Living and Thinking through a Pandemic

Torin Monahan
Apr 23, 2020 · 4 min read

In the following blog post, Marina Levina initiates our new series of scholarly responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

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I have been thinking and writing about cultural meanings of viruses, diseases, and pandemics for the better part of the past twenty years. In 2015, I published a book Pandemics and the Media in which I examined how various media texts, fictional and otherwise, construct the meanings of pandemics, disease, health, and above all, difference. I argued that the stories we tell about disease matter and that mediated narratives of pandemics are rooted in the problem of governance in the global world. After all, pandemics are, by definition, global crises. CoVid-19 has made me consider how the arguments I made in the past can help us think through the current crisis. I must admit that this intellectual endeavor has not been easy. It is hard to find words and ideas when days and weeks and months bleed together; when daily concerns and practicalities of life take up too much mental and emotional energy; when childcare becomes even more burdensome and exhausting; and when the worry about loved ones become all consuming. Thinking through a pandemic is difficult while one is experiencing the pandemic. This seems a truism, but I think it is worth mentioning. The thoughts below are half-formed entities floating through a muddled landscape of daily experiences. In case they are helpful, here are some things I have been considering lately.

What has driven my research in cultural studies of disease has always been a preoccupation with difference. I have argued before and I will argue again that a pandemic gives us an intense and unflinching focus on that which always has always been true — a problem of health is determined by meaning we, as a society, attach to what it means to live in an infected and/or diseased body, be it a national, a global, or an individual one. The current debate about vulnerability and sacrifice is fully dependent on already established norms the society holds of “pre-existing” conditions as wholly the fault and responsibility of individuals as supposed environmental, sociopolitical, and economic factors. We shrug when we hear that diabetes is one of the determining factors in how serious CoVid-19 gets because, as a culture, we have already agreed that diabetes is a disease of unruly, fat bodies, who surely deserve what is coming to them. We cannot disentangle our response to the current pandemic from the indifference we show to the already existing medical conditions and the structural inequalities that shape them.

The United States is incapable of comprehensively thinking about public health because, in the United States, health is always already constructed as an individual and not social issue. We use the language of heroism because it is easier than to have a difficult conversation about the environmental and socioeconomic causes of illness. We are not heroes bravely defeating what ails us; we are victims to a complete and total disregard of our lives by capitalist structures which thrive on inequity, racism, and general disregard for life. Without a sustainable critique of capitalism as a source of disease and illness; without dispelling the myths of productivity as the only way in which we determine our own worth; and without a continuous critique of cultural discourses which construct difference as a pathology, we cannot possibly adequately respond to a pandemic. We need to revisit critical analysis of a diseased body as a cultural body in order to reinvigorate the politics of the self and of the community. That analysis needs to be intersectional in every aspect of that word, which means that it needs to recenter health as just as an important part of understanding body and identity as race, gender and sexuality. Disability studies are already doing this and we need much more of that type of analysis. Difference is a material and embodied entity rooted the body. What ails the body and how society talks about those ailments is an essential part of intersectional analysis.

We need to revisit critical analysis of a diseased body as a cultural body in order to reinvigorate the politics of the self and of the community.

In conclusion, since this is a surveillance blog, let me engage for a moment with the question of surveillance. The problem of pandemic is essentially a problem of governance. And a problem of governance is a problem of surveillance, or collection, classification, and management of information about bodies. Surveillance studies are essential to the study of pandemics. However, I would like to see surveillance studies to fully embrace intersectionality as the only feasible way in which to understand pandemics. Pandemics, much like any problems of health and body politic, are intersectional entities. And much like pandemics, surveillance is a problem of managing difference. I would love to see surveillance studies engage more directly with the question of health and its visibility. For example, which bodies are surveilled as healthy? Which bodies are rendered vulnerable and which bodies are not? These are the questions I believe to be essential as we are working to think through a cultural shift unlike any other.

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Dr. Marina Levina is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Film at the University of Memphis. She is the author of Pandemics and the Media.

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