Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mapping and the Outbreak Narrative

Priscilla Wald’s discussion of the American carrier and general outbreak narratives as transformative powers in constructing the “spatial and social relationships of a community” (Contagious 113) brought to mind the discussion we had a couple weeks ago about mapping with respect to De Certeau and Lisa Parks. Lisa Parks, in her analysis of Google Earth’s “Crisis in Darfur” project, describes how the overloading of information through images, through visibility, results in inaction. She proposes that the image has lost its power to construct a powerful narrative and thus to incite action or play a role in putting pressure on Americans to reconstruct their identity with respect to those in Darfur. As we discussed in section, De Certeau poses that the voyeur (whether standing atop the World Trade Center or looking at pictures atop their desk chair at home) is blind compared to the walker. The voyeur sees all but constructs no subjective narrative, and thus cannot play a part in defining the spatial world in which he exists.

If mapping is just the making visible, the charting, of what already exists geographically (or socially), then it seems to me that Wald is describing the mapping and spatially defining role of outbreak narratives in a similar way that De Certeau describes the walker. Or rather, the potential that walking, that individual movement has in mapping, e.g., a city is embedded in the narrative of the carrier/the outbreak. Wald writes, “The narrative of Typhoid Mary serves in [stead of familial connections of personal motivations], charting the movements of the peripatetic cook as it ‘places’ her in social, ultimately historical terms” (95). She terms the healthy carrier a “human vector” and potently notes how,

the healthy human being turned pathogen called attention to the bodily interconnectedness of people living in and moving through the shared spaces of cities and of the nation. The story of Typhoid Mary helped to fashion the experience of those spaces. (70)

Thus it is these narratives that map out “the new models of being in the world” (70) and play a real role in constructing our perception of space in our community. I always bring in Jameson when it is perhaps not the most pertinent to our discussion, but I have to ask: is this a hint at the cognitive mapping for which he calls in understanding the networked relationships in society? Wald describes the narrative of how invisible, “foreign” pathogens, or forces, are made visible, mapped, and then subsequently used as a tool in mapping our relationships as , e.g., Americans with respect to the rest of the world.

Do the narratives do a better job in inciting action and mapping out existence because they pose a threat to us as Americans? Are we only able to help if the help we are giving is to ourselves? Or is it just that communication needs to happen through a channel of interconnectedness (unlike the far-away, almost stock images of Darfur on Google Earth) to reach to us?

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