How can we write about experts without reducing expertise to the limits of reason alone? To understand expertise we need to understand its excess.
On September 11, 2014 (a date with more than one meaning), public health expert Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota shared a secret with the readers of the New York Times. According to the prominent public health professional, experts are “loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private” that the Ebola virus could mutate and change and spread through the air. This, then, was the secret to be shared with the public: that Ebola could turn into a kind of flu, a germ spreading through the atmosphere with the speed of a plane and the power of a storm.
Theresa MacPhail’s pathography of pandemic influenza demonstrates how, in the world of expertise, infectious disease is always in the future. The worst is always to come.
This displacement of disease into the future is grounded in an understanding of the virus. The virus always exceeds itself; it cannot keep itself to itself. It is constantly mutating and recombining, making itself different from itself. Thus, the virus as a figure of potentiality operates as an objectification of the future in the world of expertise. It serves as a powerful source of discursive production, allowing experts to enter the universe of the unverifiable.
Osterholm’s vision of a virus that can transmit rapidly through the air and infect millions of people with Ebola: was it just a fiction, another figment from the expert’s savage mind? Or was it, on the contrary, more than mere speculation? A prophetic revelation of a coming plague? To prepare for the future, experts count on the power of fiction. The promise of such fiction is to contain the force erupting from the mutant nature of the virus. Experts spectralize the virus to convey its essence, capture its spirit.
What needs to be theorized in this production of spectrality as reflection of reality is the relationship between reason and its object. As Hegel once noted, “true scientific knowledge…demands abandonment to the very life of the object.”
Carlo Caduff is Lecturer in the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine at King’s College London. He is the author of “On the Verge of Death: Visions of Biological Vulnerability” (in Annual Review of Anthropology) and “Pandemic Prophecy, Or, How to Have Faith in Reason” (in Current Anthropology). The title of his forthcoming book is: The Pandemic Perhaps. Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger (University of California Press). He is a Visiting Lecturer at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and co-organizer of the Wenner-Gren symposium “New Media, New Publics?”