As men grow more alike, each man
feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest.
—Alexis de Tocqueville
In April 1924, Franz Kafka wrote to a friend
from the sanatorium where he would die two months later, complaining
that no one would speak to him frankly about his illness: "Verbally
I don't learn anything definite, since in discussing tuberculosis
everybody drops into a shy, evasive, glassy-eyed manner of
speech" (Sontag 7). Thirty years later, a decade after publishing
The Plague, Albert Camus observed in a 1957 symposium that
euphemism still ruled the discussion of grave diseases:
In our well-policed society we recognize that an illness is
serious from the fact that we don't dare speak of it directly.
For a long time, in middle-class families people said no more
than that the elder daughter had a "suspicious cough"
or that the father had a "growth" because tuberculosis
and cancer were looked upon as somewhat shameful maladies. (176)
This remains true to some extent today:
cancer is frequently "the C-word" in conversation and
AIDS a "lingering illness" in obituaries. But in an age
in which diseases, particularly of the contagious type, seem to
be on every magazine cover, paperback rack, and movie marquee, it
can no longer be said that as a culture we are generally "shy"
or "evasive" about our maladies. In fact, it might be
fair to twist Camus's axiom into a contemporary corollary: in our
society, we realize that a phenomenon is serious from the fact that
we speak of it as an illness.
Naturally an era's predominant concerns will
be reflected in this sort of metaphorical figuration, so it is unsurprising
that in our day computer phenomena and nuclear proliferation are
referred to as "infectious." And perhaps it is inevitable
that such analogies should sometimes collapse, the metaphor veering
toward the real. When the computer lexicon borrowed the word "virus,"
for instance, to name a species of rapidly multiplying computer
failure, it spawned a subgenre of science fiction thrillers —
a recent example is Graham Watkins's Virus (1995) —
in which superviruses transfer themselves from machine to user and
threaten millions. This sort of narrative seems a clear demonstration
of anxiety over the ambiguous boundaries, in this case between man
and machine, that are put into question almost daily by developments
in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other advanced technologies.
Non-fiction books on high-tech subjects can take nearly as grim
and sensational a tone as their fictional counterparts: Silicon
Shock: the Menace of the Computer Invasion (1985), for example,
or Computer Viruses, Worms... Killer Programs, and Other Threats
to Your System (1989). The language and images of technology,
medicine, and fearful fantasy are interdependent.
Language itself, in fact, has often been conceived
of by our century as contagious. Poet Louise Glück echoes William
Burroughs's famous claim that "language is a virus" when
she invokes "the contagious vernacular" (First 123).
Memoirist Anwar Accawi tells of his parents referring to cancer
as "that disease" not out of a concern for euphemistic
delicacy but "because they were afraid that saying the word
itself would bring the sickness upon them" (19). The Russian
theorist Mikhail Bakhtin suggests something similar in positing
that language "lies on the borderline between oneself and the
exists in other people's mouths
with the intentions of others" (293-4). And Stephen Pinker,
a cognitive neuroscientist, draws the analogy still more clearly.
Language innovation, he theorizes, "must spread and catch on
like a contagious disease until it becomes epidemic"; in this
way, learning is "contagiously spread from person to person
[as] minds become coordinated" (243, 411).
These are fairly recent developments, though.
Certain fears, or more precisely fears of certain Others —
differing by race especially, but also by class and gender —
have been particularly persistent in our century and have been cast
in terms of contagion ever since the scientific breakthroughs of
the 1870s and 1880s. Of course these fears, like the general figurative
use of disease, long predate the modern period. But germ theory
offered a new and versatile way to conceive of boundary loss and
shifting identity, and while this phenomenon is hardly exclusive
to America, the peculiarities of our culture and history have rendered
such metaphor-making a compelling, pervasive project for us.
One way to understand the American reaction
to theories of contagion is to view it through the lens of our conflicted
ideas about individuals and crowds. Deep in our national mythos
is the glorified figure of the loner: the farmer, backwoodsman,
cowboy, gold miner, or other adventurer who lives by wit and grit
a step from the frontier, needing no organized religion or government
to show him the way. At the same time, though, America has struggled
since its beginnings to define itself geographically, culturally,
and politically and in so doing to assert some communal identity.
Our democratic institutions have similarly striven to reconcile
the warring demands of individual and group, avoiding both anarchy
and the "tyranny of the majority" which, de Tocqueville
warned, "represses not only all contest, but all controversy"
We resist conformity on principle, it seems,
but indulge it in practice. Despite expressions of horror about
"mass man" during the Red Scare 1950s, for instance, Americans
were already growing increasingly homogenous in behavior and taste.
Max Lerner in his 1957 book America as a Civilization caricatured
Americans as robots "performing routinized operations at regular
They take time out for standardized "coffee breaks"
and later a quick standardized lunch, come home at night to
eat processed or canned food, and read syndicated columns and
comic strips. Dressed in standardized clothes they attend standardized
. They are drafted into standardized armies,
and if they escape the death of mechanized warfare they die
of highly uniform diseases [and] are buried in standardized
It is important to note that there is
nothing uniquely American in the fear of conformity, either. Scotsman
John Robison in an influential 1797 tract railed against the French
Revolution as a conspiracy to "reduce mankind to the state
of one undistinguishable mass" (Davis 39). But sociologist
David Potter, in his 1963 Commonwealth lectures on "Freedom
and Vulnerability," suggests a reason that America's vaunted
individualism should so often express itself as conformity. "No
other nation," Potter argued, "has had the same combination
of compelling experiences with pioneering, mass immigration, and
urbanization—all of which tended to intensify the fear of
isolation and the feeling of dependence on the group" (23).
America has nevertheless tended, except in wartime, to emphasize
its pluribus rather than its unum. I would argue that
this psychosocial ambivalence plays a large part in both our fear
of contagion and our insistence on using it to express other, unrelated
fears. Contagion, after all, threatens natural borders (self and
other) and artificial ones (class, race, nation), both individual
and communal. And, in doing so, it imposes a paradoxical combination
of difference and unity: it alters individuals but dissolves the
distinctions between them, resulting in both the pariah's isolation
and a forced community of shared symptoms.
If American culture has been divided against
itself on the relative value of individuals and groups, however,
precision requires that a distinction be made in the latter term
between "the people" and "the masses." Just
as the Greek philosopher Proclus distinguished "the people"—a
group "united to itself" and worthy of democracy—from
"the populace"—an incoherent rabble—so in our own national
rhetoric "the people" are lauded from the first words
of the Constitution while the "crowd," "mob,"
or "masses" merely threaten social disruption (Stafford
290). The difference goes beyond semantics, for the second set of
terms generally carries a class stigma. Matthew Arnold labelled
culture "an internal condition" and felt, as Lawrence
Levine observes, that anything producing "a group atmosphere,
a mass ethos, was culturally suspect." An 1894 article in Century
magazine defined "the masses" as those delighting in "eating,
dancing, music of a noisy and lively character,"
etc. By contrast, anyone demonstrating "a permanent taste for
higher pleasures," went the argument, "ceases, ipso facto,
to belong to the masses" (Levine 164, 225). And it is these
"crowds" and "masses" (not the noble "people")
who are most often constructed as contagious. Military historian
John Keegan, for example, writes in The Face of Battle (1978)
that "a crowd is the antithesis of an army" and is characterized
by "inconstant and potentially infectious emotion which, if
it spreads, is fatal" to discipline (175). John Adams, writing
two centuries earlier, opined that America with all its open land
might avoid the unruliness of crowds: "Where large numbers
live in small places," he reasoned, inevitably there are "contagions
of madness and folly" (587).
