The Disease Poetics of Empire: A Conversation with Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

By Charles ShafaiehMay 17, 2021

The Disease Poetics of Empire: A Conversation with Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb
WHILE PRESIDENT, Donald Trump often recounted an apocryphal story about General John Pershing, who, he claimed, stanched the Moro Rebellion in the Southern Philippines with the help of bullets coated in pig’s blood. At campaign rallies, he also justified his aversion to Syrian refugees by quoting the lyrics of Oscar Brown’s “The Snake,” in which the serpent bites the woman who cared for it when it was ill. As Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb describes in her forceful and timely debut book, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020, both narratives symbolically bind Muslims with microbial violence, both as the means to suppress them and to characterize them, like a virus, as venomous and inherently prone to attack.

Trump was not unique, however, in employing the language of disease when describing Muslims, people from the Global South, and insurrectionary violence. This language has become commonplace, for longer than most realize. Raza Kolb describes a 200-year history during which politicians, Supreme Court justices, policymakers, and novelists have described terrorism as “a cancer, an infection, an epidemic, a plague.” Identifying the metaphor’s origin during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, she traces it and epidemiology’s coterminous evolution through a rich and unexpected archive of texts, including novels by Rudyard Kipling, Bram Stoker, Albert Camus, and Salman Rushdie, as well as colonial epidemiologists’ writings and The 9/11 Commission Report. The pejorative descriptions of Muslim pilgrims as cholera spreaders, the vaccination plot that helped the United States assassinate Osama bin Laden, the depiction of quarantining in Camus’s La peste (The Plague), and the similar visual vocabularies of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion become evidence of this trope’s persistence across time and mediums.

“The disease poetics of Empire,” as Raza Kolb frames this language, are more than xenophobic utterances. They have material consequences. This trope dehumanizes those who Empire casts as its enemies, which, among other consequences, nullifies their political demands. Arguably even more pernicious, it weaponizes the seemingly benign discourses of care and global health, under the auspices of which everything from surveillance to data collection and quarantining seems permissible. 

In the following conversation that brings her work in conversation with the current pandemic, Raza Kolb and I discuss the violent potential of metaphors, reading epidemiologically, and Empire’s constant state of amnesia.


CHARLES SHAFAIEH: Your debut book is, in a way, a pedagogical lesson, in which you see epidemiology not just as a science but as a mode of reading. Can you elaborate on what this method entails?

ANJULI FATIMA RAZA KOLB: Imagine that the clinical scene is like close reading a text. When you look at a patient, at their tissues and their pathology, you’re doing a deep dive. It bears similarities to New Criticism, which is very focused on the text — the patient — at hand and studiously avoids the context that produced it.

With epidemiological reading, to produce a medical narrative you have to be conscious and attentive both to local and distal determinants. There’s pressure not to seek the cause of disease in some kind of humoral dysfunction or errancy internal to the body. Instead, you need to look at environmental and migration factors as well as at the relationships between animals and humans. It reminds us that there are causes that can be incredibly important to human health at six- or seven-degrees distance from where you think you need to look. We’ve learned a lot about this in the last year, for example, in thinking about zoonotic diseases and how they cross over to humans.

Another name for epidemiological reading is the tripartite reading method of postcolonial studies, in which you have to work comparatively, in a historicist mode (paying attention to the many contexts in which a work was written and read), and toward the political present. This is not a coincidence. Epidemiology, as a discipline, was born in the high era of imperialism, with the establishment of the Royal Epidemiological Society in the 1850s. Of course, the study of epidemics has taken place for centuries. But during the cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century that reached around the world, it became a discipline with a journal, a society, and a set of principles — principles not dissimilar from those of postcolonial critique.

It’s useful to borrow from this imperial science when describing the literary world that arises in connection with it. It’s akin to working on a puzzle, when you realize that something from one place fits elsewhere. Of course they fit in this case — they were made in the same factory and with the same material.

As much as legible connections — across time, disciplines, and types of text — ground your readings, so do absences and gaps.

I became really aware of absences when I started putting together syllabi to teach imperial and postcolonial literature toward the end of my PhD. I felt that the story of decolonization, especially in the academic job market, was wrapped up in narratives of nation-building, of political consolidation, and heroic fulfillment stories. They were quite biblical, which sounds crazy in 2021. At that time, I wasn’t finding my way to robust conversations about the absences, the holes, the silences in the archive of what was coming to be known as “world literature,” and the narrative of the failed state. Beyond the work of my own teachers, there also wasn’t much theorization about how the World Bank functions as a neocolonial enterprise or enough discussion about the War on Terror as a colonial war with techniques related to those used by the British and French empires.

