The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Field Notes

The Pandemics of Interpretation

Harris & Ewing, <em>Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward</em> (c. 1910-1920).
Harris & Ewing, Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward (c. 1910-1920).

“Nothing is less sensational than pestilence” — Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)

I’ve lost track of the days. They have taken on a different rhythm. Some parts so closely resemble life before: Wake up. A dog anxious to get out of the house and an apartment filled with cold light. Everything seems the same. But as I get to the front door I know something is different. The masked faces on a near empty street. Even the subway sounds empty as it shudders beneath me. The strange mix of the familiar and the unreal is overwhelming. My dreams have changed. The sky unfurling after a downpour is clear in a way I’ve never seen it. With no work, I spend two, sometimes three hours cooking dinner. Meanwhile people have been dying. Older, poorer, browner. Alone. Hooked up to ventilators or dying in their homes, uncounted. Neighbors. People halfway around the world.

This is not how it’s supposed to happen. At least not by the conventions of Hollywood and popular media. An invisible virus. Many of its victims showing no signs of harboring it. No rioting and looting. The only people fleeing in desperation, as they always do, the rich. This stubborn unwillingness to conform to the reality of popular culture has made the last few months seem even more unreal as we try to comprehend something that does not meet with artificial expectations cooked up by showrunners and prestige directors. It’s all monotony and masked medical care workers, most of whom will never get top billing in the next blockbuster.

This is what I’ve learned by ingesting a lot of pandemic texts since I went into quarantine, along with the rest of New York City: watching films (Johnny Mnemonic, Jaws, Outbreak, Contagion, 28 Days Later, Alien, reading literature (The Plague, Death in Venice), scrolling through a lot of plague paintings. Some of my friends think it’s a bit much, but my tendency has always been to wallow and it’s demonstrated that how we represent this type of event to ourselves creates a specific kind of unrealistic fantasy about a confrontation with pandemic or social health more generally. These fantasies turn out to be nothing like reality of sitting in isolation glued to a screen that spits up data visualizations and the prognostications of everyone who is now an expert in epidemiology.

We've been prepared by the texts we ingest to think about this pandemic a certain way. That it’s fast moving. That its scourge is readily identifiable. That it’s public. But it’s this visible quality that’s most at odds with the fact of the pandemic. Even previous iterations of SARS, as Rupert Beale pointed out early on in the London Review of Books online, evinced clear signs among sufferers and thus made targeted quarantine easier.1 But this novel coronavirus has not obliged, making it especially difficult to grasp when it has been constantly imagined for us so differently. I don’t mean to indict media for its imagination (or distinct lack of it)—only to make sense of why this current situation possesses a specific type of unrealness and to caution, once more, that very little about the human condition or life as it actually exists, is much like what we see on the screen.

First is the feelings of helplessness. This “enemy” is invisible. But narrative necessitates the very small be rendered visible. Hence, medical procedurals like House, M.D. draw us into make believe, providing us electron microscopes for eyes so we can watch a virus enter a cell or an atrial valve seize up. Rendered life-sized, it becomes combatable, or at least comprehensible. But the truth, of course, is that every doorknob, elevator button, cup, and toothbrush we touch is teeming with things—threatening and non—we’ll never see. Usually, this is a good thing, at least for sanity’s sake; but these days it allows us to exist in some perpetual state of denial or preparedness.

However, the depictions on network television provide a kind of falseness, the idea that what ails us can be seen and thus defeated. Instead, we have to wash our hands, not touch our face, remain distant, and hope. There’s no Holmesian moment where the diagnosis becomes clear and the doctors rush an injection (no doubt costing a small fortune) to the patient. We know that which is killing us and all we can do is wait.

Such a state of things underscores how absurd our rhetorical dive into warfare seems. Presidents are on a “war footing,” health care workers are now on the “front lines” like Tommies on the Somme. The rhetoric of war cheapens, justifies even, the completely avoidable deaths of health care professionals, transportation workers, delivery people, grocery shelf stockers, and the numerous groups who get paid shit but are deemed essential.2 There is no enemy. No declaration of war. We can’t manufacture our way out of this depression. These workers are the “collateral damage” not of some bombing mission gone awry but of 40 years of austerity. Using martial language merely lets the president and the architects of our national penury shift the blame for these deaths elsewhere while allowing them to brand coronavirus with nationality to further an ongoing geopolitical struggle in place of anything scientific or useful against the actual threat.3

In zombie films like 28 Days Later, the whole point is to crank up the expressionism, to make disease and madness visual. It all has to make sense, and it had better not get too complicated. The “infected” are easily identifiable and quarantined (in this case by hacking them to bits with various blunt objects scavenged from the capitalist wreck of London). Zombie-type madness is not dissimilar to certain diseases that constitute the core of our publicized fears about pandemics, especially hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Hantavirus. There is clear reference to such outbreaks in the representations of 28 Days Later, aestheticizing and dehumanizing as zombies vomit blood.

But, SARS-CoV-2 has shed its predecessors’ penchant for self-advertisement. People can live for days in blithe unawareness as their blood oxygenation dips to levels that should kill a person. They can spread it without ever knowing they have it. Its non-linear presentation that manifests as a panoply of symptoms, both respiratory and neurological, strips another point of reference from our mediated vernacular. People cough all the time, for any number of reasons. Many people in the world are overworked to the point of fatigue. Therefore, any filmic analogy for infection is far less useful. The clarity of expressionism is stripped away to leave only confusion. Besides, it wouldn’t be a very satisfying watching experience when the antagonist is an asymptomatic zombie going out to dinner with friends and coughing a couple times in their call center cubicle.

