Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pandemic Premediation (Cont.)

I want to elaborate with a little more specificity what I mean by saying that the swine flu pandemic is being premediated. By premediation, I am not simply referring to a kind of vague or general forecast of a possibility that the current swine flu outbreak that began apparently in Mexico could transform itself into a global pandemic. Rather I mean to call attention to the ways in which print, televisual, and networked news media are pre-mediating the epidemic according to the same formal, conventional media practices that they would (or will) employ if such a pandemic would occur.

As in the run-up to the Iraq War (which I detailed more fully in my 2004 essay,"Premediation"), the run-up to a potential pandemic is notable for the way in which news media rehearse the forms of coverage that they would undoubtedly employ if a pandemic would occur. Take, for example, the use of maps. Here's the New York Times:

Obviously, this is precisely the kind of map that would be used (though with much more color and detail) if a pandemic were to occur. CNN News was (unsurprisingly) more dramatic in their cartographics, using a map of North America in much the same way they would use an electoral map, coloring in those states where cases of swine flu had been reported. In their map, Canada was treated not as the Times did, province by province, but as a single country. As John Stewart, who understands premediation as well as anyone, so insightfully asked in his report on "Snoutbreak '09: The Last 100 Days," "For six mild cases of the flu, you're going to turn 4 million square miles bright red?"
But maps are not the only form of premediation being employed in the swine flu pandemic. Crawls, breaking news, dramatic lead-ins, special reports, interviews with government officials and people affected by the virus--all of the usual modes of televisual news reporting are being deployed. My local paper, The Detroit Free Press, featured a story on how the Michigan state government was combatting the virus and published a syndicated AP article, "What you can do to protect yourself from swine flu," an article that would likely be no different, if more urgent, than the article they would print if a pandemic were to occur. And one does not have to look far to find numerous other examples of this premediated pandemic.

In calling attention to some of the specific forms of premediation being employed, I mean to underscore and elaborate the point I made in my previous post: that medialogically we are already experiencing the pandemic. Our media experience in the run-up to a pandemic that might never occur is very much of a piece with, and in many cases identical to, the media experience we will have if a pandemic does occur. The effect of this virtual pandemic is at least twofold: to prepare us affectively for a pandemic if it were to happen, so that the public could deal more effectively with the shock of the disaster; and to provide us with the affective, medialogical experience of a pandemic whether or not it ever materializes.

Pandemic Premediation

It hardly bears saying, but I'll say it anyway. The swine flu pandemic is just the latest instance of premediation in the global print, televisual, and networked media. As is its current practice, news media are focusing their "reporting" of the swine flu pandemic less on what has happened than on what might. True, news media are reporting on the present and recent past--most notably the roughly 100 deaths in Mexico, the serious responses by the Mexican government and populace, and the reported new cases of the flu in the US, Canada, and other nations around the globe. But the bulk of the new coverage is on what might happen--on the future-oriented WHO and CDC declarations of medical emergencies or alerts, on the possibility of shutting down global travel, or on a global outbreak of a swine flu pandemic.

The premediation of this pandemic performs two functions: to create a low level of anxiety and to warn the public for the possibility of a pandemic that might never happen so that whether or not it does happen they will already have been affectively prepared. We are, in other words, already experiencing a virtual swine flu pandemic. The aim of this premediated pandemic is to affectively innoculate the public so that no matter how extensively the virus spreads, no matter how many deaths it might cause, the media public will already have built up its affective defenses against the pandemic. Of course, even if the swine flu pandemic never materializes, the virtuality of this pandemic premediation has already insured the materiality of our collective affective response. Always couched in terms of what tomorrow might bring, premediation works through the mobilization of the present moment to modulate our ongoing affective orientation towards futurity.