Fall/Winter 2003

The Clean Room / SARS Poetica

Illness, fashion, and the branding of epidemics

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

During the first week of April 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq and the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong and Toronto unleashed a worldwide sense of dread, I was temporarily distracted by the concurrent arrival of my two favorite semi-annual merchandise catalogues in the mail. At first glance, the two catalogues could not have been more different. The first, for Abercrombie & Fitch, markets expensive clothes to prep school wannabes, suburban jocks, and repressed homosexuals everywhere. The other, for 3B Scientific Products, markets expensive anatomical models to physicians and medical school professors. Both catalogues seemed to function, to some degree, as manifestos for a certain kind of desirable body normalized in contemporary science: paired together, one could match models with flawless skin and enviable musculature from one catalogue to their skeletal scaffolding in the other. Furthermore, the catalogues also seemed to echo many of the stylistic and rhetorical tropes normalized in contemporary art. In A&F, buff white boys and skinny white girls cavort in summery gear or sleep naked in rowboats under tropical palms, looking like the photographic subjects of Collier Schorr but suffering from less visible ennui. In 3B, enormous painted skeletons with removable internal viscera compete for attention with sculptures of the human heart and inner ear that make Damien Hirst’s kitsch anatomical monuments seem hopelessly derivative. It is no wonder that the summer 2003 issue of A&F featured a series of observations by philosopher Slavoj Zizek; bite-sized distillations of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory wedged between distressed T-shirts and batik-print swim trunks.

The aesthetic comparisons between the two catalogues end abruptly upon reaching the back of 3B, from where emerges a discrete novelty section of “fun products” for purchase: lumbar-shaped coffee mugs, femur-shaped penholders, and baseball caps jauntily imprinted with human cerebella. One imagines a lonely crew of advanced medical students bonding on a snowy December evening in a hospital staff lounge and exchanging 3B products as holiday gifts. Perhaps one starry-eyed resident—looking to impress a junior epidemiologist with whom he shares ham and cheese sandwiches from the same vending machine between sleepless shifts—will present his friend with a handsome Italian silk necktie covered with images of the anthrax virus. This, too, can be ordered from Infectious Awareables, a company featured on the 3B Fun Products page that offers consumers neckties decorated with the viral icon of their choice, including Ebola, herpes, syphilis, influenza, gonorrhea, and bubonic plague. With its shimmering silver and crimson pattern, tastefully intermingled with the overlapping black circles of the biohazard shield, the anthrax necktie invites its wearers not merely to make a sartorial intervention but also, as the Infectious Awareables company maintains, to use the necktie “as a tool for conversation and prevention.”

Admittedly, 3B Scientific Products and Infectious Awareables do not suffer from any delusions of grandeur, believing that one can truly make a silk tie out of an epidemiological crisis. Their products are, after all, intended only as “tools” to provoke heightened consciousness, not serve as substitutes for sustained laboratory research or educational campaigns. But the appearance of such products conjures more than a nerdy subculture that takes pride in making fashion statements associated with its profession, and essentially is no more confounding than a phalanx of programmers in Carhartt jackets and retro Puma sneakers. The Infectious Awareables ties can thus be construed as evidence of how public health campaigns and scientific research protocols have appropriated the concept of branding, advertising’s most sophisticated weapon of marketing allegiance. A necktie emblazoned with images of infectious disease confers onto the health professional wearing it a particular brand identity, no more or less semiotically active than a pair of Pumas or, for that matter, a faux-nostalgia t-shirt from the A&F catalogue. In the heroic culture of biomedical research where Harold Varmus trumps David Beckham, branding is perhaps the only way for scientists to be competitive in a media-oriented world in which they scramble for public attention, federal funding, and the holy grail of corporate sponsorship.

