Borders, the Outbreak Narrative, and Contagion

(Originally published April 17, 2017 on

In Contagious, Priscilla Wald writes that “communicable disease compels attention—for scientists and the lay public alike—not only because of the devastation it can cause but also because the circulation of microbes materializes the transmission of ideas. The interactions that make is sick constitute us as a community.” For Wald, the spread of infectious disease models not only the dissemination of microorganisms but, more relevantly, the shape of the global network and the relations it allows. Thus, narratives around infectious disease reveal and configure cultural anxieties about globalism, border security, em/immigration, and the general phenomenon of the “shrinking world.”

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion might just be one of what Wald calls “outbreak narratives,” part of a canon of stories which have emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries in tandem with the heavily publicized outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, SARS, and to some degree, the Swine and Bird flus. Soderbergh’s movie takes an approach which he describes in a 2011 interview with Gavin Smith as “intimate,” “simple,” and “ultra-realistic,” tracking several characters across walks of life and in various governmental and non-governmental organizations as they navigate a world whose connectedness makes it vulnerable.

The anxiety of the film comes not just from its body horror—scenes of glistening sweat, convulsions, and foaming at the mouth—but from the tensions between forces which would break down borders and the forces which want to reinforce them. For every piece of dialogue about the vulnerability of the human body to pathogens, there is an image of national guard holding down the perimeter. For every cut between cultural milieus, there is a rigid bureaucracy fighting to maintain its structure. But these conflicts are not neutral, nor apolitical: the audience is expected to desire boundedness. We are terrorized by receptive orifices and permeable membranes, while being relieved by insulating hazmat suits and the practice of full quarantine. Wald identifies what can happen when this anxiety is narrativized in service of nationalism: “medical nativism,” or the intermingling of contagion-anxiety and xenophobia which casts outsiders as readily contagious and foreign cultural practices as inherently transmissive. The perforation of boundaries—of the body and of the nation—at least partially creates the horror of Contagion and of the outbreak narrative as a whole.


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