#Viral

Last week, I participated in a conversation as part of the “undisciplinary” #(HASHTAG) series organized by the mighty team of Emilie Cameron, Danielle Dinovelli-Lang, Stacy Douglas, and Ummni Khan. These have been some of my favorite events at Carleton since they started a couple of years ago, since they always bring together an interesting set of speakers with short provocations, across disciplinary lines, and a really nice mix of grad and undergrad students and faculty of all sorts. It was a total delight to talk with Aubrey Anable, who does wonderful work on affect and video games, and Edana Cassol, who is an actual scientist and who was very kind around my untutored enthusing about things.

This is more or less what I said:

Since they’ve been understood as anything, viruses have mostly been seen as a hostile force, one that targets humans (or at least one that kills us along the way towards propagating themselves). Virus as a term comes from the Latin meaning a “poison, venom, or slimy fluid,” as Dorothy Crawford puts it in Viruses: A Very Short Introduction (3); immunologist Peter Medawar characterized them as “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein” (4). They’re a beautiful example of the co-production and problem closure of our measuring instruments and how we define the world around us (before the re-evaluation of giant viruses quite recently, our definition of them as small was based on the ceramic filter used in 1903 to take out things the size of known bacteria).

Viruses figure the threats of interpenetration between human and non-human animal realms (as in the various viruses transmitted among cattle, bats, swine, birds, and primates from H*N* viruses, to HIV, to older viruses like measles that seem to’ve been transmitted to humans from animal others 2,000 years ago). They signal the dangers of interconnection that deepen in relation to global warming, when viruses that used to be contained by weather or travel restrictions spread (I’m thinking of Blue Tongue Disease, carried by ticks that used to be killed off in the winter but that now flourish, which affects ruminants, or Zika and dengue, carried by mosquitoes that likewise flourish in the warming world and that affect lots of mammals but that humans care about because of the fear of and hatred for disability, which I’ll talk about in a sec.)

So it’s salutary to see the upswing of counternarratives from people like Eula Biss, Carl Zimmer, and Ed Yong, who examine the ways that we benefit from our entanglement with viruses of all sorts even as they can hurt and kill us sometimes (the prime example is how in many mammals, humans included, pregnancy is reliant on the a gene we’ve taken up from a virus, syncytin, which allows a fetus to draw nutrients through the placenta). Sociality! People who study viruses are learning exciting things about how viruses can help defend against viruses, how bacteria from black widow spiders could cut the spread of the Zika virus without a return to using insecticides to kill mosquitoes, and how many viruses in our gut may help shield us from bacterial infections through their useful mucosal production. There are lots of viruses that turn out to be incredibly common but that we’ve only recently discovered. I’m something like obsessed with the microbiome, and especially with the ways that the microbiome only exists in concert with an enormously complex macrobiome – the critters, ecosystem, and world we live among, within, and contain. Viruses are part of this in a huge and not at all fully understood way.

Then I’m interested in the transition between something being a virus, in all these different ways, and something being viral. A virus is of course always a co-production, a kind of sociality between an entity that only activates in concert with cells that have things it doesn’t; it is instructions for propagating itself without internal capacity to grow or reproduce. But we can think of the “virus” as a biological entity, measurable, predictable, acting and acted upon, even as it’s entangled and reliant. Our topic today invites thinking about the natureculture of #viral as something always social, as a biological becoming that spreads through commonality and that can’t be thought about without understanding the social world that makes it a phenomenon. I come back again and again to two examples of the social making of a virus as it becomes viral, both of which show some contestations over the space between medicine and society: HIV and Zika.

Ada Jaarsma gifted me this summer with the wonderful book Proxies, by poet Brian Blatchfield. He renders a familiar trope about coming out as gay after AIDS:

But in 1988, if you privately understood you were gay and were capable of basic logical continuity, you had made the further implicit equation between your own attraction to men and the depthless suffering of AIDS victims stranded in their crisis on the nightly news – and not just their appreciable agony but also their leprous toxicity. Regularly, reports stressed their reckless, even willful communication of the virus to others. Sex between men that resulted in infection was in certain instances prosecuted as murder and manslaughter, and men were maximally sentenced for aggravated assault who spat on HIV-negative cops. For so much lethality the American imagination needed monsters to blame and to fear; likewise, to justify the paternalistic hard lines that might be drawn to keep its children safe. The corruption of the young innocent was to be avenged – until the moment he seroconverted, whereupon he too was hastened into villainy. Many of the men sick in San Francisco and New York were dying disowned by their families of origin. Programmatic mass quarantine was debated and camps – camps – were publicly contemplated. (Proxies, 113)

