2001 MMLA
Globalization and the Image

Kirsten Ostherr
Wesleyan University


"Globalization as Viral Contagion"


Do not cite without permission of the author.

I. The global proliferation of biological and electronic viruses dominates the daily news with a frequency that suggests a world on the brink of apocalyptic crisis. The dissolution of national borders that is said to characterize the new global economy is often represented as an effect of the "new media" that link even the farthest reaches of the globe in a virtual web, with alternately democratizing and contaminating results. But the rhetoric of contagion that pervades the contemporary discourse of globalization has a much longer history than these panicked reports would suggest. This paper will examine the discursive construction of globalization as contagion in two historical periods, through two different media: postwar public health films, and contemporary internet viruses. In both cases, the logic of contagion is deeply contradictory. On the one hand, the trope of contagion provides an explanatory framework -- mapping the paths of disease enables film viewers and computer users to avoid contamination by avoiding the sites of infection. On the other hand, the very invisibility of contagion prevents an accurate mapping of the flow of infection, and thus, representations of contagion can only diffuse, rather than isolate, the threat of contamination. These formal and rhetorical problems create a discourse of contagion that centers on questions of realism, and thus, we might expect that the problem would take different forms in different media, especially when comparing such ontologically distinct forms as celluloid and digital images. But as we will see, the problem of invisibility continues to be solved through racial and sexual embodiments of contagion, whose form has changed surprisingly little since World War II.

Numerous public health films from the postwar period -- including my primary example today, a 1957 film called The Silent Invader -- are driven by the compulsion to visually represent the spread of invisible contagions. This contradiction is resolved through a dialectic of indexicality and artificiality, or authenticity and simulation. That is, the film repeatedly attempts to produce realistic representations of the viral invasion of national and bodily boundaries, but failing to capture a photographic image of contagion, the film uses animation (an artificial representational technique), in its cinematic inoculation against communicable disease. By turning to a form of representation that is associated primarily with fantastical, not scientific renderings of the real, the film undermines its own claims to documentary veracity, and in doing so, eliminates its own potency as an audiovisual prophylactic.

The failure of postwar public health films accurately to capture a profilmic image of contagion would seem to be solved by the advent of digital imaging technologies. With their ability to produce convincingly authentic -- albeit entirely simulated -- representations of the spread of disease, digital media might allay the anxiety that had driven earlier attempts to visualize the invisible. But instead, we find that "new" and "old" media occupy equally anxious relationships to "the real." By comparing two modes of representing global contagion through two different technologies of visualization, I will ask how the problem of "invisibility" is complicated or resolved by post-photographic digital manipulations of the image of the diseased body. Furthermore, if geopolitical and subjective boundaries are indeed dissolved in the global marketplace of postmodernity, why is the imagery of invasion so prevalent in representations of the new media technologies that have enabled this world without borders to develop?

II. The representations of contagion in postwar public health films negotiate the problem of invisibility by codifying and visually mapping the infectious zones of the public sphere. Because the spread of contagion involves spatial and temporal mobility, the epidemiological map must account for (at least) two different scenarios of contamination: the geographic infection, wherein bodily presence at a particular location on the map confers contagion, and the demographic infection, wherein contact with a particular type of person results in contamination. While both scenarios are generically codified, their iconography depends upon a discursive slippage that always threatens misinterpretation; whether invisible contagion is visualized through animated maps or through racially- and sexually-marked bodies, the indexicality of the image of contagion remains unstable at best. Thus, the assurance that these films are meant to provide -- as long as you avoid these locations and these types of people, you won't be infected -- is easily undermined at the first blurring of representational boundaries. And because the audiovisual imaginary of world health is precisely concerned with the permeability of national and bodily boundaries, these films obsessively represent the dissolution of the very borders that they are attempting to stabilize. The coupling of intense anxiety about the global spread of contagion with representations of (often unsuccessful) attempts to halt the invasion of U.S. borders by invisible contaminants invests these films with a paranoia that structures the narration of contagion as a narration of conspiracy, driven by malevolent (anthropomorphized) viruses bent on human destruction.

In representations of internet viruses, the possibility of avoiding contagion is undermined by the abstraction of the infectious agent, and the Love Bug, or "I Love You" virus played on this precise slippage. By collapsing the technological and the organic, media coverage of the virus treated "infection" of one's computer as a personal, bodily invasion. While the history of medicine shows that most forms of contagion have been indiscriminate in their infections, the digital era has enabled greatly enhanced visual representations of the "omnipresence" of disease. With the assistance of computer imaging and imaginations fed by the rhetoric of global communications, there are no longer specific types of bodies nor specific locations that are invulnerable to disease (if there ever were). Contagion is everywhere, and less visible than ever, and this intensified pervasiveness of infection is only exacerbated by the use of increasingly sophisticated techniques for visualizing the invisible.

