The Imagined Epidemic
In this project I ask how two different accounts of epidemics relate to each other. Supposedly, objective or factual-scientific-accounts of plagues are provided by epidemiologists, sociologists, journalists, or medical professionals. Artists, including fiction writers, playwrights, poets, painters and other visual artists, and film makers, provide accounts that are conveyed through imagery and metaphor and based on subjective realities. But in fact, the two visions of an epidemic are intimately linked. The way we tell ourselves the story of any epidemic, whether it’s in epidemiologic terms or through film or poetry, is always a reflection of what we think about our own society and our vulnerabilities, much more than by the facts of any microbe or risk factor.
To explore the links between these allegedly distinct versions of the epidemic, I have studied contemporary journals and journalism, literature, and visual art produced in conjunction with important epidemics throughout western history, from the Plague of Athens (ca. 430 BC) to contemporary plagues like obesity and autism. I have asked how the supposedly objective/factual/scientific accounts of epidemics relate to the supposedly artistic/metaphorical accounts.
I find that the two accounts fertilize one another: the imagined epidemic is based on observers’ accounts of real epidemics; observers (and, more recently, epidemiologists’) accounts are shaped by the imagery of art and the metaphors of literature. I also find that the whole notion that these two accounts are separate-that the scientific study of epidemics gives us facts that are uninfluenced by feelings and the artistic vision gives us feelings without attention to facts-reveals something important about how we think about diseases. All accounts of epidemics, whether of disease outbreaks that really happened, disease outbreaks that truly might happen, or epidemics that are entirely imaginary (The Andromeda Strain, for instance), are influenced by the fears and hopes that we bring to social crises.
This project yielded articles in The American Scholar and Virginia Quarterly Review, numerous university lectures, a course offered at Hunter College, and contributed to my book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu.
Cosmology of Health
The aim of this project is to understand the place of health in contemporary culture. I try to understand how we tell ourselves what health means, what makes us healthy (and sick), what we expect from health protectors (like public-health officials) and healthcare providers, and what influences in modern society shape these views.
I have examined the myths and myth making that serve as the basis for the health professions’ understanding of themselves, and which have driven health policy. This project produced a course on AIDS and Public Policy at Hunter College, a talk at the Austin Kutscher Memorial Symposium on Death, and parts of the Dread book on epidemics. I plan to write a book on this material.