People responded to this political context in many ways, but often people who narrate the past of HIV and AIDS activism broadly group the responses into an approach focusing on HIV as primarily a medical problem and those focusing on it as primarily a social problem. Both approaches are ways to confront stigma, vilification, and moralizing, but they are different. This line is sometimes presented as what caused ACT UP chapters in various cities to split – if you think treatment access and developing more and better drugs is the most important thing you take different political actions than if you think poverty, racism, and queer-hating are the most important things to work on. What makes a virus viral, what makes it sicken or kill lots and lots of people who should not have died? My conversations with people who engaged AIDS activism in the early days of the epidemic has taught me that the only way to answer that question is to hold the medical and the social together as most important.

Consider Zika – a currently unfolding naturecultural crisis. It bears the marks of previous social panics (like Ebola or HIV) about a viral situation: transmitted by some bodily fluid, but no one clarifies which one or how easy transmission is through which route, socially coded along race-nationality axes, stigmatized, and without explanation killing more people who live in poverty. Now, there are things that can be known about all sorts of viruses and their methods of transmission. A piece of something becoming viral, though, might be that the virus gets tangled up with a social context. In the case of Zika, the main context is the belief that disability is worse than death; the threat the virus brings is microencephalitis, or a small skull, in babies born to people who have Zika while pregnant. So Zika as entangles a conception of reproductive futurity – putative concern for the child – with holding pregnant people personally responsible for the entire world that might affect their developing fetus, with the actual paucity and in some places illegality of contraception and abortion. This is a reproductive justice issue, for sure, but not one that stops at the supposed conflict between disability rights and reproductive rights. For sure, to say that all babies born with microencephalitis should have been aborted is to advocate a eugenic logic entangled with dense histories of colonialism: it’s a bad futurity. But it is also to ignore the fact that something like 30% of such babies live ordinary lives, go to school, get jobs, and generally have the same life chances as people with bigger heads. Importantly, they only have those manifestations and chances if their parents have social supports for that development, which is to say, if their parents are rich.

The more important question is how and whether people can live now. Are we crafting worlds in which entanglement and penetration across cell lines is livable, or a site for death? Who has access to those worlds? These questions animate the viral for me.

 

 

Femme identification & Stranger Things

spoilers for most of season 1.

I read, and appreciated a lot of Shannon Keating’s points about femininity and Hollywood horror conventions over at Buzzfeed. Its central point is a critique of the trope in pop culture requiring unfeminine girls to be made over, feminized, and rendered desirable in order to be worthy of regard. It’s true: this sucks. An attention to the way mythical femininity works (and is resisted) in the show helps us think about why the character of Barb has been widely taken up as awesome and stylish (which was not, I think, the intention of the Duffer Brothers, who seem like pretty much dudebros); it helps us think about the tragedy of Nancy snuggling up with Steve in episode 8.

At the same time, I worried about two things in the article; its typification of kids in sixth grade as necessarily not having sexuality and its dismissal of the ways taking up femininity can be good:

