[-empyre-] Welcome to Week 2 on Contamination

Renate Terese Ferro rferro at cornell.edu
Wed Nov 15 15:00:23 AEDT 2017

Hi Renate, Christina, Tim, and others in the contamination conversation,

Last week brought up some really key ideas around contamination and
boundaries that it assumes between organic units or states. My research is
on epidemic media, specifically focuses on how humans have learned to “live
with” pathogenic viruses. I am writing a book titled “The Virus Touch:
Theorizing Epidemic Media,” which essentially looks at the role of media in
living with viruses: that is, how do media modify biological processes so
as to “intervene,” as Anna Tsing puts it, in planetary damage. I’m excited
Tsing’s and Haraway’s pathbreaking works are already in the discussion—they
are central to the project.

After all, the Human Microbiome Project confirms microbial cells weighing
as little as 200 grams outnumber human cells 10 to 1. The “new biology,”
argues Rodney Dietert (*The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome is
Revolutionizing the Pursuit of Healthy Life*, 2016), suggests humans are
multispecies “super-organisms” and not a single species at all. And yet,
there is cause for alarm when a new species relation endangers one species
at individual and populational scale. This is what happens when new viruses
skip into new populations. At that point, we think about contamination as
contagion. When the imminent takeover of one species by another--virus
proliferation killing off hosts--is at hand, technological interventions
materialize a series of mediatic interfaces. For example, living as
undetectable with HIV is one such interface realized as numeric threshold.
Such interfaces  separate microbial and human life; they are not
ontological barriers but a series of effects (as media theorist, Alex
Galloway calls them) contrused to regulate the existing or the potential
coexistence of different species. Because these interfaces build livable
microbial-human futures; because they enable multispecies accommodations, I
think of them as *environmental media*.

Yet every time I say I’m writing a book on epidemic media, folks think I’m
writing about contagion as purely negative—you know, the contagion media
that enthrone human heroism against pathogenic hordes. There is excellent
scholarship on contagion fiction and non-fiction, movies and television
shows, video games and comic books. Fed a steady diet of realistic
fictional outbreak narratives and apocalyptic futures, we have become
comfortably numb to the horror of coming plagues: to the symptomatic Ebola
infection-like hemorrhage, to the inevitable segregation of the sick and
the well, to the tales of military heroism and scientific triumph. Ebola
plays the phantom microbe in these contagion media; it is the iconic
instance of the resurgent bugs that scientist Joshua Lederberg once
christened “the deadliest threat to mankind.” We have grown accustomed to
its sudden emergences and drug-resistant mutations after the outbreaks of
Marburg, Ebola, and HIV in the early 1980s. The introduction of a new
course in infectious diseases at the Center for Disease Control in 1985,
argues Melinda Cooper, serves as one marker for crossing the historical
threshold into the age of “viral storms. In popular discourse, Laurie
Garrett’s non-fictional *The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a
World Out of Balance* (1994) was the tipping point for public panic. Since
then “living with” such deadly pathogens, living in anticipation of the
next outbreak has become historical necessity.

That panic is now folded into the productive agendas of living as
multispecies. Here, Anna Tsing is a key thinker, urging us to intervene in
the “blasted ruins of the Anthropocene” (*The Mushroom at the End of the
World*, 2017). The idea is not to return to a mythic natural contract, but
to live among the ruins, to act among the ruins, to tend the garden. For
Tsing, even “the most promising oasis of natural plenty requires massive
intervention” (85). The real question is which natural and social
disturbances can we live with? Which ones command our attention?

This is the ecological angle—I thought it has a good resonance with last
week’s concerns on residual contamination. I’ll post later on how
contamination re virality has been taken up in media studies.



Renate Ferro
Visiting Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Art
Tjaden Hall 306
rferro at cornell.edu

On 11/13/17, 2:41 PM, "empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Bishnupriya Ghosh" <empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of bghosh at english.ucsb.edu> wrote:

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