(In)visibility. Or: visualizing and perceiving an invisible threat

Dossier “Epidemics. Perspectives from cultural studies”

© 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)

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.

In this chapter, the “Perspectives from cultural studies” are devoted to the question of how the invisible virus, the invisibility of epidemics, has been made visible, graspable, tangible, and legible over the centuries, and how the perception of the invisible threat has influenced societies.

© CDC/ Dr. Fred Murphy; Sylvia Whitfield

Tiny beings. By Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

Unless we work in an institute of virology, none of us has ever seen a corona virus. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been visible as a pictorial model across the media, in the form of a differently coloured and somehow unpleasant spiky sphere. At the same time, we now have the impression since learning to live with corona that the media presence of this spherical being has diminished somewhat, and given way to flatter, and yet more vivid, representations. More

© Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Imagination and affect in the face of the (in)visible threat. By Eva-Bettina Krems

Since the Renaissance, doctors, philosophers, writers, and members of the clergy all over Europe have formulated many theories about diseases, and especially the plague, most of these theories being based on the assumption that illnesses are very closely connected with conceived images and strong emotions (classical affects). Important impetus was provided by the German physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637), who documented numerous cases, especially in Wittenberg, where infection with the plague was caused not by physical contact with an infected person, but by the feeling of horror at witnessing (albeit from a safe distance) actions linked to the disease. More

© Souleymane Diallo

Covid-19 in Mali: the imperceptible threat. By Dorothea Schulz

Like other African countries, Mali has seen the emergence in recent months of an active rumour mill around Covid-19. In everyday conversations, friends, neighbours and family members discuss routes of transmission and the danger of infection from “corona”, speculate on its origin from abroad and the reasons why it is so prevalent in industrialized countries, or even fundamentally question the existence of the virus and its preponderance in Mali. For example, there has for weeks been a persistent rumour in the capital Bamako and other cities in Mali that, although Covid-19 may well exist, its presence in Mali has not yet been proven; that it is a government ploy to obtain aid funds from international organizations for private enrichment. More

© Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

The literary visualization of the invisible and the hidden in Boccaccio’s depiction of the plague. By Pia Claudia Doering

Epidemics confront people with diverse phenomena of invisibility: the virus itself is invisible to the human eye, and nor can we immediately identify the pathways and mechanisms involved in its spread. The threat posed by an epidemic must therefore be communicated: through figures and statistics, through graphics and images, such as those of overcrowded hospital wards or of military vehicles carrying large numbers of coffins. More

© Jens Niebaum

Visibility of the invisible: a saint prays in heaven for the victims of the plague on earth. By Jens Niebaum

In 1656, Naples was struck by a particularly serious plague epidemic, which claimed almost half of its inhabitants in the space of four months. Many of the dead were buried outside the walls in hastily constructed mass graves, including the Grotta degli Sportiglioni, where, according to one chronicler, no fewer than 60,000 people were buried. A number of citizens and guilds, as well as the Viceroy of Naples, had a church dedicated to the Madonna del Pianto (St. Mary of Weeping) built in this place of horror between 1657 and 1662, to hold requiem masses for those often buried without the last sacraments. More

© The Walters Art Museum (CC0 1.0)

Pandemic visibility – pandemics and the invisible becoming visible. By Matthias Sandberg

Late-19th-century research on infection succeeded in making the invisible visible for the first time: the microscopic examination and microphotographic representation of bacteria and viruses gave the invisible threat a concrete form. The more or less exact depiction of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen is also omnipresent in the media today, its eponymous oval form with its typical spikes having come to symbolize the corona pandemic worldwide. More

© Public Domain (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Miasmas, particles, tinder, plague worms, and “levende diertjens”. On how microbes have been made visible for humans. By Katharina Wolff

As a being that is dependent on sensory impressions when it comes to perceiving its environment, the human also has a need, and especially so in times of crisis, to perceive events sensually. Infectious diseases elude this need to a particular degree: the question of what the mysterious entity that seems to be at work there is doing becomes apparent through the symptoms of those who are ill, but the question of what this entity is does not. More