University of Cambridge > > Twentieth Century Think Tank > The event in the syndemic: state and subject formation in the two Manchurian pneumonic plague outbreaks (1910–11, 1920–21)

The event in the syndemic: state and subject formation in the two Manchurian pneumonic plague outbreaks (1910–11, 1920–21)

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My paper examines the 1910-11 pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria at the beginning of the 20th century, arguing that what turned the endemic marmot plague into a human pandemic was not, as often assumed, simply the over-hunting of the particular animal for its fur, but a combination of factors involving the political economy, geopolitical tensions, changes of migration patterns, the introduction of new transport technologies and a change in hunting methods in the area. And yet, far from being socially perceived and acted upon as what following Merrill Singer we may call a ‘social syndemic’, the Manchurian outbreak of 1910-11 was emically treated as an event. Based on Alain Badiou’s theory, I argue that thinking of outbreaks as events results in the conceptualisation of syndemic crises as radical ruptures that require a paradigm shift in decision-making regarding the population and its health. Thus, events force into existence a biopolitical imagination of a void of the previous situation, as the unilateral cause leading to a particular crisis. In the case of the Manchurian plague epidemic, I argue that this void was the fatal interrelation of two lacking subject. On the one hand a subject who lacks certain sanitary attributes or skills and thus leads to the plague outbreak. And on the other hand, a subject who lacks both the ability to trace the alleged plague-inflicting subject, and the will to reform it, so that it does not cause a crisis of collective mortality. By means of comparing the Manchurian epidemic of 1910-11, with the one of 1920-21, my paper demonstrates the centrality of this biopolitical decision on state-formation processes in China.

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