Sandra Becker, Megen de Bruin-Molé, and Sara Polak (eds.), Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2021. 288 pages) ISBN 9781786836908
The acknowledgements of Sandra Becker, Megen de Bruin-Molé and Sara Polak’s collection Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse open with the assertion that, ‘Ideas, like viruses, are not very effective in isolation’ (p. ii).This collaborative approach to the collection is evident, with each essay interweaving thematically into the next, producing a book which feels definitive and specialised, whilst remaining wide in scope. From the role of zombie narratives in CDC communications, to the invocation of viral ‘othering’ during the AIDS epidemic, the essays collected here offer varied, and timely, perspectives on the multitude of ways in which contagion has permeated popular culture and the public imagination.
The book is split into two complimentary sections, ‘Epidemic Fantasies in Reality’ and, vice versa, ‘Epidemic Realities in Fantasy’. As de Bruin-Molé and Polak’s introduction seeks to make clear, these two themes are not fully distinct, and the collection seeks to ‘problematise and deconstruct such binaries rather than reinforcing them’ (p. 4). As such, themes overlap considerably between the two halves of the book, particularly the ‘zombie’ imagery of contagion, which is analysed in a variety of contexts.
Peter Burger’s opening essay, for example, looks at zombie metaphors in the krokodil scare of the late-2000s, a drug which caused considerable panic due to its supposedly gruesome side-effects and the zombification of its users, despite queries about these stories’ veracity. Burger’s consideration of the zombie metaphors of contemporary drug scare rhetoric ‘[downplaying] their victimhood, representing them instead, George Romero-style, as subhuman cannibals’ (p. 31) is reinforced by the next chapter in Sara Polak’s interrogation of the same imagery during the Ebola outbreak. Polak highlights the place of zombies as synonymous with ‘othering contagion’ in popular culture, a narrative which ‘justifies exclusion’ (p. 49) of infected groups, rather than encouraging a collective response to epidemics. Madison A. Krall, Marouf Hasian Jr. and Yvonne Karyn Clark then examine this same aspect of the Ebola crisis and compare it to the subsequent Zika epidemic, looking at the militarising and securitising rhetorics which have historically characterised the US’s response to these kinds of public health crises.
In the second half of the book, this interest in the notion of fighting dehumanised carriers of disease continues in a series of essays which look at how this imagery manifests in popular culture. Becker’s investigation into FX show The Strain emphasises its potent messages of paternalism and intuitive action over rationalism, ideas which supported the anti-intellectualist rhetoric popularised by then-President Donald Trump. De Bruin-Molé’s essay follows, discussing the ways in which the mindless zombie trope has been refigured for the Twenty-First Century into a ‘mindful’ consumer, citing recent zombie narratives like The Santa Clarita Diet in order to argue that the zombie has been ‘co-opted by a neoliberal consumerist discourse’ (p. 174). As these papers seek to emphasise, the compelling cultural mythologies around the zombie, and its enduring popularity, have allowed it to be reconfigured within an evolving discourse around consumption, contagion, and corporeality, and repurposed for different socio-political motivations.
The zombie is not the only ‘contagious body’ considered in the collection. Angela M. Smith looks at the proliferation of images and stories of disabled people on social media as ‘an affectionate epidemic’. The circulation of these materials, often without the knowledge or permission of their subjects, constitutes, in Smith’s words, ‘a ritualised act designed to contain and segregate potentially threatening difference’ (p. 87). These social media posts construct a binary between health and illness which alienates disabled people even as they attempt to generate familiarity. In making unwilling subjects ‘go viral’, Smith argues that ‘the association of disability with contagion thus risks stigmatising disabled people as repugnant and debilitating to the social body’ (p. 90). Francis Ray White’s essay, concerning obesity and climate change, follows Smith’s, and considers a group which are often overtly denigrated on social media platforms. As White argues, the framing of fatness as an ‘obesity epidemic’ ties it inextricably to viral narratives which ‘constitute fat bodies as contaminated’ (p. 110).
In the second section, Mica Hilson and Astrid Haas both look to the depiction of AIDS contagion narratives, Hilson on the presentation of ‘risk management’ in such stories, and Haas in problematic AIDS activism in the works of Larry Kramer. Hilson looks at how defining AIDS narratives in terms of avoidable risk offers simple reassurance that there are ways to avoid contagion, where ‘rules can be learned and mastered’ (p. 184). Likewise, Haas considers the ways in which presenting AIDS sufferers as sexual risk-takers makes them appear culpable, deliberately exposing others to infection through carelessness. Elana Gomel, in the final essay of the collection, underpins these preceding chapters with a more theoretical, over-arching analysis of the ‘epidemic of history’, the ways in which the past pervades the present in viral terms. Placed after Hilson and Haas’s chapters, Gomel’s essay gains new resonance in the wake of COVID-19, as it problematises the idea of being ‘haunted by the presence of the past’ (p. 221). Rather, as Gomel explains and as Hilson and Haas testify, we are haunted by the absence of the past, and ignore our viral history at our peril.
In ways the contributors could possibly never have imagined when beginning this project (Becker’s epilogue reveals the book’s pre-COVID origins), Embodying Contagion has succeeded in capturing an enduring cultural and academic interest in viral narratives which has become ever-more relevant since 2020. The collection is well-structured to reveal the connections between these essays and, although there are themes which are revisited throughout, a variety of contexts and analytical frameworks ensures that this never becomes repetitive. Overall, this text offers an innovative approach to the theme of ‘contagion’, and will be a welcome intervention in studies of viral history, popular culture, and public communication concerning contagious disease.
Review by Rosalind Crocker