Edward Rogers, <em>American Red Cross volunteers preparing surgical dressings</em>, 1918.
Edward Rogers, American Red Cross volunteers preparing surgical dressings, 1918.

Consider Outbreak, a movie that has been dredged up for the quarantine life, as bridging the divide between zombie flick and something with more naturalistic tendencies. Outbreak takes the zombie film, sickly makeup and a decent amount of blood, while getting to the nub of why media like this is so misleading: epidemiology, virology, public health, the scientific method are inexorably yoked into service of a gloriously unrealistic narrative. Within days of a massive outbreak of a fictional hemorrhagic fever, which mutates overnight, our guy Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), the rogue US army epidemiologist who somehow isn’t in the stockade, is overseeing the manufacture of antibody serum by the barrel-full. Meanwhile, here in reality, the global markets have been flooded with antibody tests, many of which are inaccurate, and all of which provide little comfort because eventual reinfection remains a possibility.

Such an ending as Outbreak’s is reflected back at us when a failed hotel magnate and reality TV host starts proffering medical advice in daily press conferences to the American public or breezily predicts things to be open by Easter, or when billionaires get thousands of likes for the rosiest of tweet predictions based on the purely capitalist fears that the people might get wise to the fact that the rich are healthy and still profiting while the rest of the world looks down the twin barrels of eviction and famine.

With some Hollywood flights of fancy and the heroics of our own Colonel Daniels, motivated as much by the infection of his ex-wife as he is by the imminent carpet bombing of a small US town, we’ll have a cure in no time. In 128 minutes, the entire timescale of viral evolution has been compressed, which is what we’re taught to expect. While one can read Outbreak and its ilk as bringing to the surface sublimated fears about disease, shadow governments, and globalization, the much more literal, and lasting, reading is one that cheapens the endeavor of empirical research to the point of worthlessness while puffing up ridiculous expectations about the contours of an actual pandemic response.

Compare this to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film everyone has been praising for its accuracy in portraying global pandemic. I felt similarly when I first viewed it. Where Outbreak feels prehistoric, from a time before shiny dashboards and Zoom, Contagion drops us into the cold aesthetic of modern data science and digital photography, replacing “the big board” of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove with a pretty good likeness of the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map.

But for all its glossy realism, Contagion is no better than Outbreak or a zombie flick. Deep down, Hollywood politics are Hobbesian. They assume human nature can be reduced to masses of selfish genes that go around rioting and looting and murdering. All of which will be solved in 144 days. But the historical record bears none of that out. When there are riots during pandemic, they are typically directed at the purveyors of disaster, the capitalists, the food hoarders and grain merchants, the incompetent or venial overseers of our perpetual immiseration. Consider, for example the cataclysmic 19th-century famines-turned-outbreaks of South and East Asia, Brazil, and the Horn of Africa that form the loci of Mike Davis’s history Late Victorian Holocausts. It’s not the callous selfishness of the great mass of people that led to or exacerbated some of the most devastating human catastrophes of any century. Rather, it’s the Elon Musks of their day, colonialists reading the Economist and worrying over contracts and taxes to wage imperialist wars who are the only Hobbes acolytes in the room.

It’s possibly there, in the correspondence regarding human misery sent back to Victorian Europe that Davis quotes in which we get a real taste of what Hollywood would run with. Readers were titillated with tales of the extreme depths of human sorrow people were forced to plumb to live. Today, cannibalism becomes flesh-eating zombies, ryots threatening to murder greedy grain merchants become Midwesterners in a Soderbergh film looting pharmacies. The only riots we see are from those who have no recourse, such as prisoners in already inhumane detention who are not even an afterthought for most people and must take the only kind of political action available.

I understand it’s an easy object of derision, Hollywood film, but I think that the constant representation of sickness and disease as something both visible and easily opposed, and something that can only bring out the worst in us has real implications for all of us sitting in our apartments or houses (if we’re very fortunate) trying to comprehend this. Having been fed outrageous expectations of how these things work, bolstered by the constant techno-babble of relentless innovation which is mostly in service of capital not public health, we’re told things happen in one way, when in fact, they happen in no particular way at all. There is no timeline or formula. At this point we still don’t even know very much about the virus itself. How long does it live on surfaces? How virulent is it? Does it behave like its predecessors? How did it leap from bats to humans? Does it cause neurological problems? Can one be reinfected, a zombie brought back from dismemberment to start all over?

Having spent decades weaning us on comprehensible, digestible disasters, Hollywood and popular media has left us mostly unprepared for the reality of monotony and distance. We sit, refreshing our browsers as logarithmic lines tick up or hotspot bubbles on maps grow until they bleed out into the ocean. We’re no longer the viewers we once were, passive but hopeful as the celebrities saved the planet. Now we’re just passive while the celebrities sing “Imagine” on Zoom from their homes in the Hollywood Hills. Suffering remains behind closed doors; in the elderly-care facilities to which we’ve callously relegated our aged; in the black and immigrant and poor communities already devastated by pollution, policing, and lack of food and clean water; in the prisons and detention facilities. The places popular media doesn’t see as anything more than window dressing or B roll. Lost under slow, crushing disinvestment and violence, they wouldn’t be worth Dustin Hoffman saving.

  1. Ruppert Beale,
  2. The present moment is as good a time as any to rethink the compensation framework where investment bankers get seven figure bonuses to do a job where they sit in their sweatpants making billion dollar raids on the treasury.
  3. He joins a long linguistic history here. For example, syphilis was called the Italian, French Polish, and Spanish diseases by various Europeans, reflecting contemporary geopolitical strife. See Talking Politics episode 231 “From Cholera to Coronavirus,


John W. W. Zeiser

John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, critic, and frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues