Plague of the Century:
Thoughts on Crowd, Conformity, and Contagion

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2

David Raney
State University of West Georgia

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 other … exists in other people's mouths … is populated 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" (273).

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 intervals":

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 club meetings…. 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 graves. (261)

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, drinking, smoking … 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 from others.

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, treacherous, lying … 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 from it … 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" ("Dreamer" 80).

Works Cited

Accawi, Anwar F. "The Cave." The Sun February 1999: 18-21.

Adams, John. Works IV. Ed. C.F. Adams. NY: Little, Brown, 1856.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of TX Press, 1981. 259-422.

Boudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. NY: Verso, 1993.

Camus, Albert. "Reflections on the Guillotine." Resistance, Rebellion and Death. Trans. Justin O'Brien. NY: Vintage, 1974.173-234.

Davis, David Brion. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971.

Dee, Jonathan. "The Reanimators: On the Art of Literary Graverobbing." Harper's June 1999: 76-84.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 2 vols. NY: Vintage, 1945.

Glück, Louise. The First Four Books of Poems. NY: Ecco, 1995. 123-4.

——. "The Dreamer and the Watcher." Singular Voices: American Poetry Today. Ed. Stephen Berg. NY: Avon, 1985. 75-82.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter Fourth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym et al. NY: Norton, 1995: 551-563.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. NY: Penguin, 1978.

Lemonick, Michael D. "The Killers All Around." Time 12 September 1994: 62-69.

Lerner, Max. America as a Civilization. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1957.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP,1988.

McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples. NY: Anchor, 1989.

Mills, Nicolaus. The Crowd in American Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. NY: Harper, 1995.

Potter, David. Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1976

Shattuck, Roger. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. NY:St. Martin's, 1996.

Sontag, Susan. Illness As Metaphor. NY: Vintage, 1979.

Stafford, Barbara M. Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Stegner, Wallace. On a Darkling Plain. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1940.

Zinsser, William. American Places. NY: Harper, 1993.

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© 2002 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture