The new research cluster, University of Macau Gothic, hosted the timely and urgent CoronaGothic conference online on the 30th June 2020. The primary organisers and opening speakers were Professor Nick Groom and Professor William Hughes, and the following speakers were Professor Mariaconcetta Constantini, Dr Sam George, Professor Stephen Hinchliffe, Professor Darryl Jones, Professor David Punter, and Professor Corinna Wagner. The conference was chaired by the University of Macau’s Professor Victoria Harrison. While the papers were brief, the topics covered were interdisciplinary and broad, covering everything from vampires to cremation; from Bill Gates to the Arctic; from Japanese mermaids to Nigella Lawson going feral.
This report will be comprised of a summary of the papers given. Verbatim quotes will be provided where possible. It will conclude with a brief summary of some of my own thoughts inspired by the ideas presented. Please note that, somewhat fittingly for a conference focused on the consequences of the pandemic, this report is incomplete, as my internet failed towards the end of Professor Jones’ talk and the beginning of Professor Punter’s. I have done my best to be as detailed as I can be elsewhere but taking notes from a Zoom meeting proved to be quite different to taking notes at an in-person conference. If you spot any inaccurate quotations, or unwitting butchering of nuanced arguments, please do let me know either @JoanPassey or at email@example.com so I can rectify any errors.
The first speaker was Professor Nick Groom of the University of Macau. Groom’s wide-ranging paper considered the history and culture of pandemics and the rhetoric surrounding Covid 19, with a focus on the slipperiness and ambiguity of reporting and governing during lockdown, and how this unfixedness can be seen as Gothic. Groom introduced historical perspectives pertaining to the Earth as a sickening organism in times of pandemic and highlighted the ways in which climate can exacerbate contagion. While the Earth serves as sickened body, the sick body too serves as an embodiment of the plague itself. Groom noted how throughout history pestilence has been a ‘lightning rod’ for folklore and superstition, giving the example of the vampire mythos as a common response to disease. Vampires behave as vectors for contagion and are inextricably part of the history of the spread of the disease. Groom went on to question whether or not vampires had explicitly entered into the narrative of Covid 19, gesturing to the fears and conspiracies perpetuating the idea that the virus arose from people eating bats.
Groom’s paper showed how the rhetoric surrounding Covid has been infused with and motivated by Gothic and science fiction fears and motifs, including international anxieties, fears of labs leaking the virus, of biological warfare, exaggerated death rates, rumours, counter rumours, and conspiracy theories. The language surrounding Covid 19 is deceptive, and preoccupied with sensational solutions – for example, the idea that Bill Gates’ vaccination program is responsible for the virus, or that an explanation can be sought in the roll out of 5G.
Groom’s paper as an opening to the conference highlighted how an immediate scientific solution (a vaccine) is the priority, but how sociocultural conditions will enable the proper dissemination, dispersal, reporting, and reception of the solution. There is a need for an interdisciplinary approach, and a reclaiming of the narrative of Coronavirus from the clutches of ‘fake news’.
The next paper was presented by Professor William Hughes of the University of Macau, co-organiser of the conference. Hughes’ paper focused on the cultural history of pandemic with a focus on cultural disorder and breakdown. Hughes followed up from Groom’s emphasis on the ecocystem to describe the pandemic as a matter of global ecology as much as it is of human biology, meaning the CoronaGothic falls within the remits of the EcoGothic. Hughes then detailed the ways in which diseased bodies engage with their environment in permeable, contagious, leaky ways – buried bodies poison the soil and water systems; unburied bodies infect the surrounding air; the cremated body ‘permeates the atmosphere in particulate form’. This permeation can be invisible – ‘the dead and their pathology may enter us as easily as a microbial biological pathogen’. In this way, the dead are microbial, as the dead penetrate the living with their infections. Hughes located this in a historical context – as cholera is absorbed through water, TB through breath droplets. The invisibility of pathogens, then, ‘facilitates their fatalism and symbolism’. In many ways, biological pandemic parallels social sickness. Hughes’ paper emphasised the ways in which ‘dark skies’ are evocative of pandemic, and how darkness, like a pandemic, is cultural. Hughes referenced the ‘dark skies’ of Biblical Revelation prior to the extinction of humanity and provides an analysis of Quatermass by Nigel Kneale which demonstrates the relationship between contagion, ineffective governments, and the diseased air of yellowed skies. Contrarily, the clear blue sky is representative of the clear skin of the healthy body. This was followed by an analysis of Max Brooks’ World War Z (2016) which again describes the darkened skies of the systematic burning of oil fields. Hughes’ paper presented a strong case for the significance of images of burning, atomising, and air pollution in association with images of contagion and pandemic.
