Didactic Historicism and the Historical Consciousness of Epidemics

Twenty-first century epidemiological and Global Health narratives are saturated by pronouncements of and reflections on “the lessons of this” or “the lessons of that” historical outbreak. As soon as an epidemic is resolved, our screens, newspapers, and journals begin to be populated by talks, articles, and editorials proclaiming the “lessons of SARS” or “the lessons of Ebola”. These narratives are then recycled when a new epidemic, like COVID-19, erupts, with “the lessons of X” functioning like yardsticks for failure and success, and prophetic mechanisms for what we should expect of the ongoing epidemic (Caduff 2014).

This pattern demarcates what Robert Peckham (2016) has called a “functionalist deployment of history”: a recuperation of what in most cases is an epistemically entropic event into a neatly meaningful and indeed didactic story about international collaboration, data sharing, or whatever is the fashionable or contested policy at the time. The historicist framing of events of immense sociological and biological complexity into digestible and repeatable cautionary tales is rooted in colonial tropes of rendering other people’s suffering into lessons for “improvement” under Western tutelage.

If the decolonisation of Global Health needs to go through the critique of this historicist trope, it can only do so by taking seriously the lived experience of the historical impact of epidemics on the ground. What we may call the historical consciousness of epidemics. For turning past epidemics into stories about the present and for the future is not under the monopoly of the World Health Organisation or the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; rather, it is an ongoing social process that unfolds in dialogue with and often in contest to the hegemonic “lessons” narrative. The question here is not what lessons individuals and communities draw from epidemics they have survived, something that would inevitably interpellate them into a position where they can only survive the next epidemic/pandemic only insofar as this lesson as been a) correct in the first place, and b) well-learned. The question is rather: how do these communities or individuals make the past pandemics present? How do they understand and enact the epidemic past in their present condition?

It is often that the stories comprising this social process are treated as unwelcome noise in what Charles Briggs (2017) has identified as the unequal economy of communication put in place by epidemic control. In the first half of January 2020, stockpiling N95 masks in Hong Kong in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan was widely dismissed as yet another expression of epidemic panic based on lack of information, trust, and medical sound reasoning; or, perhaps, as simply post-pandemic trauma. Indeed, the language used to critique these acts as based on “fear” rather than “facts” (in the dichotomy widely employed by the WHO during the epidemic) is not too distant from the one used by colonial officers to castigate inhabitants of Fuzhou when in the early 1900s they used carbolic acid as in the course of anti-plague idol processions (Kinnear 1902). Yet what if these practices were to be taken seriously as self-organised expressions of the historical consciousness of epidemics by the people of Hong Kong? Could we then re-imagine Global Health, not as a nexus of disciplines and institutions that produce and proclaim lofty tales about the lessons of SARS or Ebola, but as a humanistic enterprise that takes seriously SARS, Ebola and other epidemics as lived history on the ground by the people actually affected by it?

My provocation here is that to achieve this and to unchain Global Health and epidemiology from the straightjacket of historicism, we need to move away and beyond the principle of translation upon which rendering ethnographic and historical data into epidemiological evidence relies. We need to go against the current of translating acts deriving from and enacting the historical consciousness of epidemics into a triptych of “cybernetic failure” OR “structural-functionalist mechanism” OR “preparedness device”:

(a) misinterpretations or rumours that are harmful to epidemic control (see the “facts vs fear” narrative of the World Health Organisation regarding COVID-19 at the moment).

(b) mechanisms of coping, or striving for social balance and equilibrium.

(c) sentinels of epidemiological trends that go unnoticed by normal epidemiological surveillance.

Only then can we engage with the historical consciousness of epidemics not as a representation of what has happened nor as an index of underlying drivers of zoonotic spillover, human-to-human transmission, disease reservoirs, or other epidemiological mechanisms, but as an instituting principle of the social (Lynteris 2019). That is to say, as part of a broader social imaginary that allows a given society to institute itself and to change this institution through self-reflection. In other words, to use a term much-favoured by biologists, as part of societies’ ability to emerge.

Works Cited

Charles L. Briggs, “Towards Communicative Justice in Health,” Medical Anthropology, 36, 4, 2017,287-304 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01459740.2017.1299721

Carlo Caduff, “Pandemic Prophecy, or How to Have Faith in Reason,” Current Anthropology, 55, 3, 2014, 296–315 https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/676124

Kinnear, “Propitiating the Plague Spirits,” China Medical Missionary Journal

26, 4, 1902, 204–206.

Christos Lynteris, Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary, London & New York, Routledge, 2019.

Robert Peckham, Fatal Repetitions: SARS and Disasters to Come, Conference Paper, Conference of Disastrous Pasts: New Directions in Asian Disaster History, Singapore, 21-22 November 2016 https://hub.hku.hk/handle/10722/244745

Christos Lynteris is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. His work examines epistemological and biopolitical aspects of epidemics with a particular focus on zoonotic diseases. His recent publications include the books Ethnographic Plague (Palgrave 2016), Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary (Routlege 2019), and, co-authored with Lukas Engelmann, Sulphuric Utopias: A History of Maritime Sanitation (MIT Press, 2020). He was the PI of the ERC-funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic and is currently the PI of the Wellcome Investigator Award for The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis.


2 Responses to Didactic Historicism and the Historical Consciousness of Epidemics

  1. Pingback: COVID-19 Forum: Introduction | Somatosphere

  2. Excellent piece. The ethnographic narratives have always been central to my own thinking about the history of epidemics, and this is a very useful way to structure that approach. Will continue to mull it over.

    I hope this finds you well.

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