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Pandemic Returns

Pandemic prophecy is the prophecy not of an event, but of an eventual return or recurrence. If the “next pandemic” is a biopolitical apparatus revolving around the anticipation of a 1918-influenza-pandemic-like event, what needs to be noted is that the formation of this recurrence-structure is contemporary to the systematization of the notion of the pandemic. At the turn of the nineteenth century, in the course of what came to be known as the “third plague pandemic” (1894-1959, following WHO chronology), the chain of bubonic plague epidemics striking harbors, cities and villages across the globe was made sense of as the reappearance of a medieval scourge: the Black Death. Yet this was always already an incomplete return. On the one hand, it was the bacteriological anchoring of modern plague that allowed the serialization of the pandemics preceding it. And on the other hand, though microbiologically identical to them – and hence, as Caduff would put it, the return of a fossil – the mortality resulting from modern plague did not match the apocalyptic image of the event it was supposed to replicate. What this prophetic discourse then generated was not simply a failed pandemic, but a recursive indivisible remainder: the successive deferment of the pandemic event in its eternal return.

Within the biopolitical context of turn-of-the-century Empire, this pandemic vision rhymed with the overall conception of disease as resulting from decay and degeneration. By contrast, in our times the temporal ontology of the “return of the virus” seems to be at odds with the temporality underlining the biological phenomenon said to be the driver of the “next pandemic”: emergence. Yet what we have here is not a move away from the former towards the latter; for rather than displacing recurrence, emergence envelops it in what Caduff calls its constitutional temporal incongruity. Whereas in the model of degeneration the pandemic returns through the recrudescence of a dormant disease, in the case of emergence pandemic recurrence results from the generation of a “new virus”. Rather than interrupting the eternal return of the pandemic as the eventalization of human-extinction, emergence — that diagram of “protean” viral ontogenesis — is the condition of its biopolitical efficacy.

For if, as Caduff notes, the definition of what counts as “new” forms the undecidable arcanum of emergence ontology, that which anchors the “next pandemic” as an imaginable and hence “preparable” catastrophe is precisely the fact that it is projected as something which is not (at) all-new. From preparedness exercises to pandemic movies and novels, whilst the identity of the killer virus remains speculative, its social impact is depicted in a trite way, which can only be described as “the banality of plague”: a meltdown of private property and law-and-order. It is hence less the supposed biological impact of the “next pandemic” than the failure of its “prophets” to imagine human suffering in any other way than in the form of a rupture of bourgeois values which is striking here. What “returns” in the form of the “new virus” is not simply the specter of human extinction, but, even for those few who survive, the bane of life not simply without but “before” capitalism; a Hobbesian dystopia where humanity is led “back” to an animalistic state of mutual predation. For this prophetic regime, the only true future for humanity is the present; any other future would be simply a return to “the dark ages” or “the stone age”. It is this pandemic vision, as a vision of no imaginable alternative, which sets the “prophetic scene” of the coming plague.


Christos Lynteris is a social anthropologist working on biopolitical and visual aspects of infectious disease epidemics. He is Senior Research Associate at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, and Principal Investigator of the ERC funded research project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic. Christos is the author of The Spirit of Selflessness in Maoist China: Socialist Medicine and the New Man (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and Ethnographic Plague: Configuring Disease on the Chinese-Russian Frontier (Palgrave Macmillan, to appear in spring 2016).

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