What interested me then and now were stories that highlighted the insufficiency of gender politics in the creation of the nation, such as Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments. The more research I did on these non-heroic stories which don’t cast decolonization as a teleological move toward perfection, the more absences became the highlighted spots in my own reading. Specifically, absences of people who were left out of nation-building stories. As a second-generation child of partition, of course it makes sense that I’m looking at rifts and fissures, but at the time they weren’t part of the dominant story of postcolonial writing and history.

These absences are not strictly negative spaces though. They can be generative as objects of study, as in your reading of the redacted portions in The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.

When you see a redacted page, you know somebody has deliberately suppressed information. But when you see an absence in an archive, books missing from a syllabus, or classes missing from a curriculum, it’s harder to ask questions about who that serves, who silenced those stories, and whose power that consolidates.

Crucial to how I imagined this book was Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. She and other scholars who deal with archival sciences, in Black studies especially, show that it’s possible to read absences not as accidental but as deliberate suppression, and how to plumb that suppression in the service not just of new histories but also new futures. Reading Hartman really taught me how serious it was not just to name absences but to theorize them.

It’s also useful to think about absences in spatial terms, such as with gaps in a disease map: why is one block of cluster deaths on a map far away from another one, and what happens in that interval between them?

Figurative language can also become a subtle means to conceal. Take the pathologization of communists during the McCarthy era or the Mau Mau in Kenya. Framing the spread of their or anyone else’s ideas as an “epidemic” eliminates the speakers’ political agency as well as their humanness, in stark contrast to how Empire describes its citizens.

The naturalizing metaphor of epidemic is a different kind of redaction or censorship. In the Anthropocene, we know that natural disasters are not exclusively natural, that we’re engineering them wittingly and unwittingly. But instead of saying that a person, company, logging operation, or timber camp was responsible for the spread of cholera, the colonial record says it’s unclean Hindus, then unclean Muslims, then the working classes of Europe, and so on. Instead of saying that there is a specific and profit-driven market in exotic animals, combined with global monoculture and the non-protection of species that may be responsible for the spread of COVID-19, our major news outlets blamed the wet markets and exotic (i.e., disgusting) dietary habits of Chinese people, circulating fake photos of bat soup. The figure essentially blocks the possibility of responsibility on the part of greedy agents for whom the public and public health are last on their list of concerns.

To your point, it’s a way of discrediting or obscuring what are oftentimes extremely clear motives in rebellious, anti-colonial, or insurgent acts of violence. The theoretical genesis of this for me is Ranajit Guha’s “The Prose of Counterinsurgency,” in which he points out that many uprisings in the colonial record in India were characterized as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, and epidemics. I decided to run with the latter. The natural-disaster mode of translating insurgency refuses to recognize the political demands being made. It couldn’t be more important to stress that the colonial record continues to legitimate certain kinds of political claims and to suppress, obscure, and silence others.

Where power lies determines exactly what we call something, and this naturalization habit has shaped the discourse around non-Europeans and nonwhite people since at least the Peloponnesian War. It’s not just an effect of racism or xenophobia but also deeply ineffective political science. It matters how a polity or a government argues for its continued existence and fights for legitimacy in spaces like the United Nations by avowing a very particular European ontology as being the only possible position from which to articulate legitimate political claims.

The first thing we have to do is recognize when speech is called something else and when the biopolitical state pretends that speech is not happening, or that a semiotic event is not a semiotic event but is instead some kind of mystery.

This rhetorical move exonerates Empire from any responsibility. It also treats these historical events as shocks. You astutely point out how surprised Empire always is by everything it purportedly studies, whether that is terrorism or viruses. I wouldn’t be surprised if Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Pinker write yet another misguided historical analysis, this time entitled Shocks.

Imperial ignorance is precisely a studied habit of shock.

That brings me back to really ethical and important conversations that happened in the wake of the Trump election and also after the shooting in Atlanta in March. There’s a real impulse, especially on the left, to evaluate surprise as a kind of barometer of your awareness of how racist, white supremacist, misogynist, homophobic, and exploitative things have been. The gesture comes back to Cassandra in Greek mythology — that if you have been paying attention, none of this should surprise you. And yet everything in the Western imperial narrative ideology in which we exist is programmed to produce these shocks because it is also programmed to convince us that things are right in the world.

