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Viral Terror

Patrick Anderson | University of California, San Diego

Imagine the scene of an epidemic not simply as a product of organic expansion, consumption, and morbidity, but rather as an opportunity for institutions to manage and contain what Mary Louise Pratt has called "contact zones": "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths."1 Imagine the scene of an epidemic in terms of its local and larger quarantines: practices of containment that sanction and police the derivation of trans-border commerce at the scale of the individual body. Imagine the scene of an epidemic as a representational domain, relentlessly seeking, staging, and censuring the narrative of its origins: navel-gazing on the most dramatically "global" scale. Or, to cast all of these considerations in a more uniform, unified light, imagine the scene of an epidemic not just as a "public health emergency," but also as an ethical and political crisis.

Here in San Diego, we are economically, geographically, and culturally defined by our proximity to the border shared by the United States of America and the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. We live, that is, the profound complexities and dire contradictions that texturize the border not only as a territorial demarcation, but also as a constellation of practices whose effects enact "difference" in terms of mobility and access. Here in San Diego, "migration" is rarely discussed: our "contact zone" is more often experienced with, on one hand, the always-commercial, vaguely erotic allure of "tourism" and, on the other, the always-commercial, vaguely erotic "threat" of the "alien." Fixed on one side or the other, here border-dwellers track border-crossings with everyday nonchalance: throughout the day, "wait times" are announced on the airwaves—"forty minutes at Calexico, two hours at Otay Mesa"—and nightly news stories describe the most recent chapters in an endless narrative of real or virtual transgression: men are detained in underground tunnels; artists collaborate in cross-border projects; human remains, lost in risky transit, are found in the desert; and countless daily passages, unmarked but for their banality, enable production- and service-economies to sustain the lives of all who live here.

But these are the trappings of human culture, for which the border is most often a site for delimiting difference and facilitating cultural exchange. Microbiological "cultures" do not share such orientations in theory or practice; for the microscopic—whose only "papers" are the desiderata of laboratory tests and clinical records—the border is pure fiction, simulated presence, an inconsequential myth. Or rather, microbiological epidemics (and especially those that threaten to become pandemics) reveal the border to be both imaginary and "real": the virus knows no territorial limit, but the threat of a viral plague initiates the most immediate, unyielding defense of the nation's periphery. That is, nowhere and at no time is the national body-the "homeland"-more relentlessly imbricated with the fleshy individual body than in scenes of microbiological epidemics: securing the nation becomes part and parcel of surveilling the somatic subject. Indeed, during an epidemic, the nation's vested interest in managing the dermal thresholds of citizens' bodies is functionally adjacent-not merely allegorical-to the role of the federal border patrol.

We might go further and suggest that microbiological cultures (and their insistent spread) map a cartography of fear: fear of illness and death, to be sure; but, too, a fear of contagion, of unseen crossings that vitiate the border's political promise of isolation. We might seek, with h1n1, to track the panicked measures taken to reinforce that empty promise. Consider, for example, the thermal imaging devices deployed in airport arrival lounges to identify fevered travelers; the maniacal attempts both to trace the "outbreak's" origins near a U.S.-owned pork form in Veracruz, Mexico and to stage that farm as "clean; " or, closer to home in San Diego, the increasing appearance of a strange, spectral figure throughout the public domain: a transparent pump-action bottle of sanitizing gel. Now installed everywhere—checkout stands in markets, boarding gates in airport terminals, the maniacally polished surfaces of bureaucrat's desks—these translucent urns of invisible gel enact what the border cannot enforce: an isolationist promise of "protection." They summon us here in San Diego, compelling a quick, gestural embrace—or more precisely, absorption—of nationalist insularity at a distinctly microbial scale.

Put another way, these ubiquitous bottles rewrite Althusser's scene of interpellation,2 translating the "turn" that initiates political subjection into a scene of a dermal incorporation. And conspicuously concurrent, here in San Diego, we find ourselves shuffling to accommodate new "entry or re-entry" requirements of the U.S. State Department's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.3 Where previously an "oral declaration of citizenship" paired with a photographic ID would do the trick, now that superlative literature of citizenship—the passport book—alone administers crossing. Within several short weeks here in San Diego, the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control have converged to choreograph the scene of the border: a prolific rendering of the border's function through ever more "inscribed" and "incorporated" means.4 Thus is nationalism revealed as a project of responding to the fear of physical and cultural "contagion." Viral terror—the fear of the virus, the viral character of fear—operates precisely through such narratological devices, writing us into a story of cross-border threat, nourishing our faith in the border's code, soliciting our eager defense of the border's patrol.

Patrick Anderson is an assistant professor in the department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, where he is also an affiliate faculty member in Critical Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies. He works at the interstices of Performance Studies and Cultural Studies, focusing in particular on the constitutive role of violence, mortality, and pain in the production of political subjectivity. He is the co-editor, with Jisha Menon, of Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict (Palgrave-Macmillan) and the author of 'So Much Wasted': Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance (forthcoming, Duke University Press), as well as numerous journal essays and anthology chapters. His works-in-progress include a mixed-genre book on illness and reminiscence, and an historical study of the inter-relationships between architecture, ophthalmology, and empathy.


1 Pratt, Mary Louise. 1997. "Arts of the Contact Zone." In Mass Culture and Everyday Life, edited by Peter Gibian, 61-72, 63. New York: Routledge.

2 Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, 127-86. New York: Monthly Review Press.

3 U.S. State Department. "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative." 2008.

4 Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.