Con+tagion – Panels

Con + tain

Con + tenere
(together with) + (hold)

Respondent: NITIN GOVIL

Fatal Conditions: Racialized Surveillance and Pathologizing Black Activism: DANIEL GRINBERG, PhD candidate, Film and Media Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

In April and May 2015, Baltimore activists occupied the streets to protest local resident Freddie Gray’s highly suspicious death in police custody. They were also marching to oppose the epidemic of police brutality and killing of black Americans. When some protests resulted in property destruction, the city’s then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake deemed the rioters “thugs” and stated, “We won’t stand by and let our community be destroyed.” She issued a one-week citywide curfew, while Governor Larry Hogan called in over 6,000 state police officers and National Guard troops to further contain residents’ public mobility. In addition to the ground-level surveillance, the FBI was flying three planes overhead and secretly recording the predominantly black protesters. My presentation will analyze the eighteen-plus hours of footage that the FBI released under pressure as an enactment of what Simone Browne calls racialized surveillance. I will examine how this digital video archive participates in pathologizing contemporary black activism, and how its criminalizing aerial visuality frames its unwilling subjects as a threatening and contagious force. In making this argument, I will also discuss other formerly classified government documents that reveal state surveillance campaigns against black activists in the 1960s. These records disclose similarly racist logics of fear, infection, and containment, and reflect the ongoing desires to inoculate against black vitality.

Contagious Kin: Porous Bodies and Resistance in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: JUSTINE BAKKER, PhD Student, African American Religious Studies program, Rice University

This paper offers a reading of Ishmael Reed’s 1972-novel Mumbo Jumbo. Set in New Orleans in the 1920s, the novel chronicles the emergence and spread of “Jes Grew,” variously described as an ever-mutating and evolving “virus,” “anti-plague” and “text” that seeks to rewrite the history and future of Western Civilization. Jes Grew is transmitted through human bodies and radio waves of black music, creating a contagious biological-sonic landscape that infects and possesses human and technological bodies. Drawing from Hortense Spillers’s concept of the flesh (1987), Fred Moten’s notion of fugitivity (2008; 2013), and Donna Haraway’s ideas on kin (2016), I argue that Mumbo Jumbo portrays infection and contagion as the locus for new ways of being and the source of resistance. Under the force of Jes Grew, the body-as-flesh emerges not as a stable, coherent, and bounded entity, but as constantly in-flux, penetrated and penetrating. Such porosity, in turn, allows space for resistance: deemed harmful to the rational social order (i.e. whiteness), infected and possessed bodies stage performances of fugitivity and disruption that, to paraphrase Moten, move in and out of white civil society, which seeks to tame, quell or contain them.

“Deputies said they did not find any K2, but three people were arrested on unrelated charges”: Eventfulness, Contagion, and Abandonment around Brooklyn’s Zombie Outbreak: PATRICK BRODIE, PhD student, Film and Moving Image Studies, Concordia University, Montreal

On Tuesday, July 12th, 2016, reports of a “zombie outbreak” at a busy intersection in Brooklyn surfaced in the news and social media. Synthetic marijuana (K2) users populating the strip underneath and just beside the elevated JMZ line where it diverges at Myrtle-Broadway, in the fuzzy jurisdictional zone between the gentrifying neighborhoods of Bushwick and Bedstuy, passed out, wandered aimlessly, paused for minutes at a time in the middle of the intersection, and went into violent seizures and apparent paralysis on the ground. While sensationalized in the New York and national news media, these scenes were chronic and endemic around the intersection, well known at the time for illegal K2 distribution from both shops and individual sellers on the sidewalks. In the increased police presence to contain the so-called epidemic and stop its spread, it is up for debate as to who this securitization actually benefits. Thinking about the spatial dynamics of exception, contagion, and violence through Roberto Esposito’s immunization paradigm and Elizabeth Povinelli’s idea of the “ordinary, chronic, and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden, and sublime” (2011, 3) suffering of social abandonment, this paper will investigate “eventfulness” and the social and spatial implications of discourses of infection, quarantine, and crisis management in the mediated public sphere.

