On Epidemic Media
Book Cover, The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media
What follows is an excerpt from the Introduction to The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media, published through Duke University Press in April 2023.
Contemporary expansions of the media concept provide a starting point for what epidemic media are and what they can do. “Epidemic media” in The Virus Touch is a capacious rubric for much more than the proverbial contagion fare of films and television shows, pulp fiction, and literary works. My study of epidemic media attends to life unfolding as process-relational ontologies, to life as always becoming. To bring into focus a singular “multispecies relation” is to enact an “epistemic cut” that privileges and selects, differentiates and stabilizes, particular objects, rendering them intelligible within (what Michel Foucault once named) the “order of things.” To emphasize such object-making as a “cut” is to call attention to the backcloth, to dynamic surrounds that remain in rack focus. As living processes and relations appear as forms of life, technical-aesthetic mediation is more than a representational moment, for the differential human, animal, and machinic agencies of making/doing/ enacting complicate any objective mastery. These lively materialities activate a sensuous relation to the nonhuman world. Before I turn to media theories that inform the concept of epidemic media, let me elaborate the claim by way of an example from the COVID-19 experience.
We have become anxiously aware of the air/water within us, exiting the “molar” body (the self- contained, unified, organic body rendered distinct from the environment) as droplets (of respiratory mucous), then drying as aerosolized particulates, drifting in the air between us. In these processes, a vital medium (respiratory mucus) transmutes into an elemental one (droplets and particles in air); both media are life-sustaining environments for microbes and humans. Vital designates medial substances like blood and saliva, urine, or feces that cannot survive for long as such outside their site of origin; their situatedness marks their finitude. But vital media are danger zones for infection because they are immensely transitive; they extend well beyond their site of production. Extensive media environments as the surrounding milieu are familiar to environmental media studies, but as Joshua Neves writes, it is time indeed to think of media intensions. This is especially crucial for configuring “infection environments,” which are both intensive and extensive. Every COVID-19 test quantifies individuated multispecies distributions (the basis of positive or negative results), offering a snapshot of the intensive environment. Every public health advisory aims to measure and manage the air extending between us. We come understand these infection technicities over time, even as living with acute infection around us remains a visceral and affective experience. The notion of epidemic intensity encompasses all these infection modalities of pandemic time. Etymologically, intensity signifies an extreme stretching tight: these days, as we breathe, we feel the molecular stretch of a particular surrounds (a lung, a body, a room, a county, the globe) with dangerous air rushing into our lungs as we seek out oxygen from our surrounds. Infection’s risk environment spreads out but does not dissipate; epidemic intensity is a piling on, an accumulation. When scientific images, for example, render air/breath calculable, epidemic intensities appear in their technical valence: as measures for gaseous and particulate concentrations, including magnitude, degree, direction, and level of dilution. Despite this seeming neutrality, epidemic intensities are deeply subjective. In the domain of feeling, intensity is the thickening, layering, and bundling of sensations/affects; it is a term that translates qualitative perceptions of energetic forces between things into subjective experience. In this regard, epidemic intensities are experiences of stretching tight, centripetally and centrifugally, in infection environments. Scientific, artistic, and popular media make epidemic intensities sensible, composing breath scattering into the air, infusing air into breath. Something latent, something imperceptible moves between us: we understand it informationally, we sense it affectively.
That the endemic transitivity of air/breath has transformed the medium into the risk environment for the COVID-19 epidemic experience is evident in diverse technical mediations. In the early days of COVID-19, there were several scientific visualizations of the distance that sneezes travel (six feet and over). Process-relational ontologies of the sneeze found transcription in animations, such as one published on the online platform of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in March 2020 (figure I.1). As this scientific visualization inscribed the scattering of the vital medium into air, respiratory mucus appeared in droplet form as lively media carrying “active” viruses enfolded in the elemental medium of air. The visualization articulates the transition of a vital medium into an elemental one, spelling danger in the composite.
Figure I.1: Visualization of a sneeze, 2020. Source: Video illustration in Bourouiba, “Gas Clouds Demonstrate Their Ability to Travel Great Distances.”
We find such visualizations of infection environments across COVID-19 epidemic media made in diverse epistemic settings, from basic science laboratories to art studios. For example, artist Pato Hebert’s visual inscription of his own breath dissipating into air from the “Trying to Catch Your Breath” series (2008) took on a new life after he contracted COVID early in the pandemic. The photographs documenting his breathing complement the Bourouiba visualization, albeit sans measurement (figure I.2). In Hebert’s rendition, breath/air takes technical-aesthetic form as a dissipative unfurling visually stilled at the moment of exhalation. I return to Hebert later in the book and, more importantly, to media practices like these that attempt partial connections (as Isabelle Stengers de-scribes them) between scientific and cultural “findings.” In such epidemic media practices, we find “modern practitioners” engaged in negotiating their often-differing visions of the world. They are the media makers featured in this book.
This brief illustration intimates how epidemic media direct our actions: the JAMA visualization, for instance, can serve to dictate the social conduct of life, informing public health advisories on physical distancing precautions. In this regard, epidemic media are world-making, as Adrian Ivakhiv suggests: as media “draw and hold things together,” they enact the “worlding of things.” Beyond representational forms, looking closely at processes of mediation requires scrutiny of more than apparatuses and devices or technical media (print, photochemical, electronic). It requires understanding the physical processes, the interactions between “things”—light and fluids, in this instance—that have differential agencies and are mutually transformative. The relatively simple examples offered above emphasize what is commonplace to environmental media studies: media in/as environment compels thinking beyond the media-technological situation. Situated in environmental media studies, The Virus Touch engages the modern science of the virus alongside its media histories to study process-relational ontologies and their inscription, encoding, and composition as media environments.
