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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 625-652

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Epidemic Entertainments:
Disease and Popular Culture in Early-Twentieth-Century America

Nancy Tomes


Over the last 20 years, "killer germs" and "superbugs" have become familiar features of American popular culture. Against the backdrop of a global AIDS pandemic that has claimed almost 14 million lives, the news media and entertainment industries have used the specter of real and imagined plagues to promote a wide variety of cultural products, from nonfiction tomes to made-for-TV movies. Through their efforts, Americans have become familiar with a host of frightening new ailments, including AIDS, Ebola, flesh-eating streptococcus, and the West Nile virus. Since September 11, what once seemed implausible scenarios involving bioterrorists and international conspiracies have taken on chilling new believability. With memories fresh in mind of airplanes used as bombs and anthrax sent through the mails, Americans seem headed for another "epidemic of signification," to use Paula Treichler's phrase, in which books, television specials, and movies explore the theme of disease apocalypse (1). 1

The events of September 11 make the purpose of this special issue more complex and urgent. As Priscilla Wald writes in the introduction, this issue aims to provide "a richer and more nuanced understanding of the multifaceted relationships among culture and contagion." Responding to the various plague scenarios being circulated in media and policy circles today requires engagement with a larger crisis in what sociologist Ulrich Beck has termed our modern "risk society," that is, a culture increasingly aware of its potential for self-annihilation through nuclear war, environmental degradation, and pandemics of deadly disease. Since the end of the Cold War, widening disparities between the economic resources and ideological outlooks of the developed and developing worlds, coupled with the greater ease with which people and ideas move about the globe, have seemingly expanded the potential for [End Page 625] political and biological disruptions. Simultaneously, improved global telecommunications have ensured that these disruptions will be broadcast around the world, courtesy of video cameras, satellite networks, cable TV, and the Internet. New biological realities of disease converged with more intense scientific and media scrutiny of them have combined to heighten anxieties about what Jacqueline Foertsch terms "postmodern plagues" (4). As she writes, "Despite multiple medical and social advancements throughout the twentieth century, fears of plague have not been eradicated by science, politics, or religious fervor but have instead spawned a plague of fears that worsens the crises attending any period of true biological threat and fuels the fires of mistrust and misinformation in contexts where this threat is nonexistent" (4).

Given renewed anxieties about bioterrorism, it is all the more important that we reflect more deeply on how this "plague of fears" gets conceptualized and acted upon. Over the past decade, critical theorists have done exemplary work exposing the manifold ways that class, race, and gender differences have shaped popular representations of infectious diseases. A generation of AIDS-inspired scholarship has raised our consciousness about the ways that popular narratives of disease and risk, whether in fictional or nonfictional form, influence health care politics and policy. Critics have raised important questions about the way that media attention defines a disease's newsworthiness. Barry Glassner and Susan Moeller describe how media competition has helped make Americans overly fearful of rare diseases they are unlikely to encounter, such as Ebola and the flesh-eating streptococcus, while distracting them from more widespread public health problems. Similarly, Treichler and her colleagues, in an unpublished presentation delivered at the twelfth World AIDS Conference, have identified a "global AIDS template" evident in policy statements and media coverage, a narrative in which "dramatic themes of microbiological apocalypse or merciless chemical and biological genocide obscure the more lethal and prevalent threat to human populations of boring, unromantic diseases like TB [and] malaria" (16).

Scholars such as Treichler, Lisa Lynch, and Heather Schell have shown how representations of infectious diseases frequently become a vehicle for expressing cultural anxieties about economic interdependence and racial mixing. Yet we still know too little about how the multiple...


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