I don’t often dream, but lately I’ve been bolting awake, sweating and out of breath, just like in the movies, to the image of Martin Gugino’s skull cracking against the pavement. I’ve watched the video two, maybe three times, but only the first time on purpose, and it’s been weeks since I last saw it. So please forgive me if these details aren’t perfectly accurate. After pushing Martin down, one of the police officers reflexively reaches down to care for him. His colleague, again instinctively, stops him from doing so. The instinct to reach down is, at best, I think, a brief flash of humanity, but not of remorse. It’s the same thing someone would do if they’d dropped a glass on the kitchen floor. The police officer dropped a man, whose skull broke. His blood spills onto the ground, so the officer reaches to clean it up. But before he can reach Martin, another officer pushes him along as if to say, keep going, we’ll clean that up later. Another cop shakes his head, irritated at Martin Gugino for being so fragile, for being so stupid to stand in front of a line of men who fancy themselves immovable. This moment isn’t about Martin Gugino, and I feel certain he would object to our making him the victim. This short video is a pageant of the evil, a monument to the unthinking brutality we’ve normalized and which we will no longer tolerate.
After I watched the video, I felt ashamed. I still feel ashamed. I could give you some false bravado here and say that I’m ashamed that it was Martin Gugino who was pushed and not me. I’m young and healthy; I wouldn’t have fallen. If I did, I would likely be fine, but it’s almost certainly the case that Martin will never be the same man he was before.
But that’s not why I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed because it’s the image of Martin Gugino’s injury that torments me, more than the images that have emerged from the murders of George Floyd, or Rayshard Brooks, or Ahmaud Arbery. The truth is, I haven’t seen those other videos. I haven’t watched Derek Chauvin choke the life out of George Floyd while his colleagues stood watch. I haven’t watched Garrett Rolfe shoot Rayshard Brooks in the back as he ran. I haven’t seen Gregory and Travis McMichael hunt down and murder Ahmaud Arbery. I’ve seen images, screen grabs, and excerpts. I’ve read descriptions. I understand, intellectually, what happened to these men and why. But I am not a witness to their murders. The last murder video I watched was in 2014, when Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann gunned down twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in the park. I decided after that that I couldn’t handle these kinds of videos anymore. I’m not strong enough. I cannot bring myself to view them. I’m sorry.
So I was breaking a rule of sorts when I watched Buffalo police push down Martin Gugino. I guess I thought it would be okay because he wasn’t dead, because he was white, because he was old. My dreams prove otherwise. These recurring nightmares about Martin Gugino and the police who almost killed him have me wondering if the power these videos have isn’t like a kind of contagion. Those videos, those shared deaths, have tremendous power. I don’t wish to sound melodramatic, but there is a sense in which I am never the same after witnessing someone’s death, even if it is mediated by pixels on a screen. The violence proliferates.
We are still accustomed to thinking of our historical moment as the convergence of two disasters: one social, the other biological. What this moment has revealed—to those who were too unwise or too privileged to realize it before— is that the biological is always the social. And the social is always the biological. Our twin disasters are really one. If we don’t yet realize it, we are deluding ourselves.
Over the past four months, we have become very good at thinking of contagion in a literal sense, as the transmission of pathogens from one body to another. But contagion is always also an idea—a system of language, and of thought. Contagion is a way of viewing the world and ourselves within it. Its power comes from its invisibility. Contagion is a metaphor.
It seems to me, and to my colleagues who have participated in this brief roundtable, that contagion was the most important idea of our times even before this pandemic began. As Anjuly Raza Kolb’s work shows, contagion became our defining metaphor at the beginning of this century, when national security experts taught us to think of Islamic extremism as an “epidemic of terrorism.” To make their case for what has proven to be a disastrous foreign policy, these experts drew from a rich tradition of colonial violence in India. The threat then was Muslim “fanaticism” and cholera: both were largely invisible threats to British colonialism, and both were used as justification for genocide.
The Chinese government defends its genocide against Uighur Muslims using the language of contagion. We are told that Uighurs “have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology.” By virtue of being Uighur “they are already infected by the disease.” “There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public.” For these reasons, the Chinese government says, Uighurs “must be admitted to a reeducation hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind.” This ongoing genocide, we are told, “is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.”
But what of the concentration camps in the United States? They, too, are built on the logic of contagion. Trump warned that, a “tremendous infection disease is pouring across our border.” Both Customs and Border and ICE routinely appeal to public health to explain these inhumane policies. “What’s transpiring right now,” according to Mark Meadows, head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “is purely about infectious disease and public health.” Ironically, a federal judge has recently ordered the release of some children held in these camps, out of fears that they will contract COVID-19. Contagion is the favorite metaphor of authoritarianism, of genocide.
Similarly, we have been taught over the first two decades of this century to think of the Internet like a contagion. The specialists who protect the internet from us, and us from the internet warn us of the “epidemic of virtual deception, manipulation and hate” which threatens at any moment to “sprea[d] between social media communities and into the real world.” One leading cybersecurity group is called the Network Contagion Research Institute. And of course the language of contagion is baked into how we understand the Internet: viruses and hosts, malignancy and evolution, going viral. Contagion is the favorite logic of the Internet age because it helps us understand that the horrific things that go on there cannot be separated from our biological world. In this logic the Internet, this supposedly non-biological social space, contains a biological threat. If the Internet promised a virtual social world, freed from the constraints of biology, it has failed.
