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Camera Obscura 17.2 (2002) 1-38

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Contagion and the Boundaries of the Visible:
The Cinema of World Health

Kirsten Ostherr


World Health and the Dialectics of Visibility and Invisibility

Even a cursory glance at contemporary US film and television reveals a cultural obsession with contagious disease, both as a biological threat and as a rhetorical trope describing the spread of any number of insidious, malevolent forces across the globe. Nightly newscasts perpetually reiterate the central problem: strategic and technological failure in the face of an invisible enemy. While this danger is often construed as a novel feature of the emerging geopolitical reality known as "globalization," the current interest is only the latest articulation of a long-standing and continually evolving epistemological formation that has come to dominate key areas of cultural production in the postwar United States. At the conceptual core of this formation lies a preoccupation with the boundaries of visibility—a concern that links the invisibility of contagion to other potentially invisible aspects of identity, particularly race and sexuality, in an effort to [End Page 1] pin the elusive contaminant to a concrete embodiment of "otherness."

With its aim of visually representing the transnational spread of contagious disease, the postwar project of global health surveillance is heavily invested in monitoring physical and national boundaries. As a result, the films produced by international health organizations compulsively pose (and attempt to solve) the problem of visualizing invisible contagions. Within this archive of films, the human body is a recurring object of anxious attention: it is the site where the global flow of information and commodities is joined to the global flow of contagious diseases. Through this juncture, the movement of bodies and commerce across geopolitical boundaries is conflated with the infectious transgression of bodily boundaries. The threat posed by international exchange thus resides in the potentially undetected passage of invisible contaminants across institutionally regulated borders, as globalization becomes both vector and antidote for contagious disease. 1 This essay will examine the use of motion pictures by international health surveillance organizations (such as the US Public Health Service and the World Health Organization) as technologies of instruction, education, and discursive production. As I will demonstrate in my discussion of two postwar public health films—Hemolytic Streptococcus Control, a 1945 United States Navy training film, and The Eternal Fight, a 1948 United Nations film—a dialectic of visibility and invisibility pervades the films that attempt to represent contagious disease. The tension within these films, between indexical representation of the body and the impossibility of visualizing potential threats to that body's integrity, reveals the paranoia about maintaining organic national boundaries that underlies the supposed confidence of the globally hegemonic postwar United States. Moreover, the repeated representation of bodily dissolution in these films highlights their connection to contemporaneous popular cinematic forms engaged in the anxious production of coherent spectatorial subjects. 2

The problem of "invisible" mobility is consistently posed in audiovisual representations of contagion through two distinct and opposing modes of visual realism. I will call these poles "indexical" [End Page 2] and "artificial," though, as we will see, both poles strive for indexicality, and both have a fundamentally artificial relationship to "the real." The indexical pole can only secure its realism through an ideological (that is, discursive, not mechanical) relation to the profilmic, while the artificial pole asserts its realism through extrafilmic means of revealing the hidden truth of the profilmic. More specifically, the indexical mode of representation employs racially and sexually marked bodies as signs of contagion, while the artificial mode of representation utilizes the techniques of voice-over and animation to trace the paths of contagion between individuals, nations, and continents. Thus the films under investigation here construct meaning through their oscillation between these two poles; the first invokes race and sexuality as signifiers of a "real" whose self-evident truth functions indexically, as an unmediated document of essential difference. 3 This mode of representation establishes its own authenticity and realism by treating race and sexuality as irreducible, foundational categories of identity/otherness that can be...