Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies

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.

The authors from the Cluster of Excellence include literary scholar Pia Doering (Romance studies), art historians Eva Krems and Jens Niebaum, historian Matthias Sandberg, anthropologist Dorothea Schulz, literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German studies) and historian Katharina Wolff.

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The virologist Christian Drosten announced the end of the pandemic at the end of December 2022, and all regulations have now disappeared. But people are still becoming infected, and the occasional person can still be seen wearing a mask in public. So, is the pandemic over or not? It is said that we will simply have to live with Covid, and that the virus will become endemic – just like a “normal” virus. Three years of Covid is a long time. The question is whether this period and its restrictions have changed society and people’s lives, and how, and what the end of this period, which is somehow also not an end, means for people. The articles in this dossier explore how literature and the visual arts deal with the end of epidemics, which patterns of interpretation are invoked, and which modes of representation are employed.

© Governo Italiano (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IT), privat, Milion chvilek pro demokracii, internationales literaturfestival berlin

GEDÄCHTNIS: Epidemien, ihre Opfer und die Erinnerung

Epidemien oder gar Pandemien sind stets traumatische Ereignisse im Erinnerungshaushalt betroffener Menschen, Familien oder Gesellschaften. Spätestens wenn sich ein Ende der Krise abzuzeichnen beginnt, stellt sich die Frage nach Formen künftiger Erinnerung an das dann vergangene Geschehen. Mehrere Länder haben bereits Akzente gesetzt: In Washington D.C. wurden am Vorabend der Inauguration von Präsident Biden 400 Laternen am Reflecting Pool vor dem Lincoln Monument entzündet – eine für je 1.000 US-amerikanische Pandemieopfer. In Italien wurde gar ein jährlicher Gedenktag eingeführt und dafür der 18. März bestimmt – jener Tag, an dem in Bergamo eine Kolonne von 70 Militärtransportern die Särge von hunderten Toten aus der Stadt brachten, weil das dortige Krematorium überlastet war. Diese und andere Beispiele – etwa das Lichterherz auf dem Münsteraner Domplatz am bundesweiten Corona-Gedenktag am 18. April 2021 – werfen die Frage auf, wie Gesellschaften, gesellschaftliche Gruppen, Institutionen oder auch Individuen mit dem Gedenken an Epidemien und ihre Opfer umgegangen sind und umgehen.

© Jens Niebaum, gemeinfrei, exc, public domain

GOD'S WILL/ GOD'S SUCCOUR? Religious interpretations of epidemics

Writing in Christ & Welt in February 2021, Peter Frey, editor-in-chief of the German television channel ZDF, criticized the churches for having gone underground during Corona, saying that, while it is true that the church is no longer portraying the pandemic as God’s punishment (as it used to do), it has not embraced a new creativity during the crisis. For Frey, there has been no spiritual depth to the pandemic and its consequences. In contrast, the Münster sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack said in an interview in March 2021, also in Christ & Welt, that it was right for the churches largely to refrain from interpreting the meaning of the pandemic, saying that the time when religion was responsible for solving all problems is long gone. For Pollack, many people probably do not interpret the crisis in religious terms, but rather perceive it as a medical and political problem only. The contributions in this dossier trace religious interpretations of epidemics, as they can be read in textual testimonies and images from past (and more devout centuries), but also turn their gaze to present-day Africa, for example.


© gemeinfrei; CC-BY-4.0; Hama Yalcouye

Precautions and rules, or: collective responses 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.

© CC-BY-SA-4.0; Basel, Kunstmuseum (gemeinfrei); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; cdc; Belvedere Wien, Inv. 4048

Epidemics: images, metaphors, allegories

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.

© Eva Krems

MASKS: Protection or imposition?

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.

© The Walters Art Museum (CC0 1.0); CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield; Jens Niebaum; Public Domain (CC BY-SA 4.0); Souleymane Diallo; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

(IN)VISIBILITY. Or: visualizing and perceiving an invisible threat

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.

© Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain CC0 1.0, imago-images,, MA 8 – Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv; Lizenz CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, Souleymane Diallo, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

SPACE or: Distance and spread

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.

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TIME, or: After the crisis is before the crisis

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.

“Between Divine Punishment and Conspiracy Theories”

Cover Between Divine Punishment and Conspiracy Theories
© Campus Verlag

The Cluster of Excellence’s research on epidemics from antiquity to the present has been brought together in a volume entitled Between Divine Punishment and Conspiracy Theories. The volume deals with conspiracy theories and alternative theological interpretations that emerge in times of epidemics both past and present. “What disturbed liberal milieus convinced of the evidence provided by medical-scientific expertise in the Corona pandemic is not new for times of epidemics”, underline the volume’s editors, historians Marcel Bubert and André Krischer. “Competing interpretations of epidemics have emerged time and again”. The volume is the first to shed light on such competing interpretations in an interdisciplinary and trans-epochal way.