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The Epidemic


Many of the narrative structures of science have their origins in pre-scientific discourse. Such narrative structures or abstract machines (Deleuze and Guattari) display the manner in which the workings of power determine the course of scientific research, discovery, and theory.

The "epidemic" is one such narrative structure common to both scientific and non-scientific discourse. An "epidemic" is any social phenomenon that occurs in the following seven stages:

  1. isolated discovery of an otherness
  2. fear/confusion
  3. contagion
  4. blame
  5. efforts of control: detection and quarantine
  6. apocalypse
  7. abatement
Note that such phenomena do not necessarily need a biological element. The biological model of infection produced by science, however, currently serves as the most prominent template for understanding the epidemic.

First, an epidemic requires that some foreign element, such as a virus (computer virus?), a radical belief, a disruptive social practice, or a pollutant enter a stable social or biological system. Upon recognition, a state of fear or confusion overtakes the member(s) of the system. The fear alone is not enough to support the workings of power. The element of contagion separates the epidemic from other strategies of containing alterity. In contagion, the dominant system comes into contact with the force of a subterran, dispersed, and rhizomatic power. The rapid spread of contagious ideas and praxis demonstrates that the conditions giving rise to the epidemic often preeixst it. Contagion demonstrates that some desire the epidemic (and hence destruction), that an the logic of domination is supported by the constant suppression and regulation of other wills, logics, desires. Nowhere is this more clear than in the anti-communist trials of the McCarthy era. When the dominant system understands that some desire the effects of contagion, (when commies spend all their free time trying to infect the minds of the youth) the epidemic takes on an abstract, spectral character; it becomes a paranoid reaction to undiluted otherness. Contagion is a ghost because it is both omnipresent and invisible. Blame bifurcates the carries of the infectious agent into both deserving victims and wilful perpetrators of the disease. Note that in the case of A.I.D.S. in the mid-eighties gays with the disease had their victimhood moralized and had their deviant sexuality blamed for the spread of the disease. Likewise, McCarthyism disavowed the factors which produced a communists in search of retribution for their victimhood (as working class people, as blacks, as outcasts). Again victimhood is deserved.

The contagion is the element of the epidemic that the dominant order must control. It has two complementary strategies for acheiving this purpose. First, the system attempts to hunt downt the carries of the infectious agent. This involves a whole system of technological, legal and discursive apparatuses. Depending on the nature of the investigation, these may range from microscopes to court trials, from police and F.B.I. reports to a simple gaze, from frisking to x-rays. In all of these cases alterity and identity are at stake. Here the abstract machine of the shibboleth enacts the workings of power and defines the boundaries of stable systems. After the shibboleth that divides the grain from the husk, the system must enact some type of quarantine. The quarantine reached a new stage of sophistication during the mid-1300's due to the workings of the Plague. It has been suggested by Foucault that several institutions, such as the hospital, prison, and asylum have used the model of the quarantines developed in the Renaissance as a template in their strategies of isolation, treatment, and control. Thus each epidemic comes into various nodes of conflict with the institutions that regulate potential threats to the overall system and isolate dangerous elements.

The next stage determines the course of the epidemic. In apocalypse, the level of contagion reaches a critical point. This is the point at the some portion of the force of either the epidemic or the system is destroyed.