Philipp Sarasin’s »Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus« revisited

2004 — »Why this passion to lose our sense of proportion so quickly?«

Philipp Sarasin’s »Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus« revisited

By Insa Härtel

–> DE

Philipp Sarasins »Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus«


Philipp Sarasin recently published a text on the coronavirus entitled »Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault?« in which he ponders the question whether and how Foucault’s concepts can be applied to interpret the current situation. However, the essay introduced here, »Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus« (Foreign Bodies / Infections: Anthrax as Media Virus), takes the discussion further, in my opinion, expanding into Lacanian psychoanalysis, as these pertinent deliberations on enjoyment address an otherwise often neglected aspect. Isn’t there much talk today about fear, uncertainty, or loneliness, even though there has been a shimmer of potential jouissance, for example, in »too much« excessive-excited »panic buying«?

But let’s go back to the beginning: Sarasin’s text departs from the intersections or transitions of reality and fiction, or how they appear in writing time and again. Concretely, it deals with the topic of the equally so real and fatal as imaginary effects of letters containing anthrax spores, which circulated in 2001. The author specifically refers to the far from harmless phantasm that accompanies the idea of a foreign body; and it is precisely this approach, in my eyes, that makes this text—despite the different situation—worth a read in the context of the current pandemic. Of course, the constellations vary significantly. In the epilogue of his book Anthrax: Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy, published in 2006, Sarasin himself describes such a difference with the (quickly contained) emergence of monkeypox in 2003 in the USA: It was »reasonable to fear it, yet no panic was forthcoming«; and not just because health authorities—unlike today—»proved that they can bring a local outbreak of a pathogenic virus under control relatively quickly«, but also—in comparison to the anthrax letters—due to the absence of a terrorist background. With certain animals, which »presented a completely different picture from infected immigrants or bioterrorists«, there could be deaths »without anyone ever wanting it«.

Even though it once again appears to be more about animals than about terrorists in the present situation, I would maintain: where Sarasin’s anthrax analysis goes into the diffuse transitions between metaphor and reality, it can help elucidate the phantasmatic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the essay discussed here, this already begins with the »primitive combat metaphors« in immunological science—not always revealing to be metaphors—that he refers to in connection with Ludwik Fleck, and continues with the imaginary effects of signifiers circulating in media systems, which turn the »microbe« also into a media virus and function as a »pathogen of reality«. And the events are not all so different relating to the proliferating fears of threat, partly detaching from the concrete subject matter. Sarasin drafts a terrifying history of infection narratives, which in the end potentially identifies the (allegedly) infected ill with the »pathogen« itself, where the objective is a »cleansing«—up to the point of the »disinfection showers« for Jews in Auschwitz. This ultimately invokes fatal phantasmatic assumptions of the contagious »foreign intruder« with the racist result of perceiving »foreigners« as a deadly because infectious danger.

The term has come up several times now—but what is a phantasm? Here I will expand a bit beyond Sarasin’s text: With Lacan, we can conceive it as a shield that protects us from a traumatic real. Phantasy schemes translate the ungraspable, the enigmatic into a space of fulfillment, and imbue it with a mythical shape. Yet, a phantasm, »as bliss, as a dream of an unimpeded state«, said Žižek in RISS magazine in 1995, is countered with a phantasm in the sense of the rejected flipside of this harmonious »unspoilt« community—meaning that which cannot be integrated within. As the »perfect world« is inherently impossible, the rejected ungraspable »disruption« is thus embodied in besetting images of conspiratorial, infectious, or also enviable enjoying »others«. Which, in turn, results in combating precisely these embodiments or representatives of harm.

In his context, Sarasin addresses a perverse jouissance in defeating the imagined monstrous other—in the case of »anthrax«, the »Arabian terrorist«—like a microbe. But isn’t there, especially in networked societies, also a shocking delight to »play with the idea of a global infection«, as he asks in his text, an enjoyment of infection, which actually (and likely not just capital-oriented) has already taken place? To further expand upon Sarasin’s suggestions: This would mean that the danger of infection is, for example, also about phantasms involving the dissolution of boundaries.  These, on the one hand, manifest in an urge for boundaries or demarcation, a strive for »purity« and for containment  of the boundless danger that imaginarily comes from without, or rather: the danger of boundlessness. Now, albeit in a different form, one can no doubt recognize imaginations—and racist variants—of a danger invading from elsewhere in the frequent coronavirus allegations these days; not only against travellers from abroad, but indeed also in the sense of a »foreign element that has invaded us« (as Gustavo Dessal writes in connection with neo-fascists in Spain).

On the other hand, this would imply, at the same time, a longing for the dissolution or blurring of borders, for an »encroaching« lust. This might be best illustrated, for example, with the—presently once again dangerous—act of kissing, which has already preoccupied me for a while now as an action that sexually transcends bodily limits. For, as we can read in Alexandre Lacroix’ Contribution à la théorie du baiser (2011): a kiss represents an »invasion«, the borders of »identity« become apparently tangible as permeable or perforated. »I no longer have everything under control: I am being attacked, we are two by two in my mouth.« Or, as an eight-year-old girl says (quoted by Adam Phillips): during kissing, mouths »get muddled up«.

In phantasmatic terms, the current impulses to draw physical and geographical borders (like, for example, here in Northern Germany, where trespassing from Hamburg to Schleswig-Holstein has been up for discussion) always circle around something we just don’t want to know anything about: namely an implicit lust to cross boundaries, the flipside of the declared objectives. And if »others« seem to be already disposing of the enjoyment, which one must refrain from, they must be combatted, denounced. Whereby secretly, there is a certain passion at work for what one discredits—as Freud already described in his Totem and Taboo (1912–13a) as an ambivalence, for example, in the ban on touching. In his account, what stands for a protection against the forbidden action also implies its repetition— be it now in the dynamics of extending the danger zones, the endless preoccupation with the threat, or of toilet paper related to the not only »anxious work on securing the fundamental difference (toward feces)«. Departing from this brief digression, it may be stated: When Sarasin postulates that the phantasm conceals an enjoyment that is not directly accessible, it is, in my eyes, especially the questions and chains of thought it raises which make this text—while conceived for a different context—so valuable to read today.

Philipp Sarasins »Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus«

Philipp Sarasin: Fremdkörper/Infektionen: Anthrax als Medienvirus. In: Ruth Mayer und Brigitte Weingart (Hg.): Virus! Mutationen einer Metapher, Bielefeld 2004, 131–148.