Q&A with Priscilla Wald

By Benjamin Meiners
Graduate Student, Department of English

In the upcoming event “Contagion and Culture,” panelists will ask how discourses of race, nation and culture affect our understandings of and responses to contagious disease — in this particular case, the Ebola virus. Can you tell us a little bit about how you conceptualize the relationship between these discourses and Ebola?

This is a very difficult question to answer briefly. It is too simple (although true) to say that disease is one way to stigmatize particular populations that become associated with it for a variety of reasons or that, conversely, particular populations and places are pathologized by associations with specific diseases. The processes through which those associations emerge are really complicated; science, medicine and geopolitics are always intertwined in ways that are both material and ideological. It is reasonable, for example, to keep a close watch on someone who has come from an area where there is an Ebola outbreak during the incubation period; it is not reasonable to fear catching Ebola by going to eat at an African restaurant in Minnesota or to ask children from Rwanda, who have not traveled anywhere near an Ebola outbreak, to observe quarantine before attending a school in New Jersey. There is no way to disaggregate scientific and medical questions from social and geopolitical ones. What interests me is to understand the exact nature and consequences of the connections.

In your recent book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (2008), you use narrative as a means to reframe what many might perceive to be the “scientific” problem of disease. Can you talk about the relation between narrative and disease in that book?

I am interested in how information travels from specialist publications (e.g., science journals) to the mainstream media and popular fiction and film, both for what that circulation tells us about collective beliefs and for some sense of how those beliefs are shaped. We know the world through language, images and stories, and in my work I use my training as a literary critic to pay attention to how the circulation of information starts to become conventional: how, that is, broad acceptance of particular aspects of disease take hold and become increasingly difficult to challenge.

Since we are always learning new things about the world, and since it is important always to be considering new ways to solve a problem, I think it is important to pay attention to how we are telling particular stories — for example, about the emergence and circulation of communicable diseases — to consider whether those are the most accurate stories, by which I mean whether or not they produce the most convincing explanation of the problem or the best (most effective and most just) solution to the problem.

Can you tell us about how, when and why you turned from more disciplinary to more interdisciplinary work? What was happening in your various fields, and what were some critical moments of insight for your own work?
I was always drawn to the field of American studies and was therefore always interested in putting literature and literary critical inquiry in dialogue with other modes of inquiry, especially, in my case, history, anthropology and political philosophy. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, British cultural studies and post-colonial theory were just beginning to encounter feminism and race and ethnic studies, and I was influenced by the conversations that emerged from those encounters.

I wrote a psychoanalytic and literary critical dissertation, but I was not at all satisfied with it because I didn’t feel it answered my pressing questions, notably what literature and literary criticism might tell us about how beliefs form, about why deeply held beliefs are so difficult to challenge. I consider my interests and approaches literary, and I believe that literary critical approaches to broad cultural narratives can offer significant access to those beliefs and therefore offer significant insight into science, medicine, politics law — really any area of human endeavor.

Finally, I’d like to ask what you see as the place of interdisciplinarity in the academy at our current moment — not just in the humanities. Your work suggests that interdisciplinarity can extend beyond the humanities. What are benefits and challenges that this kind of work presents?

As I’ve noted, I think of myself as fundamentally a literary critic, and I consider myself speaking across disciplines — in other words, my work takes a literary critical approach to a problem that is not exclusively literary and shows how we might therefore understand and approach that problem differently. I had a conversation last night with a group of wonderful, thoughtful Duke undergraduates about their understanding of the university at present, and many of them expressed an interest in learning that allowed them to stretch their minds — to think about the world differently — and also to have the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a problem in the world. They understood this kind of learning as two different processes — they were eager to be pushed to think abstractly but also to understand the ways in which those abstractions might allow them to approach a problem differently.

There’s a lot of talk about how students are too goal-oriented, making choices about classes and majors that will help them get jobs. But what I heard last night, and have heard from other students, was less a career focus than an interest in understanding how to take what they are learning out of the classrooms and into their lives in a variety of ways. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in aesthetics, for example, but in understanding what they are learning about the world and themselves from aesthetic experiences. They’re passionate and idealistic in all the ways I remember being in college (and hope I still am!).

These students wondered, though, as I do, whether our contemporary disciplines reflect the classifications of an older world and how they might be changing in exciting ways in response to new media, new social and geopolitical formations, new relationships, new challenges, opportunities and ideas. The challenges of these changes lie both in the sense that the rapidity of geopolitical and techno-scientific change in the past half-century have imparted the sense of their being too much to master (the students talked about this last night). I wonder who hasn’t felt that way. But the pace of change has been more rapid, and the problems of the world (think: climate change) seem to me to be more urgent than ever, so I understand their concerns. Those challenges are, of course, also opportunities; the faster pace of change means rapid new insights into and knowledge about the world and a growing number of new fields to explore.

There seems to me to be less rigidity in a lot of areas — more opportunities for unconventional thinking — than when I was in college. Institutions, however, are notoriously slow to change, so, to return to the previous question, I wonder sometimes about the resistance to disciplinary change that comes from the ways in which universities are structured. I am interested in some of the new models for organizing fields of inquiry in universities.

Wednesday, March 4, 4 pm
Anheuser-Busch Hall, Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom (no. 310)
Shanti Parikh, Anthropology, Washington University
Adia Benton, Anthropology, Brown University
Steven Lawrence, Infectious Disease, Washington University
Corinna Treitel, History, Washington University
Priscilla Wald, English, Duke University