A choreography of vapors

history and the ineffable influence of viral intimacies

The earth, it is well known, is surrounded by an atmosphere of organic matter, as well as of oxygen, nitrogen, carbonic acid, and watery vapour. This matter varies and is constantly undergoing transformations from organic into inorganic elements: it can neither be seen, weighed nor measured. The chemists cannot yet test its qualities. Liebig, with all the appliances of the Giessen laboratory, cannot yet detect any difference between the pure air of the Alps and the air through which the hound can tell a hare, a fox, or a man has passed; or the air which observation shows will produce small-pox, measles, scarlatina, hooping-cough, dysentery, cholera, influenza, typhus, plague. These matters may either be in a state of vapour—that is elastic, or they may be inelastic; or like water, they may exist in both states. They are most probably in a state of suspension; hang, like the smoke in cities, over the places in which they are produced, but are spread and driven about like vesicular water in clouds. A stream of aqueous vapour of the same elasticity from the Atlantic—passing over England—is, in one place, perfectly transparent; in another, mist; in another, rain: so clouds of infectious matter may fleet over the country, and in one place pass harmless by, in another (as influenza in London), destroy thousands of lives. The emanations from the living, the graves, the slaughterhouses, the heaps of filth, the Thames—into which the sewers still empty —raise over London a canopy which is constantly pervaded by zymotic matters; in one season this, in another that, preponderating ; and the epidemic influenza may easily be conceived, either to have broken out spontaneously, to have been conveyed here by ships, or to have been carried over by the winds.Tenth Annual Report of the Registrar for Births, Deaths, and Marriages, in England (London: 1852).

We understand that, before Pasteur, to fall ill was to fall under the influence of some force or power—hence influenza. We know that this term emerges from 17th-century Italian discourse on disease; we know that there is something vague in it, having to do with vaporous emanations, gaseous influences. We know that, before Pasteur, these vapors came from abroad, and hence provided vectors of blame—and yet they also could arise from marsh, from sewer, and from filth, and thus local emanations were possible as well. Left unexamined is the question of the agents of these “influences”: what were they, and over what substances in nature and the body did they exercise their nebulous power? What is the matter, what is at stake, in this anxiety of influence?

The extract at the top of this post is from a British governmental report published in 1852, just before Pasteur begins his first investigations into fermentation at Lille; under the blacklight of retrospect, it lights up with telltale deposits of the dynamics of influenza. There is this vivid image of a planetary veil: quasi-organic matter intermingling, shifting, bathing and pervading bodies, populations, nations. There is this anxiety that springs from an apprehension of undetectability. The deadly, influential matter seems to emanate from over the ocean, and yet it also may arise from a litany of vexatious locals: the living, the graves, the slaughterhouses, the heaps of filth, the Thames. Of ineffable ontology, this gossamer organic amnion seems more tissue than vapor. An index to its nature is provided by the term “zymotic,” unexplained here, which offers the contemporary mind only the vaguest whiff of comprehensibility. Zymes, or microzymes, organism-like entities of infinitesimal size, were key players in the fermentation theory of disease, the dominant paradigm before Pasteur. (Tied to this history, enzymes issue from nineteenth-century experimental struggles with theories of vitalism and microbial actors in the phenomena of fermentation and illness.) Pervading organic matter, present in both living and rotting tissues, zymes are the objects that are susceptible to influenza here, responding to atmospheric vapors by giving rise to fermentation, putrefaction, or disease, depending on the circumstances.

I am not interested in othering or archaizing an historical theory of disease, but in noting how it haunts our ongoing encounter with contagion, retaining some intuitive punch and practical power. The intimate infiltration of atmosphere into our inward tissues is perhaps better imaged by these early-modern theories than by our contemporary germ concepts. For early moderns, weather and wellness were interchangeable entities, species of a common stock: “At the end of 1741 remarkable auroras were visible,” notes the clerk of the Tenth Annual Report; “in February, 1742, Influenza became epidemic in Saxony; it was at Milan in November, Venice in December, France in March, 1743. In the spring of 1743, it increased the funerals in London to 1448 in one week.” (It was in fact this 1743 epidemic that carried the term influenza into English.) By contrast, images of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 seems to belie the permeability, the porosity, the gaseousness of bodies and nations, the aerosol charisma of viral contagion. Imaged, the viral body has edges, comes into focus as an interloper in realms of discrete membranes, cellular tissues. But it is also what Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, constituting vast and interpenetrating entities, composing mysterious forces; in this guise, the virus eludes microscopy, data visualization, and actuarial compilation.

There’s no arguing that, so far as these things go, modern germ theory is the better set of tools for making facts with. And yet, comparing fermentation theory with contemporary epidemiology, we still can note an inventory of uncanny analogues: viruses are like strange compounds of vapor and tissue, chimeric hybrids of the particulate and the organismic; the zyme—dwelling inwardly in living tissues, secreting its lethal “morbific principle” in that inwardness—seems a pale harbinger of the inflammatory response and the cytokine storm. Pandemic rings in a kind of dark epistemic carnival, an epoch of paradigmatic overthrow—in which nothing may be reduced to anything else; when our knowledge of force is suspended; when we no longer seem to know how one thing relates to another. Past and present, approaches to disease are patterned by a kind of moral choreography: an urgent calculus of foreign and intimate, hygiene and happenstance, social difference and social distance. As caregivers face contagion without sufficient protective equipment or adequate government support, they contend with both the practical knowledge of germ theory and the vaporous, haunting intuition of these atmospheric intimacies.


Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine - Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic (NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine. Via Wikimedia.