Author Archives: Paul Mullins

The Materiality of Virus: The Aesthetics of Ebola

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic   (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

In 1918 over 500 million people were infected by the influenza virus, and its lethality–between 20 and 100 million people died—reaches well beyond AIDS, the Plague, and even the Great War itself.  It is not difficult to comprehend the terror induced by viral disease: we live in a historical moment in which some infectious disease can be rapidly spread aboard airlines and cruise ships; the media and a host of online outlets fan anxieties about epidemic diseases; and popular culture delivers warnings about apocalypse, zombies, and doomsday preparations.  In contrast to the European battlefield in 1918, it was enormously difficult to imagine the material form and aesthetics of a virus that moved invisibly and left as its material wake broken and dead bodies.  Viruses are terrifying because they are so hard to imagine as concrete things, so we spend much of our energy imagining how we can perceive and protect ourselves against an unseen specter.

Center for Disease Control image of the Ebola virus.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention image of the Ebola virus.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on Ebola currently greets the wary with a colorful and even appealing graphic of the virus’ tendrils.  Certainly much more of the visual representation of Ebola has been strictly of its effects, such as the medical teams armed to treat victims, visual representations of symptoms, maps charting the geographic spread of Ebola, the implications for travelers, specific symptoms to be wary of among your friends, cemeteries for the victims, ambitious overviews of the disease, and even Ebola’s impact on the cocoa trade.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected cell (yellow-green). (Image from National (Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected cell (yellow-green). (Image from National (Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

Visual representations of Ebola shape our emotional imaginations of the virus’ real or potential effects.  Hélène Joffe and Georgina Haarhoff’s 2002 study of media coverage of Ebola in the mid-1990’s UK found that Ebola was systematically represented as an African disease (a characterization that holds true for the contemporary US as well).  They found that “pictures accompanying the tabloid articles are most often of westerners in space-suit-type outfits endeavouring to control the virus in Africa,” but they concluded that few people critically reflected on such images or had much recall of specific visuals.  One ethnographic interview subject told Joffe and Haarhoff that “I thought the pictures of all these people dressed up in these spacesuits were quite funny really, because they looked a bit like they were out in space or something … but I can’t say I really thought about it a lot more than that.”

Ebola virus 3-D model (image from Visual Science).

Ebola virus 3-D model (image from Visual Science).

Visuals of the virus itself adorn many media reports aspiring to evoke the authenticity of a microscopic threat.  These images are identical to the visuals Joffe and Haarhoff identified in 2002, when they found that “the most common type of picture accompanying the broadsheet articles is of the Ebola virus, as one might find in a medical textbook.”  The most recent flurry of American media images of the virus are rendered in many different shades including green and red, electrifying blue, red and yellow, or soft slightly psychedelic tones.  Scanning electron micrograph images of virus-infected cells provide a somewhat different visual, and they can be colored in a relatively wide range of ways.  The more creative visual representations of the virus portray it as a three-dimensional red root, virus particles attached to an infected cell, or something resembling a dense tubular shag rug.

An Ebola virus necklace pendant (from TheGoblinCave).

An Ebola virus necklace pendant (from TheGoblinCave).

Perhaps the symbolic power of Ebola is most clearly confirmed by the universe of products that provide material representations of Ebola beyond visual images.  On Etsy, a legion of craftspeople are providing a universe of tangible things representing Ebola.  These include necklace pendants, cross stitch, picture necklaces, pet tags, aprons, underwear, onesies, cutting boards, tiny specimen bottles, glass dishes, and a host of t-shirtsGiantmicrobes has been selling Ebola plush toys since 2005, with its worm-shaped stuffed animals and Ebola virus petri dish carefully negotiating the distinction between scientific educational toy and gag gift.

An Ebola-themed pet tag (image from BadTags).

An Ebola-themed pet tag (image from BadTags).

