How can we use sociology to understand the threat of swine flu? From a sociological perspective we could say that swine flu illustrates the problem of globalisation. For sociologists globalisation, which describes processes of interconnection between diverse peoples and places across the world, is made possible by high speed communication and transport networks. While these technologies have provided the world’s elites with great freedoms, they have also made their world feel like a far riskier place than it did before, simply because they expose them to not only local uncertainties, but also threats emanating from far off places.
Under these conditions the principle of communication, which may be seen to represent the positive side of globalisation, is transformed into the principle of contagion, which describes a form of communication which is neither positive nor voluntary, but rather suggests a mode of transmission that is threatening and dangerous to those who may become recipients of the transmitted object or organism. In our global age, there are various manifestations of threatening communication, including the transmission of toxic assets, which recently pushed the global economy to the brink, and global terrorism, which describes a form of terrorism rooted in the networks of global space.
However, the classic carrier of the concept of contagion remains the figure of the virus that today refers to both the computer virus, which threatens to cripple IT networks and bring our communicative world to a halt, and the microscopic organism, such as the AIDS, E-Bola, or Influenza virus, that menaces us through the principle of communication / contagion that is absolutely central to our global age. Although it is clear that the problem of swine flu is primarily a global one, three sources lead me to conclude that there are issues related to Mexico that can help us to understand the sociological and cultural significance of this new virus.
These three sources, which include a book on the idea of death in Mexican culture, an architectural study of criminality and immigration in the American-Mexican border region, and a Mexican movie on fear and paranoia in Mexico City, may appear completely unrelated to swine flu beyond the common ground of Mexico, but I think that each of these texts can shed light on the core sociological problematic illuminated by the virus. My second and third examples, Fernando Romero’s book 'Hyperborder' and Rodrigo Pla’s movie 'La Zona', illustrate the problem of boundaries, boundary transgression, fear, and anxiety in Mexico. These two texts are, therefore, not unrelated.
At the moment, the American-Mexican border region is a hot topic in American politics primarily because of the ways in which Mexican drug gangs have begun to spill over the border, exacerbating the problem of illegal immigration, and making the drugs problem in American worse than ever. In the context of this situation, which has seen Mexico City become one of the kidnapping capitals of the world, rich residents of Mexico’s urban leviathan hide behind the walls of fortified housing complexes. 'La Zona' tells the story of what happens when the paranoid residents of one of these gated complexes are confronted with a group of poor criminals who have infiltrated their space and decide to take the law into their own hands.
But what have these examples got to do with swine flu? The answer is that what both of these examples illustrate is the problem of paranoid social relations, the situation where communication is transformed into contagion, which is exemplified by the problem of swine flu. There is, of course, more to swine flu than paranoid social relations because what the microscopic virus attacks is the body in the infected person or organism. Although this may seem like a banal point, it is far from insignificant to the consideration of the sociology of swine flu in a global context, precisely because what processes of globalisation have produced over the last twenty or thirty years is a renewed focus on the biological body that has led to the resurgence of the sociology of the body and theories of bio-politics.
The reasons for this are not hard to understand. In the face of a completely open world, where national boundaries seem far less important, the individual is thrown back on their own container, the biological body, which becomes the interface between self and world. It is exactly this boundary that the virus threatens by infecting the closed body with microscopic foreign bodies that prevent it from functioning properly. Under these conditions it is not surprising that we become paranoid about viral infections. We struggle to maintain our self-identity because viral infection is the other side of processes of globalisation that threaten the sociological basis of our self-identity and swine flu is simply the latest manifestation of this condition.
Enter my first exemplary text: Claudio Lomnitz’s book 'Death and the Idea of Mexico'. Lomnitz tells us that death has always been key to understanding Mexican culture and that this has been the case since the Aztecs who were obsessed with death and sacrifice. From a sociological perspective, this explains why Mexico had to be the epicentre of swine flu, because what is Mexican experience of death about if it is not about the biological demise of the living body that directly parallels the psychological decline of the self under conditions of globalisation represented by the virus, and shows why viruses such as swine flu will continue to leap from animals to humans because what does this process of contagion across species illustrate but the collapse of the category of the human before a techno-medicalised world that reduces people to DNA code that can easily be manipulated in the name of post-humanity and a globalised capitalism that treats people like beasts to be exploited for profit under the sign of an economy of subhumanity?