The Cultural Politics of Pandemics Representations

Writing of the AIDS epidemic as both a “medical and cultural crisis” (2), Paula Treichler draws our attention to the meanings and metaphors that shape our understandings of AIDS as well as those it has affected. Far from being irrelevant, theory becomes absolutely necessary as we seek to “understand the AIDS epidemic, its interaction with culture and language, the intellectual debates and political initiatives that the epidemic has engendered . . . and its possibilities for guiding us toward a more humane and enlightened future” (1-2). Treichler’s examination of AIDS as a discursive formation has helped to guide many of us as we attempt to make sense of our complicated and often contradictory experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. That the coronavirus has circulated globally and yet been mediated so differently by local circumstances and national contexts calls into question the very naming of this event as a global pandemic. Given our differing abilities to protect ourselves from the coronavirus by taking measures such as social distancing, handwashing, and vaccination, which presume fairly spacious living and working conditions, access to running water, and wealthy governments, should we instead conceptualize the pandemic as a series of localized events rather than a global one? Who is imagined to be the subject of these national and global discourses of pandemic public health, and perhaps more importantly, who is excluded? Treichler signals comparable concerns about the cultural politics of representation when she addresses the AIDS epidemic and argues that war is perhaps the most useful metaphor to understand it. For Treichler, attention to these concerns means underscoring the differently distributed effects that the AIDS epidemic has had on the public. She notes that “AIDS is a war whose participants have been in the trenches for years, surrounded daily by death and dying, yet only gradually has the rest of the population come to know that there is a war at all” (2-3). Building on this observation, we can see that our collective understandings of global events such as the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic can only ever be partial if they do not centre marginalized voices.

To reinforce the need to critique the cultural politics of representation, Treichler turns to Stuart Hall’s essay “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” which argues for the importance of holding in tension the political and theoretical questions we ask about representations. Hall offers AIDS as a powerful example of how such an approach can reframe our understandings of historical events, and refuses to see the study of representations as separate from those of drug efficacy or life expectancy:

I don’t agree with the way in which this dilemma is often posed for us, for it is indeed a more complex and displaced question than just people dying out there. The question of AIDS is an extremely important terrain of struggle and contestation. In addition to the people we know who are dying, or have died, or will, there are the many people dying who are never spoken of. How could we say that the question of AIDS is not also a question of who gets represented and who does not? (285)

Hall is, of course, absolutely correct as he argues that it matters whose stories are told and whose are silenced. If we consider his question within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes clear that we cannot hope to move towards more just futures or even a new, more equitable normal unless our understanding of the pandemic includes those “who are never spoken of.” For example, increasing representations of how pandemic life affects people with disabilities and chronic illness help convey the need for more permanent accessibility measures. Many scholars have turned to illness and disability studies as we collectively experience the kinds of isolation, digital mediation, and physical restrictions that some people with disabilities and chronic illnesses live with daily. As these scholars demonstrate, part of the problem with the dominant representation of pandemic life is that it has focused on these conditions as temporary. While the pandemic has shown us that accessibility measures can be implemented, these may disappear again once the pandemic is officially declared over.

I first proposed the idea of a special issue on pandemics back in June 2020, a month before I officially took up the editorship at Canadian Literature. The World Health Organization designated the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, so at the time, it was only a few months old. Many people, including myself, fully expected that it would be over by the fall of 2020. That was obviously not the case. Now, in the beginning of July 2021, the language surrounding COVID-19 in Canada has slowly started to shift from one of emergency to that of management as vaccination rates rise and caseloads drop. The dissonances within the biomedical dimensions of the pandemic are difficult to reconcile, as are those between its competing social, cultural, and medical meanings. On the one hand, we are seeing a loosening of restrictions in Canada, but on the other hand, we are repeatedly warned about the more transmissible Delta variant that is spreading throughout many other parts of the world, in large part because of a global vaccine shortage. In British Columbia, where I work and write, we have repeatedly been asked by provincial health authorities and the provincial government to trust the science that has informed their decision-making processes. But as Treichler’s words remind us, doing so is neither straightforward nor easy. The public health measures encouraged us to socially distance and stay at home to lessen the spread of the coronavirus, but such measures were not always possible for those required to work in person, that experienced domestic violence, or were without stable housing. Questions of representation again come to mind as we reflect upon how these measures were intended to intersect with other forces and factors—such as pre-existing health conditions, mental health issues, and escalating racialized and Indigenous violences—that make each of us differently vulnerable. In other words, how could we follow COVID-19 restrictions that did not account for how COVID intersected with the other aspects of our lives and the structures that regulate them?