Mariaconcetta Constantini of G. d’Annunzio University of Chieti- Pescara, Italy presented a paper considering the conspiracy theories, particularly theories created in the midst of the current pandemic, favour human agents, from the aforementioned Bill Gates conspiracy, to the idea of accidental leaks from labs. This confirms the public wish to find rational explanation, as in turn this creates the hope that those responsible could halt the catastrophe. Human agents conform to the Foucauldian idea of human experience as encompassed by power/knowledge relations. Constantini’s paper went on to consider how this functions in Dean Koontz’s Eyes of Darkness, and primarily how this functions in cinema – from the labs in I Am Legend to biological warfare in Omega Man. Constantini then considered the ways in which this manifests in two TV series inspired by contagion – Helix (2014-2015) and Fortitude (2015-2016). Significantly, both these series are set in Arctic region, emblematic of Gothic anxieties surrounding hostile settings, persecution, and zombification. In these narratives, the shift in accountability from nature to humankind centres these narratives on human beings.
Dr Sam George of the University of Hertfordshire introduced the amabie – a figure from Japanese folklore which somewhat resembles a mermaid, a sea creature with scaley skin, long hair, three legs, and a beak. The amabie is a type of yokai, a hybrid folkloric figure, and is specifically a prophesy beast, a type of yokai which foretells the future. George related the amabie to aspects of the mermaid in European lore – for instance, European mermaids are sometimes presented as seers, with the mermaid’s mirror seen as a sign of sin and vanity, while also representing the mermaid’s ability to see through the veil which separates visible and spiritual worlds. George gave the example of the mermaid saint Liban, who was given a chance to be baptised and go to heaven within the hour, or to wait 300 years on earth. She chooses to die, miracles are wrought through her, and she becomes St Muirgen of Donegal. There are also narratives where mermaids bring good fortune, even immortality. In another Japanese legend Ningyo eats mermaid flesh and lives for 800 years. In an early amabie narrative, amabie introduces itself and predicts a rich harvest for 6 years, followed by a pandemic. In order to stave off the disease, the amabie encourages people to draw it, and share the image. This reminds me both of the legend of Joseph and the plagues of Egypt, and of Groom’s previous words on the relationship between pandemic and viral circulation, of blood, disease, and media. If the images of the amabie are disseminated across Japan then pandemic can be avoided. George then demonstrated how the amabie fits within the framework of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory (1996).
The next paper was presented by Professor Stephen Hinchliffe, a human geographer from the University of Exeter. Hinchliffe’s paper considered over-sights – as in surveillance – and the ways in which pandemics highlight weaknesses in surveillance methods. Hinchliffe described how over-sight can enable preparedness, pre-emption, and response, but how this can be ‘confounded by viral diversity, mutability, epistasis, pathobiomes’ and distracted administrations, as well as a proliferation of sensings. Hinchliffe quoted Monro (1997), as ‘[t]he repetitions of surveillance are never quite perfect, their iterability implies difference, variation and modulation’. Hinchliffe’s paper outlined how coronavirus has highlighted the need for new models – ‘new objects of oversight, definitions of preparedness, need to shift from microbes and behaviours to the social conditions of and access to universal welfare and security’. Like Contantini, Groom, and Hughes, Hinchliffe is emphasising the need to move from the microscopic to the macrosopic – the microbial to the holistic, cultural, and material. Hinchliffe’s note that ‘order and taxonomy are insufficient to the task’ reminded me of the multifarious anxieties surrounding taxonomy and classification in the nineteenth century and how these anxieties manifest in Gothic fiction.
