Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
In films such as Contagion, virology is often confused with the invisible workings of capital.
Between 1918 and 1920, a strain of H1N1 flu infected 25 percent of the world’s population (500 million people) and killed between 1 and 6 percent (17–100 million people). The point of origin of that particular strain is unknown and probably unknowable. But its rapid global spread was enabled by the transport and communications networks of warring empires.
Communicable diseases make a mockery of the monadic subject, rational and interchangeable, that populates the fantasies of capitalist economics and liberal democracy.
One of its victims was Etel Judik, a thirty-two-year-old Hungarian actress who had played major roles in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Gerhart Hauptmann’s Drayman Henschel. Her career screeched to a halt in 1912, when she and her lover fled Budapest—and her husband and children—for Berlin. In 1914, back in Budapest, divorced, denied custody of her son and daughter, and heavily pregnant with a second son, she married her lover. In 1917 she returned to the stage. The following October she died.
It is impossible to know precisely the effect this loss had on her second husband, the journalist-turned-parodist-turned-translator-turned-novelist Frigyes Karinthy. But we can reasonably surmise that the pandemic preyed on his mind. Karinthy’s 1929 short story “Láncszemek” (translated as “Chains”) marvels and despairs at globe-spanning transport and communications technologies. “Due to the quickening pulse of both physical and verbal communication,” the narrator muses, the world “has never been as tiny as it is now.” Modernity has transformed the world into a “fairyland,” but one that is “slightly disappointing” because “it is smaller than the real world has ever been.” Gone are the mysteries and comforts of distance, privacy and isolation: “anyone on Earth . . . can now learn in just a few minutes what I think or do, and what I want or what I would like to do.” But in exchange come speed and mobility. If there is anywhere at all he wishes to be, he can be there within “a couple of days” at most. Just—though he does not say it—like the flu.
This perceived contraction of the planet’s size prompts the narrator to propose a game: select any inhabitant of the planet and, “using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, . . . contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.” That is, Karinthy basically invents Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon (later parlor game enthusiasts will increase the degrees of separation by one). The game would have been impossible, he notes, in ancient times: by no route could one have connected Julius Caesar to a Mayan priest. But in the modern world, heads of state, Nobel laureates, professional athletes, the director general of Hearst publishing, Henry Ford and a riveter on one of his assembly lines were now all within easy reach.
Karinthy’s narrator does not stop with the links between people. He begins to seek connections between objects. Not to identify fomites—that class of intermediate inanimate things that can transfer infections to new hosts—but as if to penetrate the veil of commodity fetishism. And he looks for the chains that connect phenomena, the “ephemeral” to the “permanent,” “the part” to “the whole,” as if to glimpse totality—a concept beautifully captured in Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (“Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic,” c. 1914):
A river and the drops in this river. The position of every drop, its relation to the others; its connections with the others; the direction of its movement; its speed; the line of the movement—straight, curved, circular, etc.—upwards, downwards. The sum of the movement.
But Karinthy’s narrator prefers solipsism to dialectics. He reasons that, since he is the final link in any and every chain he contemplates, he must be “the source of everything.” This narcissism promptly flips into the apocalyptic: a stranger in a café who interrupts his train of thought is symptomatic of the collapse of reason, and of the twentieth-century’s growing disdain for intellect, which gives rise to the hysteria, fear and terror that will destroy the order of the world.
But within this universal destruction, there is a utopian nugget. Perhaps the fiery upheavals the narrator summons will usher in a new world, a pleasant sanctuary in which no one would dream of disturbing his musings. Perhaps, then, he has nothing to lose but his chains.
A revolution, however, does not merely break chains. It rearranges some, changes the meaning and purpose of others, and forges many new ones.
• • •
Since the time of European empires, the West has imagined Africa and Asia as stubbornly immured in a dangerous, disease-ridden, feudal past whose filthy touch sullies our sanitary modernity.
