Epidemiology of Terror: Health, Horror, and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature

Anjuli Kolb

Epidemiology of Terror: Health, Horror, and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature
Kolb, Anjuli
Thesis Advisor(s):
Viswanathan, Gauri
Ph.D., Columbia University
English and Comparative Literature
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This dissertation is intended primarily as a contribution to postcolonial criticism and theory and the rhetorical analysis of epidemic writing as they undergo various crises and sublimations in the geopolitical landscape that has come into focus since the multilateral undertaking of the War on Terror in 2001. I begin with a set of questions about representation: when, how, and why are extra-legal, insurgent, anti-colonial, and terrorist forms of violence figured as epidemics in literature and connected discursive forms? What events in colonial history and scientific practice make such representations possible? And how do these representational patterns and their corollary modes of interpretation both reflect and transform discourse and policy? Although the figure is ubiquitous, it is far from simple. I argue that the discourse of the late colonial era is crucial to an understanding of how epidemiological science arises and converges with colonial management technologies, binding the British response to the 1857 mutiny and a growing Indian nationalism to the development of surveillance and quarantine programs to eradicate the threat of the great nineteenth century epidemic, the so-called Indian or Asiatic cholera. Through a constellation of readings of key texts in the British and French colonial and postcolonial traditions, including selected works of Bram Stoker (Dracula, "The Invisible Giant"), Albert Camus (La Peste, Chronique Algérienne) and Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses, Shalimar the Clown, Joseph Anton), I demonstrate how epidemics have played a complex representational role in relationship to violence, enabling us to imagine specific kinds of actors as absolute, powerful enemies of biological and social life, while also recoding violent political action as an organic affliction in order to efface or suppress the possibility of agency. There are two crucial aspects of this story that run throughout the histories and texts I engage with in this project. The first is that the figure of insurgent violence as epidemic has two opposing, yet interrelated faces. One looks to the promise of scientism, data collection and rational study as a means of eradicating the threat of irregular warfare. This is the function of the figure embedded in the practices and progress of epidemiology. On the other hand, the mythopoetics of infectious disease also point toward the occult and the unknowable, and code natural forces of destruction as sublime and inevitable. This is the function of the figure embedded the literary and political history of the term terror, which encompasses both natural and political events and the structures of feeling to which they give rise. The result of this duality is the persistent epistemic collapse of data-driven rational scientism and irrational sublimity in texts where epidemic and terror are at issue. The second crucial aspect of this story is that the dissolution of a colonial world system changes the shape of thinking about both epidemics and violence by displacing a binary architecture of antinomy in both public health and politics. The broadened view of epidemic since the end of the nineteenth century, in other words, has moved us away from metaphors of bellicosity to a more multi-factorial view of bacteriology and virology in temporal, geographic, and demographic space. One of the main goals of this project is to examine the relationship between these shifting epistemologies, narrative form, and imperial strategy. A connected through-line in the dissertation attempts to map what becomes of the biologistic and organicist conception of the state--which are already a matter of representation and imagination--as the very notions of biotoic life and the purview of the organism undergo no less radical redefinitions than the concept of the nation itself, providing the conceptual underpinnings for a subsequent biomorphic conception of the globe.
Medicine in literature
Postcolonialism in literature
Comparative literature
Rushdie, Salman
Stoker, Bram, 1847-1912
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Suggested Citation:
Anjuli Kolb, , Epidemiology of Terror: Health, Horror, and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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