At some level, nearly all of these things are simply vehicles of ironic humor.  For instance, the blood-spattered pet tag emblazoned “Ebola Outbreak Partner” ensures that your cat or dog will follow you into an Ebola-induced apocalypse; should you make it out alive, the other side of the tag includes the contact information for your four-legged friend.  The Ebola Epidemic cutting board cheekily promises it “has it all: Ebola, Salmonella, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Meningitis and more.  Great for any mysophobiac or hypochondriac.  Now you can tell your guests everything was prepared on a cutting board riddled with bacteria and viruses.”  The Ebola Virus Specimen is a vial with an Ebola virus strand submerged in clear resin and “securely shut so don’t worry about the virus leaking out.”  Other things are somewhat more distinctive.  The Ebola virus rain brief panties, for example, have “contagious Ebola virus hand painted back and front” to greet your partner (or secretly laugh at your own irreverence), and the panties’ description includes a link to a Guardian article outlining how to avoid contracting the virus.

Ebola cross-stitch (image from aliciawatkins).

Ebola cross-stitch (image from aliciawatkins).

Some observers seem reluctant to profit from Ebola, and a few marketers are wary that their Ebola products might be misunderstood.  An Ebola cross-stitch seller on Etsy observes that the design was “originally requested by a scientific researcher in 2012” from her microbes and germs design series, which ranges from Toxoplasma to E. Coli.   The seller is quick to note that the Ebola design is “not intending to belittle the experiences of those who have experienced that tragedy first or second-hand. … When the outbreak began, I considered removing the ebola cross stitch from my listings, but I chose not to for the simple reason that ebola has existed for a long time; it has always been deadly; if it’s not okay for me to stitch an image of the microbe now, then it was never okay and I should stop stitching not only ebola but all the other microbes that cause personal and social tragedy.”

The Ebola plush toy (image from Giantmicrobes)

The Ebola virus plush toy (image from Giantmicrobes)

Beyond the distinctive taste that most of these things invoke, the materialized Ebola irreverently pokes fun at pandemic alarmists who foresee an Ebola apocalypse.  The federal response to Ebola has perhaps been confusing, but there seems to be little danger that apocalypse will be unleashed by Ebola.  Indeed, the humor directed toward Ebola may reflect that many people are not especially alarmed by the potential for contracting the virus, and it may suggest that many of us are not swayed by apocalyptic alarmism.  Nevertheless, viral diseases create genuine anxieties that are fanned by confusing media coverage and a chorus of observers without significant scientific credentials.  Viewed in that light, prosaic things like earrings and shirts might be most productively viewed as extensions of our visual imagination and attempts to capture and define that which we cannot even perceive with human senses.



Hélène Joffe

2008 The Power of Visual Material: Persuasion, Emotion and IdentificationDiogenes 2008 55: 84-93.


Hélène Joffe and Georgina Haarhoff

2002 Representations of far-flung illnesses: the case of Ebola in BritainSocial Science and Medicine 54(6):955–969.  (subscription access)


Allison Lazard and Lucy Atkinson

2014 Putting Environmental Infographics Center Stage: The Role of Visuals at the Elaboration Likelihood Model’s Critical Point of PersuasionScience Communication (subscription access)


Mireille Rosello

1998 Pictures of a virus: ideological choices and the representation of HIV.  French Cultural Studies 9(27): 337-349. (subscription access)


Jean Trumbo

1999 Visual literacy and science communication.  Science Communication 20(4): 409-425.  (subscription access)



Camp Funston, Kansas Flu image from National Museum of Health and Medicine

Center for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola virus image from CDC page

Ebola Cross stitch image from aliciawatkins

Ebola Pet Tag image from BadTags

Ebola virus plush toy image from Giantmicrobes

Ebola Virus Necklace image from The GoblinCave

Ebola Virus Poster image from Visual Science

Electron micrograph image of Ebola virus image from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH


Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry

Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference.  Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination.  An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment.  Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods.  The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store.  The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971.  Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism.  While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers. Read the rest of this entry

Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010.  Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris).  Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit.  As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).

CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places.  Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks.  Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears.  Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.

Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust.  Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards.  Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry

Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry

Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature

Open lots in Brush Park

Open lots in Brush Park

Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown.  Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city.   Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing.  Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry


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