In the postwar period, on the other hand, the attempts to visualize the invisible were imbued with a positivist confidence in the possibility of representing -- and thereby avoiding infection by -- invisible contaminants. In The Silent Invader, the "problem" of world health is presented through a dialectic of visibility and invisibility, articulated through two generically characteristic representational strategies. First, the spread of infectious disease is conceptualized as a problem of global proportions through the linkage of contagion with transnational communication and transportation technologies, whose assistance in monitoring and spreading disease is demonstrated on animated epidemiological maps of the world.1 [SHOW FILM CLIP.] The mutually-reinforcing conditions of universal surveillance and universal contagion produce a model of globalization that absorbs the United States into the seemingly unstoppable flow of infections, and defines "world health" as an untenable contradiction.

This stalemate is resolved through the second representational strategy: the construction of a visual icon of disease that enables the displacement of contagion onto sources outside of the United States, even while infectious agents continue to move freely across national boundaries. By locating the origins of disease in "Third World" countries, and invoking documentary images of the inhabitants of those nations as visible evidence of the presence of invisible contaminants, public health films such as The Silent Invader recuperate the seeming hopelessness of globalization by quarantining diseased bodies within the spatially and temporally distant locales of "premodernity." [SHOW FILM CLIP.]

On animated maps of the global spread of disease, and in documentary footage that codes nonwhite bodies as disease carriers, the actual contaminant (whether germ, bacteria, or virus) remains invisible. What is made visible is not an indexical image of invisible contagions, but rather, a socially legible -- albeit entirely artificial -- collapse of the invisible onto alternate forms of representing disease. The constant oscillation between these two modes of representation produces a realism that attempts to attain an authoritative indexical status while nonetheless relying heavily on nonindexical modes of representation. And thus, we arrive at a key contradiction in the audiovisual discourse of world health: the aim of global health surveillance is to visually map the spread of contagious disease, and thereby, to sustain the imaginary geopolitical map that authorizes the United States and western Europe as subjects of scientific knowledge, consigning the "premodern" world to the objectified role of lab specimen. However, the inherent instability of the relationship between observer and observee leaves the practice of surveillance always inadequate to the task of preventing "foreign elements" from entering U.S. national/bodily borders. Despite (or perhaps, because of) this contradiction, the medium of film is mobilized by health surveillance organizations as a technology of visualization that can capture images of germs that are invisible to the naked eye, and then re-present them to a mass audience, training an entire nation of viewers in the techniques of disease surveillance. The instructional power of public health films ostensibly derives from their status as scientific documentations of reality, and yet, these films cannot actually capture an unmediated profilmic scenario of contagion without displacing the invisible contagion onto artificially-constructed visual images.

The assertion that geopolitical boundaries can define the distinction between healthy and diseased, modern and "premodern" national identities is simultaneously proclaimed and denied by the discourse of world health. The very concept of "world health" is founded upon a view of the world as a collection of discrete national bodies, inextricably interconnected by global transportation and communication networks which prevent any nation from functioning in isolation. This geopolitical web facilitates the spread of disease, even as it promotes the fantasy of universal boundary surveillance and control. The plotting of documentary images of diseased bodies onto epidemiological maps thus performs the crucial function of linking disease with racially-marked bodies that occupy geographical locations beyond the national borders of the United States. Through this displacement, bodily invasion becomes national invasion, and the project of world health becomes a world war between modern, "sanitary" countries and disease-ridden, "pre-modern" societies.

III. It might seem that representations of internet viruses would no longer suffer from the crude racism and inadequacy of the more rudimentary animation and special effects that abruptly severed the diegetic coherence of earlier public films. The digital imaging technologies used to represent the digitally interconnected world seamlessly integrate the indexical and the artificial, thus fulfilling the world health fantasy of visualizing invisible contagions in everyday life.2

Although the advent of digital imaging has been widely recognized as eroding an earlier faith in photographic realism, the ability to convincingly represent an invisible element of the profilmic scene might be viewed as a development that invests the artificial image with an indexical veracity that is even more "real" than an unvarnished image ever could be. The "crisis of referentiality" that undermines the boundaries between authenticity and simulation in the post-photographic era thus finds a special case in the problem of visually representing invisible contagion. If a microscopic virus is invisible to the naked eye, does its consequent failure to appear on celluloid make it any less infectious?3 In the logic of world health, it is the act of visual representation that simultaneously establishes the indexical presence of contagion, and, through the act of identification, eliminates the potency of the threat of contamination.

The repeated failure of earlier public health films accurately to capture a profilmic image of contagion might thus seem to be resolved by the advent of digital imaging technologies. With their ability to produce a convincingly authentic -- albeit entirely simulated -- representation of the spread of disease, digital media could potentially allay the anxiety that had driven earlier attempts to visualize the invisible. But instead, we find that "new" and "old" media occupy equally anxious relationships to "the real."4 Contemporary metaphors of contagion, epitomized by the notion of the computer "virus," continue to draw upon the racialized and sexualized linkage of disease and difference, frequently under the broad rubric of AIDS discourse.

