I’ve probably read more about the Ebola outbreak in the past five days than is healthy, but the social and political response has got me thinking a lot about quarantine. I’m reminded of a chapter in One Hundred Years of Solitude where everyone in the town catches a plague of insomnia and then amnesia, forgetting the words of their language (so they just make up new ones). How quickly, it seems, that the arrival of a distant disease will make people forget about everything else.
Also, I just re-read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism,” which I suggest reading in its entirety. Ebola is pretty scary, but wide-scale quarantine—which can not be instituted without omnipotent surveillance and control—might just be scarier. From the aforementioned work:
The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.
Thus the peripheral ramifications of Ebola, or of any disease, are just as (if not more) terrifying than the symptoms themselves—even though one of the symptoms in this case is death. The disease as concept, or, namely, the realization of our inability to contain it, let alone fully understand it, is as anathema to the average person as philosophical determinism: a complete lack of control over circumstances. This prospect is truly horrifying to most people. The result of combating this horror is that you either get a breakdown of civility (and I mean that literally, from the Latin civitas: life in the city) or its truest form: a society segmented, gridded, surveilled, and sterilized.
My fear is that before this Cartesian utopia/dystopia can be carried out, either through vigilantism or through martial law (which is really the same thing), the specter of Ebola—or of disease itself: the fear of contamination in general—might push people and/or governments to drastic ends, and people’s response to anything is usually worse than the thing itself. I think the hysteria will get much worse before it subsides, and will probably be the justification for (further) stratification, compartmentalization, and xenophobia—it not outright violence—here in the US. Just wait until a Mexican contracts the disease. Google “Alex Jones ebola” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
In the meantime, we’re running out of water, but for some reason that’s not as terrifying to people.