Con + tract

Con + trahere
(together with) + (draw)

Respondent: HOLLY WILLIS

“I want my scar”: Self-Experimentation, Pharmaceuticals and Passing in “Weed Killer” and Testo Junkie: ELI DUNN, PhD Student, Media Studies + Queer Theory, University of Southern California

In Testo Junkie Paul Preciado claims that “philosophy that does not use the body as an active platform of technovital transformation is spinning in neutral” (358). Preciado calls for active self experimentation by pharmacological, textual, and cultural means. Patrick Staff’s “Weed Killer” answers Preciado’s call for experimentation on and with the body, juxtaposing the bodies of the cancer patient and the transgender performer to call into question the rifts between treatment and poison, sickness and wellness, natural and unnatural. Both “Weed Killer” and Testo Junkie commit to this experimentation in the form of their works, embracing the scars or ruptures that occur when form is made to resist easy categorization, or with an explicit attempt not to pass. In doing so, and in experimenting with their own trans bodies through the texts, both works commit to de-naturalizing gender, and serve as a blueprint for understanding our own pharmacologically mediated bodies – for moving into a future that performs gender as a biotechnical and artistic multiplicity rather than a set of prescriptions.

Poor form: contagion, image, and the dialectics of emptiness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure: EMMA BEN AYOUN, PhD student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) is, at least on its surface, a criminal-medical thriller about a series of random, violent murders, each instigated by the eerie mind-control abilities of a young psychology student, Mamiya, who seems to infect everyone who crosses his path. In Cure, bodies—and in particular pathologized, sick, unstable bodies—are vectors and vessels: they become the sites around which other objects are endlessly repositioned, the carriers of a psychical force much larger than themselves. I am interested, in this presentation, in considering contagion as a spatial and formal phenomenon in Cure as a way of gesturing towards larger questions about cinematic representation, the circulation of meaning, and the porosity and mutability of the cinematic screen. The empty center – that is, the space, whether bodily, auditory, or geographical, that contains nothing but the looming possibility of intrusion and transmission – becomes the visual and narrative motif that holds the film together. In prioritizing the unseen, the excavated, and the illegible, I argue here, Cure suggests that the mechanisms of contagion are uncannily close to those of the cinematic image, made legible only in and through the body. Kurosawa’s film holds us at a perpetual distance, breathlessly daring us – like the taunting, elusive Mamiya himself – to come just a little closer.

“We Err in Flattering Ourselves” The “Social” as Imitative Contagion in Gabriel Tarde: TRISTAN BEACH, PhD student, Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University 

Gabriel Tarde’s concept of the social as constituted by “contagious imitation” [an interpsychic “proximity of sentiments”] was dismissed as “spiritualist” by his “modern” findesiècle contemporaries, who were fighting to demarcate academic disciplines as well as science from “unscience”. Tarde spent a century in obscurity until scholars like Bruno Latour began trying to make Tarde’s “social” legible and palatable to a scientistic academe. In so doing, though, these scholars unmoor it from the entwined histories of fin-de-siècle spiritualism, psychology, physics, and media. I highlight these repudiated spiritualistic influences by symptomatically reading Laws of Imitation [1903] and drawing a novel connection to Tarde’s paranoid-schizophrenic contemporary Daniel Paul Schreber, who uses nearly identical spiritualistic/scientific concepts in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness [1903]. Schreber, then, becomes a “mad” foil to Tarde. I reflexively address “madness” as that which is excluded by the discourse of reason [Foucault] and argue—as Tarde did—against fancying ourselves as any “less credulous and docile, less imitative than our ancestors” and against repudiating the “mad” or unscientific “origins” of sublime entities, e.g. “science”, “the social”, “technology”, “innovation”. This undermines their taken-for-grantedness and does justice to Tarde’s radically interdisciplinary and novel concept of the social as produced by contagious imitation.

