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The Metamorphoses of Epidemia by Marc Guillaume



Annotated by peterme


This essay is in Zone 1/2, a currently out-of-print book from the MIT Press.

I think it's a fascinating application of the epidemiological model to the spread of information. And though it was written in 1985 or 1986 (there's no explicit dating of the essay), it's particularly pertinent to our Internet age

Because this essay is so difficult to find, I'm reprinting it here, without permission.



If we rid the notion of epidemia of all its pathos, what remains is an abstract model or, more precisely, a series of models. Epi-demos: upon the people. Something spreads itself across the population, something which under normal circumstances would be external to it: a foreign element, for example, or an unusual event. This in turn produces certain effects within the population itself.

That which at the outset is external to the population may remain so during an epidemic. The contagion is thus exogenous when the vectors of its transmission are not men themselves. Yet the essence of epidemia is to incorporate itself into human beings and to circulate among them either through direct contact or through any other more or less direct interaction. Epidemia, then, works on the social bond; it may reinforce, transform or undo it.

In the public-health domain, those situations in which the contagion is endogenous lead to the terrifying and classic forms of epidemia. This is true of an infectious contact, of an endless and often concealed contamination (since healthy cariers themselves are potentially contagious), of the collapse of social bonds and moral rules and of the fight against "contagious ills and evils." For when an epidemic incorporates itself into man it is man himself whose practices, movements and relations must be controlled. This results in a succession of technologies and standardizations of the masses characteristic of the development of public health: confinement, isolation, segregation, medico-hygienic practices and institutions, the policing of cities, etc. Above all, there is vaccination -- or innoculation as it was once called -- the supreme embodiment of the fight itself. Vaccination was introduced after a number of experiments and a great deal of resistance (especially from the Church), and it finally allowed for victory over most epidemics. It could even be said that the contagious epidemic (or the epidemic believed to be contagious) became a massive and permanent reality through its appearace as plague, cholera, leprosy, smallpox, typhus, and several other blights, and that it instituted the ancient regime of sickness and disease while simultaneously establishing a particular configuration of therapeutic knowledge and of the status of medical science.

Returning to the abstract model of epidemia, it becomes evident that this model can be applied to phenomena that have nothing to do with disease: the circulation of objects, money, customs, or the propagation of affects and information. Fashion, the circulation of violence and even rumors, those contagions passing from mouth to ear, are all epidemics. With respect to the rumor, one could even go as far as to say that Theophraste Renaudot invented its vaccination. He started his newspaper at the insistence of Richelieu, who was anxious and annoyed by the rumors that were spreading about him. Thus the newspaper, and, in broader terms, all centrally controlled information appear to feed on and to be fed by rumors. In fact, the newspaper's aim is to minimize rumor and to decrease its virulence, either by the games of censorship, denial and counter-information, or, more subtly, by exaggerating the rumor so as to accelerate its life cycle and to better assure its innocuousness!

All these hypostases of epidemia have a dynamic in common; they are characterized by their limited speed, by a certain sluggishness. And it is precisely epidemia's sluggishness that allows it to be comprehended and ultimately overtaken.

The understanding of epidemia's speeds and its rates of propagation is a relatively easy task. At the simplest level, endogenous contagions are diffused within a homegenous whole. Thus each contaminated individual contaminates in turn a certain number (based on probability) of healthy individuals. This model of a chain reaction relates epidemics to several other phenomena connected to inert matter such as fire, chemical reactions, atomic reactors and bombs. It also provides explanations for a wide range of phenomena: on the one hand, geometric growth, slow at first but always threatening to become explosive; on the other, decline and total extinction; and in between, the steady rate of growth that leads to endemic diseases. The introduction of the notion of a critical mass complicates the model somewhat but permits one to understand the purpose of isolations, segregations, and of preventive massacres used as firebreaks. (The massacre of cattle in England is an example of just this.)

This model, however, is insufficient because it does not consider the demographic and social structures of the populations in question, nor does it analyze the mechanisms of selective propagation. The networks that connect individuals to one another must also be taken into account: networks of circulation, social contact and commerce. Here again the methods used to analyze material states, specifically the models of percolation, allow one to apprehend the modes by which epidemics propagate themselves.

Hence epidemics could be first understood, then contained, by the systematization of the public health domain and finally conquered through the possibilities opened up by advances in the medical field. Thus, medically speaking, only a few epidemics remain whose means of transmission are so subtle, whose vectors are so resistant or whose effects so mild that they cannot be totally overcome.

The legacy of these past flights and fears, however, is not only the public health and medical establishments which are largely responsible for the shape of present-day society, but also certain behavioral and thought patterns. This is particularly apparent in the haphazard metaphoric use of the notion of epidemia. Though the massive forms of epidemics have disappeared, epidemics are still believed to be all around us. Thus the mold for old fears is easily filled by such new apprehensions as delinquency, terrorism, drug abuse and nuclear disaster. Nonetheless, these are not epidemics and if they can be considered as such it is only on a secondary level, for the effects of their contagion are minor. Likewise, the ideology of law and order and the fear that they induce do not in the main come out of the model of epidemia. If it appears that the public-safety systems is the natural successor to the public-health system it can only be by way of automatizing these systems and through a logic different than that constituting the fight against contagions.

