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  • Contagion: Health, Fear, Sovereignty ed. by Bruce Magnusson and Zahi Zalloua
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 stories of Don DeLillo, Moraru finds a system or counter-system of creative recycling that promises to pull the proverbial emergency brake on globalization, taken as a totalizing paradigm that re-envisions the world as globe and contact as contagion. Whereas Moraru dismantles the ideology of contagion, Galindo considers the contagion or contagiousness of ideology in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006) and Zoë Heller’s The Believers (2009). Galindo’s essay traces the spread of a certain bourgeois liberalism throughout these fictions and in doing so treats contagion as a metaphor, but it does not thereby lose any of its virulence.

While literature is rightfully identified as a carrier of contagion in the second half of the volume, readers might notice that no contribution acknowledges the capacity of theater and performance to function as a space of contagion. The association of theater and performance with the plague certainly has an epidemiological basis—the Old Globe, for example, was closed by outbreaks of the bubonic plague in 1593, 1603, and 1608—but an engagement either with Antonin Artaud’s infamous essay “The Theater and the Plague” or the subsequent generations of theater practitioners and performance artists that it influenced, would have also provided an important insight into the forms taken by contagion today.

One other apparent shortcoming to this volume is that the tendency to focus on emerging infectious diseases of the 2000’s—SARS, swine flu, bird flu—partially comes at the expense of the still-deadly “routine” pandemic killers (tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS) that no longer occupy the most privileged position in today’s pandemic imaginary. Yet it also deserves to be said that many of the essays in Contagion both expose and counter the diversion of the epidemic emergency and the related depoliticization of society that emergency-thinking promulgates. For example, in the very act of gesturing to an affective public that has already disbanded by the time of the publication of Contagion (“We are currently in the midst of an [avian [End Page 406] bird flu] epidemic”), Geoffrey Whitehall effectively demonstrates that what he calls “the affective blackmail” of the pandemic emergency needs to be targeted as a site of “political paralysis.” While the call for a politicization of the aesthetic-affective closely parallels one made by Walter Benjamin in the closing lines of his essay addressing a past state of emergency, this call in Contagion is no less necessary for addressing and defusing, in a politically responsible way, the coming monsters at our door.

Jason Groves
Yale University

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