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Boundary-smashing event to explore contagion in its many forms

Poster for Tranforming Contagion symposium
October 22, 2015

Ebola and immigrants and gays! Oh my!

These are just a few of the topics to be discussed Friday at the purposefully edgy Transforming Contagion: A Boundary-Smashing Symposium at Arizona State University’s West campus.

The conference was conceived of by associate professor of women and gender studies Breanne Fahs, who wanted to get people thinking about the concept of contagion and the many ways it infiltrates our lives — from viruses to  ideas that spread through social media.

“Contagion is this very diversely imagined thing, but we’re really trying to focus on the connection between the dangers of contagion and the possibilities of it,” said Fahs, who teaches in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

The effect is powerful, but that power can swing either way. For example, contagion can be dangerous when it facilitates such things as xenophobia or homophobia, but it can also be a revolutionary force when it engenders things like viral social-justice movements.

“We’re in age where we don’t always know how to trace how things spread, but we’re constantly thinking about it and engaging with contagion. … Definitely in terms of social media and ways that media in general is based in this kind of [sharing] philosophy,” Fahs said. “It’s a topic that I think will become more relevant over time, but I think contagion is at the forefront of how we interact every day.”

Fahs will be giving a talk that looks at the female menstrual cycle as a form of contagion due to the phenomenon of menstrual synchrony among groups of women.

“We want this conference to be distinctly edgy,” she said, “We’re calling it a ‘boundary-smashing’ symposium, which is appropriate.”

The conference will feature keynote speakers — whom Fahs calls “amazing, powerhouse thinkers” — Priscilla Wald, professor of English and women's studies at Duke University and author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative”; and Alice Echols, Barbara Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and author of “Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975.”

New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Dean Marlene Tromp will also be present to give a talk titled “Viral Murder: The Contagion of Violence and Criminal Networks.”

A book, tentatively titled “Transforming Contagion: Anxieties, Modalities, Possibilities,” is already planned based on the conference, with participants contributing chapters based on the papers they will present.

Transforming Contagion: A Boundary-Smashing Symposium will run from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, in the University Center Building, La Sala Ballroom, at ASU’s West campus. The event is free and open to the public. Click here to RSVP. To learn more, visit the conference website here.

This event is sponsored by the Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies; The Jenny Norton Research Cluster Award at Institute for Humanities Research; the School for Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies; and the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Read on for a more in-depth look at contagion and the stigma and possibilities that surround it, as articulated by Fahs.

Question: What is at the root of people’s fear of contagion?

Answer: Contagion inspires both danger and excitement, sometimes simultaneously.  We fear contagion, but we also recognize it as an intuitive force of revolution, social change and connection between people.  This conference is seeking to explore and better understand these tensions, and to move discourses of public health into conversation with other related areas like literature, politics, the body, feminism, social media and the impulses to "go viral" (both in a technological sense and a human sense).

Q: How will you be applying your areas of scholarly interest to the subjects to be discussed at the conference?

A: I'm a scholar that studies bodies, sexualities and the history of radical feminism; these themes are all represented at this conference, just as the other organizers' themes are also represented. Annika Mann is an English professor who studies contagion, Eric Swank is a social and cultural analysis professor who studies social movements and LGBT activism, and Sarah Stage is a women and gender studies/history professor who studies the women's movement and key figures of women's history who have gotten lost in the dustbin of history.

We are all very different scholars bringing a very different lens to what contagion is/can be, united by our core belief that contagion relates to feminist, antiracist, postcolonial politics. I am also directly involving students in my manifestos course at this conference; they will be reading their work in the first session of the day, showcasing “a reading of dangerous ideas.”

Q: How will this conference address how the notion of contagion has persisted and changed throughout time?

A: Contagion has deep historical roots, particularly as people have made sense of why people get sick, how emotions might “catch fire” and inspire others to overthrow governments, and how bodies and technologies communicate with one another. This conference showcases numerous papers that trace the historical roots of contagion and its impact throughout history, again playing on the tensions between danger and revolution. We are interested in thinking about modes of spread, quarantines and theories of contagion, all of which help us to imagine the way that ideas, people, institutions, germs, etc. move about and (dis)locate us in our historical contexts.

Q: How do you hope to change how people think and feel about contagion?

A: Interdisciplinarity is inherently transformative, so this conference is an example of what happens when you put into conversation and dialogue people and disciplines and locations that are not typically in conversation. Magical things happen when scholars come together to address difficult and complex ideas in an interdisciplinary way, and New College has long supported such endeavors. We want to remove the boundaries between the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, just as we merge people with very different assumptions about contagion together into one scholarly space.

We also want people to leave the day recognizing the amazing contributions that undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and independent scholars can make to thinking about contagion; the conference features panels that unite brand-new scholars doing their first paper with those who are at the top of their fields, and who define and demarcate the nature of their fields. This is absolutely thrilling to me!

We hope that people who attend will leave the day imagining new ways of seeing canonical texts, Mexican film, gay panics, viruses, menstruating women, phallic imagery, cookbooks, 19th-century murders, xenophobia and a host of other subjects represented at the conference; contagion impacts everyone's lives, not only in the day-to-day sense, but in the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and our histories.