In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Americans became familiar with the idea that people with underlying conditions were at increased risk for severe COVID infections. Talk of underlying conditions was a constant refrain across news media, public health missives, and social media posts. “Underlying conditions” became an awareness campaign, it became a rhetorical tool, and it became a shield that helped otherwise “healthy” people feel safer from a mysterious virus. Diabetics, in particular, were commonly invoked as a group who needed protection and the public was implored to act responsibly for their sake.
“Three men are constantly speaking to me behind my right ear,” says Pia Oxenvad, a young woman experiencing auditory hallucinations. “It feels like they are standing right behind me,” she explains, while indicating with her right hand precisely where the voices seem to be lurking. To Pia, the voices are real, an experiential and always proximate presence. Yet, to everybody else, the voices are unreal, a conjuring of Pia’s disturbed mind. Although Pia can hear the voices, she cannot see the men whose voices she hears. However, when she enters the realm of virtual reality (VR), Pia can both see and speak to the malevolent voices, which now present as avatars. These digital representations externalize her internal malady, moving the voices from the concealed and personal space of her mind to the visible and shared space of VR. To get to the realm of VR, Pia places a pair of sleek, yet clunky, goggles over her eyes, transporting her into a digitally designed, simulated environment. The goggles engulf Pia’s vision, fundamentally altering her sense of place. Although seated on a chair, at a table, in a room, Pia is tricked into believing that she is somewhere completely different, moved from the physical here to the simulated there in an instant. As she is immersed into the carefully curated space of VR, Pia and her therapist are enabled to confront Pia’s voices together for the first time.
In the final evening of an archival research trip across France last September, I was thrilled to see that a cinema in Quartier Latin was screening Atlantic City (1980), one of the few films by Louis Malle that I had never watched on the big screen and was likely never going to be able to in the UK, where real cinemas are becoming rapidly extinct. The theatre quickly filled with people, eager to enjoy the unique interaction of Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster with a Michel Piccoli sidekick on the silver screen. It was only upon returning to my hotel room in Montparnasse that I realised it was not only humans who had been enjoying the show. Upon seeing the unmistakable marks of bedbug bites on my arm, I suddenly recalled articles mentioning that cinemas in Paris had been found to be infested and were subsequently fumigated over the summer. Having recently spent a few years studying the history of fumigation, and all too aware of the limitations of the method on terra firma, I was both amused and vexed at being the victim of one of the key pests in Euroamerican imaginations, and of the technoscientific failure to control them. Needless to say, upon returning to Scotland, I washed all my clothes at a high temperature, ruining several forever, and took my suitcase out to the garden, sprayed it with a powerful insecticide, and allowed it to be exposed for a day to an obliging sun, which had finally made its appearance after three summer months of cloud and rain. The anxiety of having brought bedbugs back home lingered for a few days and was then quickly forgotten.