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  • Contagion and the Necessary Accident
  • Bill Albertini (bio)

In the middle 1990s, during the second decade of the AIDS epidemic, media turned increasing attention to what critic Priscilla Wald has recently termed the "outbreak narrative": the "paradigmatic narrative" of the eruption of disease that "follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of emerging infection, includes a discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment."1 These outbreak narratives trace a process that begins with a disease's appearance—its emergence—and ends with its enclosure. Public health and popular narratives follow this pattern, often deeply invested in the process of making visible, and thus avoidable or containable, the invisible threat of contagion.2

Outbreak narratives, however, are also chock full of fascinating narrative holes—spaces that signal leftover anxieties incapable of being allayed by the outbreak narrative's teleology of containment. Most notably, a great many popular outbreak narratives are structured around illnesses—real or imaginary—that are contained neither by the narrative nor by the visualizing or prophylactic technologies that it imagines. When containment does occur in such texts, it rarely suffices to close off the formidable anxieties unleashed by contagion. Thus, one of the primary, if underexamined, genre conventions of the outbreak narrative is the common failure of the containment with which it, at the surface, appears most concerned. [End Page 443]

I would propose to read the outbreak narrative against its ostensible drive toward containment. That drive is real enough, but the most powerful affective work done by outbreak narratives exists in the tension between the desire for containment and an opposing and powerful desire for accidental exposure and infection. The accident gives rise to that which is "narratable," in D. A. Miller's famous term. The epidemiological effort is an urge toward what Miller calls "closure," but the spectacular accident resists closure, instead lingering in its own rupture within the narratable.3 Such spectacles of accident produce both terror and delight; unexpected terror erupts into the narrative—demanding an effort to quell it—while being simultaneously deeply desired by the narrative. Accidents become sites for plumbing cultural problems; they enable the exploration of a world perceived as intricately complex, shot through with forces that promise a form of control (through the enactment of effective borders) that simultaneously seems impossible to realize. Whereas the national fantasy of the outbreak narrative (in the U.S. context) rests upon national power's ability to contain the epidemic and the anxiety generated by it, attention to the outbreak narrative's investment in accident points to deep fissures in the national fantasy—that is, to a tendency to replace a belief in the imagined community of the United States with a belief in the failure of coherent, contained identity.4

Against Containment

Depictions of Ebola outbreaks, the threat of avian influenza, and concerns over SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) all are examples of recent outbreak narratives that are as much about globalization as they are about disease, and which are played out in myriad variations in most forms of popular media. I focus here on a range of AIDS-era contagion narratives—journalism, fiction, film, popular science writing, and television—all produced since the early 1990s. Such outbreak narratives must be understood as sensation texts in the sense that they direct attention to the effects of contagion on bodies and in turn elicit bodily sensations from viewers.5 I investigate the power of the spectacle of accident not primarily through close reading, but rather by identifying how spectacular accidents motivate outbreak narratives and alter how we understand them. However, I do pay particular attention to a few key texts, especially Richard Preston's 1994 nonfiction narrative The Hot Zone and Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 film Outbreak. These well-known works [End Page 444] function as both critical and popular touchstones for the contemporary AIDS-era outbreak narrative, and need particular attention for a number of reasons: they offer especially apt examples of the spectacle of accident, their concerns are revisited by later outbreak narratives, and these two works are regularly addressed in the proliferating scholarship on culture and...