There’s this gorgeous moment in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim where he describes the dawn as “diamond bright,” and men, crows, and bullocks awake together. Kim “thrilled with delight […] this was life as he would have it […] new sights at every turn of the approving eye,” Kipling writes. Edward Said calls Kim a great example of the aesthetic and psychological pleasures of Empire, which I think means a kind of smug imperial coziness. That coziness tells us that regardless of what is happening on the plantation in Antigua, there’s also a beautiful pageant taking place at Mansfield Park — and that this is as it should be. These insights, which I’m borrowing from Said’s Culture and Imperialism, tell us a lot about how the narratives of historical progress are designed to throw us back on our heels in moments of surprise so that we can say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know that a respiratory disease was going to kill 50 million people globally. I didn’t know that in the developed West, this type of thing could happen!”

That coziness you identify is so explicit in the audacious, beatific opening paragraphs of The 9/11 Commission Report, which you analyze through the same lens as any other text. Shock, too, plays such a huge role in that narrative, which in hindsight is bizarre considering, for one, how airplane hijacking used to be such a common tactic.

Joseph Slaughter published a great essay last September about plane hijackings and the way that cultural phenomenon was once associated with being “on the side of human liberation and decolonization.” This also brings to mind insurgent histories that deal with the disruption of colonial infrastructure, like the IRA’s S-campaign (or sabotage campaign), or the anti-apartheid attacks on power stations and transport lines following the Soweto uprising, and even the rolling dockworkers’ strikes in Long Beach.

Just as epidemiological reading’s connection to the literature of Empire doesn’t fit by accident, the targeted disruption of transportation infrastructure is not a coincidence. Commercial and human transport are sites or mobile archipelagos of imperial and neoimperial power. These networks of trade are what made Empire profitable, so it has deep symbolic resonance as well as practical and strategic significance. Consider the unintentional blocking of the Suez Canal, too. That it prevented $10 billion a day in global trade is fascinating.

The 9/11 Commission Report begins:

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run.

That’s not how you have to begin that story. It is a choice to present the world as peaceful and as it should be, which tells us that the hijackings happened to interrupt the beauty of our world.

You also criticize the opening of Donald G. McNeil Jr.’s New York Times piece about cholera, which reads, “SUNDARBANS NATIONAL PARK, Bangladesh. Two hundred years ago, the first cholera pandemic emerged from these tiger-infested mangrove swamps.” This inappropriately menacing language is not just poetic, you argue. It has material consequences.

These minor occurrences can turn into terrible violence that hurts people. We’re talking about ideology and mood — the mood that’s produced when America is described as peaceful versus when it’s described as a place where ICE agents knock on your door, where you have to take six trains and a bus because you live in an outer borough and your name is not written down in a log because you’re undocumented. I’m thinking about Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s chapter on 9/11 in The Undocumented Americans here. The Commission Report uses textual and literary moods that produce love and affection for certain kinds of characters and spaces, and suspicion and hatred for others. This is so simple, but even I forget this over the course of a day. To whom we are sympathetic and whose humanity we recognize happens in hundreds of thousands of tiny moments, regarding which pronouns and adjectives we use, what direction we point our eyes in classrooms, and who inhabits what spaces on a train.

When you’re asked to conjure a picture of something that has happened, what fills in the blanks is what you already know and to what you’ve been exposed. By reinforcing the logic that things are as they should be, or, as in Kipling, that “this is life as we would have it,” causes a naïve reaction. It makes catastrophe feel like the breaking of an everyday peace, instead of a revelation of an ongoing emergency in which we have participated.

The more often a metaphor is used, the more often it becomes connected to that which it describes, to the point that it becomes commonplace. The metaphor then loses its poetic power by becoming cliché but gains operative potency in its material consequences. The decades-long description of “Islam” as a “disease,” for example. For many, the two can’t be uncoupled.

That’s right. I’m interested in what on the surface doesn’t look like hate speech, that which circulates endemically before it becomes epidemic. Poets know that the best metaphors are the ones that trip you up a bit and then fall into place perfectly. These blaming metaphors do the opposite. They become more and more fluent to the point that they’re not even flowing as figural language. We don’t think we’re comparing one thing to another; it’s just what we call that thing.