Decorating neckties with images of infectious diseases may seem like an inevitable consequence of capitalism gone awry. But there is nothing especially new about branding a product with a corporate or governmental logo, even if remarketing an image back to the source from which it was originally appropriated is one of the things that capitalism does best. For over 2,000 years, the Roman critic Horace’s Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) has often been regarded as a manifesto for the ideological marriage of form and content. Written around 20 BCE in the form of a letter to the Piso family, Horace declared, “My aim shall be a poem so molded of common materials that all the world may hope as much for itself, may toil hard, and yet toil in vain if it attempts as much: such is the potency of order and arrangement, with such dignity may things of common life be clothed.”[1] For Horace, good poetry was constructed of “common materials” and emphasized “common life,” but it was also an aesthetic object that disguised and, in effect, normalized artifice as seamless and utterly natural. Anything more pretentious than “common life” might be titillating as satire or fantasy but did not constitute the all-important category of the good, either socially or aesthetically.

ScotTissue advertisement from 1945. Courtesy Urshula Barbour.

For all of his influence, however, what Horace would not have been able to account for is how, in the 20th century, branding has absorbed and naturalized satire and irony as mechanisms for manifesting the category of the social good. Initially, Infectious Awareables’ choice to put anthrax in the same line as Ebola seemed, to my mind, a fallacious one, especially since an effective vaccine against anthrax has already been developed and successfully deployed throughout the United States and around the world. But unlike early didactic campaigns for public health crises such as tuberculosis, polio, or AIDS, which assumed that an audience lacked credible information for prevention or diagnosis, branding anthrax is a self-reflexive strategy that assumes the existence of a media-savvy and information-saturated audience that can only be described as post-didactic. In an era weighed down by threats of incipient bioterrorism, an anthrax-coated tie seems like the perfect solution for promoting a reactionary agenda (“Be afraid”) while also commenting archly (“Yeah, like, I’m so afraid”) on the terms with which that agenda is promoted in the first place. Like a self-mocking Britney Spears caressing a condensation-beaded can of Pepsi, the anthrax necktie is the semiotic confirmation of a product’s cultural significance so seamless that it could be a manifesto, owner’s manual, and witty critique of its own power all at the same time.

Since its appearance in November 2002, the virus responsible for the respiratory condition known as SARS has been a triumph of name-brand marketing, from its first description among a few isolated individuals in Guangdong Province in China to the more than 1,400 new cases a week reported internationally at the peak of the epidemic in early May 2003. Long before the SARS coronavirus (so named because of its intimidating crown-like halo of viral receptors) had been properly identified as the cause of infection, the early arrival of the four-letter acronym SARS (intended to resonate both epidemiologically and socially with AIDS and its distant viral relation, HIV) confirmed the power of a hypermediated culture to transform a respiratory syndrome into a polished sound-bite whose public dimension made it fall just short of being trademarked.

Early visual images of SARS circulating in the mass media—sick or dying individuals and, later, images of eviscerated civet cats (a regional delicacy sold in many Chinese marketplaces) who were identified as vectors of infection—were meant, like Infectious Awareables’ anthrax necktie, as tools “for conversation and prevention.” Quickly, however, the branding of SARS demanded a new set of images that would help distinguish (and, arguably, elevate the status of) the illness from other public health crises. By the beginning of 2003, the iconography of SARS was concretized around images of absence of illness rather than its presence. These absences were broken down into two types that quickly became metonyms for the SARS crisis: crowded urban cityscapes filled with bobbing, anonymous heads wrapped in impenetrable white surgical masks; and haunting, empty commercial spaces such as airports, hotel lobbies, and convention centers.

The emergence of these two distinct categories of images in the visual culture of SARS suggested an effort to avoid direct confrontation with the illness. But as with all aesthetic manipulations of negative space, what the absence of actual humans suffering from SARS revealed was the presence of other forces at work. Some tracked the absence of traditional images of infection to the Chinese government’s unwise decision to conceal information about the SARS epidemic, which enabled the virus to spread around the world under a surgical mask of silence. In May 2003, the World Health Organization openly criticized public health authorities in Guangdong for its inappropriate dissembling over SARS, which apparently included hiding patients in hospitals, ambulances and otherwise out of public view.[2] But the absence of images that were supposed to stand in for SARS instead revealed how deeply intertwined the containment of infectious disease was with the inner logic of contemporary culture. When virologist Malik Peiris’s research team at the University of Hong Kong became the first to isolate and identify the coronavirus that causes SARS in March 2003, scientists around the world seemed to resent his success as they jockeyed for position. “We don’t care about press releases, we care about publications,” said Christian Drosten of the Bernard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, seeing the SARS crisis as an opportunity for international recognition and career advancement.[3]

Chinese postage stamps, issued 19 May 2003.