Generally, all the phenomena of contagion, whatever their inherent virulence, are too slow and too archaic to perservere. The vast majority of changes of state presently occurring in any given population are no longer propagated from person to person. Instead, these changes depend on external or central conditions which in turn are imposed on the entired population. The regime of an interactive propagation yields to a completely different regime: that of irradiation; or, from the point of view of a population, to a regime of exposure in which each element comes into play for an individual according to the position he occupies. The dynamics of spontaneous chain propagation -- which is governed by social contacts -- relinquishes its position to a statics in which individual positions explain changes in state.

The change in regime is reflected in the field of epidemiology. Just 30 or 40 years ago, the term "epidemiology" was reserved solely for the study of infectious diseases. In order to survive the progressive disappearance of its object, the discipline extended its realm of study to the frequency and distribution of all diseases. By relating to one another the most diverse empirical phenomena, it was possible to shed light on the existence of interconnected causalities. Thus epidemiology has elaborated its scientific methods and extended its domain of study to cover the whole of pathology. Only a misuse of the term epidemiology allows it to maintain its name as such, for it has long since abandoned all its traditional models. At present, epidemiology deals principally with the selective irradiation of each individual affected by potential pathologies, environmental attacks, working conditions, nutrition and possible tobacco, alcohol and drug addictions.

There is certainly nothing new in the fact that man is exposed to diverse dangers existing in his natural and social environment. But the notion of epidemia introduced its own form of sociality; it constructed, from potentially contagious contacts, ambivalent relations of fear and fascination. After an epidemic is finally conquered, what remains is only an indirect and minimal bond between men: their coexistence on earth and their mutual solitude in the face of death. An epidemic's end is also the beginning of an individualism which shows itself as humanity's fatal and inevitable destiny.

The end of the epidemic also exposes men to the means that permit such an end, namely those mechaisms which discipline, control and irradiate (with vaccination, for eample) the social sphere. Exposure to these artificial mechanisms, whose aim is the total "hominization" of the planet, thus multiplies the solitude of the individual in the face of the natural world by his solitude in the face of the social world. They allow the emergence of an individualism which is no longer simply a fatal destiny bit which has come to represent a wholeset of values and practices.

This artificial exposure -- to the law, to systems of control, constraint, communication, information, etc. -- implies an evolution of symbolic and technological systems. In effect, an initial symbolic act is necessary: first, to posit an agency which, while imposed on the collective whole, must still be external to it and, second, to force direct social bonds to recognize the preeminence of indirect social bonds established by the agency itself. Technology is also necessary (and no doubt technological progress only follows that of the symbolic system) to make the external agency effective. When the law of retribution ,which arises from the model of epidemia, is replaced by a law external to the community one need simply posit the principle "ignorance of the law is no excuse" and have at one's disposal the means of its enforcement or credibility in order for each person to be exposed to the law. The external position of the law or, more generally, of the State and its legitimized forms of violence -- that is to say, the ex-position ing of the people -- prevents in principle any type of circulation, interconnection and epidemics of violence or internal disorder. In this respect, satellite-transmitted nuclear arms materialize the ultmate exposure -- which could spread across the entire planet -- thereby freezing the normal regime of war.

The same is true of information. Media today functions much like an ultrarapid vaccination in that it eradicates rumors by irradiating denials or counterinformation. This in turn disturbs the normal regimes of communication and the symbolic system of exchanges. By overexposing specific real or artificially constructed elements, the media instantaneously causes a set of beliefs, fears and expectations to arise. The flow of rumors and representations is replaced by the remote-controlled polarization of opinions. Simply by exposing a few acts of terrorism or delinquency, the media engenders a flocculation of fear within the collective whole. The contagious sense of insecurity that results in merely a secondary phenomenon. Similarly, the effects of fashion and contagious imitation are overshadowed by the existence of a regulated "look" created by a population's massive exposure to industrially produced images and models.

The same principle governs the relations between the third world and the developed nations. The slow contagion of cultures, the direct influence of colonizers and missionaries, has become secondary in relation to the generalized exposure of traditional societies to the images, ideologies and objects of the industrialized world.

In this widespread exposure to the intertwining of the symbolic and the technological, it is certainly possible to rediscover those familiar statements of man's alienation in the industrialized world and as "adrationalization" [arraisonement] by technology (Heidegger). However, what is striking is the level of efficiency that this general regime has achieved through military and industrial technologies and, in respect to the domains ofcommunication and information, through teletechnologies.

The power of irradiation comes from the simultaneity, rapidity and massive nature of its transmissions. A center radiantly irradiates a population; as a consequence, each individual can be reached almost instantaneously. Contagion or rumors, on the other hand, travel sequentially through a population. As they multiply, technological and institutional mechanisms (for example, satellites, transmitters, networks and central electronic memories) have made the various methods of irradiation more rapid and efficient, enabling the mastery of contagion.

