I asked a friend of mine to circulate the CFP for the invisibility book to her STS list serve and/or among the epidemiologists she knows (I’d use my own, but one doesn’t want to over tax their own personal store of epidemiologists, of course 🙂 ).
The reason I asked her to do this is because I think invisibility runs rampant in the ‘public’ perception of disease both in/and through fear. When we were to be decimated by the last pandemic of avian flu, and then were not, what fuelled the spread of fear?
If my (crude) assessment is correct, I think it is because power, voice, and sight combined to play out on emotion – the fear was the result of people with authority (rightly or wrongly) sharing a particular kind of knowledge/prediction about how easily and rapidly things we cannot see would spread and kill us all. In this case the fear was not about what could be seen but about what couldn’t be seen but still cause you great upset.
In the end, no pandemic. Not this time. But we still lather ourselves up in antibacterial hand wash, avoid the noticeably ill, and suffer the ‘official policy on flu-like illnesses’ at work. But it is not just that the germs we fear are unseeable to the naked eye, or even that we have built tools to clothe our eyes to be able to see them. It is that there is a confluence of power/authority in science, a voice that can be heard, and germs that we should believe are there (and given the number of colds I get, I assume to be ‘real’) that plays out on our emotions. We are not afraid of having the flu, we are afraid of living as it will expose us to the flu.
In one way you could suggest that disease is a necessary thing – but that some people die of disease while others are ‘cured’ or ‘inoculated’ against it, that takes our own magnificent arrogance as human beings. My children have asked ‘what is the meaning of life’ to which I have no ready answer. But when they ask ‘how does life work’ I can honestly say that it works on the principle of balance.
The fear we feel from impending pandemic doom, I believe, is as much induced in the state of invisibility in which germs are celebrated and magnified as it is in the unnatural pursuit with which we have charged ourselves toward producing disequilibrium. What we fear more than germs, I would argue, is being out of control or at least feeling out of control.