Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [3/3]

The ether was known theoretically and was mathematically demonstrable; however, it defiantly resisted materialization. In contrast, I’d briefly like to offer another scientific object, this time one that was not imponderable, but that also refused to materialize in the late nineteenth century.

In 1889 influenza broke out in St Petersburg, and rapidly spread across Europe. London was one of the last European capitals to be affected and, as the pandemic spread from city to city, its population had five weeks to monitor its progress. The last recorded pandemic had been in 1847, and so people were confident that improved sanitary conditions and medical science would halt the spread of infection. Since then germs had been identified as the causative agents of both cholera and tuberculosis and a germ was confidently mooted as the cause of influenza. However, the germ – the material, causative agent of what were otherwise interpersonal effects across space – eluded doctors while progressing rapidly across Europe and then, eventually, around the United Kingdom.

The 1889 influenza pandemic was characterized by high morbidity but low mortality: although deaths were relatively few, the virus was especially contagious; for instance, in London there were 600 deaths, but about half the population – 2 and a half million people – experienced its symptoms. In fact, the failure of medicine to identify the germ permitted influenza to inhabit conditions that were not feasible from a scientific perspective. For instance, outbreaks in the United States and Canada seemed to suggest that not only did the germs travel by railway, but they could also be spread by telegraph; indeed, as the symptoms were not severe and there was no way to establish if the germ was present, allegations that people were either faking the disease or were caught up in what was termed the ‘fashionable epidemic’ suggested that it could be spread by the news, whether received in letters or over the wires, read in the paper, or heard through gossip.

Viruses, particularly since the emergence of the computer virus, have often been used to model the spread of malicious information. What the late nineteenth-century influenza pandemics demonstrate is the way in which information and materiality are connected. A leading physician of the period, Sir Morrell McKenzie, described influenza as, and I quote, ‘the very Proteus of disease, a malady which assumes so many different forms that it seems to be not one, but all diseases’ epitome’.1 He thought influenza was a germ, but it caused its diverse effects by affecting the nervous system. From his medical perspective, influenza had to be a thing, but its effects could only be explained if it was thought of as information in a system, i.e. the nerves. Influenza, of course, is etymologically linked to the idea of influence, and the contagious nature of the ‘flu allowed it to represent other sources of pathological influence in the period – for instance the poisonous influences exposed by the trial of Oscar Wilde. Just as influence questions the idea of the autonomous subject, so viruses challenge the idea of autonomous bodies, whether individual or social.

Without a body of its own, influenza could pass from the biological to the social, from material object to information, from bodies to minds. Unlike the ether, a causative agent was vigorously pursued that could unite symptoms in the body and permit its spread to be traced. Without such an agent, the knowable aspects of phenomena fall away into the chaos of the unknown. In the late nineteenth century both influenza and the ether were fluid entities that questioned the boundedness of things by suggesting they were connected in unknown ways. As such, both concepts offered themselves in ways that could be known – germ theory, Maxwell’s equations – while also suggesting that they existed in ways in excess of scientific knowledge. This necessary supplement to objectification – the virtual unconscious – writes the social and psychological into scientific knowledge while also guaranteeing it as provisional: scientific objects are thus rendered provisional media through which new things can and cannot be known.

1 Morrell MacKenzie, ‘Influenza’, Fortnightly Review 55 (June 1891), 877-86 (p. 881). [back]