Under these conditions, it is less important to follow all the specific details of interpersonal relations and of what continues to circulate within the social body. A crude panopticism suffices to locate those contagions that threaten to become explosive. Thus, when the amount of pestilent rats reaches a critical number, they are massacred but not necessarily completely eliminated. Similarly, the orbital exposure to certain means of destruction allows local conflicts to arise and persist while in principle preventing their spreading. If need be, panopticism can be reversed: those who have total power do not need to see. It is enough that the subjects in questions know and believe in this power, enough that this power is exposed.

Nevertheless, this very efficiency promotes the proliferation and standardization of the mechanisms of irradiation, for example, the multiplication of new forms of media, the dissemination of nuclear arms, terrorism and the miniaturization of arms. By means of these mechanisms, new powers seek to establish themselves along the lines of traditional powers by conquering strategic positions which permit them to expose the environment to its radiating lines of influence, prohibition, threat and control. This causes an endless increase in actual and potential fluxes (the arms race and the battle for radio waves, for example) which in turn is fed by panoptical mechanisms. Exposure to hygiene measures (mostly vaccinations used against viruses) was followed by an overexposure to public-safety measures. Everything that threatens to irradiate the individual or social body is counteracted by preventive and controlling counterradiations. No longer are travelers from abroad placed in decontamination chambers; instead, they undergo a video monitoring, passing through X-rays when in vulnerable areas (and the progress in technology makes all space vulnerable to delinquency or terrorism) much as a body passes through a scanner in order to detect metastatic irradiation.

Yet in the end, viruses, men and the old model of epidemia and rumors, resist in multiple and peculiar forms that which, by exposing itself, unmasks and eventually undermines itself. Viruses "learn" to resist vaccinations and constantly instigate the invention of new ones. It is not certain, however, that new vaccinations can always be discovered and, as of now, particular treatments are already reserved for exceptional cases and kept within a hospital environment in order to prevent viruses from spreading information contained in the treatment itself. Viruses also carry the absolute form of epidemia (namely, the matrix of all possible epidemics), which is the loss of all immune defense systems (AIDS). As long as this remains unconquered, two possibilites exist: either the disappearance of humanity or the confinement of each individual in a totally aseptic "bubble."

Demography, like epidemia, obeys the law of exponential evolutions which are ultrasensitive to the conditions of the envrionment, and is confronted with a comparable alternative: on the one hand, a state of disorder tending towards regression or explosion (and in different demographic zones, both tendencies can occur simultaneously) or, on the other hand, a programmed control of reproduction.

What is illustrated in the case of viruses and men, namely the force of an entity traveling through a mass and the vulnerability of the system that radiates it, is confirmed in the realms of knowledge, representation and belief. The flux of information and entertainment continuously radiating the masses has a power over them which ultimately is based only on superficial, ephemeral and reversible impressions. Media writers are well aware -- at least since the work of Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz on the "two-step flow of information" -- that it is often necessary to anchor media-information in the circulation of rumors and to mediate the media through word of mouth. This finally is nothing but a hybridization of the models of irradiation and epidemia.

What then is the origin of this peculiar force of circulating knowledge (or beliefs)? It may be something as simple as the fact that this knowledge weaves a metaknowledge, knowledge of itself, into the community. When A tells something to B who in turn tells it to C, not only does B know this thing but he knows that A and C know it, too, and he knows that they know the he, B, also knows it. Thus, in the community, a hypothesis (an idea, a belief) is formed about the existence of a common knowledge or a possible common place of knowledge. This common place sets up an abstract subject presumed to know (the Church or the State) which is the foundation of belief or law. The principle "ignorance of the law is no excuse" appears to be legitimate and calls upon each member of the community to be a responsible subject in that he is in a position to respond. In other words, the exposed and imposed law arises, by way of a common knowledge, from the very circulation of knowledge.

On the other hand, when the mechanisms that allow for the exposure of knowledge gain autonomy from the social realm, the content of their irradiations becomes entirely depleted of any metaknowledge. The increased number of investigations and polls is in fact the means used to fight against this depletion. Yet since the reinjection of this artificial and approximate metaknowledge into the flow of information is itself carried out by irradiation, it does not create a common knowledge. In the end, no one can know if people know that they know.

Irradiation, mediated by various systems of knoweldge, by means of that same technological efficiency which frees it both from what circulates in the masses and from the common knoweldge that the masses possess, loses its symbolic legitimacy. This loss makes it inevitable that the State should relinquish its monopoly in the matter and allows for a proliferation of new mechanisms of irradiation which only accentuate their delegitimization. These mechanisms no longer summon anyone, nor do they assign them to fixed social identities or responsibilities. This is also why they do not sterilize the contagious circulation of words in any way. Quite simply, the word has adapted itself: deprived of its symbolic value, it no longer constitutes a social bond. It has become infra-individual, irresponsible and detached from the anonymous subject who pronounces it. The word is contagion without sociability, pure circulation and indefinite proliferation. The word itself has become a virus.

Translated from the French by Ramona Naddaff.