Con vulse

Con + vellere
(together with) + (pull)

Respondent: ANIKÓ IMRE

Contagious Islamophobia: Refugees and the War on Terror: MAGDALENA YUKSEL, PhD candidate, Cinema Studies, University of Toronto

Following Sarah Ahmed’s concept of affective economies and Tony D. Sampson’s notion of virality, which looks at contagion from the perspective of network analysis, this paper is interested in the formation of fear economies/networks in relation to Muslim refugees and the War on Terror. Ahmed’s analysis places affects within economy(ies), in which she distinguishes fear and hate as most visible to the logic of terrorist/refugee figures (and ultimately, any subject that might temporarily be attached to affect of hate). Whereas she likens war to the dialectic of those responsible for and ‘affected’ by it in the Western countries (through ‘experiencing’ war on their own soil; this pertains predominantly to the War on Terror), Tony D. Sampson’s Virality looks at how affective transfer works in parallel to contagion, suggesting that this transfer is always social. To contextualize the functioning of these theories in the context of spreading fear, this paper will analyze two different portrayals of Muslim refugees in the media: Refugee Dilemma made by Polygooi Productions in December 2015, which discusses Pegida’s rise in Germany in the advent of refugee influx, and Polish Facebook page “Nie dla Islamizacji Europy” (“No to Islamization of Europe”), which has over 330,000 “likes,” sharing and disseminating videos and news about Muslims in Europe.

Mutating Memories, Manufacturing Nationalisms: The Case of Hungary’s Anti-Migrant Referendum Campaign: ESZTER ZIMANYI, PhD student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

In 2016, Hungary launched an extensive anti-migrant campaign in its national media to encourage citizens to vote against EU refugee resettlement quotas in a non-binding referendum vote. In this paper, I trace how Hungary’s campaign relied on a mutation of the United States’ war on terror discourse, explicitly tying Europe’s refugee crisis not only to the threat of terrorism but also to foreign occupation of Hungary and the loss of national sovereignty. The Hungarian government invoked multiple, often traumatic, events in Hungary’s history to reframe Hungarians as simultaneously the real victims and heroes of the refugee crisis, and to rally public support for increasingly authoritarian laws that serve to consolidate the current ruling party’s domestic power. In this paper, I use Hungary’s anti-migrant referendum campaign to show how a transnational web of significations was strategically utilized to construct nationalistic collective memories in Hungary in service of far-right populism. In addition, I examine the centrality of digital and physical public spaces as sites of contagion for both creating and contesting the government’s brand of nationalism by analyzing the referendum in relation to two prominent protests organized by Hungarians against it. In doing so, I aim to show how Hungary offers an important case study through which we can better understand how right-wing populist nationalism is in fact manufactured and resisted through various transnational collaborations.

Contagious Imperial Infrastructures and Ecocide in Mexico and Palestine: MICHAEL ANTHONY TURCIOS, PhD student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

This comparative study argues that borders are “contagious imperial infrastructures” responsible for the ecocide of biodiversity along the United States-Mexico and Palestinian borderlands. The US-Israel partnership for border securitization through the firm Elbit Systems substantiates the connection of ecocide in Mexico and Palestine. I conceive “contagious imperial infrastructures” as the razing of natural landscapes and the uprooting of plants to erect barriers as part of US-Israel expansionism and occupation. Vegetation like nopales (cacti) and olive trees is the focus of this study, although other living organisms are referenced where appropriate. Nopales are a Mexican national symbol and are emblematic of Mexican culture and history. Olive trees, in the Palestinian context, are rooted in traditions of peace, unity, and resistance. Borders prevent both plants from branching out and restrict migration flows of biodiversity, thus containing and contaminating nature. Therefore, contagious imperial infrastructures disrupt and eradicate ecosystem along the borderlands. This paper studies the films Budrus (2009), The People and the Olive (2012) and Maquilapolis (2006)—the former two focusing on Palestine and the latter on Mexico—all of which explore social death, ecocide, and imperialism. This paper is concerned with the following queries: the erasure of cultural and historical significance of nopales and olive trees through ecocide; the role documentary films play in visualizing ecocide and imperialism in the context of Mexico and Palestine; the reengineering of ecosystems through contagious imperial infrastructures; and making the case for using Mexico and Palestine as visual examples for addressing global ecocide and confronting imperialism.

