This article centers on cultures of anxiety and threat across the Pacific. Threat is an especially useful category for writing about a “rising” China, which is often imagined both as a site of localized environmental ruination that prefigures imminent global collapse and as a source of contamination that easily crosses national borders. Particularly in the global North, China has become a focal point for ecoanxieties that are shadowed by longer histories of perceived racial and cultural threat. This article confronts the idea of China as threat by investigating representational cultures across the Pacific. It focuses on a series of recent events mediated through textual and visual forms that unfold as a contemporary ethical drama between species—the human and the pig: the 2009 swine flu pandemic, a 2013 episode in which thousands of pig carcasses were found floating in Shanghai’s Huangpu River, and the 2013 purchase of Smithfield Foods, one of America’s biggest pork producers, by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui. To understand the movement between the representation of threat and the violent responses that flare up in its wake, one must pay attention not only to quantifiable risks but also to the cultural forms that characterize anxiety in the Anthropocene. Ultimately, what is at stake is not just geopolitical relations or public health but also the lives and deaths of the animals that are so often slaughtered to protect humans.
By the time you read this, COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, will have killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people around the world. Even after years of studying historical outbreaks and watching films and reading stories about devastating pandemics, real and imagined, I failed to anticipate the medical, social, and economic chaos that COVID-19 would unleash. I recognized the basic epidemiological and narrative patterns fast enough—a Chinese origin, possible “exotic” animal vectors, debates about wet markets—but not the devastating scope of this ongoing disaster. What has come as no surprise, by contrast, and what I hope this article will help readers better comprehend during the current crisis (and those that will inevitably follow), are the violent expressions of racism, xenophobia, and speciesism that have spread with the pandemic. The threat of contagion in the modern world has always exceeded the epidemiological. Distorted by anxieties about race, species, nation, gender, and sexuality, diseases are quickly modified (“Wuhan flu,” “gay plague,” “swine flu”) and people and animals easily vilified. The idea that zoonotic diseases originating in China pose a threat that is intrinsic to “Chinese-ness” is not new, though it has been given new life by COVID-19. Watching the progress of the disease from the confines of my constricted world, seeing how quickly it amplifies preexisting inequalities, prejudices, and geopolitical conflicts, it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. It also hard not to feel that this article, which traces cultures of threat and viral anxiety back and forth across the Pacific before the COVID-19 pandemic, is inadequate given the world we now inhabit. Yet faced with the impossibility of making sense of epochal events that are only beginning to unfold, I offer “Transpacific Maladies” as a partial and accidental history of the present.
This article is about China, threat, and anxiety: anxiety about a world in which high modernist fantasies of a dominated and rationalized nature are giving way (slowly and only partially) to a growing awareness of the existential threat of anthropogenic climate change, mass extinction, and global pandemic, all unfolding against the backdrop of geopolitical realignment. The world is in the midst of an uncontrollable experiment that is reshaping the planet and the life it sustains. For many, this experiment is characterized by a profound anxiety about what is to be done now and what will become of the planet in the future. Understanding contemporary cultures of anxiety requires a better understanding of threat itself: not just how it shapes and often distorts conceptions of difference but how it drives policy and politics. Threat is an especially useful category for writing about a “rising” China, which is often imagined both as a site of localized environmental ruination that prefigures imminent global collapse and as a source of contamination and contagion that easily cross national borders.1 Particularly in the global North, China has become a focal point for ambient ecoanxieties that are shadowed by longer histories of perceived racial, cultural, and economic threat. It is easy (and essential) to critique the demonization of China; the challenge lies in disentangling the imagined from the very real and present dangers that country’s environmental and public health problems pose at home and abroad.
This article confronts that challenge by investigating representational cultures of threat across the Pacific, primarily in North America and China. It focuses on a series of recent events mediated through textual and visual forms that unfold as a contemporary ethical drama between species—the human and the pig. I argue that, to understand the movement between the representation of threat and the violent responses that flare up in its wake, one must pay attention not only to quantifiable environmental and public health risks but also to the cultural forms and “queer scales of relation” that characterize anxiety in the Anthropocene.2 Only with the help of this cultural matrix does the full range of connections between disparate perceived threats and the real-world actions they inspire begin to emerge.
As a figure of possibility rather than probability, threat refers not to what is likely to happen but to what could conceivably happen. Threat, like risk, requires acts of the imagination, speculative fictions of the plausible designed not simply to create fear but to inspire action. Despite their similarities—and because they are so often used interchangeably—it is important to describe where threat and risk diverge, if only to better understand what happens when they come together. A number of things differentiate risk from threat in common usage. First, while one might benefit from taking certain kinds of risks, threats are best avoided altogether. Second, whereas risk is more likely to be used to quantify one’s exposure to danger (the risk of death from zoonotic contagion increases when humans and animals live in close proximity to one another), threat is used to foreground sources and zones of danger (diseased animals sold in wet markets in southeastern China pose a threat to human life). Finally, risk is a comparatively practical concept; it can be used to measure the likelihood that something bad will happen, a major flu pandemic, for example, while also serving as the basis for actions intended to reduce the loss of life or economic disruption should a pandemic occur.3 In contrast, the threat of contagion, which is often expressed figuratively or narratively, is channeled through preexisting conceptions of racial, species, and national difference and shot through with profound anxieties about the integrity of the imagined boundaries that maintain those differences.4 Perceptions of risk and threat might be shaped by similar structures of feeling, but threat and its associated anxieties are far more volatile than risk and its affects.5
Despite these differences, practical approaches to risk are often impossible to separate from imagined threats. As Neel Ahuja has argued, for example, the risk of transborder epidemics in the context of American empire has often overlapped with the specter of racial “engulfment,” a threat that has justified the transformation of both “bodies and [nonhuman] ecologies” into “space[s] of technocratic control.”6 How we imagine and represent threat has real and often dire material consequences, not only geopolitically but also ecologically and at the level of species, bodies, and microbes. This article begins by looking closely at the relationship between the cultural imaginaries that mediate anxieties about the threat of swine flu, a zoonotic disease that moves between animals and humans, and the often violent effects those anxieties produce in China and North America. Rather than focus on a single malady, I use swine flu to begin tracing a broader geography of threat and the disordered biopolitical, zoopolitical, and environmental regimes—what I call transpacific maladies—that it shapes for both humans and animals like the pig. I begin far from China, in the comfort of an American bedroom, the setting for “H1N1,” a poem by the American poet Robyn Schiff that erodes fantasies of geographic and species distance by conflating the threats posed by the 2009 swine flu pandemic with sea-level rise and colony collapse disorder. Next, I turn to Shanghai and the mysterious 2013 appearance of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River, one of the city’s main sources of drinking water. This episode attracted international media attention, though in China most critical responses to it appeared online, in the form of viral images and darkly humorous memes that imagined increasingly unstable borders between species. In closing, I return to America shortly after the Huangpu pig float, when the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui acquired America’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, against the protests of politicians and agricultural producers, who saw the Chinese company as a major threat to national food safety and security.
