How Do We See COVID-19? Visual Iconographies of Racial Contagion

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Duke University Press

Contagion media have historically performed the dual functions of scientific and ideological persuasion, often deploying an iconography of racial contagion that combines these two functions. In efforts to halt the spread of the virus, health, science, and media organizations create visual imagery to teach the public to imagine we can see and therefore avoid contaminants that are invisible to the naked eye. Comparison of COVID-19 with other global disease outbreaks shows how a core set of contagion media visualizations are repeatedly deployed with subtle adaptations for unique diseases and display interfaces. The variations among different corpora of contagion media point to the interplay among persistent, transhistorical tropes, particular sites of meaning production, and novel technical affordances. This article will examine a subset of these representational techniques, including microscopic images of the virus, close-ups of disease vectors, global and local maps of contagion, health workers in biohazard suits, and visibly ill patients. The essay argues that techniques for visualizing the invisible produce a narrative logic of causality in COVID-19 that reinforces racist and xenophobic discourses of containment and control with direct and deadly consequences. Mitigation of this pandemic and future pandemics will require not only medical but also representational interventions.

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Ostherr, Kirsten. "How Do We See COVID-19? Visual Iconographies of Racial Contagion." American Literature, 92, no. 4 (2020) Duke University Press: 707-722.

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