Conferences, workshops and other events held in relation to the Visual Plague project.

8-9 September 2017

Epidemic events have profoundly shaped human perceptions of the natural world and human ways of relating to and engaging with nature. Across everyday speech and in the health related sciences, vocabularies and registers of nature and naturalness are used to describe the complexity and ground the contingency of epidemic outbreaks. Epidemics are often seen and acted upon as resulting from an anthropogenic imbalance in nature. Equally, epidemics are events that exacerbate the marginalization of oppressed and stigmatized people, naturalizing their vulnerability to pathogens by associating their practices, relations and ways of being with contagion and crisis.

Critical perspectives in historical and social sciences have argued that epidemics should be seen not as a rupture in the natural order, but rather as politically ordained and socially distributed crises. Epidemics, from this perspective, are created out of scarcity, neglect, as well as structural and slow violence.

Bringing together interdisciplinary discussions across medical anthropology, social epidemiology, political ecology and human geography, this conference connects perceptions of the natural world as a threat to human health, and of epidemics as a result of human intervention in the natural, to practices and trajectories (discursive, aesthetic, and political) of naturalization.

Possible questions to be addressed include but are not limited to:

  • How are epidemic events used to exclude, enclose, and expropriate and what are the trajectories of the natural and unnatural in this process?
  • What happens when the distribution of “naturally occurring” and globally distributed phenomena (violence, disaster, poverty) are grouped together and politicized as an epidemic?As emerging epidemics may flow down pathways created by already exhausted bodies, debilitated social relations, and compromised immune systems – how can we understand the co-constitution of multiple, intersecting, and coterminous disease
  • As emerging epidemics may flow down pathways created by already exhausted bodies, debilitated social relations, and compromised immune systems – how can we understand the co-constitution of multiple, intersecting, and coterminous disease emergences and disease experiences?
  • Michelle Ziegler has argued that evocations of epidemics as “natural” events rooted in environments as “landscapes”, shifts focus from disease environments as anthropogenic, obscures the role played by human relations as key to creating pathways for contagion, and depoliticizes epidemic response by shifting political responsibility away from human action (Ziegler, 2016). How might a historically informed theory of landscapes as constructed, unintentional, or processual (Gandy, 2016; Fraser, Leach and Fairhead, 2014) shift our perspectives on the political ecology of epidemics?
  • How do theories about the emergence of epidemics from particular environments produce and stabilize “race” as a coherent category?
  • How have naturalistic approaches in arts, natural sciences and human sciences – aiming for the fullest description of the natural world with minimal mediation – shaped our understanding of disease?
  • How is the contention that visualization (maps, photographs, scientific diagrams and illustrations) stabilizes and naturalizes hierarchy and difference supported or challenged by study of the visual representation of epidemics?
  • How are “invisible” epidemics of non-communicable diseases produced as unnatural, for example, in the case of the presence of diseases of (supposed) surplus and overconsumption where they are assumed not to exist?
  • What has the language of entanglement done for understanding disease events within multispecies frames? Which hierarchical, unnatural, deterritorialised, extra-proximate and separate relations has this paradigm obscured?
  • What is the historical and contemporary impact of equilibrium approaches to epidemics, whether these focus on human-made imbalance or on epidemics as nature’s re-balancing act? How do claims of “naturalness” produce each proposition?
  • How useful are epidemic registers of virality and contagion when it comes to capturing complex, multiscalar and etiologically indeterminate biosocial phenomena?

Techniques, Technologies and Materialities of Epidemic Control
16 – 17 September 2016

Techniques, technologies and materialities of epidemic control poster.jpg

Epidemic diseases emerge, unfold and are contained and controlled within infrastructural and technological formations. And at the same time, such technologies are employed and portrayed as crucial to the overall rehabilitation of civic order, often seen as being compromised or disturbed by unfolding epidemics.

This conference seeks to explore technologies and techniques of epidemic containment and control. This is aimed at shifting attention away from epidemic’s ‘evental’ status or the ‘outbreak narrative’ and towards economies of continuous investment and attention. The conference will focus on the coordination of objects, strategies, labour, policies and bodies in the effort to isolate, cleanse, and renew pathological environments by asking; how can we problematise the continuity of counter-epidemic technologies across supposed epistemic breakthroughs, such as the “laboratory revolution” in medicine? How do techniques and technologies function as sites of contestation, resistance, accommodation or reclamation in the course of outbreaks? What methods of in situ enskillment, from individual training to mass mobilization, does their employment necessitate? In which ways does the success or failure of these techniques and technologies inform broader configurations of infectious diseases as intelligible and actionable categories? What is the afterlife of failed or obsolete counter-epidemic technologies in the everyday sphere, and how are such techniques and devices remembered?

Convened by Dr Christos Lynteris and Dr Branwyn Poleykett

Corpses, Burials and Infection
4 – 5 December 2015

Corpses and burial poster

It has become a truism to state that in times of epidemic infection, the bodies of the dead become morally, ontologically, and infrastructurally problematic. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when burials and the handling of corpses became arenas of contestation through which both local and scientific ‘cultures’ were placed on trial.

