Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Disease: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Superbugs

By Mr. VI

Not to worry you, but you're going to die. If it's not old age that gets you, it's probably going to be some mutated form of the primordial killer – as much an apparent monster as Godzilla, rising up from the depths to cause chaos and destruction in your life.

Unless you're extraordinarily unusual, or a little bit morbid, you don't like to think about it much. After all, there is so much to see and do in life that thinking about it and can be a little distracting, can't it?

But vast amounts of future tech notwithstanding, you're not going to be rejuvenated, or immortal any time soon. Of course, even if the future tech arrives, initially it'll probably belong to this sinister lizardy Methuselah-types like Rupert Murdoch due to the billions of dollars they have in their bank accounts.

The fact is, the majority of the world still doesn't have access to decent healthcare – and those that do tend to live in the richer nations. In the UK there is state healthcare, but in America? Staying healthy is the province of those who can afford it. Now, imagine all those folks in countries which we laughably call the Third World or the developing world.

Imagine what happens when they get ill, and what they do when it comes time to die. Technology and medical care and such may have advanced way beyond the four humours – rationalism may be slowly doing away with snake oil sales but what good is that if you can't get your hands on what you need?

What stories do they tell themselves to make sense out of death and dying? Are they that different to the ones we tell ourselves when disease strikes, seemingly out of the blue?

After all, we have drug-resistant strains of bacteria raging through hospitals, and the old spectre of gonorrhoea has reared its embarrassing and painful head in Japan, with a drug-resistant strain threatening to engulf the world in venereal unpleasantness once more. Plus, there's always AIDS, which is frankly still a grim and horrific disease. This UK public information film pretty much sums up the sense of doom which pervaded the world as recently as 25 years ago.

Nowadays however, there is less doom and more hope, but the facts have changed very little while the narratives have shifted significantly. Before the advent of germ theory, there were a plethora of explanations for disease.

Indeed, many of them blamed external factors – be they the gods or malignant spirits, mysterious and ineffable in their movements. Sometimes, the narratives dictated that the sufferer had offended against some social taboo. At others, it was just these capricious beings deciding to play with your life, trying to break you on the wheel.

Whatever the cause, you were either to be pitied or feared. Here at Modern Mythology we've discussed werewolves, vampires and zombies before. There's been in a variety of posts on the zombie apocalypse, from its metaphysical implications to its metaphors of contagion.

The reason for this is that it has become a significant theme in modern Western culture, which of course is why we are interested. But perhaps we should view that apocalypse in its truest form, that of a great revelation.

The great revelation of disease, which provides you with with an insight into humanity that some might regard as unpalatable. It is a revelation in that disease does exactly what it says on the tin – it disrupts ease. As a disruptive influence, it's no wonder that it was conflated with immorality in some societies, precisely because it threatened to undermine existing structures, whether by lethal contagion or contrasting awareness.

Social interaction is important for the survival of humankind – it allows for the division of labour and distribution of resources. When something is perceived to threaten that society it is demonised and regarded as malignant.

But if we take disease as a chance at analysis – for both analysis and disruption have their roots in the notion of breaking apart – then then you might be able to see something gleaming in the alien DNA of hostile bacteria and virii.

It's been coiled there for millions of years, painfully simple and yet capable of destroying entire civilisations and altering the course of human history. Like other forms of "natural" disasters it is an illustration of the Black Swan principle. One outlier can replicate into billions, a cascade of circumstances which alter the world beyond recognition, the norm upended in the blink of a proverbial eye.

Those who are diseased were touched by something outside society, afflicted by terrible mystery that forced them to exist in a different way. By embracing the alien nature of such mysteries, with their unknowable motives and machinations, you may begin to understand the cornucopia of different ways of being. Within that same understanding, its relation to society as an anathema provides you a place to stand to look down and observe, if you climb the glowering mountain or the looming monolith that is.

So the question really is, can you do that without fear – can you examine the inner workings of the self and others, in all their stinks and biological necessity without revulsion?

Until next time:

Be seeing you.

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