My report, sadly, is severed by a terrible internet connection, in an act of grotesque Gothic disarticulation… Professor Darryl Jones of Trinity College Dublin presented a paper entitled ‘The China Virus’, which opened with a reflection in ‘the inescapable sense that we have been here before’, and the seeming obviousness and inevitability of the pandemic. Jones stated that ‘killer diseases, infected, permeable membranes, rotten blood, grotesque abhuman leaders and their gothic bodies, land of mist, sense of an ending, apocalyptic fears, and the decline of the west’ all lead to a sense of the Gothic inevitability of the spread of the disease. Jones then drew upon the development of virology and germ theory at the end of the nineteenth century and their ‘profound political resonances at a time of imperial expansion’. These anxieties manifested in Gothic fiction in the period, as detailed in works by Stephen B. Arata and Ailise Bulfin. Jones then drew on a sense of reverse colonisation, as in The War of the Worlds, where ‘what we do to the rest of the world the martians do to us’, with ‘us’ being the British empire. Like nation states and human bodies, cells, too, have walls and boundaries to repel attacks, and contagion is a violation of these membranes.
Sadly, on this brilliantly abject note, this is where I lost Jones, only to return in the midst of the Professor David Punter’s (University of Bristol) paper considering law enforcement and the loosening of authority during lockdown. Punter considered the ways in which loosened laws could potentially stick (or not) in the future, asked whether masks would be worn for the foreseeable future, and whether faciality would vanish as markers of our relationships. Like many of the papers today, Punter’s paper ended on a mediation of the wider sociocultural causes of the pandemic, beyond the purely biological, in stating that ‘the combined wealth of the five largest global companies has grown like so many creatures from the black lagoon to be larger than the wealth of a major European state’. In later questions, Punter stated that while we may not know the cause of the virus itself, we understand how it became a pandemic – ‘as the result of uncontrolled globalisation – another name for or effect of capitalism’.
The final paper of the day was presented by Professor Corinna Wagner of the University of Exeter. Wagner’s paper focused on what effects – temporary or permanent – could be caused Covid 19 and lockdown. What will be the new normal? Will we drive less? Work from home more? No longer fly Virgin, no longer shop at Topshop? Wagner considered how the ethics of the pandemic have been framed in rhetoric concerned with the medieval and the primitive, and referenced Sir Paul McCartney’s recent comments on how the virus ‘has swept across the world like a medieval plague from China’. Other critics have stated that it is not racist to ‘confront the medieval beliefs of so-called traditional medicine’. Wagner noted how antisocial behaviour during lockdown has been referred to as ‘medieval behaviour’, especially in reference to environmental degradation and animal abuse. There have been an unprecedented number of press stories about violence addressed at swans. There have been tales of plagues of locusts and chickens gone rogue. Nigella Lawson claimed to have gone feral. Monkeys ’emerge from cinemas high on junk food’. Wagner then related this to the ‘defenders of civilisation’ in nineteenth-century novels, such as Sherlock Holmes, who were tasked with holding back the tide of degenerative behaviour, a tide that ‘cannot be stemmed’. Wagner stated that these texts illustrate how a ‘material, sensual, worldly individual could turn society into a complete cess pool’, a phrase I find strangely aspirational. Wagner stated that ‘Darwin worried it was the monkey that was heroic and the baboon that was brave’, and that ‘our ancestors are remorselessly violent and know no decency’. Effectively summing up the predominant themes of the morning, Wagner pointed out how nineteenth-century Gothic writers were aware of ‘the dichotomous relationship between civilisation and its discontents; between the modern and the medieval’, and that this same rhetoric is clearly apparent in the discourse surrounding coronavirus.
While focusing on society at its worst, humanity at its most primitive, the world at its most dangerous, the body at its most fragile, these papers all concluded with some semblance of hope and optimism. The amabie figures as a figure of hope in Japanese lore; Wagner asked whether new communities could be forged in light of rapid, radical social change; Hughes asked whether the virus will reconfigure our relationship with our environment. There is potential amongst the darkness for light. While the Gothic recurrently emerges at sites of immense, seismic cultural change (as it has here, today) that change can be understood and geared towards positive outcomes. These papers have demonstrated the capacity the Gothic has for framing traumatic cultural events relative to their social, economic, scientific, and historical contexts, and how such sensitivity to influences and intertexts can provide scope for future radical change.