There are many links among the cultural objects and events I discuss here, yet they do not comprise a linear narrative. By juxtaposing discrete but interrelated events and figures that “cross” the Pacific in unexpected ways, I thematize the uncomfortable proximity of things we would prefer to hold apart but whose intimacy continually rises to the surface of global imaginaries. My goal is to show how threat operates at “queer scales,” shifting among disparate events and contexts and producing complex cultural imaginaries as well as official policy. Moving between North America and China and between Chinese and American sources makes it possible to begin mapping a transpacific geography of threat—a potentially deadlier malady than H1N1—that goes beyond newly energized Yellow Peril narratives to encompass the fears and experiences of Chinese cultural producers as well as the lives of the nonhuman animals that are so often sacrificed to protect humans. I argue that the systems that manage life and death today in America, China, and other places around the world are often deployed to respond to anxieties that exceed, and also distort, the actuarial logic of risk. In the examples I discuss below, the threat of zoonotic contagion from pigs is not coterminous with the risk of outbreak; it activates a range of complex anxieties and inspires different representational tactics for figuring what are viewed as increasingly unstable borders between nations and species. As we have seen both in this age of unprecedented human displacement and in our current moment of pandemic lockdown, it is at least partly the perception and strategic representation of threatened borders that are fueling xenophobic political movements around the world. It is impossible to understand fully the dehumanizing tactics of politicians who warn of diseased refugees and animal-like migrants without also considering the role played by nonhuman animals in contemporary cultures of threat.7
In the Name of Zoonosis
Zoonoses range from the relatively familiar if still dangerous—salmonellosis, rabies, toxoplasmosis—to the stuff of biohorror: bubonic plague, Ebola, SARS. Some of the most devastating zoonoses to humans, however, are also among the most common: strains of influenza that originate in domestic pigs and domestic and wild birds, known colloquially as swine flu and bird flu.8 The 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed upward of 50 million people, was caused by a strain of the H1N1 swine flu subtype. A strain with the same structure was responsible for the far milder 2009 swine flu outbreak. Influenza viruses that infect humans tend to mutate in unpredictable ways, making it difficult to determine the original source of infection, as well as any “future forms” they might take.9 According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, influenza “can drift and shift through birds and animals . . . [emerging] with rearranged surface proteins that create different strains of the virus.”10 It is through this process of genetic drift that animals become key elements in what Celia Lowe describes as “ ‘multispecies clouds,’ collections of species transforming together in both ordinary and surprising ways.”11 As “media for the production of further mutation, further ‘cloudiness,’ ” animal bodies become “a material relay for producing more quasi-species blurriness.”12
That animals will serve as “media” for the production of such diseases is entirely predictable.13 What is less predictable, and hence more threatening, is when such diseases might cross (and thus blur) “the heavily invested species border between human and nonhuman animals” and how virulent they will be when they pull us into their particular multispecies viral mix.14 Shifting configurations of surface proteins make all the difference between a disease that ravages bird populations, but leaves humans mostly untouched, and a global pandemic with a 60 percent human mortality rate.15 The amorphous metaphors at play in both the science and cultural theory of zoonosis reflect anxieties not just about deadly diseases but also about the instability of borders, the “permeable ‘species barrier’ ” that separates humans from nonhuman animals and the imagined geopolitical borders that continue to protect conceptions of national identity (and alterity).16 As many scholars have argued, and as current events in North America and other places around the world frequently remind us, in moments of political and public health crisis, biosecurity and national security become one and the same.17
The risk of outbreak, on the one hand, is high: influenza is a yearly occurrence that has killed hundreds of millions of people over the last century. The threat of outbreak, on the other, is more a matter for the imagination. What Priscilla Wald terms “outbreak narratives” have long been a staple of scientific, journalistic, and popular entertainment forms in America. The modern outbreak narrative “follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment. As epidemiologists trace the routes of the microbes, they catalog the spaces and interactions of global modernity.”18 In American popular culture of the 1990s, outbreak narratives centered on infectious diseases from Africa, especially Ebola-like hemorrhagic fevers, which were figured as gruesome and highly racialized threats, often spread by exotic animals. More recently, films such as Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011) have drawn on the 2003 SARS epidemic, which originated in southeastern China, for inspiration.
The modern outbreak narrative has a dramatic arc well suited to Hollywood films. Yet zoonotic diseases and the outbreaks they sometimes cause can look quite different when they appear in nonnarrative forms. Schiff’s “H1N1,” for example, draws on but ultimately subverts the “formulaic” epidemiological plot in favor of a more amorphous poetics of contagion. Written during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, when Schiff was pregnant, “H1N1” opens with the poet carefully monitoring her temperature and avoiding all physical contact, the “mercy” and “hazard” of a touch that may or may not bring infection. What is introduced as a fear of infection, however, quickly morphs into a fear of transmission:
“H1N1” begins with a passing echo of the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s 1957 poem “Sow,” about a neighbor’s prized pig, but draws more substantively on a story from the Gospel of Mark (5:1–39), in which Jesus encounters a man possessed by a demon. When Jesus asks the demon its name it replies, “My name is Legion . . . for we are many.” Just as Jesus is about to cast Legion out of the man, they beg him to send them into a herd of pigs. He does, and the pigs immediately drown themselves in a lake.20 Schiff reworks the New Testament’s tale of divine exorcism into a creation story for swine flu, a viral infection as demonic possession seeking always to return to land and humans. She fears that she will become a latter-day host for Legion, thereby infecting the child turning in her womb, which she calls her “little sow” later in the poem.21
For the pregnant poet, the threat of contagion plays out on and inside her body, but it also opens out onto the world she tries so hard to avoid. Legion’s infected swine may have cast themselves into the waves, but the contagion they carry is only biding its time there, riding the encroaching tides, trying and “and nearly succeed[ing]” in returning, “every day.” Climate change functions as an unexpected point of contrast here—Schiff keeps cool (and healthy) even as the planet warms and seas rise—but it also erases the physical and conceptual distance on which contrast is founded. What climate change, like zoonosis, threatens is our ability to “negotiate distance”—the hard-fought, if always illusory, separation of certain humans from other humans and the human from the nonhuman—from an advantaged position. Schiff tries to stand her unstable ground by avoiding contact with the outside world and the “hazard of mercy” that touch brings. Yet the world is calling from inside the house and from within her womb. Her fetus is not just a potential victim of zoonosis but also a potential vector and, strangely, another mother, a “little sow” that already occupies the body she is trying to protect from infection. In a chain of animal metaphors, it even becomes a “little bee,” kin of the dead insects that Schiff finds inside her window screen and a potential biosentinel for the species-level catastrophe of colony collapse disorder:
The pigs and bees in “H1N1” trigger a metaphorical reflex that brings us from Schiff’s cooling body back to her child and to the literary mechanisms of her poem. Yet the fixed positions that make poetic substitution and contrast possible have been compromised. Zoonotic disease and rising sea levels do not allow for the safe distances required for protecting life and initiating stable tropes of substitution. Schiff’s vulnerability to disease, which she might transmit, as Legion did, to her “little sow,” blurs the subject-object distinction between mother and child as well as the species difference between fetus, piglet, and bee. The threat of infection—and the weakness of “the enemy the body”—brings humans into a more than metaphorical relationship with pigs and bees while also collapsing the distance between intimacy and violence. “H1N1” depicts a personal battle to maintain a safe distance, but it exposes a violence that does not need to “return” because it is already potential within intimacy—the uncanny intimacy of embodying another life, the suggestion of violence in the equation of pregnancy with both warfare and the raising of animals (“little sow”) for meat, the threatening intimacy of touch, and the risks taken by those who
It is here, where the boundaries between species grow blurry and “captivity and slaughter” exist alongside motherhood, that we might begin tracing not only how threat and anxiety can lead to violence but also how violence designed to enforce boundaries more often than not exposes how interconnected humans and nonhumans have always been. That the raising of animals for use by human beings “can,” as Jacques Derrida claims, “be called violent in the most morally neutral sense of the term” is widely, if not universally, accepted.22 What concerns me here, however, is not just the violence of industrial meat production but also the kinds of violence that ensue when we “brush up against” potentially dangerous animals and decide to kill them not for food but “in the name of zoonosis,” that is, to protect humans from the threat of zoonotic disease.
The Face of the Other
If “H1N1” imagines an encroaching world from the confines of a bedroom, it also opens out onto a broader geography of zoonotic disease, to those places beyond the seas of the poem, where the “question of the animal” and the violence of slaughter take on new meanings—these places include Schiff’s and America’s NAFTA “neighbors,” Mexico and Can-ada, which were hit especially hard by H1N1, as well as China, which is consistently figured as ground zero for the zoonotic diseases that make mercy a hazard. “H1N1” is not about China any more than it is about climate change, but it is nonetheless embedded within a global imaginary that sees certain kinds of transpacific intimacy with China as threatening. As the epidemiological trajectory of the film Contagion suggests (and as the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced), Asia in general and China in particular have come to occupy a special place within the prospective viral imaginary of both public health discourse and popular culture.23 In Contagion, zoonotic disease, which is eventually traced back to a “multi-species cloud” of bats, pigs, and humans, operates like a medical contrast dye, spreading out from the contact zones of Hong Kong and Macau to illuminate the capillary-like threads that make possible but also threaten a globalized world.
Outbreak narratives like Contagion sensationalize and racialize the spread of disease for entertainment purposes, but they do so by drawing directly on widely accepted epidemiological science. Southeastern China, which includes important migratory flyways, is considered especially susceptible to the spread of viral materials between wild and domestic animals. These migratory patterns, together with the persistence of “wet markets,” where live animals are sold and slaughtered, the supposedly traditional Chinese penchant for eating “wild” animals, and the high population density and global connectedness of cities like Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Wuhan, create the ideal conditions for the development and spread of influenza and other zoonoses.24 In China, we are so often told, culture and nature work together to facilitate the development of novel diseases and to increase the likelihood of global pandemic.
What generally gets lost in both epidemiological discourse and popular culture, however, is what happens to actual animals when humans feel threatened by their diseases.25 In practice, our shared vulnerability to disease, which is both real and imagined, has led again and again to the massive slaughter of animals, not for food production but to protect humans.26 While most of these culls take place beyond urban centers, where companies and officials can control the spread of information, disquieting pictures of mass animal illness and slaughter do occasionally find their way into the world. Photographs of mounds of slaughtered sheep and cows burning in the English countryside after a 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or the bloated pigs that mysteriously appeared in the Huangpu River in Shanghai in the spring of 2013 (fig. 1) have become unsettling reminders of what can happen to animals when their vulnerability to diseases, not all of them zoonotic, is seen as posing a threat to humans.