Meanwhile, photographers documenting the SARS crisis emphasized the eerily vacant interiors of airports and hotel lobbies in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Toronto, critical nodes of global traffic and commerce. As images of empty restaurants and convention centers multiplied, economists and policy makers bemoaned the billions of business and tourist dollars lost as fear of SARS-related economic woe spread almost as rapidly as the virus itself. Commercial venues, in other words, were implicitly identified as the tragic victims of SARS, far and above those infected or dead as a result of the global traffic that spread the virus in the first place. In the summer of 2003, Hong Kong International Airport initiated a campaign featuring an immaculately scrubbed Asian businessman to communicate that the SARS crisis was over. By promising to businesspeople and potential investors that “half the world’s population is within 5 hours’ flying time,” we see how neither war, nor virus, nor gloom of economic depression can stay these couriers of capital from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

The attempt to naturalize the race among scientists and the loss of business dollars as the core struggle between man and virus might help to explain why visual images of SARS became so easily exploited by popular culture in the United States and around the world. The widely-circulated Internet image, for example, of a Hong Kong woman wearing a surgical mask imprinted with a knock-off Louis Vuitton logo was a beautiful example of name branding’s potential to achieve vertical integration. Other images, such as a Lower East Side band’s decision to use the ubiquitous image of an elegantly dressed Taiwanese bride and groom wearing white surgical masks as an appealing graphic for a forthcoming performance, or artist William Bozarth’s notorious “SARS Wars” image of Darth Vader wearing a one mask over another, showed how for some the SARS crisis was nothing more than raw material waiting to be recontextualized by hip thirtysomethings for T-shirts and screen savers. Indeed, the Brooklyn-based magazine Mass Appeal commissioned five local design houses to create hip hop-inspired facewear for its summer 2003 issue. For many, the outpouring of SARS images, especially those that circulated on the Internet, represented a form of vernacular folk art.[4] Yet such manipulated images would have been unthinkable for those living with HIV or smallpox or polio. Few would admit authorship to, let alone broadcast, irreverent images of a wheelchair-bound Franklin D. Roosevelt or a person with AIDS dying in a hospital bed in the same way that they proudly took credit for the SARS images they created. In fact, SARS-inspired satire seemed to have emerged from the same source as other subjects of national and international disrepute. The spirit in which graphic artists and cultural activists manipulated SARS images mirrored those images produced at approximately the same time by the antiwar and anti-globalization movements. This suggests that there must have been some inchoate groundswell of disdain, however unarticulated, for the political and economic mechanisms at work beneath the branding of SARS by the popular and scientific media.

In retrospect, the culture of SARS disguised and, in effect, naturalized the branding of infectious disease. Horace might have seen the visual presence of the familiar rather than the absence of the unfamiliar as the “common language” and “common materials” of life. But rather than celebrate vernacular life, such language and materials betrayed the ruthlessly competitive economic and scientific climate of the early 21st century. Far from the realm of the poetic, here it seemed was the truly prosaic consequence of name branding: the gravity attributed to death and its subsequent exploitation were indistinguishable in a culture where tragedy can be recouped not as social loss but as economic opportunity. Perhaps this is why, at the peak of its notoriety, the most memorable aspect of the SARS crisis was not the swift and efficient management of a public health crisis but the unveiling of a world that thrives on satire yet has no heart for making poetry.

  1. Horace, “Ars Poetica,” translated by E. C. Wickham, reprinted in Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 72.
  2. Martin Enserink, “WHO Wants 21st-Century Reporting Regs,” Science, vol. 300 (2 May 2003), pp. 717–718.
  3. Dennis Normile, “Up Close and Personal with SARS,” Science, vol. 300 (9 May 2003), pp. 886–887.
  4. See Amy Harmon, “Digital Artists Find a Muse in SARS (and Each Other on the Internet),” New York Times, 15 June 2003.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (forthcoming 2004).

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