The network news media coverage of the Love Bug internet virus that was traced to a computer hacker in the Philippines exemplifies this representational technique. The "premodern" geopolitical origins of the Bug both confirmed and disrupted Western expectations about the spread of contagious disease -- a viral source in the "underdeveloped" world might be anticipated, but the potency of its threat to the (presumed) technological superiority of the West was not. The Love Bug thus occupies the same evolutionary discourse of globalization that, in the early-1980s, constructed "African AIDS" as evidence of the ongoing need for Western surveillance, regulation, and containment of previously colonized countries, by organizations like WHO and CDC.5

Moreover, the analytical framework applied to the Love Bug in mass media coverage borrowed directly from the insidiously racialized rhetoric of The Silent Invader (and postwar anti-Asian xenophobia more generally), as in the following excerpt from Time magazine: "Like a real Asian influenza, the virus first emerged in Hong Kong. From there it spread westward with the sun, lying silently in wait in corporate email accounts until unsuspecting office denizens punched in, logged on and doubled-clicked on the file."6

The feared penetration of national and bodily borders that has characterized the discourse of world health since its inception is thoroughly reified in the convergent imagery of global computer viruses and the spread of HIV/AIDS; here we see a re-embodiment of contagion that is particularly striking given the simultaneous abstraction of the vector of contagion through the rhetoric of electronic viruses. The advent of digital imaging technologies and the development of increasingly elaborate networks of electronic connectivity that can rapidly become chains of infection have resulted (once again) in a proliferation of representations of contagion. As we saw in The Silent Invader, the visual embodiment of contagion has often been expressed through a collapse of disease and racial difference, conveyed through highly sexualized networks of infection. And yet, as the editors of a recent volume on race in digital representation have noted, "race is rarely (if ever) as invisible offline as it is in cyberspace."7 Similar observations have been made about sexual identity online.8 Nonetheless, cultural discourses surrounding the digital realm are heavily imbued with racial and sexual imagery, as in the following remarks (also from Time magazine), whose interpretation of the technological virus in terms of human sexuality was repeated in countless commentaries on the Love Bug: "The extraordinary efficacy of the Love Bug was caused partly by its timing, striking as it did on a busy weekday morning, but also by its seductiveness. It was a minor masterpiece of what hackers like to call 'social engineering' - in other words, manipulating the rubes. Few of the lonely hearts among cubicle dwellers could resist its siren song."9

IV. Whether "the invisible" is contagious disease or a computer virus, contemporary media cultures strive to surpass the boundaries of visibility. Anxiously oscillating between the indexical and the artificial, the cinema of world health attempts to invest the filmed image with an authoritative form of realism through scientific surveillance and mastery of the public sphere and the private body. But the proclaimed benefits of global hygienic modernization are not easily captured by audiovisual technologies of representation; documentary images can only reveal their truth through the assistance of special effects. Thus, scientific authority is generated through recourse to artificiality. And thus, the boundaries between the indexical and the artificial become impossible to identify. This representational problem has increasingly characterized the mass-mediated, image-based culture of the United States; the dialectic of visibility and invisibility that defines the project of world health raises the same questions about how to tell "truth" from "fiction" that now pervade the realm of digital imaging and the discourse of computer viruses. The widespread use of "contagion" as a literal and figurative model for a variety of geopolitical and subjective transformations suggests that the project of world health defined a crucial ideological intersection in the postwar period. But as contemporary cultural productions -- with their reliance on seemingly outmoded racial and sexual iconographies -- attest, the impossibility of visually representing invisible contagions continues to propel the dialectic of world health and globalization today.


1 For a history of epidemiological cartography, see Norman J.W. Thrower, Maps and Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society [1972] (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996). For other postwar public health films that represent global "mapping," see: Prevention of the Introduction of Diseases from Abroad (1946); Hemolytic Streptococcus Control (1945); The Eternal Fight (1948); Fight Syphilis (1941); and The Fight Against the Communicable Diseases (1950).

2 We can see this most clearly in the digitally-enhanced contagion sequences in the 1995 Hollywood film Outbreak.

3 Lev Manovich has concisely summarized this paradox: "The logic of the digital photograph is one of historical continuity and discontinuity. The digital image tears apart the net of semiotic codes, modes of display, and patterns of spectatorship in modern visual culture -- and, at the same time, weaves this net even stronger. The digital image annihilates photography while solidifying, glorifying and immortalizing the photographic." Lev Manovich, "The Paradoxes of Digital Photography," in Photography After Photography. Exhibition Catalog. Germany, 1995. 15 March 2001.

4 For a critique of the notion of "new" media, see Phil Rosen, "Old and New: Image, Indexicality and Historicity in the Digital Utopia." Iconics 4 (1998).

5 In fact, as Andrew Ross has noted, "The epidemiology of biological virus (especially AIDS) research is being studied closely to help implement computer security plans" (emphasis mine). Andrew Ross, "Hacking Away at the Counterculture," in John Thornton Caldwell, ed., Electronic Media and Technoculture (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000): 248.

6 "Attack of the Love Bug," Time vol. 155, iss. 20, May 15, 2000, p. 49.

7 Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, "Race in Cyberspace: An Introduction," in Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds., Race in Cyberspace (NY: Routledge, 2000): 1.

8 For a discussion of a similar destabilization of referentiality via gender, sex and race switching in Internet chat rooms, see Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995), Ken Hillis, Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1999).

9 "Attack," p. 52.