Why is the logic of contagion so prolific? Because it is a rather elegant way of thinking about the broad contours of our historical moment: the last gasps of infinite-growth capitalism, the rise of racist, far-right authoritarianism (which we euphemistically call populism), and the looming threat of extinction from our abuse of the planet. Lurking within the logic of contagion is the terrifying power of exponential growth. From one infected host comes a host of others. This same deadly power of exponential growth is the engine of finance capitalism, where illusory fortunes, based on speculation in financial markets, grew with that same terrifying pace. The power that created this wealth will destroy it. Contagion giveth, and contagion taketh away. Both this disease and endless economic growth have natural limits. Eventually enough of us will be infected, and enough of us will have died, that we will achieve a sort of equilibrium. Similarly, we are told, economic growth must have its limits. After all, all wealth ultimately is extracted from the earth, and there is only so much to take. But we also know these limits aren’t real. What we casually speak of as “herd immunity” means millions of deaths, most of them preventable. That isn’t a public health policy, but a policy of extinction. COVID-19 will not end our species. But it has made us think about the end, hasn’t it? What we casually refer to as the natural limits of economic growth don’t really mean anything either. We’re past those limits. We’ve extracted all we reasonably can. We continue to extract nonetheless.
These broad historical trajectories, which are all, in their own way, understandable through the logic of contagion, don’t exist independently: racist authoritarianism is on the rise because wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Its prophets—Erdogan, Putin, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Trump—acknowledge that fact in order ensure it continues. Wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands because we’ve reached the natural limits of economic growth—limits fixed in biology, but usually ignored. However our times will be remembered—as the triumph of fascism or its nadir, as the end of capitalism or its beginning, as the death of the planet or its rebirth—this young century has been an era of contagion.
This was, more or less, the nature of a conversation I had with Laura Levitt in the spring of 2019. We got to talking about her new book, The Objects That Remain, a profound and devastating meditation on the power of objects, especially that uncanny power that these objects accrue from their proximity to violence, as evidence in traumas both deeply personal and world-historical. We talked about my new book project, a history of the psychiatric diagnosis “religious madness” and the role it has played in embedding this logic of contagion into our academic fields and our forms of governance. We realized that, underneath both of these projects, is the idea of contagion. And we got to thinking about our friends and colleagues whose works in progress also dealt with this idea. We talked about our friend Cara Rock-Singer’s work on contagion as it relates to the mikveh, the ritual Jewish bath that is meant to ceremonially purify women after menstruation, about our friend John Modern’s new project, a history of how we came to think of the brain as an “object of multifarious reverence,” both secular and religious. We talked our colleague Jennifer Scheper Hughes’s work on how contagion was critical to the founding of the Catholic Church in Mexico, and about Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez’s history of Protestant responses to the rise of psychiatry. We invited those colleagues of ours to join us in a roundtable discussion on contagion at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego last November. In this forum, we’ve shared what we thought about contagion then. All of our projects will change because of this pandemic. That is an obvious point, of course—nothing will be the same after this. So perhaps it is best to consider this forum a kind of historical record of how we thought about contagion then, and a confession about how we think of contagion now.
Maybe in time this forum will be an example of our “presentism,” of our inability to see a better future unfolding right in front of us, of our despair. I hope so. But it seems to me that when this group of scholars began to think about contagion together in the fall of 2019, we thought we were onto something: now, it seems that contagion is the most important idea in the world. The bad news, as I see it, is that the language of contagion is the language of extinction. Contagion gives us license to do terrible things to each other, and to ourselves. We won’t look at one other the same after this. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, your body will always be a threat to mine. And once this idea takes hold, it too proliferates. Under the guise of “contact tracing” and “immunity passports” we have invited into our lives systems of surveillance that will almost certainly be used against us in the future. In the near-term, our battle against racist authoritarianism and our battle to stay alive—our social crisis and our biological crisis—will likely merge into one. How can one remain hopeful in a world like this?
But then I read this forum on contagion and it gives me hope. Laura Levitt’s work on the creepy, contagious power shared between a relic and its reliquary shows how this power we call contagion—this power that is so death-bringing—can breathe new life into objects, into traumas, and into lives after trauma. From Cara Rock-Singer, I learned how Jewish feminist, queer, and trans activists are harnessing the power of the mikveh—that contagious power that declares the unclean clean, the impure pure—to galvanize a new kind of liberatory politics. From John Modern I learned how Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’ famous cut-up technique—an exercise in the viral power of language—was born out of an attempt to “combat the representational and murderous powers of racial difference.”
I learned, that is, to see the other side of contagion. Maybe this, too, shall pass, and the world that emerges next will be more just than ours. Maybe if all the evil in the world seems so willing to spread, to infect, then maybe a kind of holiness, too, can proliferate.