If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation.
--Antonin Artaud, “The Theatre and the Plague” (1933)
Amid the rise of authoritarian fascism and not long out of the miasma of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Antonin Artaud notoriously analogized the bubonic plague to the theater. Like the plague, which covered its victims in red pustules, agitated their “crazed bodily fluids,” and catapulted their stomach “as if it were trying to gush out between [their] teeth,” the theater, according to Artaud, should be inflammatory, cruel, and relentless. (19) Artaud recognized in the plague and in the theater—as a social medium—forms of “total crisis” that “reforge the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature.” (27) Pandemics are not just biological phenomena, but cultural ones, that reorganize one’s affects, organs, and modes of perceiving, as well as forms of collectivity and sociality, for better and worse. This was Artaud’s media model as well.
Artaud’s moment and medium are not our own, but they provide a useful optic of estrangement for thinking the relationships between pandemic and media in the age of social distancing. Is that sore throat and shortness of breath a portentous symptom or occupational hazard of social isolation and too many Zoom conferences? Given the escalating anxiety about viral contagion, how might we critical media scholars help navigate latent dimensions of the pestilent crises at hand?
COVID-19 has provoked a tectonic shift in the signification of digital media and virality. Moral panic about the dangers of ordinary language to trivialize lethal infection has spurred “viral” think pieces, social media rhapsodies, and stone-cold public health dictums alike. Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1989) loom large in their incisive warnings against diluting disease with hyperbolic symbolism, as well as their efforts to understand the suffering body by way of the substitutive signifier. What critical approaches can we adopt to negotiate our everyday lives as well as our task as thinkers and educators? What new media genres of pandemic and quarantine are emerging and how are they being mobilized? Might they help us “reforge” the chain between what is increasingly virtual and what is materially possible, and collectively demolish obstacles more essential than stacked rolls of surplus toilet paper?
Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove, 1958).
Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978).
Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989).