Communicable diseases depend upon chains of interconnection. They follow the networks of social being. They trace our direct and indirect contact with each other. They catalog the objects we share, the places in which we reside, and the spaces through which we pass. They traipse through and sojourn within us. They turn us inside out, everting us into the environment from which we so readily imagine ourselves separate and pristine. They collapse distinctions between self and world, human and nonhuman, the web of communications and the web of life. They make a mockery of the monadic subject, rational and immaculate and interchangeable, that populates the bizarre, prurient fantasy lives of capitalist economics and liberal democracy.
The inverse of the disease is the disease detective, who must parse all this mess, reconstitute subjects and objects, and put them back in their proper places. Only then can the disease be traced back to its source and the narrative of the contagion be retrospectively formulated. This is what U.S. sanitation engineer George A. Soper did when in 1907 he identified Irish American Mary Mallon as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. And what professor of public health William Darrow purported to do when he incorrectly branded gay Québécois flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas as Patient Zero of HIV in the United States.
It is also the fictional work of CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service agent Dr. Erin Mears and of World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes, played by Kate Winslett and Marion Cotillard in Steven Soderberg’s Contagion (2011). In the early months of 2020, this decade-old, modestly performing pandemic thriller suddenly found a new audience on streaming platforms. Mostly shot with an impersonal camera, it eschews sensationalism (except when it doesn’t). It features a reasonably well-researched script, clunky infodumps, Voice of God narration, and a Cliff Martinez score that is so craftily nondescript that it sounds like it must be copyright-free. This artful artlessness lends the film a kind of documentary authority, especially when compared to the melodramatic shenanigans and action malarkey of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), which has also been rediscovered.
In Contagion, just before she succumbs to the (fictional) MEV-1 virus, Mears determines that the link between the first two U.S outbreaks, in Minneapolis and Chicago, is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), a businesswoman who takes advantage of a layover on her way home from Hong Kong to hook up with a former lover. Transgression of bourgeois sexual mores is a typical feature of outbreak narratives, real and imagined: the unmarried Typhoid Mary was portrayed as licentious and unhygienic, Dugas as a pervert and slutty. While Mears is the one who identifies Beth, it is left to Orantes to figure out how she got the disease. Poring over security footage of a Macao casino, Orantes glimpses momentary contacts and fomites through which Beth infected several other people, then at last identifies the moment Beth herself contracted the virus by shaking the hand of a Chinese chef.
Since the time of European empires, the West has imagined Africa and Asia as stubbornly immured in a dangerous, disease-ridden, feudal past whose filthy touch sullies our sanitary modernity. We extend the benevolent hand of progress, but they stubbornly choose to wallow. This racist claptrap, hackneyed when Fu Manchu was a glint in Sax Rohmer’s eye, is there every time some president or other advocates mainlining disinfectant. Every time a hack says “wet market” as if it means “demonic midden.” And when Contagion chooses to depict an early MEV-1 victim in Hong Kong staggering in an expressionist blur past crates of live chickens, a fishmonger swabbing a blood-stained chopping block, butchers handling and hanging meat, all crowded together on the pavement, next to a busy road and in the open air.
Here in the fully urban West, supermarkets long ago imposed a normal size, shape, texture, and color on each fruit and vegetable. Animals are slaughtered out of sight. Everything comes prepackaged. Thus it is safe for the bourgeoisie once a month to buy artisanal cheeses, heterodox sausages, and rainbow arrays of oddly-formed carrots at the local pop-up
wet farmers market. But in the benighted Global South and East, there is something improper about markets. They signify urban poverty and seem somehow premodern, like they should have been left behind in the sticks, not brought into the city to bubble away, threatening to spill over.
This potent narrative paradigm buries the workings of colonialism. The West imagines its own uneven development as somehow uniform and seemly, and mistakes other local and particular uneven development for failures to become properly modern. Everywhere else, but not here, parochial holdovers interrupt the smooth flow and even distribution of the modern. The weight of tradition and the backwardness of other people are as willful and recalcitrant as Typhoid Mary and Patient Zero. Were it not for them, we could all be pod people living lives of perfect contentment in a global Santa Mira. But instead, and in reality, we have a planet of slums, its population impoverished by the very forces of modernity for which the projects of colonialism and neocolonialism, of progress and development, never find themselves in any way to blame.
