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The Pandemic Perhaps

Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger

Carlo Caduff (Author)


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In 2005, American experts sent out urgent warnings throughout the country: a devastating flu pandemic was fast approaching. Influenza was a serious disease, not a seasonal nuisance; it could kill millions of people. If urgent steps were not taken immediately, the pandemic could shut down the economy and “trigger a reaction that will change the world overnight.” 

The Pandemic Perhaps explores how American experts framed a catastrophe that never occurred. The urgent threat that was presented to the public produced a profound sense of insecurity, prompting a systematic effort to prepare the population for the coming plague. But when that plague did not arrive, the race to avert it carried on. Paradoxically, it was the absence of disease that made preparedness a permanent project.

The Pandemic Perhaps tells the story of what happened when nothing really happened. Drawing on fieldwork among scientists and public health professionals in New York City, the book is an investigation of how actors and institutions produced a scene of extreme expectation through the circulation of dramatic plague visions. It argues that experts deployed these visions to draw attention to the possibility of a pandemic, frame the disease as a catastrophic event, and make it meaningful to the nation. Today, when we talk about pandemic influenza, we must always say “perhaps.” What, then, does it mean to engage a disease in the modality of the maybe?

List of Illustrations

1 • A Ferret’s Sneeze
2 • On the Run
3 • Casualties of Contagion
4 • Experiments of Concern
5 • A Real Test
6 • The Great Deluge

Note on the Cover Image
Carlo Caduff is Lecturer in the Department of Social Science, Health, and Medicine at King's College London.
"The Pandemic Perhaps is particularly timely. The book is well documented but complex... Recommended."—CHOICE
"Caduff’s detailed analysis of the sites, practices, and poetics of scientific authority and claim-making, in and through both uncertainties and indeterminacy, is uniquely insightful and compelling. His attentive, detailed, and discerning ethnography performs its own variety of dramatic work—the text itself is a delightful and gripping read. It is both an erudite collection of insights about that which goes into and makes up the contemporary world of ‘scientific prophecy.’ Caduff offers a surplus of generative ideas and his own brand of creativity and complexity in thinking through the politics of pandemic preparedness."—Raad Fadaak, McGill University
"In Carlo Caduff's brilliant ethnography The Pandemic Perhaps, we enter a world of delayed apocalypse. The HnNn mutation of the influenza virus is on the radar of the WHO; scientists prognosticate the next pandemic; preparedness measures are put in place by public health organizations; a flu vaccine is ready to be shipped by the pharmaceutical company. But, once more suspended, the pandemic does not happen today. To think about the intersection of scientific uncertainty and its relationship to the millennial public health message Caduff's The Pandemic Perhaps is just the right companion."—Karen Jent, University of Cambridge
"It is the strange serendipity of maternity leave that finds me reading 10:04 and The Pandemic Perhaps at odd hours and in tandem; two books for which hurricanes—or, more specifically, the preparations they precipitate—relay the condensed temporality of the coming catastrophe, a dovetailing of past perils and precarious futures for which a New York City ‘on the brink’ provides a hyperactive backdrop. Through often-exquisite prose (Lerner is a poet; Caduff’s formulations can approximate verse) these authors explore the worlds that surface and dissolve under the shadow of prediction and the modes of attention that give them their shape."—Ann Kelly, King’s College London
"I consider this book as a great contribution for the anthropology of life. Caduff’s excellent investigation, both ethnographic and historical, offers a very convincing analysis of the material and conceptual configurations in which viruses are engaged, hence demonstrating the value of approaches which explore the agency of living beings and vital processes. He offers insightful ideas that shed new light on fundamental aspects of life. Focusing on the unique sort of beings viruses are, The Pandemic Perhaps constitutes, without any doubt, a very important work."—Perig Pitrou, Collège de France
"The Pandemic Perhaps presents a thoughtful ethnographic examination of the public culture of danger, specifically as the contemporary sense of impending doom has come to be linked ever more tightly to the assumed threat of a deadly influenza pandemic. More specifically still, it is a journey through the scientific, as well as governmental and corporate, reconstruction of the United States in the name of pandemic preparedness at a time when the biological world appears to be getting out of our control."—Merrill Singer, Medical Anthropology Quarterly
"Carlo Caduff's The Pandemic Perhaps is a story of the influenza pandemic that never was. Caduff tells this story from an American perspective through his encounters with scientists and other actors who engage in the august work of “preparedness,” but in doing so, often draw upon and amplify an apocalyptic imaginary that doubtless shapes scientific and public priorities (and fears). With lucid and critical detail Caduff shows how forms of prophecy (new and old) push catastrophe towards further and further horizons."—Todd Meyers, NYU Shanghai
Caduff’s book adds much to the history and social science of public health and infectious disease and will be of value to anyone interested in global health, influenza, or epidemiology.—Bulletin of the History of Medicine
"Based on ethnographic research among infectious disease experts, this is a fine book exploring scientifically inspired pandemic discourse in the USA... The Pandemic Perhaps is both an invaluable contribution to the anthropology of modern science and global health and a timely reflection on a culture of fear and danger."—Social Anthropology
"The Pandemic Perhaps examines how one virus has mobilized government and capital as well as created and broken scientific reputations. This promises to be an important contribution to the anthropology of modern science."—Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Columbia University

"The Pandemic Perhaps is a revelatory ethnography of the politics of contagion in the twenty-first century. Beautifully written and researched, this book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand our era of infectious insecurity."—Joseph Masco, University of Chicago

"Long thought to be on the verge of disappearing, epidemics have become an object of catastrophic imagination. Through original research located at the heart of what he calls the production of 'the prophetic scene of pandemic influenza,' Carlo Caduff provides an ethnographically rich and theoretically compelling analysis of risk society."—Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

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