Monday, November 23, 2009

Difference: the specter of susceptibility

Priscilla Wald's Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative offers a enlightening account of a terrifying phenomena. This phenomena is not the emergence of life-threatening disease that humanity faces but rather the complex process of narrativization of the diseases in both scientific and cultural (media) texts. These stories that emerge form for Wald the "outbreak narrative," which she states, itself like the epidemiological map and the electron microscope, a tool for making the invisible appear; it borrows, attests to, and helps construct expertise. The points on the epidemiologist's map and the organism under the researcher's microscope make little sense without the story that is told about transmission. And that story cannot acount for the spread of the disease without registering the interactions that bear witness to the connections of human communities, which ar conceived simultaneously on local, national, and global scales. The outbreak narrative manages the consequences, as it makes sense of, what the communicable disease makes visible (39).

In this way the "outbreak narratives" function in the way that narratives including myths have served humanity for centuries. These narratives, while specific, offer an an interpretative potential for those studying and tracking diseases and the cultures they threaten.

One of the interesting thing that I find is that in her study of Typhoid and HIV/AIDS, deadly disease that would seem to show susceptibility and therefore some biologizing equivalence of mankind invoke differences to label and separate the infected and "carriers" from the rest of the population. In Wald's study of Mary Mallon or "Typhoid Mary" one sees the sexuated and gendered role the disease takes in relation to potential carriers. Beyond the association of female promiscuity with infection, "all women were potential carriers" (106). Diseases cause particular individuals and identities to become embodiments of the disease and reversely gender the diseases.

In the case of HIV/AIDS this occurs in the conflation of the emerging medical mystery with the gay male population it first begins to ravish. Later this is shifted to a racialized view of the HIV virus in two ways. In the first Wald depicts how the origins of the virus cause it to become "africanized," and even "primitivized." Beyond this ontological discovery that emerges in the narrative of HIV/AIDS, the invocation of an "African AIDS," that still haunts media depictions of this health problem show how a continent comes to marks some imagined difference.

It is extremely disturbing to see how these markers of difference emerge in the outbreak narratives in ways that are both constraining on the individuals who may or may not be infected and limiting for the medical and social community which seek to eliminate these threats against humanity.

No comments: