Is Social Media Like the Coronavirus?

Curator's Note

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).


Thank you for this Maggie and James!  Both the humor and the intellectual seriousness are welcome at this moment. And thank you for reminding me of Sontag's work on illness and its renewed relevance. I have no immediate answers to your questions, but they are good ones and I am glad you are asking them.

Thank you Shelley! I really appreciate that. James and I have both always been fascinated by how humor can walk that line between light-hearted relief and topsy-turvy upheaval. I'm not sure which one I want humor to be able to do more right now-- when the domestic monotony of self-quarantine is the backdrop for digesting so many horrors of our current moment. Should humor be escapist or gritty, silly or dark, fancy-free or morbid? I still don't have any good any answers to these questions. But there's no doubt that the pandemic is a byproduct of permanent carnival. It's going to stir up some awful feelings that we won't know how to mediate...

Thank you for your engagement Shelley. Not unlike the toilet paper in the video, humour is both necessary and insufficient at moments of crisis, and a luxury we don't take for granted. It's hard to even know where to begin to formulate responses appropriate to our skill set, but this seemed like a good place to start. The posts lined up for this week take some really sharp approaches to these questions. Stay tuned!

I often have these thoughts of social media acting as a virus in the Baudrillardian hyperreality of digital space and its analogy to pandemics. Which whittles away at our humanity more? We shall see!

To the question -- what new media genres of pandemic and quarantine are emerging and how are they being mobilized -- I would say that I have become more aware of new collaborative panedmic-capitalism mapping projects. Obviously these existed before the Coronavirus, but it seems that in the absence of solid and well-rerpresented data more and more people are using their workplace tools and knowhow to track the virus. For instance, in Montréal, memebers of the tech community have come up with a Coronavirus Tech Handbook -- -- and launched hackathons to "hack" the virus. These will certainly lead to new networks of hackers, coders, and engineers. Who know what new projects (startups, nonprofits, new media platforms) will emerge from these networks?

Otherwise, I'm wondering whether Desktop Documentaries will have a comeback, and whether ongoing documentaries will switch over to at least a partial desktop format. Or will we see more work being done in/on virtual platforms like IMVU or virtual sports games played by AIs (see recent On The Media episode) and called by real sports commentators.

Finally, I'm concerned about infodemic across all media. Will this lead us to develop even faster tools to process and systematize information? Will we just become exhausted by the information overload (already in evidence)? Probably both.

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