These images are disturbing for many reasons. What is perhaps most striking, however, is how little separates these animals’ deaths due to disease or public health campaigns and their planned deaths as future food products or by-products. The timing and purpose of slaughter might differ, but not the fact that they are already being raised to die. Perhaps the most significant difference is that, under conditions of crisis, we sometimes get to see the aftermath of mass slaughter, a sight normally carefully hidden from view by the infrastructure of industrial farming. If, as John Berger and others have argued, animals have mostly disappeared from view in developed countries, appearing only as “animal signs,” or as disembodied pieces of meat, then perhaps images of mass slaughter or death from illness are so shocking because they return to us embodied animals and the consequences of our control over them.27 The visible mass cull functions as what Lauren Berlant calls an infrastructural “glitch” in the industries that reproduce animal life for human consumption.28 It reveals the otherwise concealed stages of a production chain designed to turn animal bodies into animal products, which are in turn marketed using cute (and frequently anthropomorphized) animal images. It forces an encounter that unsettles because it shows us the death that we prefer to forget and reminds us—as Schiff’s “H1N1” does—that the illnesses that have killed these animals or justified their slaughter might also infect us. In such moments, when animal bodies return to us, the spatial and conceptual boundaries that we place between species and between what is violent and what is not violent begin to grow indistinct.
This is precisely what happened in March 2013, when the citizens of greater Shanghai discovered roughly 16,000 dead pigs floating in the Huangpu River and its tributaries, important sources of Shanghai’s drinking water. The pigs were traced upstream, to Zhejiang’s Jiaxing County, where farmers produce a large quantity of the pork consumed in Shanghai and Hong Kong. While some were shown to be infected with porcine circovirus, which does not infect humans, nobody knows what, exactly, killed the animals.29 Politicians and public health officials downplayed the risk to the public, though reactions on the internet were swift and mordantly humorous, with photoshopped images, cartoons, and short stories mocking both official explanations and the media’s coverage.30
As an animal that is seen as uncannily human and paradigmatically animal, the pig was uniquely positioned to figure the deeper anxieties about destabilized species boundaries that this episode brought to the surface. In one image originally posted to the online platform Weibo, the species boundary takes the form of the transparent surface of the Huangpu (fig. 2).31 At first glance, this cartoon-like image appears to stage a face-to-face meeting between a human looking into a body of water at a pig. Both are depicted from the neck up, their noses aligned and their mouths fixed in the same rigid line. The human’s hair, which sweeps down toward the surface of the water, is mirrored by the pig’s ear, which reaches up in the other direction. While the human hovers over the pig, the figures’ formal symmetry gives them equal weight. Rather than a confrontation between species and across water, the image seems to show a reflection, an image of the animal in the human and the human in the animal that is simply facilitated by water as a mirroring surface. Indeed, this image, which has circulated widely online, is sometimes accompanied by a caption that reads, “Passing thought: The Huangpu River is a mirror of the Chinese people” (Ougan: Huangpujiang shi yimian zhongguoren de jingzi 偶感: 黄浦江是一面中国人的镜子).32 In this “passing” moment of self-recognition, the threat of waterborne contamination forces the human into a previously unimaginable intimacy and shared vulnerability with the pig. The self is mirrored in, but also blurs into, the animal other.
The idea that intimacy of this sort might lead to a better understanding of shared vulnerability resonates with some approaches to animal ethics. Cora Diamond, for example, argues that a sense of our “sheer animal vulnerability, the vulnerability we share with” animals, rather than debates over what characteristics or capacities animals possess, should serve as the basis of an animal ethics.33 Haiyan Lee similarly claims that “we act ethically not only when we answer the summons of another being whose claim on us is grounded in blood or law, but [in] his or her or its vulnerability.”34 Lee’s approach to the recent history and possible future of “stranger sociality” in China draws on the writings of both Emmanuel Levinas and Zygmunt Bauman, who locate “the ethical in the face of the other.”35 Following Diamond and Lee, the face-to-face encounter between an equally vulnerable human and pig would seem to constitute the grounds for a transspecies ethics, a moral relationship with the species “stranger” cast as a Narcissus-like encounter with the estranged self. A less sanguine viewer, however, might see the pig and human faces as expressing not vulnerability but anxiety about what the figure across the central dividing line might do to its counterpart. If the pig threatens to infect the human and thereby pull it into a dangerous “multispecies cloud,” the human has the power to kill off its alienated reflection. Rather than simply offering the Chinese people a mirror, the Huangpu is also a window onto the zoopolitical structures that organize animal life and death in China today. It reminds us of the vulnerability of the pigs we eat while also exposing the dangers of concentrating massive numbers of animals in limited spaces.
The Chinese Kind
The Huangpu image suggests how ambiguous and even dangerous face-to-face encounters between species can be. The threat and anxiety that it embodies are defined by proximity, the “disadvantaged positions” of people whose lives are shaped by serious environmental problems and animals whose lives are controlled by people. While the more affluent citizens of Shanghai and Beijing are sometimes able to insulate themselves from the worst of these problems (unlike their poorer urban and rural counterparts), even they are far closer to them and thus more likely to be adversely impacted than those of us consuming images of pollution and disease outbreaks in China from across the Pacific. At a distance of thousands of miles, speculation allows for very different visions of proximity and difference.
