How do we contain emerging viral epidemics? This is a question that obsesses us of late. Not yet ten years into the third millennium, the world has already weathered a bevy of actual or feared viral epidemics: HIV/AIDS, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), and most recently a novel influenza A (H1N1) also known as swine flu. While these contagious matters have received considered and considerable attention, the biomedically oriented responses that they have provoked also raise a few important conceptual questions about what we mean when we reflect on how to “contain” them. Viral epidemics constitute not only vital events but also scalar narratives—they articulate transformations at the levels of molecules, cells, organisms, individuals, populations, species, ecosystems, technological infrastructures, political economies, and networks of global finance, to name a few, as parts of the same story. Yet in leaning on bioscientific discourses that explain disease causality as naturally occurring within individual bodies (which may also be aggregated into populations), they concomitantly assume that boundaries we use to divide up the world are “naturally” articulated within the political ontology of modern capitalism. By focusing on the paradoxical effects induced by this biopolitical parsing of the life world, and in particular by meditating on “the virus” as a figure that rectifies and obscures this constitutive paradox, this article suggests that we might need to conceive of ourselves as paradoxical beings precisely insofar as we are living beings.

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