Among the modern sciences, the geological has held pride of place in the crucible of climate catastrophes. But facing a pandemic activates a shift of gears, bringing biogeological processes into sharper focus. For the past fifty years at least, substantially dislodging biology’s (so-called) anthropocentrism, the multiform biosciences have developed varying conceptual frameworks for rearticulating the biological with planetary processes; as we shall see, the turn to multispecies studies arises within this turn. More centrally, historians of the biosciences have underscored the need to study the impact of bioscience research on planetary damage. Hannah Landecker’s writings on the articulation of the metabolic sciences, industrialized agriculture, food systems, and planetary health, for example, exemplify such material histories. Adopting the chemical gaze as a method, in historicizing metabolism, Landecker tracks “enzymatic and energetic conversions between different kinds of matter” to show how biological targets made and unmade in basic science laboratories and how industrial research units “carry forward” industrial products into living systems. Drawing inspiration from her insistence on the planetary location of the biosciences, my study of epidemic media foregrounds the biological and technological hinge in the making/doing/enacting of epidemic media. How do media practices materialize biotechnical forms to ready them as targets of intervention? What are the planetary impacts of this constitution? To ask such a question is to think the biosciences and media studies together in their conjoined planetary world-making.
The qualifier biotechnical in The Virus Touch is an analytic for inextricable biological and technological processes that emphasizes their respective material specificities. Epidemic media are biotechnical forms—an image, a number, a milieu, a movement—that materialize otherwise imperceptible processes and relations. In this respect, they are representations constrained by their settings, by the media practices that give them form. More often than not, epidemic media are experimental representations, reflexive and improvisatory, that gesture toward their own provisional nature. When the effort is to detect and compose a novel multispecies relation, the representation is necessarily, and often explicitly, conjectural or speculative. Machinic inscriptions often run up against accelerating viral changes (mutations becoming variants, for example) or the new complexities of multicellular organization (which of “our” proteins help the viral spike protein to fuse to “our” cells). Such lively materialities find coding/transcription over time in bioscience research—but only over time. Media entanglements in furiously accelerated pandemic time motivate my exploration of epidemic media’s forms and technologies. There is the urgent push for better probes, new software, and smaller cameras as media-technological processes unfold with lively materialities; not all of the latter, nonhuman agencies erupting in unpredictable events, are fully legible as biological processes. Sometimes liveliness registers as disruptive excesses, as strong affects. An animal spotting a camera trap alters its route and subsequently dislodges the camera; a vital medium poses haptic danger despite controlled safety precautions. Too much noise or disturbance, error or redundancy, scuttles efforts at efficient machinic capture. These differential agencies, animal and machinic, underwrite the speculative orientation of epidemic media’s biotechnical forms.
My observations of epidemic media practices commence with sense perceptions of lively materialities as the not-yet comprehensible, as the partially known. The most abstract epidemic medium turns out to be irreducibly sensuous. This sensuousness may arise from direct sense data, but not exclusively. Epidemic experiences reconstitute those perceptions as another kind of knowledge: an awareness of casual relatedness and processual flux between discrete entities that current environmental thought transcribes as entanglement. Too often a vague buzzword, entanglement has a range of critical modalities (as in Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Rey Chow) relevant to The Virus Touch that I turn to in the following pages. Here, Rey Chow’s elaboration is most pertinent: media entanglement, suggests Chow, is the intuitive feeling for “mysterious connections” to media-technologically captured entities (animals, humans, minerals, or plants) even when their desires and motivations, actions and relations, remain obscure. These intuitions supplement the “active relation” that “contains, detains, and retains” its epistemic object in acts of mastery. Media technologies like microscopes or camera traps might seek to establish “enmeshments and linkages” between humans, animals, or machines, but in fact they afford an awareness of the “voidings and uncoverings that hold things together.” As media technological practices enfold sensory data, feelings, thoughts, and intuitions, they initiate a phenomenological awareness of entanglement. A coagulating epidemic intensity surfaces. In the midst of epidemics, no one is spared from this intensity, this “flux of participation,” as ecologist philosopher David Abram describes it, and all the more in confronting radical uncertainty. As modern practitioners struggle to objectively transcribe “life” as process and relation, they act with urgency, facing the pressing need to make intelligible radical uncertainties. The consequent speculative orientation of epidemic media gestures toward another space beyond the institutional settings of media practices—to inextricable multispecies entanglements. This sensuous knowledge accompanying objective mastery has implications for the “worlding of things” that I explore in the chapters.
Bishnupriya Ghosh teaches in global media at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published two monographs on the cultures of globalization: When Borne Across: Cosmopolitics in the Indian Novel (Rutgers UP, 2004) and Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular (Duke UP, 2011). Her current research is on media, risk, and globalization: the co-edited Routledge Companion to Media and Risk (Routledge 2020) and a new monograph on viral pandemics, The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media (Duke University Press, 2023). She is starting research on media environments of viral infection in a book of essays tentatively titled Epidemic Intensities.