Historically, burials and the treatment of human corpses in the time of epidemics have become sites of obvious and apparent contestation. Examples include issues of profanity during the “Plague of Athens” (430BC); allegations of the catapulting of infected corpses in the Middle Ages; Defoe’s descriptions of the breakdown of burial norms during the London Plague of 1665; colonial concerns over “body dumping” in the streets of fin de siècle Hong Kong, and the Pasteurian problematisation of Malagasy reburial rites as a mode of spreading plague in modern Madagascar. Furthermore, burial grounds and plague pits serve not only as condensed spaces of cultural heritage, but are increasingly approached as biological archives (aDNA).

This conference expanded the discursive space that such narratives have created, by asking; how can we problematize the perception and treatment of corpses in situations of infectious disease outbreaks? How can we denaturalize burial as an obvious space of political and ethical contestation? What kinds of pollution narrative are specific to epidemic situations, and how have these historically interacted with arguments over contagion and infection? Moreover, how does the handling of the polluted corpse come to impact upon descriptions of the healthy body? Indeed, what is the place of the healthy body in a political economy geared toward answering the question of how to dispose of the corpse?

Convened by Dr Christos Lynteris and Dr Nicholas Evans

Attacking Humanitarians: Ebola and the breakdown of social accommodations over burials in Guinea.
4 December 2015, 17:00 – 18:30
Public talk by Professor James Fairhead (University of Sussex).

As the Ebola crisis became ‘exponential’ in September 2014, a delegation of senior politicians, doctors, NGO staff and journalists were attacked during a visit to Districts in the Forest Region of Guinea whilst informing communities about Ebola. Eight were murdered. This paper seeks to understand the fear that many Guineans felt towards Ebola response initiatives and why the educators, treatment centres and burial teams regularly encountered resistance, occasionally violent. Such resistance and the distrust behind it was catastrophic not only for attackers and attacked alike, but also for the epidemic, as early in the epidemic it undermined health communication, the isolation of the ill, safe burials, contact tracing and quarantine early on, and so facilitated its spread.

Why were humanitarian workers often greeted in this way? What mistakes were being made in their community relations?  Explanations at the intersection of local and humanitarian ‘culture’ and ‘structural violence’ certainly help, but this talk seeks answers in the particular way that the disease and humanitarian response unsettled three precarious social ‘accommodations’ that had become established in the region – between the existing burial practices and hospital medicine, between local political structures and external political subjection, and between mining/conservation interests, and those whose lands they work. Ebola – as a disease and social phenomenon –  disrupted these established but precarious accommodations that had hitherto enabled radically different and massively unequal worlds to coexist.

Part of the Corpses, Burials and Infections Conference.

Mapping Contagion
20 November 2015, 11:30 – 15:30

This Digital Methods Development Workshop explored histories and futures of mapping the spread of epidemics. Drawing on the work of the Visual Plague project, the workshop interrogated mapping as a historical and contemporary practice. The workshop sought to encourage a differentiation of different mapping styles in the past, asking for traces of tropical and colonial medicine in global maps of diseases and will shed light on the medical application of digital mapping technologies like GIS. But furthermore, the workshop intended to revisit the initial assumption structuring medical geography, big data visualizations and other mappings of spatial disease models that mapping adds a substantial layer of new information to historical narratives, statistical tables and hypothetical models. The question raised throughout the workshop was, therefore, ‘why do we map diseases and what kind of knowledge is acquired through mapping of past, present and future epidemic threats that can’t be achieved otherwise?’

Plague and the City: Disease, Epidemic Control and the Urban Environment
5 December 2014 – 6 December 2014

Plague and the city conference poster

Perhaps more than any other disease, bubonic plague has been historically and epidemiologically entangled with the urban environment. Still, even after its genetic identification, its mode of transmission and persistence in the city, its evolving forms remains subject to debate across the humanities and the life sciences. More often than not, understandings of this interrelation are informed by Medieval and Early Modern plague narratives and by colonial representations of urban and housing forms in the course of the Third Plague Pandemic. This conference aimed to bring together social scientists, historians, historical geographers, urbanists and epidemiologists to discuss and disentangle the interrelation between bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) and the urban environment in both historical and contemporary contexts.

Key issues addressed during the conference consist of the following:

  • Urban and housing forms as catalysts in the transmission and persistence of plague; the problematisation of urban and housing forms as miasmatic or bacteriological sources of plague; plague-prone urban and housing forms in terms of materials, design and crowding; notions and images of plague-prone and plague-resistant urban and housing forms; colonial and postcolonial narratives and images of plague-enabling forms of habitation.
  • Practices and representations of anti-plague urban measures and policies, (e.g. quarantine, redesign, torching, demolition); the relation of anti-plague urban measures and policies to notions and images of contagion, pollution and contamination in the city; dynamics and tensions of urban and housing reforms aimed at plague containment and prevention in pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial contexts.
  • Mapping plague in the urban environment; urban planning visualisation methods and its impact on plague-mapping; uses of urban plague-mapping in historical epidemiology.

Convened by Dr des. Lukas Engelmann, Prof John Henderson and Dr Christos Lynteris

Managing project data: a workshop
30 October 2014, 13:00 – 14:00

Increasingly, research projects involve lots of people are collecting, sharing, curating and using content that needs to be stored and managed electronically. Other, newer projects are aspiring to do this.

This informal workshop and working lunch explored the issues, pitfalls, best practice and the solutions to managing data collaboratively, in any research area across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The event was hosted by Dr Tim Lewens, with contributions from members of the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project.

Hosted by Prof Tim Lewens and Dr Christos Lynteris