Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.


Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.

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