [End Page 880] modern American national imaginary. Despite the negative implications of regulating who could and could not be included as part of the nation, the logic of outbreak, Wald explains, also conveys more positive associations of collective identification and mutual responsibility. Two of Wald's touchstones are Foucault's theory of biopower and Benedict Anderson's model of the nation as an imagined community, through which she explores how modes of social organization had a productive affective dimension. "The outbreak narrative reinforces national belonging through more than the identification of the health of the population with state institutions," Wald asserts. "The depiction of contagion offers a visceral way to imagine communal affiliations in national terms" (51). Wald unpacks the trope of contagion to show how the anxieties of enforcing borders—real and imagined, personal and national—run up against the lived experience of human contact and interaction that traverses any barriers. Indeed, Wald's most illuminating readings address how such tensions surfaced in debates over immigration and urbanization during the early twentieth century; for instance, she interrogates how responses to "Typhoid Mary" in medical reports and journalistic accounts relayed discursive attempts to biopolitically control populations, while reflecting emerging national ideologies that saw the need to turn what was alien into something American. What Wald calls "communicable Americanism" takes the socializing effects of the outbreak narrative even further, focusing on how Robert Park's pioneering urban sociology deployed the rhetoric of contagion as a means of imagining how foreigners could be Americanized and made to belong to an expanded body...