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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 617-624

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Contagion and Culture

Priscilla Wald, Nancy Tomes, and Lisa Lynch

When Jason Papparis, a Greek immigrant who owns a wholesale rug business in Manhattan, opens the strange advertisement from Acme Rug Cleaning Company, he is surprised by a splash of glittering stars and a small puff of dust. Impressed by the cleverness of the ad, which advises him to "Call Us To Clean Up the Mess!" he regrets that he has no need of a cleaning service (Cook 3). He certainly has no reason to suspect that he will soon die of anthrax. There is no reason he should. He is a relatively arbitrary target, chosen to test the efficacy of the synthetic anthrax produced by Yuri Davydov, a Russian emigrant, to serve as a weapon of bioterror to be used against the population of Manhattan. The perpetrators of this plot are an odd alliance of malcontents: Davydov, whose job as a cab driver feeds his resentment of class inequity in the US, and ex-military white supremacists disillusioned with the government. While Curt Rogers and Steve Henderson are determined to bring down the government, Davydov wants revenge on his erstwhile adopted land before returning home to "Mother Russia."

We invoke the plot of Robin Cook's novel Vector (1999), not only because of its appropriateness to the moment in which we are writing this introduction but also for its relevance to the themes in this volume: the relationship that it underscores among culture, disease transmission, and politics. Although anthrax is not a contagious disease, as we all know by now, the plot of Vector illustrates how central all disease has been to our understanding and experience of culture. Appearing as an advertisement, the fatal letter suggests connections among consumer culture, transmissible disease, and the postal service (and, by implication, the infrastructure of the whole communications network in the US). The ostensibly arbitrary choice of Papparis turns out to result in fact from his occupation. Because he imports rugs from Turkey, where "the animal form of anthrax was a problem" (62), his contraction of anthrax will not raise suspicions about the source of the disease. [End Page 617] It will be assumed, or so the perpetrators hope, to be the result of an occupational hazard, a symptom, in effect, of globalization.

The plot against Manhattan is foiled, ultimately, because an astute medical examiner does not fall prey to the assumptions and biases upon which the perpetrators rely and because the unholy alliance disintegrates. The racist and antigovernment motivations of the white supremacists are finally incompatible with the anticapitalist class resentments of the Russian immigrant. The anti-Semitism that initially brings them together does not prove enough to unite them. Although Yuri wants to target Central Park, hoping to infect the Jewish bankers on the Upper East Side, Steve and Curt have chosen the Jacob Javits Federal Building, which houses the largest FBI office outside of Washington, DC. Thus, Vector illustrates how a complex global politics informs both our assumptions about the transmission of contagious and infectious disease and the motivations of bioterrorism.

Although the specific diseases (bacillus anthrax and clostridium botulinum) and the idea of disease transmission are subordinated in the novel to the terror plot, Vector demonstrates how neither anxieties about the transmission of disease nor the experience of it can be separated from the nexus of meanings that constitute its perception, contraction, and treatment. To understand fully the nature of the threat, it is necessary to grasp how transmissible disease is both constituted and experienced within social, political, cultural, economic, and representational contexts. Appropriate emotional, economic, and medical responses to disease depend upon our recognizing the processes that produce the experience of and responses to it. This volume was motivated by our conviction that a richer and more nuanced understanding of the multifaceted relationships between culture and transmissible disease can yield more effective social, political, and even personal responses.

The moment in which we are writing this introduction places the disease that Jason Papparis contracts in an eerie context. Recent cases of synthetically produced...


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