From the other side of the Pacific, the face-to-face encounter of Chinese people and animals might suggest not shared vulnerability but, rather, a threatening human-animal intimacy that is a “traditional” component of Chinese civilization. This has, in fact, become a common refrain in the public health and media discourses surrounding zoono-ses.36 As one writer explains, “Influenza epidemics and pandemics usually emerge first in southern China . . . where huge numbers of pigs, domestic ducks, and wild waterfowl live in traditional ecological intimacy.”37 Determining where and how the human ends and the pig begins thus depends on how you understand the threat of disease and, in the case of the Huangpu episode, pollution. The forced encounter between species might illuminate a shared vulnerability and lead to an ethical “stranger sociality.” Or, it might evoke ideas of “traditional ecological intimacy” between Chinese people and animals that hastens the exchange of viral material and necessitates the imposition of more stringently biosecure relations among humans, animals, and nations.
But what exactly does “traditional ecological intimacy” mean? What are we to make of the juxtaposition of the cultural implications of traditional with the natural and scientific associations of ecological? Is intimacy mere proximity, or something more? Answering these questions requires a brief detour into the history of the pig in China and the West. According to one typical account from the early twentieth century, Chinese pig farming was historically defined by its small, “family” size.38 Given China’s historically high population density and its shortage of arable land, crops such as corn were rarely fed to pigs. Instead, swine, which lived in closed pens attached to or inside of the home, were fed scraps and other “refuse”; their waste was then used to fertilize the farmer’s fields. The efficiency of this agricultural system depends on the proximity of input and output. For the author of this account, however, the intimacy of pigs and Chi-nese people is something that is encoded in the very DNA of Chinese culture, its written language. According to his sources, the Chinese word for home, jia 家, consists of two pictographic components, one of which represents a roof (mian 宀) and the other of which represents a pig (shi 豕). In other words, in China, home is where the pig is. In this common etymology the character as a whole is assumed to be pictographic, visual evidence for “traditional” cohabitation.
Scholars of China and the pig today are less likely to support the findings of their research pictographically, yet this linguistic shortcut to a “traditional” interspecies intimacy still appears in popular and journalistic writing on zoonoses.39 There are a number of plausible explanations for why this tenacious etymology of jia is incorrect.40 What matters more than finding the correct etymology, however, is identifying the hyper-meaningful quality of the character as it is commonly interpreted. It is this interpretation that appeared in an image and explanatory text on an American blog during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. If the etymology of jia found in texts on animal husbandry and flu epidemiology historicizes agricultural practices, this example treats “the Chinese character for ‘Home’ [as] a good mnemonic for flu vectors.” The text continues, “In ancient China, and still in rural China, families raise their animals below or near their house. Thus a building with animals is typically a home. And we know that many human viruses jump to us from places where animals live close to humans—as in China.”41 This explanation is accompanied by an illustration that first juxtaposes and then superimposes the components of the character for jia onto images of a house and a smiling pig standing up on its hind legs.
There is little to separate this blog post’s explanation and pictorial etymology of jia from the language of “traditional ecological intimacy” that racializes the discourse surrounding China and zoonotic disease.42 It suggests that at the heart of the ubiquitous rhetoric of threat is a vision of the Chinese peasant as inhabiting a domestic space in which the border between species is constitutively absent. The pig is not just close to the farmer and their family in this decoding of jia; it takes their place within the home, making the domestic and domesticated indistinguishable. Pictographic interpretations of this sort are meant to emphasize the historical importance of the pig in China, but they create an ahistorical image of cross-species intimacy that erases boundaries between animals and Chinese people. The pig, more than any other animal vector, comes to represent a human double.
That anthropomorphized pigs and piggish humans abound in both Chinese and European cultures suggests a shared sense that there is something undeniably human about pigs and porcine about humans. One of the most famous characters in Chinese literature, for example, is the pig-headed, human-bodied Zhu Bajie 豬八戒 (zhu 豬 means pig) from the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West. “Pigsy,” as his name has been translated, is a slave to bodily desire: he is lazy, stupid, and in every way possible a sign of the animal in the human. The pig as a symbol of gluttony and filth is equally common in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, where it is haunted by anti-Semitism.43 The dubious logic of such associations depends on ideas about the “natural” tendencies of swine—their enormous appetite, their ability to gain weight rapidly, their willingness to consume almost anything, their penchant for eating their young (what ethologists call “savaging”), and their supposed filth. The easy movement between seemingly natural and blatantly metaphorical—between real and symbolic pigs—is made possible by what Nicole Shukin describes as the “mimetic capaciousness” of the animal, which “functions as a hinge allowing powerful discourses to flip or vacillate between literal and figurative economies of sense.”44
What this vacillation occludes is the status of modern pigs as “historical products of social labor,” tightly woven into not only Chinese agricultural practices but also the mechanisms of global capitalism over the last two centuries.45 Modern commercial pig breeds are, in fact, the distinctly unnatural product of interbreeding European and Asian pigs during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unlike their Asian counterparts, European pigs, for most of their history, were let loose to feed on nuts in forests. As European populations expanded and forest cover dwindled, it became necessary to produce breeds better equipped to survive closer to home, on food waste and agricultural by-products. “The Chinese kind” of swine, which was penned early in its domestication, had this very capacity and was embraced by breeders (fig. 3). The resulting hybrids, which could be raised on food waste and gained weight at an incredible rate, are the ancestors of today’s factory farmed animals and (this history of breeding notwithstanding) the source of some of our ideas about what is “natural” to the pig.46
The cultural and racial implications of traditional in “traditional ecological intimacy” erase these transcultural and interspecies histories. Indeed, the more relevant traditions are Orientalism and Sinophobia, both of which are deeply invested in the idea of Chinese timelessness, a racial trait that allows Chinese people to maintain something that the fully modern human has lost: a physical connection to their own animal entanglements. The traditional of “traditional Chinese farming” or “traditional ecological intimacy” thus places the human and the animal in a simultaneously unnatural embrace (from the perspective of modernity) and a natural embrace (from the perspective of evolutionary history). The fact of transspecies viral infection and its subsequent potential for transnational pandemic beyond the context of certain backward “traditions” blurs in a new—yet also a very old—way the boundaries between what is natural and unnatural, traditional and modern, human and nonhuman. As Wald argues, “The ‘primitive farms’ of Guangzhou, like the ‘primordial’ spaces of African rainforests, temporalize the threat of emerging infections, proclaiming the danger of putting the past in (geographical) proximity to the present.”47 Put another way, zoonoses like swine flu infect the modern with its own repressed past.
