Epidemics from antiquity to the present: how they have been represented in the arts and media is something that researchers from the Cluster of Excellence explain in the new dossier “Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies”. The short texts and images offer different disciplinary approaches to epidemics.
These days especially are seeing fierce debates about precautions and rules in managing epidemic emergencies: surveys gauging how people assess the appropriateness of certain measures are cited; protective masks are said to be ‘muzzles’ that symbolize authoritarian state repression; courts react to private lawsuits against decisions made in parliament – the pandemic and how we deal with it in the field of tension between individual rights and collective necessities is not only a sensitive political dilemma; it is also an ethical issue, too.
Taking the title “Epidemics: images, metaphors, allegories”, researchers at the Cluster of Excellence scrutinize representations of epidemics in various media. The contributions in the new chapter from the dossier “Epidemics: Perspectives from Cultural Studies” range from ancient history to the history of art and literature.
After the initial irritations, we have become more or less used to wearing protective masks in public places. Nevertheless, the obligation to do so seems to have remained a stumbling block that has attracted extreme emotional reactions, for example in demonstrations against state measures aimed at combatting corona. Masks are anchored in culture in many ways. For example, they were worn by the actors in the theatre of ancient Greece, so that the figure depicted could be clearly seen even by distant spectators. In many cultures, masks play a central role in cult and ritual, where they offer people the chance to transform themselves temporarily. Masks are worn in carnivals, where they conceal identities and allow people to playfully accept a different identity. And, finally, the wearing of masks is associated with the criminal milieu; for example, the classic bank robber in films wears a mask that is of course black!
The image of medical staff wearing protective masks in the operating theatre may also have negative connotations when one thinks of serious illness. And yet such masks stand for hygiene, medical standards, and protecting the patient.
It is invisible. At 80-160 nanometres, the corona virus is a challenge even for state-of-the-art imaging technology. The urge to make the invisible and how it works visible, to give it a shape, has accompanied humankind ever since epidemics began threatening our living space. The invisible, which cannot be smelled, tasted or touched, is deeply unsettling. It was not until the work of the bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) that pathogens became visible. The images provided by science generate comprehensibility, credibility; they give the impression of mastery over the invisible. The global spread of the corona virus turns us into consumers of spatial data analysis and location intelligence tools; interactive maps and charts break down the complexity of the virus and its consequences. And yet there is still great uncertainty, since the imperceptibility of the virus reinforces an atmosphere of social threat and mistrust. War metaphors are used to declare war on the invisible enemy.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the spread of Covid-19 to be a pandemic. In response to a virus that made us aware of the global interconnectedness of our world by spreading across nations and continents, governments closed borders and imposed travel bans. Many people living in cities, and especially in metropolises such as Paris, London and Milan, fled to the countryside because the lower population density and greater proximity to nature made the risk of infection seem lower there. Also, the consequences of the lockdown (closed shops, cafés, museums, theatres and cinemas, empty pedestrian zones, deserted public places) were more apparent in the city than in the countryside. Since the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, the unit to measure public spaces has been 1.5 metres, and markings on the ground and red-and-white barrier tape are omnipresent reminders of the need for us to keep our distance. Following the perspectives from cultural studies on the relationship between epidemics and time, the following contributions shed light on the changes that epidemics mean for spaces and how we perceive them.
The coronavirus has confused our relationship to time. Before, everything ran like clockwork – only a little too fast perhaps, so we had the constant feeling that we had to run simply to keep up. The lockdown has relieved our schedules somewhat, but has not necessarily given us more time. Digital learning, home schooling, following protective guidelines – all this ‘costs’ time. As Marie Schmidt wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 16 April 2020, the pandemic has “both glaringly decelerated and accelerated time”. Nothing will be quite the same, some say; or, as the ever pessimistic writer Michel Houellebecq told us in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 10 May 2020, everything will remain exactly the same, only become worse. The following articles, written from the perspective of cultural studies, provide further thoughts on the relationship between epidemics and time.