I use the phrase “the disease poetics of Empire” to describe the big phenomenon at which I’m looking in the book. By that, I don’t mean just the figural language that exists in imperial writing or discourse. I also mean the poiesis of disease in the construction of Empire. My favorite version of the idea of poiesis comes from Audre Lorde, who says that to create poetry “lays the foundations for a future of change.” It’s an utterly utopian, hubristic, godlike experience because it’s precisely not where figural language ceases to be figural; it’s where figural language literally produces a new life. That newness can be a fresh perspective, a new insight. It can even bring new community into being.

So the disease poetics of Empire means to suggest not just how Trump says “China Virus” and then there’s hate-motivated mass murder. It also means that saying “China Virus” literally reinforces the borders of Empire. It results in the threatening of sanctions and, as with the Muslim ban, in changes to immigration laws. 

A text therefore must be read with and through its public life and circulation, which reveals, among many things, the status of the various poetics it contains. For example, you treat Roland Barthes’s harsh reaction to Albert Camus’s La peste as seriously and comprehensively as the novel itself. You also choose Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre to examine not just due to his use of diseases poetics but because of how influential his writing remains, both in literary and sociopolitical contexts.

This is a pleasure for me as a critic and also extremely painful in that I made a commitment to thinking about the relationship between literature and power, which has held me, at least in this book, from writing about texts that I love. If you study this relationship seriously, you want to talk about books that made their way into the hands of policymakers, law defenders, and military personnel. I need to be reading the books Barack Obama picks up because they have outsize and often unseen impact on both politics and literary history, which evolves according to what is published but also according to what is read, assigned, and cited. If I want to understand neoimperial war, I need to read the books that Kathryn Bigelow used to inform her neocolonial perspective in Zero Dark Thirty. To do that is to honor the life of the text as it has existed in the world, and also to hold it accountable.

Watching how a text circulates and accrues its meaning is very much like watching a meme go through the internet and explode or not. That circulation changes the meaning of the book. When you look at famous books, it’s even clearer that their authors don’t get to determine what they mean. For a decade after the publication of La peste, Camus defended what that allegory meant to him, which was an allegory of the Resistance under Nazi occupation in France, against Barthes and many other readers who thought it was something else. For me, it’s a novel describing the terror of Brown independence in Algeria and of Arabs.

The 9/11 Commission Report’s nomination for a National Book Award in Nonfiction is another case in point, though arguably its institutional and commercial success were among its appalling goals. 

The Report was written by a group of people who went to the same private schools and knew each other their whole lives. The commissioners, the historian Ernest May who was really its writer, and the National Book Award’s board of trustees are all boys with each other in this very American moneyed way.

The contexts that we don’t even know are literary contexts continue to really interest me. I always tell my students that reading the acknowledgments can tell you as much about how a book was made as anything else.

As we’ve discussed, none of that should be surprising — and yet it also is. 

As a researcher, in order to have an ethical disposition toward what you’re working on, you have to be ready to be surprised. There’s no good work that can come out of a constant disposition of cynicism. But we need more precise language for talking about what a surprise within an unsurprising context is. Because, to me, that seems somehow like the secret of existing and surviving.

I often get too optimistic about organizing and social change, or about health care. I can’t believe that in the midst of a global pandemic we haven’t achieved universal basic income and single-payer health care. That is a surprise to me. I really thought something might happen.

To bring this back to broken histories and a historiography of absence: The one thing that I will give La peste, which as a novel I don’t love, is that it ends with the gesture that basically says, “And then we forgot again.” We’re good at forgetting. Two major rhetorical gestures of the US government after 9/11 were “go shopping” and “never forget.” Forgetting, among other things, is a tempting form of healing. It’s also a trauma response. That, to me, is the truest diagnosis of our social condition as anything else in La peste. How we will tell the story of the pandemic in the future is an open question, but it’s one in which we can participate in right now — who we remember, what we forget or leave behind from a “before” that was already leaving out so many of us.


Charles Shafaieh is an arts journalist and critic based in New York City.

LARB Contributor

Charles Shafaieh is an arts journalist and critic based in New York City. An editor at large at The Brooklyn Rail, he writes regularly on literature, theater, visual art, music, and architecture for numerous international publications including The New Yorker, The Irish Times, The Weekend Australian Review, Harvard Design Magazine, and Artforum.


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