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Alert: Swine Flu Products Rapidly Replicating

It’s easy to make fun of the media panic over the outbreak of swine flu, and to laugh again when other marketers jump on the bandwagon. This photo shows how an enterprising supermarket in Taipei quickly put together an “Anti-Flu Section.”

Maybe they can use that pig again for the Summer Barbecue Section. And in the meantime, there can be additional media alarms about children swallowing the disinfectants now being stacked in kitchens and bathrooms. And then there can be an “Anti-Poisoning Section,” and maybe the economy will begin to rebound after all.

I told you it was easy, didn’t I? There is more to the story, of course. The media and marketing systems help contain the spread of disease, and activating the network now may hone capabilities that can save additional lives should a more virulent pathogen develop later. But we know that, just as we know the story of the boy who cried wolf. Rather than ask what is an appropriate response, I’d like to consider how the photo is making a larger point as well.

I am often amazed when I survey the seemingly endless abundance of goods in the supermarket. Look again at the display in the foreground of the photograph: the boxes, bottles, spray bottles, spray cans, and jugs are perfect copies of each specific product, just like hundreds of thousands of other identical items, and all have been produced and distributed with machined efficiency.  As have the rows of products on the shelves in the background of the photo, leading off to the right and the left to take up aisle after aisle in nearly identical stores all over the world. And behind them, the trucks, roads, ships, factories, and labs that continue to produce and distribute the 100,000+ products that typically are available in any one of those stores.

This is a replication system that any virus would kill for. And isn’t that the truth of the photograph? Any virus can spread quickly because the modern world has become linked together by distribution systems of astonishing scale and efficiency. Airports are just one small part of it, and a high quality of life for billions of people (though not nearly enough people) depends on the continual, constant mechanical reproduction of products, information, and services.

Photography, as Walter Benjamin noted, is one of the technologies of mechanical reproduction that has given the modern world its distinctive character, powers, and vulnerabilities. The photo above is part of the process it documents. (How else do you keep a pig in the air?) And viruses that are continually developing also are part of the modern world system, ready to replicate themselves throughout global networks that can no longer be dismantled without dismantling modern society itself.

The hastily assembled “Anti-Flu Section” of products is a miniature version of the anti-flu response more generally. The same practices that create the flu can be turned against it, perhaps to good effect, but they also are the conditions in which the next virus is already developing. The epidemic is not a modern thing, but only modernity makes a virtue of replication.

Photograph by Pichi Chuang/Reuters. Additional photos on the swine flu outbreak are available at The Big Picture.

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Alert: Swine Flu Products Rapidly Replicating

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