Our imaginative literature has made similar
connections between crowds and contagion. Nathaniel Hawthorne in
"My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832), writing before germ
theory had taken hold, nevertheless describes a gathering mob as
a disease symptom: "[It was] as if a dream had broken forth
from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the
midnight streets" (561). Mark Twain, writing after that seismic
paradigm shift, links mobs specifically to contagion in claiming
that "men in a crowd
don't think for themselves, but
become impregnated by contagious sentiments uppermost in the minds
of all who happen to be en masse" (Mills 69). What is
at stake here is not so much behavior as identity: madness, fever,
and uncontrolled emotions take us out of ourselves, whether violence
follows or not. Expressing that identity purge as a contagious phenomenon
acknowledges that contagious disease, like the engulfing crowd,
dissolves the fragile membranes by which we distinguish ourselves
Wallace Stegner's novel On a Darkling Plain
(1940) also clearly links identity, crowds, and contagion. Set during
the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, the novel presents a protagonist
who "could stand
individuals" but not mankind "in
pack." Only "in isolation," Vickers contends, could
people "stay human [and] keep their dignity. When more than
three of them got together it was a pack, and the pack was immoral,
full of reasonless hatred for the foreign
and different" (67-8). Yet in those "packs," too,
lies the danger of a specific, infectious agent of the foreign
and different. The flu then ravaging cities was "one good argument
for living alone," he reasons: "The plague [was] a symbol
of the manifold sickness, physical and spiritual, that affected
mankind in the mass" (157). Holed up in a remote camp on the
Canadian plains, Vickers considers his hut walls "a bulwark
an affirmation of tentative identity" (122) during the
long storm-blast of the flu. Another character, venturing into town
and "almost certain contagion," is likewise described
as "trying to hide his identity, as if he could escape the
disease" (161). When Vickers finally comes down with flu, the
narrator again implicates contagion in a loss of identity. He becomes
just "another patient
part of the town's collective
sickness" and feels "poised over his own body, separate
as if he walked with another person" (225, 207).
These last few examples end fifty years ago,
but contagion as a figurative device has hardly vanished from our
lives since then. Contagion metaphors are everywhere: we are confronted
daily in the news media with the "virus" of sexism, road
rage, doubt, war, and witchcraft; with "epidemics" of
hate, handguns, disrespect, eating disorders and even, in a bizarre
recent instance, historical novels (Dee 77). Virtually no facet
of American life is immune to such treatment (as the phrase "immune
to" itself suggests), and the phenomenon goes beyond popular
journalism. Essayist William Zinsser remarks that our Alamo martyrs
are "immune to the virus of revisionism" (77). Roger Shattuck
in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1996)
shares imagery with early 20th-century book censors — though
he presents a more sophisticated argument than the banners and burners
— when he explicitly compares stories appealing to our violent
or prurient interests to "bacterial and viral disease"
assaulting "our moral immune systems" (296-7). And Jean
Baudrillard claims in The Transparency of Evil (1993) that
thought itself is "a sort of network of antibodies and natural
immune defences" against a broad spectrum of phenomena which
render us vulnerable to "the evil genie of otherness."
These can be as trivial as fashion fads, which "fade away like
epidemics once they have ravaged the imagination, once the virus
has run its course," or as potentially catastrophic as "AIDS,
terrorism, crack cocaine or computer viruses." All of these,
Baudrillard maintains, "hew to the same agenda of virulence
and radiation, an agenda whose very power over the imagination is
of a viral character" (61-70).
Nor has actual contagion, of course, been relegated
solely to theory and imagination. This fact is clear enough from
the recent media attention given to resurgent ancient diseases like
tuberculosis and cholera, plus such new horrors as hantavirus, Ebola,
flesh-eating bacteria, the so-called "X" virus from Sudan
and, of course, AIDS. Bacterial and viral diseases still kill about
fifteen million people annually worldwide (Lemonick 62-9). Ironically,
in fact, we may be to some extent victims of our own success in
the battle against germs. In barely a century, science has learned
to slow, halt, kill or cure most of the scourges of our recent ancestors,
but as Darwinian natural selection would predict, these conquests
have cleared the field for some new entries and occasionally for
stronger versions of old ones. The drug-resistant strains of streptococcus
and staphylococcus in hospitals provide examples. Another is the
set of emergent tropical diseases — AIDS is thought to be
among them — which have beset us as a result of our destruction
of the rainforest, a process which itself only became possible once
we devised vaccines and treatments for known tropical killers. Historian
William McNeill numbers polio, too, among the century's "new
diseases of cleanliness," in that "minor infection in
infancy produced immunity
whereas persons whose sanitary
regimen kept them from contact with the virus until later in life
often suffered severe paralysis or even death" (254).
This is not to argue, it need hardly be said,
for a cessation of efforts to control or eradicate disease. But
it does point to the likelihood that contagion will always be with
us, tapping deep fears and questioning our notions of individual
agency and identity. In this way, microbial contagion, and the metaphors
which deform or translate it into other realms of understanding,
will continue to shape our conception to the point where, in Louise
Glück's phrase, self ends and "the blur of the world begins"
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