By Andy Pragacz

As already stated, the intention behind the H1N1 response is well-meaning. Of course benevolent intentions are no assurance of goodness; it is however an explicit attempt to modify and control social behavior. I am not saying that H1N1 has no connection to science but rather that science, once it is taken up in politics, becomes political. More than that, the meaning of science has changed in its relationship to the nation-state and the capitalist economy.

There has been a lot of speculation that disciplines and “spheres” of life (i.e. economic, religious, etc.) become more distinct through modernity, it is often claimed as the marker of modernity.

Science today, however, not only progresses understanding of the world but also does service to people (a.k.a. the nation). Science has the necessity to be useful to the nation state. This is the case for all academic disciplines-all are caught kneeling at the shire of the nation-state from time to time.

The purpose in pointing all this out is that one should not take away from this article series that science has been co-opted by political interests to keep us docile and productive. If we conclude this, then it would be appropriate to encourage science and the scientific community to become pertinent in the response to public health crisis. By pointing out that the scientific situation now, however, has been intrinsically altered through its place in the state, then we must reject the aforementioned claim. In fact, if science had it its way, we may all be in quarantine right now. It may turn out that politics safe-guards us from the hegemony of science. And again the same is true for all of the academic disciplines. We don’t want philosopher-kings any more than we want tyrants and even less than we want economists controlling the nation (even though they already do).

As already noted, H1N1 is a scare tactic used to control the way we interact in the world. Since Macalester is ostensibly an education institution, the effort here is not an explicit attempt to scare students and faculty like sensational TV reports and the like. Rather the campaign is focused on informing community members about the dangers of this illness and how to “protect” oneself against it. Many institutions are being much more militant about H1N1 so we have to give Macalester due credit in this respect. But every bottle of hand sanitizer is a political object immediately identifiable with the “crisis.”

Furthermore, the philosophy behind the Macalester response is actually part of the biopolitical project. What could be more nonthreatening than benevolent intentions surrounded in an heir of objective scientific “fact?” This is a mechanism of control insofar as it does not feel like one. Furthermore, the effort is located within a continuing discourse regarding “community,” “public health,” and “safety.” Associating the H1N1 response within this seemingly non-political sphere makes the discourse all the more powerful and effective at regulating human experience and interaction.

Building on the discussion from two weeks ago, it should be noted that because H1N1 is part of the social structure it also means that the effort to control H1N1 must prevail. Since H1N1 does not rely on evidence in order to maintain its hegemonic position there is no way to discern how effective the measures to contain it are. Think about it: if a bunch of people contract what is termed H1N1, it is the fault of a virulent flu; if not, many people get sick then the medico-health complex can congratulate itself on a job well done.

If we credit knowledge power holders with the containment of H1N1, we have effectively closed other possible narratives of the situation. In the first place by taking credit for H1N1 prevention, the fact that H1N1 is just the flu is overlooked. If the bad something was contained, then it must exist or have existed, right? Furthermore, if it was as scary as was announced, they did a hell of job! In the process of celebrating the victory of science over nature, however, we are (possibly) clueless as to how or why a potential pandemic was avoided. The credit goes to flu vaccines, disposable thermometers and obsessive hand washing. The reasons for containment of the flu are already presupposed by the effort itself.

Through the method described above, taking credit can be seen as a political mechanism to maintain the power of the system, even to increase it. By putting one’s faith in the power of the System and discursively disallowing other possible scenarios the power of the system, the same one scarring people into submission, is increased at the expense of our personal and collective intelligences. Through validating dominant knowledge producer’s responses, we are re-ensnared in the biopolitical web so the next time a bug comes around, more shots, sanitizer, and quarantining are sure to come as well. If it “works,” don’t change it!

I would like to put this into consideration: hand sanitizer is magic. If it were saline solution in those Purell containers it would be equally effective at controlling H1N1. It is not Purell that is necessarily magic then, but the idea of Purell. Purell is not only an alcohol-based hand sanitizer but also a physical manifestation of a political discourse seeking to regulate our lives. This is exactly the reason why the idea of Purell is magical: it is at the center of the political/practical response to H1N1 and as such works to remind us, constantly, to be weary of “The Threat.” Purell not only gives the comfort that one is protected, but motivates the enactment of other protective measures.

Purell is also in collusion with another unwieldy and abstract System: the capitalist system. Not only is Purell a commodity marketed by Johnson and Johnson, pioneers at making us feel inadequate (remember those acne commercials?) but its magical power has ensured the smooth functioning of capitalism throughout the H1N1 “crisis.” The act of squirting this potent goo on one’s hands works as a control mechanism and to reproduce and continue capitalism. It is a quick fix that does not disrupt our daily life and it allows us to be protected and productive (a.k.a. zombies) at the same time. With Purell literally in hand, we do not have to think about how our diet or lifestyle, for example, contribute to possible pandemic so as not to upset the established order. Furthermore, we don’t talk about need to talk about how H1N1 effects poorer populations because if they did not use Purell, it was their own damned fault. With Purell we have the power, not the virus.

Purell, the deployment/commodity/political entity, regulates the way we relate to the world. So what is the big deal? It’s just hand sanitizer after all, but it also reminds us (or at least the news anchors will) that the threat is everywhere. It tells us: don’t get too close, don’t put things in your mouth, wash your hands, that’s dirty, don’t touch that/him/her because they might be ‘unPurell’. The ideology is keeping us physically separate from one another. People are scared to shake one another’s hands. And not just old people, very young people or people with conditions that make them more susceptible to viruses, but very healthy people are worried.

This still seems very minor and it is, however, Purell and the discourse about H1N1 is only one of the many deployments controlling you at this moment. It is one piece of the biopolitical pie. And even if it wasn’t, it still regulates the way we exist in the world by repressing the possibilities of thought and expression.

Purell, the discourse surrounding H1N1 and biopolitics in general alienate individuals from themselves. There are people (knowledge-producers) who know more about you than you do about yourself. Mental and physical health experts know how your body works, what is good for you, what is bad for you, but as inhabitants of bodies we don’t. We have been divested of power to make judgments about our health through belief in the power of the health-med
ico complex. Even if you believe (as I do) that medical experts make our lives better, you cannot deny that we are alienated from ourselves through the biopolitical discourse.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at [email protected]