Call for Papers “Invisible Enemies”: The Cultural Meaning of Infection and the Politics of “Plague”

21 to 24 September 2005, University of Zurich (Switzerland)

Organization: Philipp Sarasin, Silvia Berger, Marianne H„nseler, Myriam Sp”rri

Keynote speakers: Sander Gilman, Christoph Gradmann, Ilana L”wy, Ruth Mayer/Brigitte Weingart, Wolfgang Preiser, Nancy Tomes, Paul Weindling

Infectious diseases are back. With the commercial launch of penicillin in 1945 pathogenic microorganisms seemed finally under control; with the WHOs victory in 1979 over smallpox, the great epidemics seemed conquered and the threat of infection practically overcome. Yet only a year later, a new deadly infectious disease came to the fore Aids. Since then, infectious diseases have made a global come-back: tuberculosis, the disease of poverty is prolif-erating in the Third World and the ghettos of Western metropolis; the HI-Virus is spreading along the labyrinthine ways of sexual encounters or like wildfire through some African States; SARS and other possibly deadly new influenza viruses from the South of China travel to new destinations along international air routes. Epidemics, old and new, are eminently global.

In-depth and critical analysis of the current situation in its global context is required, which will have to go beyond the purely biochemical or epidemiological levels. For infectious diseases follow not only epidemiological, but also cultural patterns; they are fought using measures of defense and protection, which have always combined both military and hygi-enic-medical dispositives. In order to understand their history, we need to pay attention to the political and cultural logic of infectious diseases, their mode of action, and social attitudes towards them. They are associated with a myriad of phantasms and fears. Even their medical description is structured by metaphors rooted not in the laboratory but in political and cultural traditions. Tuberculosis was considered by the 19th century bourgeoisie to be chic, while cholera was feared as an asiatic or oriental disease. Syphilis on the other hand was taken to be a sign of threatening female sexuality. And after World War I, typhus was fought as a characteristic disease of East European Jews down to the genocide of these bacillus carriers during World War II. In the last twenty years, Aids has been associated first with gays, then with loose sexual morality before it turned into an unfortunate disease plaguing the Third World and SARS might well become an asiatic disease.

Many of these representations are rooted in the language of bacteriology, which from its beginnings in the 1870s spoke of pathogenic microorganisms as invisible enemies to be conquered in the body, just as defensive military battles are a matter of life or death for the social organism. Only recently has the idea of an equilibrium or of co-existence between humans and microbes gained ground, not only in immunology but also in popular perceptions. Discourses about infection feature tiny, invisible, contagious and uncontrollable organ-isms as well as transgressions of boundaries through intimate or fleeting contact. Infection immediately conjures up quick proliferation and dissemination, and the uncanny and potentially deadly transmission of infectious diseases. Infection readily supplies a host of metaphors for describing social processes in the language of epidemics. In our age of increasingly global networking and circulation of people and goods, infection has become the master metaphor. It shapes the emergent political and social discourse of order and its associated technologies of surveillance for controlling borders and immigration; which might be understood as reactions against the potential uncontrolled contacts, migrations and disorder brought by globalization. Such discourses culminate in the largely Western fear of bioterror, e.g. the fear of a generalized attack by islamistic terrorists or rogue states using anthrax, smallpox or the Ebola-virus as weapons; and which justifies a heightened level of epidemic control on the part of States.

This international conference at the University of Zurich is devoted to the discussion of cultural perceptions of infectious diseases and their metaphorical spin-offs in past and present political discourse. We aim to bring together epidemiological investigations with cultural and social analyses of public discourses on infectious diseases and their political dimensions. Historical contributions will situate contemporary discussions in the wider historical context, and provide points of comparison between older conceptions and phantasms associated with plagues with contemporary representations and political action.

The conference will last three days and will combine keynote talks (for keynote speakers see above) and workshops. The conference languages will be English and German. Papers to be presented in workshops are invited on the following specific and more generally related issues, in order to stimulate a cross-disciplinary discussion:

– Plague and smallpox: Infection and the politics of quarantine in the Ancien R‚gime – Cultural history and history of science of bacteriology and immunology – Fears of infection in the 19th and 20th century: Women, Blacks, Jews, and Immigrants – War, fight and migration as bacteriological (and immunological) master metaphors – The Spanish Influenza of 1918 and the puzzles of virology – Architecture and infection – Infection and identity: scientific, social, cultural and psychoanalytic aspects of the self/non-self-relation – The invisible enemy: Technologies and metaphors of visualization in bacteriology and immunology – Metaphors of infection in the political discourse of the 20th century: parasites, mi-crobes and the politics of ethnic cleansing – The return of infectious diseases: epidemiological, cultural and political dimensions of infection in an age of globalization – Discourses about Aids – SARS as global infection SARS as metaphor of globalization? – Politics and technologies of border control and security in Europe and the U.S. – Bioterror: Political reality or political phantasma?

Contributions from the fields of epidemiology, history, sociology, literature, philosophy and cultural studies are welcome. Abstracts in English or German (max. 200 words) should be submitted via email to Myriam Sp”rri, Lic. phil., [email protected], until March 31 2005. Decisions regarding acceptance will be communicated towards the end of April 2005.