The Viral Imagination

IN ITS COVERAGE of the Ebola panic, The Washington Post noted, “We have no cultural memory of what we are supposed to do, or think, or believe, when Ebola is on the loose.” In fact, we suffer from an excess of memory, none of it necessarily accurate or even real. The panic may be rooted in media hype and an ignorance of the particularities of the Ebola virus, but it also flows from our contemporary obsession with the narratives and discourse of viral contagion.

There are the virus-inspired thrillers: I Am Legend, World War Z, Contagion, Quarantine, Carriers, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, even the apocalyptic ending of Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the infected, unwitting pilot, his ominous drop of blood on the airport floor, and the quick cut to the list of flights heading to destinations across the globe. Last year, Dan Brown’s Inferno imagined a new Black Death unleashed as a genetically engineered virus to cull the overpopulated masses: “a hideous panorama of pestilence, misery, and torture.”

Vampire and zombie narratives generally are about the fear of viral spread and the ways in which the dead remain alive in their contagion, acting on the living and infecting healthy bodies. A newspaper in Liberia already reported that two Ebola victims have “resurrected.” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, formally consoled readers that Ebola is not a “zombie disease.” And when Ebola first made headlines, sites like Reddit and 4chan were inundated with Ebola-zombie memes. Far from having “no cultural memory” for comprehending viral outbreak, people found a surfeit of reference points.

Then there’s the virus-inspired vernacular of the internet age: viral marketing, viral philanthropy, viral email, the promise (or threat) of videos and images “going viral.” This is the winning virality we associate with the Ice Bucket Challenge, “Gangnam Style,” and Elizabeth Warren’s Senate hearings, which tend to go as viral as cat videos. Virality is a mark of our hyperconnectivity and at its most positive signals the infectious spread of virtuous ideas (or at least novel entertainment). As the site exclaims of its click-happy content, “This is the stuff everyone’s talking about.”

“Viral” occupies a site of discursive centrality — but how do we reconcile its conflicting usages? On the one hand, contagion is a source of dread, and our fixation on viral outbreak, both real and fictional, discloses anxieties about modern society — about our urbanized, overpopulated, interconnected, and highly mobile world. Much of this is what we love about the 21st century; we love our globalized networks, international travel, the wildfire spread of information. But there’s an underlying sense that these glories of globalization may also be our undoing, that as we’ve become more advanced, we’ve also become more vulnerable. Obama hinted at this when he talked about the necessity of stopping Ebola “in an era where regional crises can quickly become global threats.” But if viral contagion stands for our anxieties, it also stands for our desires. In the 21st century, contagion is, in fact, the condition to which all politicians, business owners, and entertainers aspire.


There’s a long history of diseases becoming loaded terms in their adjectival form: Leprosy aroused such horror in the Middle Ages as to give birth, in French, to “lépreuse,” something diseased, repulsive, ugly. In the 16th century, “pestilent” came into use, inspired by Europe’s long struggle with the pestilence of bubonic plague. In her 1978 book-length essay Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that societies tend to imbue certain diseases with disproportionate meaning, allowing them to grow in associations and myths until they become something quite detached from the illness itself. Invariably, the meaning is a moralistic one, and it’s projected onto the world: the Oxford English Dictionary records the 1513 definition of “pestilent,” for instance, as “injurious to religion, morals, or public peace.”

Sontag takes up more modern ailments — tuberculosis and cancer. She shows how “consumptive” developed as a figuration of the 19th-century Romantic imagination: the disease was thought to strike the hypersensitive, talented, and passionate and so carried a spiritualizing, artistic connotation. (“I should like to die of a consumption,” Byron declared. “The ladies would all say, ‘Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying.’”) In the 20th century, “cancerous” was the go-to illness metaphor, though not, like tuberculosis, the stuff of poetry. It was recruited instead to mobilize against all manner of social and political ills. Sontag is concerned with the way these moralizing metaphors, so over-inundated with meaning, misrepresent the illness and harm the patient. But “viral,” though similarly inundated, is strangely amoral. It doesn’t mean anything morally to describe a business or video as viral — it’s not good or bad, romantic or repugnant. It’s simply its mode of operation, the speed at which it travels.

When “going viral” is a good thing, it’s only good insofar as it suggests that something is popular or successful. This is an economic meaning, not a moral one — an appropriation of illness by capitalist ideals and a striking break with our centuries-long alignment of illness with morality. Businesses, people, and practices want to operate in the world the way a virus operates, to mimic its infectious, adaptable, ineradicable quality. The virus is a metaphor for unbridled transmission and the difficulty of containment in an increasingly porous world.