Here, I find it useful to turn to John Nguyet Erni and Ted Striphas’ introduction to their special issue on the cultural politics of COVID-19. Also inspired by Treichler’s work, Erni and Striphas reframe COVID-19 by

recogniz[ing] the multiplicity of the COVID-19 pandemic—that is, to refuse to accept it as a public health crisis primarily, as though it were somehow separable from these highly charged events; or, in a different vein, to reject the idea that these events were merely the backdrop against which COVID unfolded. COVID-19 was and remains so overwhelming because it is not one thing but many things simultaneously; or rather, because it refers to a series of crises superimposed with such pressure as to leave one wondering where even to begin at all. (212, emphasis original)

By approaching the pandemic in this way, we are able to think about its biomedical dimensions in relation to the political and economic struggles of the past year as well as to the collective experiences of anxiety and depression, boredom, and Zoom fatigue. In other words, rather than seeing the pandemic solely through a public health lens of case counts, R numbers, and ICU capacities, we can also consider how the affective, scientific, and political aspects of this moment are mediated through each other.

Understanding what the pandemic has meant to each of us also requires engaging with the local contexts of our experiences. Writing from Hong Kong, Erni describes how his experience of COVID involved an intersection of political and biomedical forces given that the spread of the coronavirus occurred as protests against the Anti-Extradition Law Movement were taking place (217). Moreover, for Hong Kongers, many aspects of the pandemic have been eerily reminiscent of the SARS outbreak in 2003, which similarly overlapped with political demonstrations against governmental attempts to enact a restrictive law (217). As Hong Kong had already experienced SARS, health screening and quarantine measures were easy to implement and many people were still in the habit of wearing masks when they felt ill. But the memory of SARS also informed Hong Kong’s COVID experience in less visible ways, as few people “who lived through it forget the profound sense of a diminishing city marked by the intersection of a biological pathogen and a political disease. This feeling would be repeated in 2020 by another intersection of a protest and an epidemic” (218). The familiarity of pandemic then as a set of public health protocols, a time of political tension, and as a “diminishing” of the city are central to understanding what the COVID-19 pandemic has meant for Hong Kong.

In considering the cluster of meanings attached to COVID in Canada, I want to hold onto Erni and Striphas’ approach to the pandemic as a series of superimposed crises, and to their call for “radically contextualizing COVID, as well as the broader crucible of issues related to disease, health, and wellbeing” (221, emphasis original). For those of us able to work from home, the pandemic has likely been the most time we have ever spent inside our domestic spaces. The various restrictions and circuit breakers imposed by provincial governments have meant that we have spent long periods of time away from our extended families, friends, and colleagues, confined to our homes and neighbourhoods, and often accompanied by children who have been out of school or childcare. While many of us have experienced extreme feelings of loneliness, heightened anxiety, boredom, and sadness, we have also experienced much guilt about our predominantly middle-class experiences of being able to stay safe within our homes, complete with modern “appliances, devices, and systems that promise so much, but deliver so little” (Burke), while others have risked their health to provide us with groceries, medical care, and other essential services. Sequestered within our homes, we have become what Andrew Burke via Baudrillard calls “atmosphere engineers” as we organize our physical households and set our Zoom backgrounds “to generate a specific sort of mediated atmosphere.” That many people have sought to renovate their homes in large and small ways during the pandemic is unsurprising since it has functioned as a “substitute ordering of the world in the face of a world that is very definitely not under my control” (Burke).

While the pandemic has been marked by long stretches of isolation as we lived through tight restrictions, it has also been a period of increased violence against Indigenous and racialized peoples, as well as collective resistance against such injustices in the form of movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. From the end of May and throughout the month of June, the existence of more than a thousand unmarked residential “school” graves has been confirmed: on May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Nation confirmed the remains of 215 children; on June 4, 104 potential graves were discovered by the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation at Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba; on June 24, 2021, it was announced that 751 unmarked graves were located near the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, associated with the Cowessess First Nation (O’Neill). And on June 30, 2021, the Lower Kootenay Band located 182 remains near the former St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School. As these findings have garnered public attention, Indigenous scholars and critics have continued to remind us that the existence of these graves are not new discoveries. Crystal Gail Fraser notes in a Twitter thread that “Indigenous Elders, Nations, and communities have been pointing towards the[m] for decades.” These unmarked graves exist by design, as “[n]early all [Indian Residential Schools] had an official graveyard, but many had ‘unofficial’ graveyards too. This was reflective of the point of the system—to kill our ancestors, our cultures, our sovereignty, and steal land + resources” (@ crystalfraser). Jessica O’Neill also makes this point, noting that the existence of graveyards “is not new information. Residential School survivors have been telling us they’re there for generations.” If we centre the stories of residential “school” survivors and their family members, it becomes impossible to think of the pandemic as an unprecedented event. Instead, we must consider it within longer histories of struggle, violence, and devastation for Indigenous communities.

