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It Came from Outer Space: The Virus, Cultural Anxiety, and Speculative Fiction

Anne-Marie Thomas
August 2002

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This study seeks to explore and interrogate the "viral reality" of the 1990s, in which the virus, heavily indebted to representations of AIDS for its metaphorical power, emerged as a prominent agent in science and popular culture. What becomes apparent in both fictional and non-fictional texts of this era, however, is that the designation of "virus" transcends specific and material viral phenomena, making the virus itself a touchstone for modern preoccupations with self and other. As constituted by the human body's interaction with pathogenic agents, the binary of self and other may be deconstructed by an interrogation of the virus itself, a permeable and mutable body that lends itself to any number of interpretive possibilities. A uniquely liminal agent, the virus refuses categorization as either life or non-life. However, it is not the liminality of the pathogen that allows for this deconstruction, which serves to frustrate such boundaries in the first place. Rather, the notion that viruses are (always) already a part of who we are as human beings, and that "self" is not necessarily a self-enclosed autonomous entity, suggests that the binary cannot hold. A virus is unique; an insider/outsider that crosses artificial boundaries, it destabilizes the boundaries themselves, and thus the traditional framework of self and other. Examining viral accounts in popular science writings, film, television, advertisements, philosophy, science fiction, and naturalistic fiction, this study examines the ways in which science and popular culture have characterized both the virus and its psychological and material effects, and suggests that the pathogen-as-signifier may be read in ways that point to the virus's utopian potential as a theoretical category.

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