Monday, November 23, 2009

The Healthy Carrier

In the chapter, “The Healthy Carrier,” Wald provides the example of Typhoid Mary as an example of the deployment of the narrative for means of social control:

“The story had to turn theories – in this case, the discoveries of bacteriological research – into plausible explanations, and technical terms and concepts into the ‘truths’ of lived experience” (Wald 70).

For Wald, the threat that the emergence of the healthy carrier brought with it was one that provided the foundation for epidemiological efficacy. The scientific data and research was used a means of interpretation and explanation of social phenomena. Epidemiology provided the grounds for containment, social exclusion and the looming threat that the healthy carrier always already had within the realm of the social.

What the emergence of the healthy carrier also brought was yet another reason for the need to know the body, to examine, and analyze it. Although Wald makes clear the changing nature of the narrative, one thing remains consistent throughout – the intimate link of viruses to bodies. Bodies, even healthy ones, are still susceptible and therefore always suspect to disease. Bodies are inscribed with disease or a threat, an excess of signification. The focus on corporeality is most highlighted in Wald’s discussion of the healthy carrier:

“For public-health workers, the healthy carrier was ‘not merely a passive transmitter of infection’ but ‘also a breeding-ground and storehouse of these specific organisms’ that offered ‘the best explanation for the maintenance of the infection in communities’ (Wald 69).

Here, it is also important to note that one’s fundamental being becomes tied not only the corporeal body, but also to one’s place within the social body. And Wald makes very clear that it is not just narratives of every-body, but also there are layers of bodies that are more susceptible, diseases that become gendered or racialized.

One final thought: Although this thought is not clearly thought out, I could not help but think of the subversive element of the virus. Viruses are seen as posing a threat to ‘humanity’, the role of the virus or disease seen as something fundamentally non-human. The study of disease and viruses, however, is inherently linked with the study of bodies. But we must also ask ourselves what is at stake in this? This is what I think Wald points to over and over again and questions.

It is the desire to know that drives knowledge-production, both sociologically and biologically. So perhaps we need to look into the potential danger of placing subjects fully into realm of representation, where everything can be found out or discovered. However, the presence and potential of a virus points to an incalculability of the individual, the inability to ever fully know the subject. Perhaps the impossibility of ever being able to fully represent subjects offers a potential and the role of the virus in the social order also subverts power, even as it might help perpetuate it. The question I am left with after this thought is, “What is left over in this exchange and what is its potential?”

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