Report by Priyadarshini Chatterjee on  ‘Disease and the Dynamics of Othering’, a webinar organised by Manikchak College, Malda on 9th June, 2020.

As humanity undergoes the ongoing Pandemic, there is an increasing need for engaging in critical discussions on the socio-cultural impact of diseases in general. Of the two speakers in the webinar,

Dr. Arka Chattopadhyay (IIT Gandhinagar) began his talk with the concept of the ‘fear of contamination’ and of the ‘Other’.  Freud makes a clear distinction between ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ where, according to Freud, ‘anxiety’ refers to being afraid of the unknown or an unknown object whereas ‘fear’ requires a particular object that is already known. In Lacan’s 10th Annual Seminar Lacan mentioned that “anxiety is not without an object”. CoVid-19 has converted most of our anxiety into concrete fear – the fear of death. He also linked this fear with the problem of the ‘Other’ in psychoanalysis – since anyone can be a carrier of Covid-19, everyone has become an ‘Other’ leading us to question their touchability. 

Chattopadhyay further linked this problem of touchability to the caste system and thereby referred to ‘The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory’ (2012) by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkhai,  specifically the chapter named ‘Phenomenology of Touchability‘ to differentiate between ‘touching’ and ‘touched’.’Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching’ (2018) by Aniket Jaaware highlights that corporeality is the basis of Indian caste system. 

The one important factor about ourselves, according to Chattopadhyay, which CoVid-19 has made us conscious of is that of touching ourselves and others. We have become afraid of touching not only people but also the objects touched by them, which is very similar to the caste system and it’s concept of untouchability – the word ‘untouchable’ has become a noun and more than that, touchability has become a quality of an object whether living or non-living. 

The mask which we wear as a protection from the virus is itself exposed and therefore acts as an object of mediating the disease too. Thus, nothing is free of contamination and the entire environment becomes an ‘untouchable’ object, – when we touch something, we are touched by it too.

Dr. Asijit Datta (The Heritage College) began his talk with the definition of ‘virus’ and stated that it’s a biological and ethical question. A Pandemic makes us more aware of the dead, – it seems as though we are living with the dead because of the presence of the piled up dead bodies and/or coffins around us; however, these days, deaths around us have been reduced to mere statistical data and news on media and social media highlighting that (as if) Death and Economy cannot co-exist. He also mentioned how the Brazilian Government had stopped publishing CoVid-19 data and numbers. 

Previously, we used to remember dead people with anecdotes from their lives while now, the death itself becomes an anecdote – we hear stories of how people (known or unknown) died. He linked this to the condition of the migrant workers. s . The labourers are considered  to be made of concrete (metaphorically) and hence, it is assumed that they are capable of doing any amount of hardwork as if they can’t feel pain, as if they are already dead. However, now that a large number of such (migrant) labourers are bleeding and dying, they seem alive and vulnerable.  Speaking of ‘zombies’ he described the history of its origin, he argued that if HIV was the disease of the century, Zombie is ‘the fictional disease of the century’, the latter being a condition where a person is half alive and half dead. Thus, he linked the origin of the idea of zombies to the legacy of resistance. He explained how the American concept of zombie is a direct product of colonialism, slavery, and of resistance against these both through the body. The American zombies symbolise the vulnerability of the body, cannibalistic nature, mass revolution and yet, we also pity them knowing that they are the embodiment of disease and represent the marginalised. He illustrated this with the example of the movie ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ (2003) where the basic question raised is whether one should murder the loved ones who have turned into zombies or should they be allowed to live the life of monstrosity.

The CDC National Public Health Institute even issued a directive about what to do in case of a zombie attack, proving how Hollywood has made zombies real. He linked the migrants and the American blacks with zombies in order to re-interrogate the condition of the blacks and the migrants with that of the dead or zombies as the ‘Other’. 

The closing remarks on the webinar were made by Professor Debaditya Mukhopadhyay of Manikchak College. 

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Visiting Faculty of English Communication and French at Guru Nanak Institute of Hotel Management. She can be reached at priyadarshinichatterjee95@gmail.com

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