To be fair, Contagion does, albeit briefly and just once, acknowledge that the distribution of the virus’s lethal effects depends, as the CDC’s Dr. Ellis Cheever coyly announces, “on underlying medical conditions, socioeconomic factors, nutrition, fresh water. . . .” And its Hong Kong “wet market” scene is later sort of balanced by a rapid montage from a virologist’s viewpoint—a coughing woman drinks a glass water; a barista yawns, his hand to his mouth, and wipes a glass; a parent pops a potato chip in a child’s mouth; a woman raises a glass to her lips—that emphasizes possible contagion vectors in a Californian coffee shop. And it does eventually make a point of extending the virus’s etiology beyond the unwashed hands of a Chinese cook when it reveals, in its closing montage, the virus’s genesis: Beth shook the hand of a casino chef who was in the middle of preparing a piglet which had eaten a bit of chewed banana dropped into its sty by a bat driven from its home by the destruction of its habitat by machines clearing the ground for the construction of a new factory in China by the U.S. corporation, Alderson International Mining and Manufacturing, for which Beth works. Falling somewhere between shock revelation and disposable irony, this closing of the circle tries to lift contagion out of the past and into the circuits of capital where it belongs.
‘Infect them all,’ the mayor of Las Vegas cried, although these were not her exact words, ‘and let the market sort them out.’
It is fitting then that Beth is infected in a casino. Paul Lafargue’s Causes of Belief in God (1906) argues that when property takes the “impersonal form of corporations . . . their stocks and bonds” are inevitably “dragged into the whirlpool of the stock exchange.” There, “they pass from hand to hand without the buyers and sellers having seen the property which they represent, or even . . . knowing where it is situated.” They “are exchanged, lost by some and won by others, in a manner which comes so near gambling that the distinction is difficult to draw”:
All modern economic development tends more and more to transform capitalist society into one vast international gambling house where the bourgeois win and lose capital, thanks to unknown events which escape all foresight, all calculation, and which seem to them to depend on nothing but chance.
Little surprise, then, that the unwittingly accelerationist mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, tried to offer up her city as the no-social-distancing-measures control group in some cockeyed experiment she imagined might be necessary in (she seems to believe?) the total and utter absence of any data whatsoever about COVID-19 transmission rates.
“Infect them all,” she cried, although these were not her exact words, “and let the market sort them out.”
• • •
There is something creepy, and oddly intimate, about viruses.
They are liminal things. Alive, because they contain genetic material, are subject to natural selection, and arrange for their own reproduction. Not alive, because they cannot metabolize, and are not cellular so do not reproduce by cell division. Instead, the virus sidles up to a host cell so its capsid proteins can attach to specific receptors on the surface of the cell. And then, as we know from all good unwanted-infection movies—from the desperately boarded-up farmhouse in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the compound architecture and general obliviousness the wealthy enjoy in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019)—the walls must fall: the cell membrane draws the virus within or merges with the virus membrane. Once inside, the virus is uncoated and then, to depart momentarily from strict virological terminology, it seizes the means of production. It conscripts the host to make as many copies of the virus as it can, often bursting out and killing the host cell in the process.
Little wonder, then, that Cold War discourse depicted communism as a virus.
Or that viruses produce zombies.
Or that the most commercially successful series of zombie movies, derived from the IP/DNA of a video game franchise, is an orgy of asexual replication. The Resident Evil films are full of zombies, clones, images and ideas spliced together from the games and from other movies, iterative modular narratives, endless reiterations of signature shots, sequences and scenes, and sequels it is sometimes difficult to tell apart.
Contagious diseases do not cause social breakdown; they merely reveal the ways in which society is already broken.
Like a virus, though, the films found a host, and no amount of critical derision could keep them at bay. Before the sixth film, the seemingly definitively titled Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016), even completed its run in cinemas, a reboot was announced.
