- Outburst! A Chilling True Story about Emerging-Virus Narratives and Pandemic Social Change
His eyes are the color of rubies, and his face is an expressionless mass of bruises. The red spots, which a few days before had started out as starlike speckles, have expanded and merged into huge, spontaneous purple shadows: his whole head is turning black-and-blue. . . . He opens his mouth and gasps into the bag, and the vomiting goes on endlessly. . . . The airsickness bag fills up to the brim with a substance known as the vomito negro, . . . a stew of tarry granules mixed with fresh red arterial blood.The Hot Zone 1
My face! Bloated, gray, the eyes rimmed with red, the mouth wet, purpled and slack. My body was bruised and discolored, the left arm nearly twice its normal size. . . . Crumpling onto the floor as a new spasm of incisive pain ripped through me, upwards, from my vitals to my throat. Mucus and blood and frenzied sound sprayed from me.Wraeththu 2
“We” go there, “they” come here, increasing the risk to United States citizens of exposure to tropical infectious diseases.Llewellyn J. Legters 3
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Some people think I am being hysterical, but there are catastrophes ahead. We live in evolutionary competition with microbes—bacteria and viruses. There is no guarantee that we will be the survivors.Joshua Lederberg, molecular geneticist and Nobel Laureate 4
The United States has become infected with virus metaphors. Authors compare destructive computer programs, non-normative sexual behaviors, illegal drug use, gangs, overpopulation, governmental economic intervention, 5 and even unequal personal relationships 6 to viruses to convey the idea of danger efficiently. Lethal new viruses have become a hot topic for science best-sellers, medical research, action movies, and science fiction. The recent slew of popular science writing on viruses includes Laurie Garrett’s Coming Plague, Peter Radetsky’s Invisible Invaders: Viruses and the Scientists Who Pursue Them, and Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, as well as numerous articles in both natural science and general interest magazines. 7 Virology has been a medical subspecialty for half a century, but now “emerging” viruses have attained a certain chic among the medical set, meriting their own conferences and edited volumes in the years since the recognition of AIDS; in addition, articles by emerging-virus specialists appear in refereed, general science journals like Nature and Science. 8 On the big screen, virus thrillers like Outbreak and Twelve Monkeys [End Page 94] have attracted major stars and large audiences. 9 Should the choice of topic itself not imply sufficiently that viruses matter, the authors almost invariably assert the momentous relevance of viruses to the present time; as Ann Giudici Fettner assures us in Viruses: Agents of Change, “Today is the day of the virus.” 10
I would like to examine the significance of our current fascination with viruses within the context of the work on immune system discourses by feminist science studies scholars Donna Haraway and Emily Martin. Both Haraway’s “Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse” and Martin’s Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture argue that immune system discourse reflects changing ideas about the qualities that comprise identity and selfhood. 11 In addition, they probe the depictions of the immune system’s relationship with the non-self. Critical evaluations of the criteria for self and non-self have long been an important and necessary component of feminist analysis, not least because Western women were frequently shunted into that non-self category. The developing global consciousness of Western feminism in the past decades has also led feminist scholars increasingly to consider the status of others classified politically, socially, and even biologically as outsiders on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual practice, class, and so forth. This growing awareness reflects not simply general humanitarian concerns but also the realization that our destinies are intertwined in a symbiotic manner, not in a free market structure where only the “fittest” survive. Applying natural selection to social groups turned out to be a trick to divide and conquer us, since the lucky few to succeed turned out to be even fewer than we had been...