S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 September 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Killer Inside Me

 

[four stars: 
Trader Nick's - pismo beach , CA]

These are the days of coming

plagues, coming soon to a

top-secret lab near you - or a

suitcase left in the subway, in

the wistful daydreams of the

next Aum-like cult or Larry Wayne

Harris-type anti-government

radical.

 

The media outbreak of viral

horror unleashed in 1994 by

Richard Preston's The Hot Zone

has mutated into a millennial

"panic terror" of body invaders

from without and within: the

"weaponized bioparticles" of

germ warfare and the intestinal

"toxins" of New Age nightmares.

(Muzzily defined and medically

dubious, these toxins are the

bugbear behind the yuppie vogue

for "colonic irrigation," in

which the cloacal evils

supposedly lurking in the

deepest, darkest recesses of our

bowels are literally flushed

out.)

 

The brain-puréeing

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (of

Mad Cow fame) and the

flesh-eating bacteria that

spurred Fleet Street tabloids to

new heights of mondo-movie

shockeroo (Killer Bug Ate My

Face!) are still with us, but

they've been upstaged by the

horrors of germ warfare and

bioterrorism. Once again,

Preston is our national calamity

howler, but he has moved on from

the biohazard sublime of The Hot

Zone, with its mind-curdling

descriptions of livers turned to

pudding and brains liquefied in

their skulls.

 

Now, amidst renewed fears of

Iraqi bioweapons, he sings the

body bubonic, fanning our

fin-de-millennium anxieties like

the winds that would waft

anthrax spores aloft, to drift

for miles over an American city.

In Preston's New Yorker article, "The

Bioweaponeers," he conjures

apocalyptic visions of Russian

warheads armed with anthrax and

Black Death, and warns of

footloose Russian bioweaponeers,

ready to sell their genetically

engineered plagues to the

highest bidder (Iraq? Libya?

China?).

 

[sea kayaking and my guilt at tipping the boat]

Worse yet, we live at a moment

when a lone wacko, like the mad

scientist in Preston's 1997

novel The Cobra Event, could

tinker together the biological

equivalent of a suitcase nuke.

President Clinton, whom aides

have described as "fixated" on

the threat of germ warfare, was

so unnerved by Preston's tale of

a sociopath terrorizing New York

City with a genetically

engineered "brainpox" that he

ordered intelligence experts to

evaluate its credibility. The

book apparently played a

catalytic role in Clinton's

decision to initiate a hastily

conceived, multimillion-dollar

project to stockpile vaccines at

strategic points around the

country.

 

Meanwhile, on the home front,

many of us are arming the

sovereign self against the

killers inside us. In a media

atmosphere flickering with fears

of virulent new supergerms that

eat antibiotics for breakfast,

sales of antibacterial soaps, a

voodoo charm against the unseen

menace of staph and strep and

worse, are up. So, too, is the

consumption of bottled water - a

"purified" alternative to the

supposed toxic soup of lead,

chlorine, E. coli, and

cryptosporidium that oozes from

our taps. The Brita filter is

our fallout shelter, the

existential Personal Flotation

Device of the nervous '90s.

 

[greg's polariod nightmares]

Despite Susan Sontag's

insistence in Illness as

Metaphor that diseases should

signify nothing but themselves,

the fear of mutant

microorganisms that eats away at

the public mind, like some

spongiform encephalopathy, is

fraught with meaning.

 

The paranoid rhetoric of Cold

War conservatives conflated

personal hygiene and national

security, fifth columnists and

microbial menaces. "Is your

washroom breeding Bolsheviks?"

asked a period ad for paper

towels. Ours is a postmodern

paranoia, cooked up from the

ontological vertigo induced by

technological change and

information overload and spiked

with the jingoistic fear of

invading foreign bodies and the

clinical obsession with hygiene

that run deep in the American

grain. Mobilizing the national

immune system against the red

menace, Cold War germophobia

never questioned the American

Way; by contrast, the microbial

terrors of the '90s are a

manifestation of our loss of

faith in institutions of every

sort.

 

Pervasive fears of toxic meat

and tainted tap water are

cultured in the agar of a waning

trust in governmental

authorities, including those who

are supposed to be keeping watch

over public health. As well, the

corporatization of the food

industry has alienated us from

what's on the ends of our forks.

Media hysteria over

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease gives

vent to a creeping unease about

what happened to that Happy Meal

on its way to our plates.

 

[an unfortunate and unplanned eyelid hickey ]

More profound, media nightmares

about "black biologists" armed

with "recombinant chimera

viruses" dramatize popular

anxieties about high-tech

transgressions of the natural

order. In the late 20th century,

science and industry are

begetting an ever more

Frankensteinian world, where

herbivores like cows go mad

after eating feed made from

ground-up animals, and

genetically altered pigs produce

human hemoglobin. Viruses exist

in "the borderlands between life

and nonlife," says Preston; like

cloning, genetic engineering,

and artificial life, they mock

old distinctions between the

born and the made, organism and

mechanism.

 

An uncanny, organic machine, the

virus is a screen on which we

project our millennial anxieties

about the hybridizing of the

seemingly incompatible opposites

- nature and culture, reality

and simulation, reason and

unreason - on which our old

notions of order, both natural

and social, are based. On the

eve of the future, the

infectious agents that burn

through our dreams remind us

that not only the sleep of

reason but reason itself,

toiling in the spacesuits-only

hot zone of a Biosafety Level 4

lab, can breed monsters.




courtesy of Mark Dery