  1. Thinking strictly in the realm of consensual interaction: It is totally true that children don’t have adult kinds of sexuality; prepubescent kids – as are many of the characters in Stranger Things – in particular. It’s also almost always the case that when kids have sexuality imputed to them it is straight sexuality. So actual babies are rendered as “flirting” if and only if they are interacting with humans of the “opposite” gender, but they are talked about that way all the time. Usually, only queer kids are rendered as always and only non-sexual (and not in the liberatory ways that ace sexuality manifests) until we’re well past the age of majority. (If you want to reflect on this, look at all the sexual things that have different legal ages of consent if they’re done across or within gender lines.) It’s also true that there are forms of desire and interpersonal connection happening with people who are twelve, and it’s not disgusting or weird that Eleven and Mike might like each other and that within the fucked up and predictable gender norms of junior high that liking might express itself in wanting to go to a dance. In the totally TV context also of a kid who’s been raised in a basement as a cold war science experiment, a kid who’s depicted as being forced to assent to the experiments performed on her, a kid who’s depicted as rewarded with care and regard when she kills two of the men guarding her after refusing to kill a cat, I think it’s also worth reflecting on what Eleven’s desire for Mike means. I read both her openness to connection in friendship (“friends don’t lie”) with all of the D&D boys and the specific connection with Mike as a quite beautiful kind of resistance to, well, her entire life to date. It says: the entire US government tried to destroy my capacity to form lateral connections of warmth and trust in service of making me a world-breaking weapon, and I still like people.
  2. Okay, so I get that it’s technically not femme identification when Eleven (Elle, ha, it’s such a blunt instrument feminization, I see that…) puts on Nancy’s old dress and wig from the boys’ dress-up stash, having previously identified Nancy in a photo as “pretty.” I agree with folks that the whole show is very, almost queerly, trying-really-hard straight. And when the wig comes out, they’re just trying to disguise her as not a buzz-cut kid to get her into the school undetected. Keating makes awesome points about the many ways that, in the 80’s and now, masculine and tomboy girls are called to reform into girly girls in order to be rendered palatable. Maybe it’s because I agree with this critique so much that I have been dwelling on why it doesn’t completely scan for me in this show. I wonder if there is any way for us to receive the pleasure Eleven has in wearing the dress, wearing the wig, in being told she is pretty – pretty with the wig, pretty without it – as a pleasure that can be real, and not only a capitulation to traditional gender norms. Keating says, “The more we see women and girls embracing nontraditional gender presentations, the less vilified those presentations will become. Characters like Furiosa and Holtzmann represent the possibility that a woman could be masculine, or queer, or unattached, or some combination of the three without being forcibly feminized, given a boyfriend, or branded a monster.” I agree! And I wonder also if there isn’t some way that girl and women characters can embrace feminine gender presentations – can like being pretty – and still be complete ass-kickers.

Against purity!

I just submitted the final edits on the book I’ve been working on, Against Purity: Living in Compromised Times. The last parts of working on a piece of writing are always a bit of a let-down, consisting as they usually do of checking references and correcting typos, and the stage I’m at makes me nervous because from now on I can’t make any more content-level changes to the text. But I’ve been happy to periodically like my own book as I’ve been doing the quotidian typo-finding:

“The “moves” involved in the not-simple “purity made simple” facewash, in NIMBY politics, in avoiding BPA, in eating organic (or vegan or paleo or sugar-free), or in doing monthly detoxifying “cleanses” may seem very different than each other. And they may seem very different in turn than other practices I explore in this book — practices of forgetting in relation to our implication in colonialism or the history of disease designation, for example. There are obvious real differences involved, but they are threaded together. Let’s call the line that links them “purity politics,” or “purism.” What’s needed, instead of a pretense to purity that is impossible in the actually existing world, is something else. We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.

I should say — since I try not to use the unsupported yet urgent imperatives so prevalent on the left (“we need,” “we must”), instead shifting from categorical to hypothetical imperatives — if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid. The actions that come out of the rather undefined idea of wanting a world with less suffering is, perhaps needless to say, a moving target, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Less suffering for whom? How is suffering measured? Who has the capacity to perceive entanglement, and who has capacity to respond? To say that we live in compromised times is to say that although most people aim to not cause suffering, destruction, and death, simply by living, buying things, throwing things away, we implicate ourselves in terrible effects on ecosystems and beings both near and far away from us. We are inescapably entwined and entangled with others, even when we cannot track or directly perceive this entanglement. It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come.

In this book, I argue against purism not because I want a devastated world, the Mordor of industrial capitalism emerging as from a closely aligned alternate universe through our floating islands of plastic gradually breaking down into microbeads consumed by the scant marine life left alive after generations of overfishing, bottom scraping, and coral reef-killing ocean acidification; our human-caused, place-devastating elevated sea levels; our earth-shaking, water poisoning fracking; our toxic lakes made of the externalities of rare-earth mineral production for so-called “advanced” electronics; our soul-and-life destroying prisons; our oil spills; our children playing with bits of dirty bombs; our white phosphorus; our generations of trauma held in the body; our cancers; and I could go on. I argue against purism because it is one bad but common approach to devastation in all its forms. It is a common approach for anyone who attempts to meet and control a complex situation that is fundamentally outside our control. It is a bad approach because it shuts down precisely the field of possibility that might allow us to take better collective action against the destruction of the world in all its strange, delightful, impure frolic. Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.”