Fears, Old and New
From Firenze University Press Journal: LEA
Annalisa Federici, University of Tuscia
In these challenging times dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of contagion resonates with both current fears and a long-established historical tradition according to which the Latin terms contagio and contagium have been used to refer to the idea that diseases can be communicable through physical touch or close contact since, at least, the second century BC. Such a persistent pattern of cultural beliefs and practices reveals the powerful suggestiveness of the term. Contagion is a biological entity and a physical object (the infected one which in turn causes infection), but also a psychological dimension (ranging from uneasiness to terror); it is an objective category registered in medical literature as well as the object of subjective feelings.
Moreover, contagion is as much a private as it is a public issue: since fear and anxiety related to contagion can be felt and shared, these feelings are, in a certain way, contagions themselves and may circulate within different societies in different ways. As crossroads of the collective imagination, therefore, contagions are both intangible and palpable at the same time. Moreover, the evocativeness and cultural potency of the term is easily ex-plained if we think, as Cynthia Davis suggests, that “contagion and writing are both forms of communication, after all, and […] there are evocative parallels between the two” (2002, 829). In this view, “contagion is itself both a content and a method. It denotes both disease and the process of its spread […]. Th e fact that culture is also communicated in this fashion explains contagion’s appeal as a way of describing the process of cultural transmission” (830). Similarly, Martin Pernick argues that, since communication is the basis of language and culture as well as infection, “contagion and culture have a lot in common. The concept of contagion was shaped by culture. Conversely, cultures are communicated person to person like a contagion” (2002, 861). It is particularly instructive to bear in mind that, as a cultural artefact, contagion is also a social construction and a political process. As several studies of contagion in British socio-cultural contexts from the early modern period to the long nineteenth century have variously suggested, contagion can be envisaged as a record of interpersonal relationships and one’s place within the power structure, a concept both “socially constructed” and “inherently political” (McCrea 2004, 188). Scholars of the Victorian age like Chung-jen Chen, for instance, have recently pointed out that “both scientists and the general public tended to distinguish contagion, or contagionism as a collective belief in practice, from infection. There was much contention during this period over how diseases were transmitted: ʻcontagionʼ was used to refer to the idea of person to person contact, while ʻinfectionʼ or ʻmiasmaʼ referred to the idea that disease would be spread by environmental factors such as air and water” (2020, 1).
Therefore, particularly relevant at that time was sanitationism (the variety of medical theories and social reforms inspired by miasma theory), which “operated on the assumption that all possible diseases could be prevented and curbed if the living environment were kept clean, healthy, and free of all materials thought to be damaging or at least threatening to human health”, and which determined such fundamental social and political initiatives as slum cleansing, urban rebuilding, or the passing of a series of public health and social reform acts. I would then agree with Chen positing that “contagions are a cultural locus at which the human body, social hierarchy, governmental regulations, psychological subjectivity, and material objects converge”.Over the centuries, not only have culture and contagion been metaphorically related and in certain contexts even used interchangeably to connote exchange, communication and con-tact, but theories of transmission, contamination and contagion have been variously concerned with boundary-crossings, as well as with spatial, temporal and cognitive routes of passage across both the inside and the outside. As Martina King and Thomas Rütten remark, contagion is a “descriptive term” that “encompasses notions of touch, transmission, and transitiveness” (2013, 1). Annika Mann’s compelling book Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print argues precisely that “during times of plague, the medium of air and the presence of other bodies infect the act of reading, such that it too becomes dangerous” (2018, 2). In the face of a current pandemic, therefore, her brilliant study offers a timely historical intervention into long-standing scholarly debates about contagion as a bodily phenomenon and concept metaphor. René Girard and Susan Sontag propound the first critique of metaphors of contagion in the modern era, arguing that such metaphors must be sharply distinguished from contagion as a biomedical reality.
In “The Plague in Literature and Myth”, Girard considers the pervasiveness of the plague in western culture up to the present, noting that “this metaphor is endowed with an almost incredible vitality, in a world where the plague and epidemics in general have disappeared almost altogether” (1974, 835). In his view, such plague metaphor is extremely dangerous, since the violence it discloses is often addressed by a community experiencing disorder or collapse toward a sacrificial scapegoat. Similarly, in Illness as Metaphor Sontag urges us to take illness literally. “Illness”, she insists, “is not a metaphor”, although it is frequently considered as such. Sontag contends that “the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (1990, 3). Where illness is concerned, words hurt most when they are most allusive. The more enigmatic the disease is made to seem, the more likely we are to supply it with deceptive meaning and the greater the fear of moral, if not physical, contagion. The way we conceive disease, Sontag suggests, is itself diseased, and to cure it we must demystify the discourse surrounding illness.