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Reviewed by:
  • Contagion: Health, Fear, Sovereignty ed. by Bruce Magnusson and Zahi Zalloua
  • Jason Groves
Bruce Magnusson and Zahi Zalloua, eds. Contagion: Health, Fear, Sovereignty. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2012. 202 pp.

Emerging from a symposium convened in 2010 by the Whitman College’s Global Studies Initiative and published in May of 2012, the six essays collected in Contagion: Health, Fear, Sovereignty will touch upon the interests of critics in at least as many fields as those represented by its diverse set of contributors. Their significance, however, is not only drawn from the critical acumen of the authors but also from a series of recent events in the Middle East occurring just before and after the publication of Contagion.

While the May 2011 assassination of Osama Bin Laden may have seemed to signal the War on Terror drawing to a close, the revelation that a fake Hepatitis vaccination campaign was organized by the CIA to gain access to the Abbottobad compound greatly amplified an existing suspicion of immunization campaigns (already held by extremists to be a covert sterilization campaign) and culminated, in the closing days of 2012, in the targeted killing of health workers across Pakistan and the temporary suspension of UN-funded anti-polio work in an area where the WHO has declared a polio outbreak to be increasingly likely. It is a rapidly unfolding event such as this one that unfortunately legitimates thinking together the constellation announced in the subtitle of Contagion.

Contagion serves as the volume’s object of inquiry and, in the authors’ trans-disciplinary affiliation and openness to interdisciplinary cross-pollination, its mode of inquiry as well. In the opening salvo, Paul B. Stares, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mona Yacoubian, a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center, allow epidemiologic discourse to infect foreign relations by arguing for the adoption of what they call “the epidemic model” as an alternative strategy for responding to Islamist militancy. Though certain tactical advantages are afforded by modeling terrorist activity on the behavior of an infectious disease or viral infection, their solution of “selective or targeted immunization programs” to combat radical ideologies aligns itself with a humanitarianism that, as exemplified in the farce of the Abbottobad vaccination campaign, is increasingly viewed by those in the region as the war on terror, by other means.

A more authentic concern with global health can be found in Andrew Lakoff’s contribution, “Epidemic Intelligence: Toward a Genealogy of Global Health Security.” Offering the most substantial essay in the volume in terms of length and vision, Lakoff shows how “global health security” has become much more focused on national security than global health. By identifying an alternative regime in what he terms “humanitarian biomedicine,” Lakoff’s work facilitates the (more explicitly critical) interventions of the other contributors into the prevailing logic of emergency-oriented governance.

Whereas Lakoff looks at how the emphasis on emerging epidemics and national security is politically conjoined, Priscilla Walds’ essay concerns the conceptual conjunction of infection and terror in what she terms “biohorror [End Page 405] narratives” (interested readers should also consult her 2008 book, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and Outbreak Narratives). A smattering of vampire and zombie thrillers allows Wald to demonstrate how the medicalization of the horror and thriller genres reproduces but thereby allows for critical reflection on the medicalization of international relations from the Cold War to the War on Terror. This entanglement of epidemiology and politics, Wald rejoins, distorts the underlying problems and regrettably preselects those solutions (doubling up on security rather than addressing poverty) that tend to lead to escalation.

Both Christian Moraru and Alberto S. Galindo turn to Post-Cold War and Post-9/11 novels for an alternative reception of contagion to the fear-mongering of the horror flick. Perhaps Moraru alone gives voice in the volume to the assumption that contagion is not a disease but a watchword of the editors. Drawing on Derrida’s On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, Moraru makes a plea for a haptic culture in an era in which touching and physical contact has been pathologized by a cultural imaginary where the virus and the viral holds sway. In the novels and...


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pp. 405-407
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