Bizarrely, while epidemiologists and public health officials continue to publicize the “pathological state of hybridity” that can result from some kinds of human-animal intimacy, genetic engineers are now actively trying to erase the species boundaries between humans and pigs.48 Biological and anatomical similarities between humans and pigs mean that the latter is among the most promising sources of organs for xenotransplantation (the transplantation of animal tissues into humans). The rapid development of CRISPR gene-editing technology has allowed scientists to avoid deadly human immune responses and facilitate xenotransplantation by producing human-pig hybrids or chimeras. The eventual aim is to raise miniature pigs (around 150 pounds) in which pig organs are replaced by human organs that can be genetically customized for particular patients and harvested as needed, precisely the future imagined by novelist Margaret Atwood in her postapocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy.49 If Foucauldian biopower first “constituted the human as species,” then we have entered a new phase in the capitalist production and reproduction of life in which “the mutable borders of species . . . [have become an important] horizon of accumulation.”50 The crossing of these borders is now simultaneously a major threat to, and the next great goal of, capital.
Bringing Home the Bacon
This brief history of the modern (and future) pig shows how its symbolic status—not just its semiotic proximity to filth, disease, and the Chinese home but also its role as a figure for the gross animality of humans—is entwined with its status as a material commodity subject to genetic manipulation and capitalist exploitation. Pigs, it turns out, are very big business, especially in China. Over the last four decades, per capita pork consumption has skyrocketed there, and in 2012 Chinese farmers produced five times as much pork (some 50 million metric tons) as their American counterparts.51 While many Chinese farmers still keep small numbers of pigs close to home, there has been a steady push toward industrialization and commercialization since the beginning of the “reform and opening” era initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.52
In China, as in other countries, disease outbreaks in swine populations have played an important role in encouraging government-supported shifts to large-scale industrial farming, with devastating impacts on smallholder farmers and the environment.53 The assumption is that factory farming reduces the threat of disease transmission both between animals and between humans and animals because it is better equipped than “traditional” farming not only to isolate domestic animals from diseases carried by wild animals but also to respond to outbreaks quickly when they do occur.54 The irony is that factory farming, which places large numbers of animals in confined and often unhygienic spaces, creates the ideal conditions for the spread of disease. The 2009 H1N1 outbreak, for example, was initially traced to a pig farm in La Gloria, Mexico, owned by the American pork producer Smithfield Foods. La Gloria locals and workers at the farm had complained for years about unhygienic conditions and contaminated groundwater, though Smithfield denied that there were problems at their facility, and the Mexican government eventually cleared the company of any wrongdoing.55
In late 2013, just months after the Huangpu River pig episode and four years after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Smithfield was purchased by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui (now operating under the name WH Group) for close to $5 billion. When Shuanghui’s bid was first announced, it generated patriotic hand-wringing among American politicians and agricultural producers, who saw the deal as a threat to national security. As a letter sent by producer, consumer, and rural advocacy groups to high-ranking officials in the Obama administration argued,
The proposed takeover of a major U.S. food manufacturer poses significant potential threats to U.S. security interests; undermines food security in the United States and worldwide; threatens the safety of the U.S. food supply . . . and accelerates the international consolidation of the food and agribusiness industry to the detriment of American farmers, rural communities, the environment and consumers.56
In a more lighthearted vein, accounts in the press at the time were full of puns and jokes about China bringing home America’s bacon. In both cases, the pig was described in figurative terms that emphasized its national qualities, first as the focus of national security and second as the subject of folksy bacon humor. Among financial analysts, however, the general consensus was that Shuanghui was less interested in industrial espionage than in securing a reliable source of safe meat for the Chinese market, which has been rocked by scandals, including Shuanghui’s own use of the banned steroid clenbuterol and, of course, the Huangpu pig float. The need for alternative sources of China’s favorite meat has grown even more pressing since 2013. In August 2018, the Chinese pork industry began fighting a massive outbreak of African swine fever (ASF), which some have taken to calling “pig Ebola.” While ASF does not infect humans, it has decimated pig populations, cutting China’s pork production in half and driving demand for imports from America and other major pork-producing countries.57 Over 200 million pigs are likely to have died from ASF or been culled since the outbreak began, and the disease continues to spread throughout the country.58
Much as it might have been designed to reduce food and health safety concerns among Chinese consumers, Shuanghui’s purchase of Smith-field Foods intensified American anxieties about China’s “rise.” To allow China to assume control of such a large American company, one that produces a product as culturally significant as bacon, was to invite the economic opponent into the national pantry. When it comes to China, transpacific threat, whether zoonotic or economic, takes on a viral quality, representing the embodiment and assimilation of a foreign entity that renders the body uncanny, transforming the self into a factory for the replication of the other. What the letter protesting Shuanghui’s purchase did not mention, of course, is that the American meat industry is already very much a foreign affair. Throughout America, animal farms and abattoirs are staffed by large numbers of foreign-born workers, and undocumented workers are often hired to do the dirtiest and most dangerous work.59 It is no coincidence that the largest workplace immigration raids carried out in America, including August 2019 raids that led to the arrest of nearly 700 people, have taken place at meat-processing facilities.60 These same workers have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, as evidenced by the infection of more than 700 workers at a South Dakota Smithfield Foods pork processing plant, one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in the United States.61 Folksy references to America’s bacon ignore not just the history of modern pigs and the cruelty of factory farming but also how deeply reliant America’s meat industry is on our “neighbors” in Central America, China, and other parts of the world. As Alex Blanchette’s ethnographic work on the American swine industry suggests, the often Spanish-speaking humans who help raise America’s pigs have even come to be seen as a threat to industrially managed animal life, leading some farms in the American Midwest to limit human behaviors, relationships, and movements in order to protect the lives of farmed animals. Blanchette argues that new forms of biosecurity and corporate management are starting “to reverse the typical hierarchy of species” in an effort to “confine people in porcine worlds.”62
