We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We
lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 108)
This issue of Fibreculture Journal, dedicated as it is to an exploration of the matter of contagion and the diseases of information, may be usefully read in the context of the political, ethical and theoretical problem of resistance, such as it was outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in 1991. Indeed, the connection which Deleuze and Guattari make – between an excess of communication and a lack of resistance – suggests very strongly the possibility of an epidemiological determination of contemporary politics, and this in a number of senses.
As is well known, contagious disease thrives amongst populations characterised by a great deal of contact and little resistance, which is why school playgrounds, the workplace and battlefields have traditionally provided the perfect milieux for the propagation of common infections. But more pointedly, as Marc Guillaume has pointed out, the term ‘epidemic’ itself derives from two Ancient Greek terms which combine to mean ‘against the people’ (Guillaume, 1987).
The characterisation of our present conjuncture as a biopolitical one, taking in hand the health of the population, does not provide the only reason for considering that disease and contagion may figure as crucial (if somewhat indeterminate) factors in the problem of resistance. Biological, vital forces work in a relationship of unstable alliance with social and cultural forces which is often overlooked by the more anthropocentric of interpretations of history. This in turn implies that infection and its variants have a material, ecological function which traverse the nature-culture divide, disclosing the existence of an abstract dynamic which can be and has been accomplished by other kinds of agents than viruses, bacteria, prions and so on. In so far as the dynamic disclosed by contagion and disease is always a dynamic of communication there is no reason to limit its operation purely to the domain of the biological. Nietzsche, speaking of humans as a skin disease of the earth (Nietzsche, 1961), or of the ‘bacillus of revenge’ (Nietzsche, 1968) was not being metaphorical.
For the same reason, if it is true to say that ‘looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind … resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behaviour have never yet sufficed to permit any really stable chronic behaviour to establish itself’ (McNeill, 1977: 41-2), then the concept of ecological imperialism (Crosby, 1986) is a valid one, power is disease and disease, sometimes, power. Isabelle Stengers is right to draw a link between Foucault’s conception of power and a conception of infection she attributes to Whitehead: ‘All “social power”, if it is not purely and simply repressive (a rare and unstable case) primarily designates a dynamic of infection’ (Stengers, 2002: 186).
The historical evidence sifted by biogeographers, natural historians and others of their ilk gives us plenty of reasons to want to re-evaluate the relationship between disease and culture, the nature of propagation and the extent of the dynamics of infection. But so do more contemporary phenomena. The shifting ecology of today’s media, with the spectacular visibility of the computer virus and its congenerates: worms, trojans and the like testifies to a functioning of computer code which taps into the abstract dynamics of infection and infectious entities. Marketing experts trumpet the virtues of viral marketing. Within the human sciences, the discipline of social psychology, covetous perhaps of the cultural ascendence of neo-Darwinian approaches in the life sciences, has resurrected the crowd psychology of the late nineteenth century and, in the guise of memetics or ‘thought contagion’ (Lynch 1996), proposes the meme as basic unit of transmission for cultural forms which themselves assume an epidemic quality. Such research may well be articulated around a somewhat hysterical agenda, but this does not mean that the phenomena it investigates are null. William Burroughs had already concluded that the word is a virus long before Dawkins developed the notion of the meme. If nothing else, the existence of memetics is a reminder of the existence of multiple, collective dynamics of communication which remain poorly understood.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have claimed (in Empire) that the age of globalisation is the age of ‘universal contagion’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 136). Whilst such a statement may smack a little of rhetorical overload (after all, if everyone is infected, a contagion simply burns itself out), it does capture something of the dynamics and the danger which resistance to the present require, a becoming-microbe perhaps. It has been argued that more than any other factor it was the plague of Athens which brought about the decline of Greece, that Genghis Khan and his mongol hordes, in their incessant movements between Europe and Asia rendered the continent permeable to the eventual transmission of the plague, and that influenza and other humble endemic infections were responsible for the decimation of millions upon millions of Amerindians subsequent to the discovery of the New World by Columbus. People living under the conditions of an epidemic are, according to Canetti ‘like participants in a battle which lasts longer than all known battles. But the enemy is hidden; he is nowhere to be seen and cannot be hit. One can only wait to be hit by him’ (Canetti, 1962: 319).