In a later essay, AIDS and Its Metaphors (1988), Sontag noted that notions of conspiracy translate well into metaphors of virus. But here she was still talking about conspiracies that inspire fear. Silicon Valley and startup culture generally have introduced the idea of another kind of conspiracy — a conspiracy to do good, to “make the world a better place.” As Peter Thiel writes in his recent book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, “A great company is a conspiracy to change the world.” Startups are the quintessentially viral business: they start small, they harbor a secret (an idea, a technology), and they aim to be (benignly) insidious and entirely infectious. Most importantly, just as a virus transforms cells, a successful startup transforms its environment in its own image. The strategic logic of the 21st century is the logic of the virus.

This does not preclude its association with immoral or evil forces. It just means that we hold in some degree of awe whatever mimics a virus successfully. LinkedIn does it; so do terrorists. In 2001, Richard Haass, then director of Policy Planning at the State Department (now president of the Council on Foreign Relations), employed the metaphor quite resonantly, comparing terrorism to “a terrible, lethal virus.” “Sometimes dormant, sometimes virulent, it is always present in some form,” he explained.

Like a virus, international terrorism respects no boundaries — moving from country to country, exploiting globalized commerce and communication to spread. […] The challenge of terrorism is thus akin to fighting a virus in that we can accomplish a great deal but not eradicate the problem.

Viral movements are anarchic, undirected. Their potency lies not in the presence of a controlling, calculating mind but its absence. The molecule, the idea, the image is dropped into a crowd and spreads. There’s no authority behind it, no guiding hand: this is what awes and terrifies. Jonah Berger, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, outlines six principles to up your viral batting average. But he also acknowledges that there’s no formula for creating the next “Gangnam Style”: “You can’t mathematically put something together to guarantee that you’ll get that many views.” Viral spread is about harnessing an untamable, untraceable popular force — the will of the people, the tyranny of the mob — and the impossibility of annihilating something that operates beyond traditional paradigms of reason and authority.


But we talk about virality not just because the world is interconnected or overpopulated; we talk about it — or, at least, we first talked about it — because of HIV. In her essay about AIDS paranoia, Sontag highlights how the virus was imagined, in the 1980s, as a threat to the nation’s survival, even to continuance of the species: “We all know the truth, every one of us,” The New York Times asserted in 1987, “We live in a time of plague such as has never been visited on our nation.” AIDS came to represent a host of apocalyptic fears about the future. Like industrial pollution, nuclear attack, or the collapse of global financial markets, it was evidence, Sontag argues, of a world in which every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide: “AIDS is one of the dystopian harbingers of the global village, that future which is already here and always before us, which no one knows how to refuse.”

No doubt the proliferation of virus metaphors has also been bolstered by scientific alarms about ever-mutating strains. “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet,” warned Nobel Laureate geneticist Joshua Lederberg, “is the virus.” In the case of Ebola, Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, voiced his belief that the current epidemic has been exacerbated by the urbanized, interconnected nature of 21st-century societies.

There’s a special irony in the fear that our collapse won’t be due to nuclear weapons or omniscient robots or even tech-savvy terrorists but something far more primal. It’s the sense — as with fears of global warming — that no matter what strides we make to conquer nature, nature will have its revenge. Our sins against the planet (industrialization, urbanization, overpopulation) will come back to punish us with a kind of mythical, Greco-Roman symmetry: penalties poetically calibrated to their crimes.

But the fear of viral devastation is also layered with fantasy, with a kind of perverse Enlightenment curiosity about what 21st-century man might look like in the state of nature. Consider all the narratives about survival after the collapse of social and political order. When compelled to choose between your humanity and your preservation, they ask, how far will you go to save yourself? Contagion creates new conditions for moral appraisal: “Even if the disease is not thought to be a judgment on the community,” Sontag writes, “it becomes one — retroactively — as it sets in motion an inexorable collapse of morals and manners.” Athens’s plague in 430 BC spawned lawlessness and disorder. The Florentine epidemic of 1348 set off all manner of depravity.

The current epidemic has revealed myriad cracks in the system — the bureaucratic failures of governments, the CDC, and international response groups. Ebola-stricken nations are suffering the strain with health workers attacked, schools shut down, families forced to abandon infected loved ones, and treatable illnesses becoming fatal because the health system is overburdened. Meanwhile, in the US, politicians enact fear-based policies that pander to the panicked, health workers are stigmatized, and West Africans are ostracized. Like a black light that makes invisible ink glow, epidemics bring into view the moral failings that were already there.

The viral imagination is as much about the force of contagion as about the effects it has on societies in its wake: the possibility — alternately enlivening and devastating — of radical transformation. We’re roused not just by anxieties about what we are, but also about what we might become: what will or will not go viral, and what life will look like when the virus is done.


Elizabeth Winkler is a writer based in Washington, DC.