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Viral Bodies, Virtual Practices

Monica Hulsbus
Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp.18-27
ISSN 1354-8565
July 2001

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This essay examines the narrative tropes of recent films construed upon the imagined threats that viruses inflict on nation, community, and body. The tropes lend themselves to an investigation of the possible links between discourses of health and immunity and those about network technologies. Additionally, these tropes need to be contextualised within the circumstances of their emergence (the AIDS epidemic and the social and epistemological reconfigurations triggered by network technologies) and the larger history of science - if productive connections between cybernetics and popular culture, experts and laymen are to be obtained. Three main narrative strategies resonating with the paradigms that shaped science and cybernetics in the last 50 years emerge in these films. Addressing pressing issues such as the security of the body and the nation state, the trope of contamination condenses overall fears of losing control over clearly established boundaries. Firstly, Outbreak (Wolfgang Peterson, USA, 1995) recalls an earlier homeostatic model which is narratively reconfigured within complex system theory. Earlier strategies deployed to contain the polio epidemic as the major threat to public health in the 1940s and 1950s reappear in this film enforcing quarantine and focusing on body fluids and openings as entryways for disease. Borrowing from popular conspiracy theories the onset of AIDS in the destruction of natural ecosystems in Africa - proposing this particular virus as a more destructive strain of the HIV - Outbreak stages a devastating viral spread resulting from an interdependent global economy. The preposterous military efforts to eradicate it betray alarm at the prospect of losing jurisdiction over national boundaries. Moreover, this anxiety can be equated to a kind of semiotic xenophobia that wishes to remove from the communication exchange elements that pollute its logic and linearity - an anxiety shared with the champions of the homeostatic model in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nonetheless, this strategy of containment is altogether enunciated and resisted within the plane of the story since effectively stopping the spread entails acknowledging the futility of holding onto a Cold War, protectionist framework and shifting instead to one held by communication and feedback - where the body is perceived as capable of tailoring incommensurably diversified and specific responses to the challenges presented by its environment.

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