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‘Haunting Memory of Contagions’: Infectious Narratives and Crisis in Liberal Biopolitics

Ros, Andreea Catalina (2019) ‘Haunting Memory of Contagions’: Infectious Narratives and Crisis in Liberal Biopolitics. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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Interest in new and re-emerging diseases as well as a developing language of informational contagions has led to a wave of interdisciplinary analyses of contagion narratives and contagion metaphors in the fields of literary studies, cultural theory, philosophy and medical history. This thesis makes a contribution to the growing field of “contagion theory” exploring the ideological implications of narratives of contagion through a historically situated analysis of the relationship between contagion narratives and governmental efforts to manage contagious disease in the 19th and late 20th centuries. I explore contagion narratives in the work of a range of Gothic and science fiction writers writing during times of crisis and change: Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Bram Stocker, Harriet Marryat, Elizabeth Barren Brown, Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy. Through a highly interdisciplinary analysis, I put these fictional texts in conversation with contemporary political and medical representations of contagion in order to understand how historical changes in the expansion of biopolitics and, in particular, the rise of liberalism and neoliberalism have shaped contagion narratives. Given Foucault’s description of popular imaginaries of contagion (which he terms, “the haunting memory of contagions”), a side-byside exploration of the development of biopolitics and evolution of contagion narratives also makes an important intervention in theoretical debates on Foucauldian biopolitics. This thesis argues that contagion narratives help negotiate tensions between the expansion of biopolitics and (neo)liberalism’s hostility to state interventions by conceptualising acquired resistance or immunity to transmissible disease as an result of liberal individualism and rational selfgovernance and, secondly, of governmental interventions in private health as a necessary, educational corrective to lack of self-government of illiberal subjects, rather than as an extension of quarantine.

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