The contributions to this special issue offer us a range of ways of reflecting upon pandemics and Canadian cultural productions and contexts. “Race, Visuality, and COVID-19,” a forum curated by Danielle Wong, draws together scholars, artists, and curators based in Canada and the US who interrogate the visual cultures of the pandemic. As Wong writes in her introduction to the forum, within such “discourses, the pandemic is made to ‘reveal’ a lot, namely pre-existing structural inequities and the ongoing conditions of global capitalism produced by Empire. Yet, many of us already know the truth of these realities. What, then, does the pandemic show us about how race reveals?” In this forum, Wong and other critics take up the question, “How does COVID-19 engender ways of seeing and not seeing racially?”

The question of how the pandemic is mediated through our bodies and technologies is also taken up by Emilia Nielsen, Jason Camlot and Katherine McLeod, and Sadie Barker. Camlot and McLeod’s “Pandemic Listening: Critical Annotations on a Podcast Made in Social Isolation” resonates in provocative ways with Wong’s forum as Camlot and McLeod investigate how the pandemic has changed how we listen to each other and our environments. Growing out of a podcast by the authors, this article (which is in fact designed to be read while listing to the podcast) offers thoughtful insights into pandemic practices of listening to noise, signals, and voices. Sadie Barker’s “‘The Quest for Interpretive Agency’: Zoomxiety in the Realm of Literature” turns our attention to how Zoom has mediated many of our pandemic experiences and produced the pandemic phenomenon of “Zoomxiety.” For Barker, Zoom and literature can be used to interrogate each other.

If Wong’s forum and Barker’s and Camlot and McLeod’s articles ask us to reflect upon visual and auditory practices during the pandemic, Nielsen’s directs our attention to how chronically ill bodies experience the pandemic, and more specifically, how they experience time. Nielsen’s “Chronic Poetics and the Poetry of Chronic Illness (in a Global Pandemic)” weaves together autobiographical reflections with critical readings of poetry in order to “insis[t] that the poetics of chronically ill people be registered in this historical moment where a virus is not just the backdrop of our lives but a reality lived out in each of our daily interactions.”

Heidi Tiedemann Darroch’s and Quan Zhou’s articles turn to other epidemics that preceded our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Darroch’s “The War at Home: Writing Influenza in Alice Munro’s ‘Carried Away’ and Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918)” compares Munro’s story and Kerr’s play for their depictions of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The essay argues that those who perished from influenza were commemorated in radically different ways than those who died during World War I because influenza deaths were a “unique tragedy” whereas combat deaths were “explicable within a framework of public heroism.” Quan Zhou’s “Disease, Desire, and Devotion: Mobilities and Becoming-(M)other in Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Better Mother” returns to the AIDS epidemic. Zhou reads Lee’s novel for its representations of mobilities and interracial love and caring.

Clint Burnham’s “The Plague of Orientalism: Reading Kevin Chong in the Pandemic” offers a Lacanian reading of Chong’s The Plague, which is a response to Camus’ novel of the same title, but set instead in Vancouver in the 2010s. Burnham theorizes the novel, and by extension Vancouver, in terms of its racial unconscious. For Burnham, Chong’s The Plague is valuable for how it suggests “that white supremacism . . . [is] fundamentally not all that different from liberal (or even radical, abolitionist) multiculturalism.” This special issue also contains a short interview of Chong conducted by Burnham. During their conversation, Chong and Burnham discuss (among other things) the rewriting of Camus as an alternate history of Vancouver.

John Paul Catungal and Ethel Tungohan also examine racial narratives in their dialogue entitled “Asian Racial Narratives on Repeat: Reflections on Collaborative Research on Asian International Students in COVID Times.” Catungal and Tungohan discuss their current research on Asian international students’ experiences of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. As the authors note, their intention in undertaking this project is to get “a little bit closer to the lived and embodied quality of researching anti-Asianness in COVID times, not only as scholars, but also as Asian Canadians.” Read together, the contributions to this special issue return us to the questions about which subjects are represented, how are they represented, and how we encounter these representations in pandemic times.

Works Cited

Burke, Andrew. “At Home with All of My Things, or, The Pandemic System of Objects.”
Écran Total, Accessed
29 June 2021.

@crystalfraser. “1.Drin gwįįzii, shoorzri’ Crystal Gail Fraser vàazhii, History & Native
Studies, University of Alberta, Treaty 6 Homeland of the Métis Nation. I am pleased
to talk about ‘Residential Schooling Histories.’” Twitter, 24 June 2021, 10:31 a.m., twitter.
com/crystalfraser/status/1408115690607841281. Accessed 26 June 2021.

Erni, John Nguyet, and Ted Striphas. “Introduction: COVID-19, the Multiplier.” Cultural
Studies, vol. 35, nos. 2-3, 2021, pp. 211-37.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies.” Cultural Studies, edited by
Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, Routledge, 1992, pp. 277-94.

O’Neill, Jessica. “The Recent ‘Discovery’ of Indian Residential School Graves in Canada.”
Facebook, 28 June 2021,
Accessed 1 July 2021.

Treichler, Paula. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS.
Duke UP, 1999.

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