The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media, by Bishnupriya Ghosh (Duke University Press, 2023)
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and with various forecasts predicting likelihoods of a similar event in the near future, one cannot help but ask: in the Anthropocene, are we doomed to relentlessly prepare for and react to emerging viral threats? Not so, argues Bishnupriya Ghosh in her monograph, The Virus Touch: Theorizing Epidemic Media; other human–virus relations are possible. How, one might ask? Ghosh’s answer: Media.
The book has been coming a long time. Ghosh began writing it in 2005 as an examination of the media of HIV/AIDS and finished it during the Covid-19 years, offering it as means of understanding Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), both those in the recent past as well as the ones yet to come. Informed by contemporary scientific understandings of viral emergence, she asserts that anthropocentric strategies of exterminating pathogenic microbes are both harmful and doomed to fail. Instead, Ghosh calls for the pursuit of symbiosis. Drawing on new materialist theory, she argues that the ways human–virus relations become intelligible are crucial for this project as they shape how we understand and act towards our “difficult kin” (p. 71).
As powerful as this assertion of the value of media theory and practice is, and as convincing as its analyses often are on an empirical level, the book’s valorization of mediation as a political force can seem rather self-confirming. Understood as a kind of enactment, mediation becomes efficacious almost by definition. How media may co-constitute public policy, institutional action, or activist strategy in concrete situations is less obvious. Nevertheless, The Virus Touch provides a compelling account for a renewal of human relations with pathogenic microbes that posits mediation as crucial to this multispecies politics.
The first chapter reconstructs what Ghosh calls the “current epidemic episteme”: a recognition of epidemics as nonlinear, multitemporal events, structured by biological, social, and ecological distributions. After a period of understanding human–pathogen relations as warlike, the EID events of the late twentieth century, particularly the HIV pandemic, have brought about a new “epistemological unconscious” (p. 45), conveying the insight that human health is inextricably linked to animal and ecosystem health. Even as the chapter is mainly a reconstruction of extant literature, it constitutes an engaging narrative on human–pathogen relations that particularly impresses with its commitment to situating itself as immanent and affirmative of current scientific understandings.
The following three chapters empirically flesh out the argument that attending to epidemic media is crucial to the pursuit of enacting ‘healthier’ multispecies relations. The chapters take the reader on a tour to various sites, such as art galleries, laboratories, clinics, and forests. In each chapter, Ghosh “stages a dramatic encounter between lively materialities and biotechnical forms” (p. 20), drawing attention to how multispecies relations elude and transcend mediatic capture. She argues that it is precisely this apparent failure that constitutes the potential of epidemic media to facilitate a productive (or at least promising) awareness of the inevitability of human–pathogen togetherness. The second chapter of the book provides the strongest support for this argument by showing how the technoscientific and artistic practices of viral visualization are structured by a certain awareness of the uncontrollability and dynamism of human–virus relations. The stories Ghosh tells are ones where faithfulness to data is necessarily coupled with speculation, where any image is recognized as necessarily imperfect, as always lagging behind the constant flux of virus–host relations, and where object-making becomes an exercise in grasping liveliness and uncontrollability. This, for Ghosh, indicates that 3D viral images facilitate a multisensory experience, which she conceptualizes as feeling “the virus touch” (p. 112).
The third chapter traces how blood is translated into three biotechnical spatial forms – blood samples, blood data, and blood pictures – designed to enable targeted interventions for governing infection. By deploying a media theoretical reading of the notion of the milieu, Ghosh challenges the notion of biological individuality and the desire for disease containment, asserting a transitivity of multispecies distributions. Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one that most explicitly addresses the socio-economic dimensions of managing infection and the commercial dimensions of biomedicine.
In chapter four, Ghosh investigates the mediatic practices of animal host tracking. The chapter describes how efforts to plot animal movement patterns, both through physical observation and remote-sensing are troubled by an excess of signals. This excess, Ghosh suggests, facilitates a “multispecies kinesthetic” (p. 157); a sensory awareness of the various movements and transmissions constitutive of EID. Ghosh further engages with maps and atlases as media that can engender this awareness. Although empirically rich, fascinating reads, both this chapter and the one before it fall a little flat in terms of Ghosh’s main point. Even as the chapters provide examples of how supplementary sensory data engender awareness of multispecies relationalities (for example, a joke attributing personal agency to a particularly virus-laden blood specimen, the viewer’s experience of seeing a chimp deliberately engaging with a camera), the observation that blood and forests stimulate the senses beyond that which one set out to capture appears somewhat mundane. This might be one of the downsides of Ghosh’s analytical choice to equate media as signal-bearing substances and media technologies under the term epidemic media: the observation that media facilitate a sensory awareness for the relationality and dynamism of the world is less surprising when the medium in question is vital matter or natural environment.
Ghosh closes the book with some reflections on epidemic emergences as a challenge for media theory. Compelling as her call to engage with media as a means of shaping human–virus relations is, the underlying conception of the relationship between media practice and media theory could have been addressed in more depth, rather than being subsumed under discussions of reflexivity and collaboration. It would have been particularly interesting to see how a media theoretical contribution, such as Ghosh’s writing, which was created through engaging with practitioners, can feed back into media practice.
Overall, Ghosh provides an engagingly written book that makes a passionate case for approaching health as a project of multispecies relations and calls on media studies to participate in the ontological politics necessary for this task. In doing so, Ghosh conveys an invigorating sense of hopefulness. The book certainly leaves the reader with open questions, not least the extent to which differential health vulnerabilities among humans can adequately be addressed within the framework of multispecies politics. However, this does not necessarily constitute a weakness but can rather be understood as the pedagogy of Ghosh’s project: The Virus Touch is not a self-contained analysis but rather a call to action. Beyond leaving issues unanswered, Ghosh explicitly lists a vast array of open questions to provoke further research, motivating others to take up the challenge of media theory in pandemics past, present, and future.