Earlier in this article, I asked how the question of the animal might change when a sense of shared vulnerability is not the basis of an interspecies ethics, as it is for Diamond and Lee, but the impetus for preemptive slaughter on a massive scale. As we have seen, the touch that Schiff is so careful to avoid not only connects her and her unborn child to a biblical tale of demonic possession but also links her to the existential perils of climate change, the violence of an industry that relies on animals descended from the breeding of Chinese and European swine, the “traditions” of Chinese farming, the creation of pig-human chimeras, and, much closer to home, to humans who are consistently dehumanized under capitalism and in right-wing political discourse. Under queer conditions of transpacific relationality, mercy becomes tinged with violence when it brings contagion, not only because it raises the threat of illness or death but also because the fear of contagion justifies the mass slaughter of animals and the slow economic and cultural violence of separating some people from the animals on which they rely and segregating others “in porcine worlds” that institutionalize violence on a monumental scale. In tracing the intersection of the symbolic and material dimensions of the pig across multiple representational forms and contexts, I have modeled a method of analysis for a world defined not by the management of risk but, rather, by the transpacific maladies generated by contemporary cultures of threat and anxiety. Schiff’s “H1N1,” like the Huangpu image and the Shuanghui protest, stage moments of uncanny intimacy in which the boundaries between species and nations begin to blur and the self is forced to confront the possibility that it will become (or is already) the other. Each in its own way asks us to consider how the hybrid symbols and grim realities of our ecological and economic present are being—and soon to be—borne.
This article has changed a great deal since it originated in a series of talks I gave in 2013 and 2014 at the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, Princeton University, and Northwestern University, and I have many people to thank for helping me see it into print. In addition to those initial audiences, who inspired me to return to this work once I completed my first book project, I would like to thank colleagues at Northwestern who have provided invaluable and timely feedback, especially Sarah Dimick, Michelle Huang, and Tristram Wolff. A special thanks also to Jean Comaroff, Ari Heinrich, Brian Lander, Jerry Zee, and Ling Zhang for their feedback, encouragement, and assistance at key moments. At Social Text, editor David Sartorius and managing editor Marie Buck were unfailingly helpful and efficient in moving the manuscript through the review and publication process. I am grateful also to the two anonymous reviewers, who provided challenging but thoughtful feedback on my initial submission. Finally, I am indebted to my dear friend Jerry Passannante for encouraging me to submit this article to Social Text.
Images of smog-choked cities and polluted countryside have been a staple of media coverage of China’s environmental problems for well over a decade. In 2014, a number of major news outlets, including the Huffington Post, CBS News, and the Daily Mail, ran stories suggesting that Beijing was even projecting virtual sunrises on giant screens in Tiananmen Square to replace the smog-obscured sun. The sunrise was, in fact, part of an advertisement and not a replacement for the absent sun. Bischoff, “No, Beijing Residents Are Not Watching Fake Sunrises.” For more on how China is figured as both site and source of pollution, see Byrnes, “Chinese Landscapes of Desolation”; Zee, “Downwind”; and Chen, Animacies, chap. 5.
Risk is the subject of a vast quantitative and applied field of study that frequently serves as the basis for legal and political decision making. In Ulrich Beck’s now-famous formulation, we live in a “risk society” in which risk is closely managed and often leveraged for gain. Beck, World Risk Society.
For an overview of risk studies and its implications for environmental cultural studies, see Heise, Sense of Place, pt. 2, esp. chap. 4. For an analysis of how perceptions of risk shape discourses of endangerment as well as conservation practices, see Heise, Imagining Extinction, introduction, chap. 1. For an account of how risks associated with transspecies and transracial intimacy have shaped American imperialism, see Ahuja, Bioinsecurities.
In theorizing the concept of zoopolitics, Nicole Shukin argues that the “bare life of the animal other subtends . . . the biopolitical production of the bare life of the racialized other.” Hence, the tendency to conflate the nonwhite racial other with the animal is itself contingent on the zoopolitical subjection of the animal. Shukin, Animal Capital, 10. See also Ahuja, Bioinsecurities, esp. xiv, 5; and Da Silva, “Donald Trump.”
For epidemiologists and public health officials, virus subtypes are more precisely designated using a letter and number system, such as H1N1, that identifies two types of surface proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, that control initial infection and viral multiplication, respectively. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “Influenza Basic Research.”
Perhaps not incidentally, atomized animals also help prevent diseases. The word vaccine is derived from the Latin for cow, vacca, and animal matter (including fetal bovine serum and amino acids from cows, eggs from chickens, and gelatin from pigs) often serves as an important element in the production of vaccines. For more on the capitalization of animal bodies by pharmaceutical companies, see Ahuja, Bioinsecurities, 10, 20.
The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 subtype has been of special concern to governments and public health organizations around the world. Although it does not move easily between animals and humans, when it does infect humans, the mortality rate has been high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives a mortality rate of 60 percent, though Lowe suggests a much higher rate of around 80 percent during a 2005–6 outbreak in Indonesia. Lowe, “Viral Clouds,” 628.
