By Joshua Abboud, University of Kentucky
It is starting to become a cliche that we are living through extraordinary times. To say this is not to diminish other challenges we have experienced in our lifetimes. It means to acknowledge that what we experience now is a unique moment in our collective histories, even if it is not completely unprecedented. Watching Rachel Yoakum’s video piece “Fear is Contagious: Is AIDS?” I am reminded that the discourses circulating around profound health emergencies tend to ebb and flow. The ecological, biological, and rhetorical aspects of a given crisis may have specific circumstances, but they intersect in ways that echo the past and always seem to find a way to circle back around.
And speaking of viral pandemics… in his book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic David Quammen defines the concept of viral “spillover” as “a focused event,” when the virus passes from a host species to another species. “Emergence,” on the other hand, is a “process, a trend” (32-33). Spillover is that instance, the event of passing infection, while emergence is its spreading and circulating among the new population. Quammen describes spillover as a risk a virus takes for a chance at emergence (64). HIV took that risk, and we live in a world of its continued success.
The concepts of spillover and emergence help us understand the spreading and evolution of infectious diseases. We are at this moment experiencing the escalating effects of a novel virus infecting a population unprepared to combat it. Its continued success will rest on the hosts’ willingness to evolve with the virus, learn, and change behaviors in order to reduce its spread. Even if we succeed in diminishing the virus’ ability to spread through vaccines or proper behavior, circulation doesn’t exactly mean that it disappears, and we may still have to learn to live alongside it. In any case, we can add it to a list of physical, mental, ecological, and social diseases that lay in wait for ripe conditions to remerge. As Quammen puts it “Ecological disturbance causes diseases to emerge. Shake a tree, and things fall out” (17). It seems that emergence can be true of many different kinds of rhetorical disturbances when the conditions are just right.
These disturbances can manifest as the misinformation that circulates as part of the discourse surrounding a given issue. Yoakum discusses the myths that spread like a parallel disease when AIDS emerged most visibly during the 1980’s. There is a hopeful tone that we have learned so much in the ensuing decades, and that we have arrived in a place where the curtains have mostly been drawn on the mysteries of how the virus infects and spreads. However, even in the hopeful tone, there is a dark side that is revelatory for our own moment of viral emergence: that the fear that fuels misinformation does not vanish, but instead retreats back to a sort of “reservoir host.” It lies in wait for the right conditions, the disturbances, that will allow for optimal reinfection. There is a rhetorical thread to pull from the emergence of Covid-19, the early naiveté surrounding how to fight its spread (or whether or not it even exists), economic and employment collapse, all laying bare social strains that create a clearing for protests against systemic racism as well as strange rebellions against wearing masks in public. But let’s not lose sight of another spillover event for much of this social unrest. Maybe the isolation of quarantine and frustrations of bungled national action to the pandemic ripened the conditions for confronting the diseased behavior of an executive administration that trafficked in xenophobic and violent policies for three years. It seems a million years ago that, after months of investigation and testimony, Congress voted to impeach Donald Trump. Shake a tree and things fall out. It would be easy to pin Trump down as the toxic catalyst for so much of what has happened in the last six months. It’s important to remember that spillover happens before emergence. We are seeing much of this emerge as the conditions are ripe for their spread.
I was struck by one image in Yoakum’s video in particular that could serve as the intersection point for all of these forces. It is a CBS Sunday Morning interview from 2017 with Dr. Anthony Fauci expressing his disappointment that people at the time of HIV emergence still believed the circulating myths about HIV infection “even though the overwhelming evidence indicated that that was not the case” (see fig. 1).
Dr. Fauci of course has been a central figure in communicating a national response to the current pandemic, in the shadow of President Trump’s continued attempts to thwart scientific inquiry. Yoakum edits the segment with Dr. Fauci so that we don’t hear what disease is being discussed. If it wasn’t in a video specifically about AIDS it could easily be transplanted into a modern discussion about Covid-19 (see fig. 2). Trump may represent the amplification of the conditions for ecological and social forces to emerge and thrive. Dr. Fauci, however, represents a different way to consider the unfolding of these forces that could point toward an alternative path into the future. We may now have to learn to live alongside HIV, but maybe we find a cure, and along the way we learn about how we perpetuate myths in destructive and nihilistic ways. Maybe the novel coronavirus never dissipates or even recedes, but maybe also we create a new circulation that pushes out fear and racism and actively engages in palpable systemic social transformations.
The image of Fauci from the past, but speaking to us as if from the near future, is the return of a different way these forces could unfold. This is how Gilles Deleuze chooses to interpret Nietszche’s concept of the eternal return: not as a perpetual return to the same, the same images, the same outcomes, the same bad choices. Eternal return is the return of difference, that the return itself is what always comes back around to us, “the thought of the absolutely different” (Deleuze 46). If Trump is a catalyst, Dr. Fauci is the dice roll; understanding the risks of life and yet still agrees to play in order to affirm life and see what happens in the process.
There is another image that could fit into Yoakum’s video, and would represent one possible outcome for us in place of the current parade of masked crowds. The NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt celebrated the lives of people who had died of AIDS and stood as a challenge to the continuation of myths and misinformation surrounding the crisis (see fig. 3). What will be the results of our present dice roll when we choose to affirm life? To me, Yoakum’s video asks that we participate in the circulation of forces in a way that is not grounded in the old forms of fear and myth, that guarantee a return of the same, but rather grounded in an openness to the constant unfolding events around us. We have the benefit of looking back on what we learned during the AIDS crisis. This video argues that we must be open to continually learning in an expedited and authentic way.
Brennan, Shayna. “The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on Display near the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. in October 1992.” AIDS Memorial Quilt Is Returning Home To San Francisco, 20 Nov. 2019, http://www.npr.org/2019/11/20/781430503/aids-memorial-quilt-is-returning-home-to-san-francisco.
CBS News Face the Nation. “Transcript: Dr. Anthony Fauci on ‘Face the Nation,” February 16, 2020.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 16 Feb. 2020, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-dr-anthony-fauci-on-face-the-nation-february-16-2020/.
Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy, tr. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Quammen, David. Spillover: Animal Infections and the next Human Pandemic. Norton, 2012.
Return to “Fear is Contagious: Is AIDS?“