Necropolitics and the Sovereign in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015): SOPHIA WAGNER-SERRANO, PhD candidate, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

A complex and well-executed action/drama feature from a team of experienced filmmakers, Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015), can be positioned as a highly paradoxical film in that its stylization is able to mask and/or subdue the corrosive politics it proliferates in relation to torture, international law, violence against women, and the precision of roaming global war tactics run by sovereign bodies. When reading the film through the sicario figure and utilizing Giorgio Agamben’s work on the homo sacer, the assassin or individual above the law, also the wolf-man or were-wolf, in this case Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), one can delineate how Agamben’s historically informed notion of sovereignty and theory of zones of indistinction crystallize on the screen. Additionally, the film demonstrates a preoccupation with the aesthetics of violence that neglects any historical consideration of racial exploitation along the border and masks issues of gender by placing Kate in charge of the gaze, optioning a passive subjectivity as a safety net for any transgressive politics it may carry. This paper analyzes this film alongside other mainstream Hollywood depictions of the “Drug War” in Mexico, questioning the conflict between the bleak and senseless reality these representations seek to critique, and the mesmerizing aesthetic and aural experience it choreographs and provides. These stylized narratives evade any historical or “accurate” depiction of the military conflict, disconnecting the film from the specific regional violence, issues of femicide, and eliminating Mexican cultural specificity altogether.

Con + tinue

Con + tenere
(together with) + (hold)

Respondent: LAN DUONG

Becoming the Virus: Kia LaBeija’s Art that Infects: LAURA STAMM, PhD Student, Film Studies, University of Pittsburgh

Like dreams traversing the conscious and the unconscious, the parasite is opportunistic, searching for holes, openings. Politically speaking, to become the virus is to become the agent—the agency for change. – Simon Leung (1991)

I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. – Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1993)

During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, queer artists and activists were confronted with the question of how to redefine and implement queer politics. As the pandemic progressed, artists like Gonzalez-Torres began to use the virus itself as a way to talk about queer politics that infect public spaces, infiltrate mainstream systems of representation, and penetrate ideological barriers. I return to this rhetorical phenomenon to assert that the AIDS crisis politics of the 1980s and 1990s not only chart an important queer history, but they also have something to teach us now. I look back to these texts to understand what we can learn from them in order to build a better present and future. I use Kia LaBeija’s photographic and video work as a contemporary case study to explore the way in which her art invades gallery spaces and infects through her transmedia YouTube and music video presence. Her work and her politics remind viewers that the AIDS crisis is not over, that the virus is still very much with us.

Vampiric Temporality and Ambivalence in Nosferatu and Vampyr: JOSHUA FOLEY, MA student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

The vampire is frequently considered a border crossing agent, dissolving the line between self and other. Additionally, in Murnau’s Nosferatu, Count Orlok has been read as infecting the bourgeois class with agrarian-aristocratic values. In this presentation, I propose a third way in which the modern vampire character poses a contagious challenge to modernity. As a representation of prior conceptions of time, particularly Henri Bergson’s conception of time as a duration or durée, the vampire’s threat to modernity is a temporal one. Filled with innovative apparatuses that seek to standardize and rationalize life, modernity’s temporal “other” is a character whose life is not lived according to a regulating clock, but instead by the rhythms of life as felt by the body. I argue for a notion of vampiric-temporality, a conjoining of changing representations and understandings of time in modernity with the invention of the vampire character. Cast on cinema screens, the vampire in Nosferatu and Vampyr is a contained monster, set up and engineered by modernity itself, to both safely repulse and attract viewers and to prove that the rationalizing and ordering of life in the present is superior to the past’s irrationality.

The Contagious Reincarnation: Time, Trauma, and Self-Exoticism in the Cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: WENTAO MA, MA candidate, Film and Media Studies, Columbia University

When Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, many international critics have acclaimed its modernist cinematic vocabulary coupled with what they perceived to be “Thai exoticism” in character depiction, local custom, and environment. Focus on exoticism in Weerasethakul’s cinema has been a familiar refrain in international critical reception of his films, from his second feature Blissfully Yours (2002) to the latest Cemetery of Splendor (2015). Generally speaking, the interplay of time, memory and trauma in global modernity has been a recurring theme with a threshold of contagious disease or malady in the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The diegesis of contagion in his cinema has triggered a more profound retrospect of memory, trauma and the material world. Through the mnemonic themes and contents, his films explore the way that the issue of life and death is strongly linked to questions about the constancy of human memory and the complexities of the relationship between Buddhist-shamanist spirituality in Thailand and its identity formation in a more shifting global modernity. In this paper, I would argue that the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul has profoundly developed the theme of reincarnation with a constellation of “Oedipus paradox” within its time-travel narrative and the medium of photography as a “pharmakon” of the perpetrator trauma, motivated by the diegesis of contagion. These “voodoo mechanics” of narrative and technology has also “self-eroticized” Weerasethakul’s cinema to deal with the antagonist mutuality between the national censorship and the participation of international film festival, as an “imaginary resolution” to “real contradiction.”

Con + tact

Con + tangere
(together with) + (touch)


Slime Time Alive: Sensational Ooze and Sensation Zombies: MELINDA STANG, MA student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California

Enterprising children and young adults are becoming viral sensations by posting videos of their slimy concoctions on social media. Stores cannot keep slime ingredients in stock and parents are digitally debating over how to moderate slime play. There is a contagious, almost paranoid obsession with slime, but why? Slime is a baseline vehicle for another, much larger phenomenon: ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). Individuals drawn to ASMR media content are seeking a tingling sensation on the back of the head or down the spine when exposed to certain stimuli. Slime is perfect for making ASMR triggers because it yields the most affectively potent popping sounds and tingly tactile images. These videos, above all, are pacifiers for emotional and intellectual processes; they become social objects for self-inoculation against stress, sleep deprivation, and anxiety. While building my own viral slime channel, I developed a data collection process to measure this self-policed, online participatory culture. In doing so, I have constructed, and will discuss, a working understanding of how these videos filter human/material interactions and carry social, historical significance.

Keeping Score: Time and Body Counts through Film Sound in It Follows (2014): AMY SKJERSETH, PhD Student, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

In the 2014 thriller It Follows (David Robert Mitchell), 19-year-old heroine Jay contracts a supernatural spirit that stalks a chain of “bedded” victims to their deaths. Where in 1980s slasher films premarital sex is punishable by death, critics of It Follows consider the monster as an STD that likewise punishes sex. Yet the film’s musical portrayal of “it” departs from slasher film conventions, as synthesized repetitive rhythms and metric modulations withhold expected stinger chords and jump scares. Furthermore, the monster’s authorial presence controls the direction of the camera’s gaze with creeping pans of the mise-en-scène, prolonging the audience’s exposure to “it” even before the characters are aware of it. The score, camera movement, and Jay’s flight throughout Detroit construct the monster’s presence as a tactile, vibratory force that deploys sounds in specific spatio-temporal contexts. As I will trace, if spectators attend to sonic timbres and textures with a heightened listening mode of haptic audio-visuality, the film’s slow-burning audio-visual phenomena reveal vibrations of non-human entities that remain illegible if perceived only through sight. Ultimately, haptic audio-visuality amplifies the polyvalent presence of the monster and insists on relational lived experience, allowing spectators to perceive the disparate forces that also inhabit their world.

Modular Geometric Organism: The Amoebic Movement in K-Pop Music Video: JEREMY HSU-CHANG LING, Graduate Student, Graduate Institute for Studies in Visual Cultures, National Yang-Ming University, Taipei 

In this article I consider K-Pop Music Video a newly contagious amoeba to explore how K-Pop music video moves us and how its amoebic body moves in and out of the screen. Using research drawn from Posthumanism, I argue that technics opens up the border of human body through programmability, promoting the cyborgian assemblage that suggests the mobility of technics and the materiality of human bodies. In particular, I focus on the choreography of K-Pop, which is a modular geometric organism that consists of human prosthesis and shares the same quality of the amoebic movement, in order to suggest that this contagious media is able to extend its pseudopods to engulf viewers by listening, watching, and touching the video. Due to the perception that enables the viewers to immerse in K-Pop music video, the amoebic movement ingest the preys more easily and reshapes the relationship between the viewers and the videos be seen; a new organism and intimacy has been created in this digital circulation.