For more on the different interests at play in biosecurity “practice and theory” during outbreaks, see Lowe, “Viral Clouds,” 633–36. For a description of the elaborate biosecurity infrastructure of isolation used to prevent the spread of disease in some industrial pig farms in the American Midwest, see Blanchette, “Herding Species.” For an account of how national security and biosecurity infrastructures combined to protect Canada from a disease that supposedly originated in Mexico while ensuring the continued flow of seasonal laborers from Mexico during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, see White, “Viral/Species/Crossing.”
Schiff, “H1N1.” The 2009 H1N1 pandemic also figures prominently in Eula Biss’s writings on pregnancy and vaccination in On Immunity.
Plath, “Sow.” The Gospel story appears in a slightly different forms in Matthew 8:28–34 and Luke 8:26–39. There, after Jesus casts demons out of two possessed men and into a herd of pigs, residents plead with him to leave the region.
A sow is a female pig, “esp. a domestic one used for breeding.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “sow,” n.1, www.oed.com/view/Entry/185355 (accessed April 17, 2020).
The theme of China as a source of contagion appears broadly in journalistic writing, public health discourses, and popular culture. Mike Davis’s Monster at Our Door is an excellent example of how readily these forms are combined.
A number of scholars writing in the aftermath of recent zoonotic disease outbreaks but before the COVID-19 pandemic have explored the racialized imagery that informs both epidemiological and disaster narratives. See Zhan, “Civet Cats”; and D’Arcangelis, “Chinese Chickens.” Mel Chen’s Animacies demonstrates that there is significant overlap between how the threats of viral contagion and toxic contamination from China are figured. For more on outbreak narratives and the role of southeastern China as a source of disease, see Wald, Contagious, 7.
In America, there is a long history of imagining immigrants, from China in particular, as a source of infectious diseases. Anti-immigration efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often centered on Chinese migrants as vectors for leprosy and sexually transmitted infections. See Shah, Contagious Divides; and Ahuja, Bioinsecurities, chap. 1.
According to one report, during the 2005–6 H5N1 outbreak in Indonesia an estimated 400 million chickens were culled, roughly 1 million chickens for every human death (Lowe, “Viral Clouds,” 637). For more on religious politics and animal culls, see Hitchens, “First They Came for the Pigs.”
It is possible that the burgeoning pork industry in the region was simply unable to handle normal mortality rates, which ranged from 2 percent to 4 percent, or upward of 300,000, of the nearly 8 million pigs raised a year in Jiaxing at the time. Davison, “Rivers of Blood.”
Following the March 2013 incident, I collected images and other related materials from the internet to form a small archive. Some of these materials are still circulating online, but others are no longer available. These images have a viral quality that can make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify producers and “original” sources. Many of the images that circulated after the pigs first appeared adapted promotional materials for the film Life of Pi (2012), for which the Taiwanese director Ang Lee had won the Best Director Oscar just the month before. In one poster for an alternative film titled Life of Pig, the Bengal tiger that occupies a lifeboat with the film’s main character, Pi, has been replaced by pig carcasses, many more of which bob in the water around the boat. See China Media Project, “Life of Pig.” For additional examples and analysis of imagery related to the Huangpu River episode, see Riemenschnitter, “Contemporary Chinese Landscape Aesthetics.” The Huangpu episode has also recently inspired a feature-length film, Dead Pigs (2018), by the Chinese American director Cathy Yan.
This image is generally attributed to the political cartoonist Meng Chenshang 梦晨伤, though it no longer appears on that user’s Weibo site (www.weibo.com/u/1421804340).
For a survey and analysis of the discourse of Chinese tradition in writings on zoonotic diseases, see D’Arcangelis, “Chinese Chickens.”
For an excellent history of the pig in China from prehistoric domestication to the present day, see Lander, Schneider, and Brunson, “History of Pigs in China.” The pictographic reading of jia 家 appeared recently in a Reuters article about an outbreak of African swine fever in central China. Mason, “World’s Top Pork Firm.”
According to David Keightley, jia 家 depicts a sacrificial pig within a temple, rather than a family home. Keightley, Ancestral Landscape, 111. Another explanation for the formation of jia 家 is that the pig (shi 豕) component is actually an abbreviation for, or alternative to, jia 豭 (wild boar; composed of the pig “radical” and a phonetic element, jia 叚), which would have been adopted in the process of character formation because it is homophonous with the word for home (jia = jia), and not for its meaning. This theory is difficult to prove because we do not know exactly how 豕 or 豭 would have been pronounced in ancient China, when 家 was first developed, though it matches our understanding of how most Chinese characters have been formed. There is a viral or immunological reading of this process: if 豭 is indeed the original source of the pig in home, then we can assume it was adopted in the formation of 家 because the word it stands for, jia, is homophonous with the word for home, jia. The logic of phonic proximity determines what can enter a new character. Like a virus that resembles a human blood cell, 豭 enters 家 without struggle because it seems at home within the regulatory system of character formation. Once inside 家 however, 豭 sheds its graphic phonetic component (叚), becoming 豕. The phonetic roots of character formation are lost and a mutant/viral significance finds a comfortable space from which to replicate its accidental logic.
Similar claims about “traditional” Asian practices were made in the wake of the 2005–6 Indonesian H5N1 outbreak. Lowe, “Viral Clouds,” 638.
In 2003, the Thai government seems to have used an outbreak of bird flu as an excuse to crack down on village-level poultry farming in some areas in favor of massive, factory-farm operations owned by an influential businessman and run on the “Tyson” model. Davis, Monster at Our Door, chap. 8.
Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform et al., “Re: Shuanghui’s International Holdings.”
National Public Radio, “Swine Fever.” The Chinese government has recently released frozen meat from its strategic pork reserve to keep already inflated prices from increasing further. Kuo, “China to Auction 10,000 Tonnes.”
The number of cases of COVID-19 associated with Smithfield Food’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant continued to grow as this article underwent copy-editing. Sternlicht, “Smithfield Foods Becomes Largest Coronavirus Hotbed In United States.”