However before this editorial introduction bursts out in a rash, there are a number of cautionary remarks that need to be made:
1. Whilst epidemics may well have the most vivid impact on the imagination, possessing something of a spectacular quality: ‘in an epidemic, people see the advance of death; it takes place under their very eyes’ (Canetti, 1962: 319), it is important, both politically and ethically, not to overlook the endemic quality of many diseases. Cortez’s Spanish troops had acquired immunity to the infections which were so lethal to the Indians because these infections were largely endemic ones – the sort of irritating, occasionally dangerous background noise usually acquired in childhood and to which the organism evolves an adequate response. Endemic communication is dangerous under conditions of rapid deterritorialisation, as McNeill’s work shows. Email fever.
2. As with power for Foucault, infection and contagion operate on a reticular, network basis. Small worlds theory in physics and the science of networks purport to formalise the operations of this sort of logic, the better to exploit them perhaps, but as Eugene Thacker points out in his essay, Living Dead Networks, the network operation of power raises the problem, in all likelihood unsolvable in any enduring, stable way, of establishing sovereignty in the network, a problem which emerges with networks fighting networks. That the problem is insoluble is no cause for complacency, for as Thacker wittily points out, the zombie – created at the point where biological contagion, information transmission and the technologies of control they solicit crossover – figures the disturbing consequences of the difficulty for epidemiology of distinguishing contagion and transmission.
3. The predator-prey relationship which biologists use to characterise life and its a-morality and which is particularly, if painfully evident in disease phenomena, is complex, relative and unstable, especially in environments characterised by a rapidly changing ecology. The problem is exacerbated in technical environments whose rapid development robs them of the relative stability that millions of years of co-evolution presents. Jussi Parikka’s essay Digital Monsters, Binary Aliens demonstrates the fundamental instability of this relationship in an examination of the cultural history of the computer virus in its relation to capitalism.
4. It is difficult to assign any definite axiology to disease. This is partly because of the complexity of the predator-prey relationship. Nietzsche’s genius has been attributed, correctly or not (exactly which is immaterial), to his catching syphilis. Small doses of a bacillus confer immunity. However, lifting the axiological ‘prejudice’ is a delicate task: Roberta Buiani, in her essay Marginal Networks uses an analytic framework inspired by Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to investigate the discursive formation within which the virus appears. Carefully deconstructing the totalising pretentions of that framework, she points towards ways in which the negativity it entails may be surmounted.
5. There is a big difference between adapting contagion and disease as ontologically neutral conceptual operators and aping the life sciences. For memetics culture reduces down to basic units, the meme as a sort of atom of culture. But to capture the sort of transversal dynamic which contagion exemplifies requires an approach which can think relationally. For Michel Serres, the parasite, as an operator of the sort advocated here, is a relational term, the introducer of disymmetry, turbulence, the irreversible and perhaps – although he doesn’t say so – rhythm (Serres 1982). It is the constant waves of disease which wear down a population, just as it is waves of affect which carry it away. Stamatia Portanova’s essay Rhythmic Parasites explores the contagious force of rhythm in the spreading of particular forms of dance. For Portanova, rhythm operates on its own plane, cutting across the biological, the cultural and the technological, according to a logic of ‘viral diffusion’. Her paper shows quite clearly the irrelevance of maintaining the firm distinction between microscopic and macroscopic orders of reality which one might be accustomed to thinking characteristic of the distinction between biological and cultural forms of life.
Despite their very clear differences, the papers collected in this issue of Fibreculture Journal provide a highly suggestive exploration of the phenomena of contagion and the diseases of information. I would like to thank the authors for the work that they have put in, for their patience in responding to my slow-witted editorial questions and for the thoughtful responses they have provided to the theme of the issue. I would also like to thank Andrew Murphie and Lisa Gye for having tolerated the evolutionary creep of this issue towards completion.
Andrew Goffey is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Communications and Culture at Middlesex University, England. He writes on issues concerning the relationship between philosophy, culture and society and his work has appeared in Radical Philosophy, The Journal for Cultural Research, Mediactive and M/C Journal. He is currently researching a book exploring some of the relations between the life sciences, technology and culture.
Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power (London: Gollancz, 1962)
Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism. The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. What Is Philosophy? (London: Verso, 1994)
Guillaume, Marc. ‘Metamorphosis of Epidemia’ in Kwinter, Sanford and Feher, Michel (ed’s). Zone 1|2 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987)
Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)
Lynch, Adrian. Thought Contagion (New York: Basic, 1996)
McNeill, William H. Plagues and People (New York: Anchor, 1977)
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra (Penguin: London, 1961)
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power (Vintage: New York, 1968)
Serres, Michel. The Parasite (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982)
Stengers, Isabelle. Penser avec Whitehead (Paris: Seuil, 2002)