The third film, Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), begins with series protagonist Alice (Milla Jovovich) waking naked on the shower floor. She does not recognize her own face in the mirror, or remember how she got the scars on her chest and shoulder. It is almost identical to the way she is introduced in the first film, Resident Evil (2002). And then, once more, she dons a red dress and black knee-high boots, makes her way through that mansion and that glass corridor, athletically evades those laser defenses, and finds herself back in that hospital in Raccoon City. She heads for the exit. She avoids the guillotine of one booby trap, but is shredded by gunfire from another. Biohazard-suited technicians are told to dispose of her body.
This all seems very familiar, but nothing is what it seems.
In fact, the sequence was just a simulation, a test, staged in an Umbrella Corporation complex deep beneath the Mojave Desert. The corpse is taken to the surface and dumped in a sandy concrete ditch. The camera tracks back to reveal dozens of identical red-dressed corpses, and then cranes up and through the compound’s chain-link fence to reveal the zombie hordes massing beyond. Alice, it turns out, was not Alice. She was evil Dr. Isaacs’s eighty-sixth unsuccessful attempt to clone Alice. The original Alice’s blood contains antibodies that might cure, maybe even reverse the effects of, the zombifying virus that has turned the world into a wasteland, and he wants to synthesize it. That is, like a virus, he wants to hijack her reproductive capacity on a cellular level so as to replicate biological materials for his own benefit.
But it does not work according to his plan. After a fight amid the simulacral architecture of a Las Vegas mostly engulfed by desert, she pursues him to the Umbrella Corporation’s subterranean facility and kills him (a decade later, The Final Chapter will reveal that this Isaacs was not actually Isaacs, just a clone). She broadcasts a warning to the remaining board members, hiding beneath Tokyo: “I’m coming for you and . . . I’m going to be bringing a few of my friends.” The camera tracks back from Alice and her newly-decanted eighty-eighth clone to reveal dozens more stirring.
It is probably the most optimistic ending to a contagion film since David Cronenberg’s marvelously ambivalent Shivers (1975). Set in Starliner Towers, a luxurious new apartment building which overlooks Montreal from an island in the St. Lawrence, it’s like J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) but with manmade parasites that are part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease. Dissolving any residual distinction civilization and syphilization, it peels back the bourgeois façade to reveal the sexualized violence that always already lurks within the walls of each man’s castle.
The film opens with a marketing clip about this ideal location, secure from the ills ripping apart inner cities. Then, an excruciatingly bland young couple are taken on a guided tour of the building, scenes of which are intercut with an older man violently assaulting a young woman in one of the towers’ apartments. While it looks like rape, he is in fact engaged in a last-ditch surgical and chemical effort to destroy his creation, the parasite with which he has infected her. But this murder-suicide comes too late. Others are already infected.
Contagious diseases do not cause social breakdown; they merely reveal the ways in which society is already broken. As Cronenberg’s infection spreads through Starliner Towers, we see that the building is already host to the distorted forms of liberated desire possible under patriarchal capitalism: the sad drinking of a lonely lesbian, the constant lecherous leering of entitled men, propertarian swinging, furtive adultery, prostitution, rape, incest, and pedophilia. The parasite, designed to refigure the relationship between mind and body, the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the libidinal, seems initially merely to emphasize these drives. As it burns through the building’s social networks, it repeatedly runs up against the social forces that structure life there, just as Cronenberg’s insistent architecturalism imprisons the residents within the strong vertical lines of walls and doorways and corridors. Only monstrous eruptions of flesh and desire can burst through these bounds and lay them waste.
By the end of the film, everyone is infected.
Everyone is different.
Everything has changed.
Queerly, in twos and threes, they leave the building and the island and head into the city, where an outbreak of violent assaults will be reported. But as they drive off, their faces are impossible to read.
Are they violent, sex-crazed zombies?
Are they gentrifying pod people, bent on driving others out of the downtown to replace them with copies of themselves?
Or are they avatars of a coming polymorphous plenitude, intent on “more intensive and extensive pleasure,” as the first of Herbert Marcuse’s Five Lectures (1970) would say? Having lost their chains, are they now generating new and “libidinous ties” with others? Are they now committed to “the production of a libidinous, that is, happy environment”?
The virus is not the vanguard, but. . . .
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.