CONFERENCE TALK: Viral Modernity: Accumulation, Transmission, and the Shape of the World
At the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference (“Postnatural”), I presented a theory of virality as a heuristic for understanding the structures and flows of the contemporary world, and of what that heuristic might reveal or obscure. Here’s the abstract:
What happens when contemporary culture and what Jeff Nealon has called “just-in-time capitalism” theorize both themselves and their apocalyptic limits as viral in nature? What rhetorical work does the metaphoric of virality do to naturalize an ostensibly “post-nature” regime? What theoretical work can the virus—indeterminately living and non, analog and digital, natural and manmade, corporeal and virtual—do to articulate and clarify the constitutive paradoxes of postmodernity, neoliberalism, and global finance capitalism?
This paper aims to take seriously the notion that the most pressingly descriptive world-picture of the present might be the archetypal outbreak disaster film shot of viral vectors spreading across a map of the globe. The mapped image of viral spread (disease or meme) across abstracted global space manifests an anxiety not only about contagion as such but about the shape of the world, the patterns of its stitching as revealed by the circulation of a viral agent. I argue that such images articulate modernity as itself structurally viral, the virus functioning as a sort of national- or global-scale contrast dye, injected to make more clearly visible the structures through which it moves. What is obscured and what revealed by the virus as such a mapping agent? Moreover, if we take the virus seriously as a heuristic for parsing the interlocking spaces and accumulative flows of life under global finance capitalism, what are the consequences of its complex positioning within, outside, before, and after nature?