Space or: Distance and spread

Dossier "Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies"

© 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

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.

© Souleymane Diallo

Social space as a threatened sphere. By social anthropologist Dorothea Schulz

Just as various European governments have taken a range of measures in recent months to prevent or curb the spread of Covid-19, so countries on the African continent differ significantly in the measures they adopt, in the extent to which their governments intervene in certain areas of public and economic life, and in governmental enforcement of protective measures. More


Pandora and pandemics. By historian Matthias Sandberg

John William Waterhouse’s ‘Pandora’ depicts a key moment in Greek mythology: still angry at Prometheus’ sacrilegious robbery of fire, Zeus, full of cunning, contemplated revenge: the father of the gods left a vessel full of evil to human beings, together with the treacherous commandment to keep it locked. The plan worked: Pandora’s curiosity was greater than Zeus’ warning. Immediately after her marriage to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, Pandora opens the box, releasing misfortune, misery, suffering, and illness into the world.More

© Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

Unde malum? The topography of epidemics. By historian Katharina Wolff

Ever since human and disease first clashed, and this clash has been reflected in art or historiography, the question has been asked: where from? The Athenian strategist Thucydides, considered the father of historiography, already reported on the “Plague of Athens”, which broke out in the early summer of 430 BC in Athens and also affected Thucydides himself. Like many other historiographers after him, he reflected on the origin and nature of the disease, and described its symptoms and how people reacted to the catastrophe. More

© Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain CC0 1.0

Off to the countryside! Urban exodus as a crisis. By By literary scholar Pia Claudia Doering

The corona crisis appears first and foremost as a crisis of the city: images from the metropolis of Wuhan (population: 11 million), and later from Milan and New York, have seared themselves into our memory. Many city dwellers took flight and moved to the country. Police barriers were erected in Paris to prevent its inhabitants from leaving the city. And in Germany, where weekend houses in the countryside are less common than in France, federal states such as Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern temporarily prohibited second-home owners from travelling to the country. More

© MA 8 – Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv; Lizenz CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Plague and urban areas: Vienna, 1679 (and 1713). By art historian Jens Niebaum

The medical, administrative, religious, and cultural management of the great plague epidemics in the early-modern era was often inscribed in urban structures, which in turn shaped and reconstituted this management. A particularly good example is the imperial city of Vienna, which was hit by a particularly severe plague in 1679. The famous preacher Abraham a Sancta Clara vividly described “the grim death” in the Habsburg metropolis in his Mercks Wienn of 1680. More

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Emptiness as a new space of communitization and visual presentation: Urbi et Orbi on 27 March 2020. By art historian Eva-Bettina Krems

The images of deserted urban spaces in the time of corona will shape our memories of this crisis. The abandonment of otherwise busy places across almost the entire world suddenly made us discover things that had been invisible before the pandemic: majestic jellyfish in the now crystal-clear canals of Venice; the monumental marble floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, whose five naves can hold up to 60,000 worshippers; and the circular paving around the Kaaba in Mecca, which, situated at the centre of the Al-Haram Mosque, only gave an inkling this year of the crowds of people who usually surround the shrine: up to 820,000 people can gather there.More

© Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

“A strong tendency to spread”. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). By literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (German studies)

At the very beginning of Thomas Mann’s famous novella, the protagonist, the writer Gustav von Aschenbach, sets out “alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk” (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter, 3), which leads him through the English Garden and then out onto paths that are “solitary and still”. When he reaches “the North Cemetery”, he then waits “for a train to carry him back to the city” (3). The writer finds himself facing a crisis of age and creativity, which makes him seek “the open” (9). More