Our Viral Companions

Our Viral Companions

Sara DiCaglio

In “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Regina Kanyu Wang imagines a world in which a digital amalgamated being, “cyber-cuscuta,” emerges from digital bits throughout the internet. As Wang discusses in the Us in Flux conversation with Athena Aktipis accompanying the piece, the idea of the digestive and reproductive space of the microbiome partly inspired her thinking about cyber-cuscuta, particularly in the ways that the symbiont evolves and differentiates to digest different forms of information, and develops both in helpful and harmful ways in concert with the human. Wang writes,

You may compare us to the denizens of your own microbiomes. There are different kinds of microbiota, feeding on sugar, fat, fiber, and other substances. And there are different species of cyber-cuscuta, ones with a particular taste for oil price charts, Tetris gameplay streaming, or whale songs…. Sometimes, various species of us collaborate to digest vast assemblages of data… Sometimes, species of us also compete with each other, fighting for the same rare and desirable chunk of data… However, we have never destroyed your data. Our process of “eating” differs from yours.

The story considers what it means to live in symbiosis with the other, with the microscopic, the human, the technological, the social, the affective. 

As theorists (Hyrd, Landecker, Lorimer, Beck) have moved to think about the material networks in which we live, the microbial has featured broadly, spurred on by a need to confront issues like the over-sanitation of houses, the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and microbial issues in digestion. It’s not just that our bodies are multiple, but the microbial itself; Hannah Landecker explains, “bacteria have epidemics of plasmid infection; plasmids have epidemics of transposon and integron infection. Our epidemics have epidemics; our populations have populations”. (42) This idea of multiplicity, of the world of the microscopic that stretches out far beyond our vision and knowledge, is no longer new to our thinking about what embodiment and humanity mean. Collectively, we have become better at thinking microbially, beginning to consider microbial relations in disparate sites such as yogurt marketing, fecal transplantation, antibiotic use, and the National Institute for Health’s Human Microbiome Project. We, as Wang presses us to explore, have begun to consider what we live in relation to, what non-human entities make us human, and what those entities are in relation to our symbiont selves.

Into this moment of thinking about symbionts, holobionts (Gilbert), the microscopic, and the submicroscopic comes our current pandemic, waltzing in with its viral glory. Like other pandemics before it, and like the microbiome I discuss above, the coronavirus forces us to contend with the wide array of our global connections, of our not-aloneness, as zoonotic illness crosses from animal (bat, bird, monkey, pig, mink, depending on the pandemic and the moment) to human and sometimes back (might we remember the infected Bronx Zoo tiger from the early days of the coronavirus?). Beyond human-scaled species, the viral exists in a broader set of concerns and communities—existing around us, aerosolized, spike-proteined, within us, latent, active, in traces of t-cells, vaccination relations. We live, as with the microbial, in constant relation with viruses.

But unlike the microbial turn, particularly within broader culture, our theories of symbionts and other creatures with which we might happily—or at least neutrally—live seem to stop at the viral. While we have to a limited extent decided we can live in peace with some microbes, making our sourdough and waiting before using antibiotics on our children’s ear infections, thinking about viruses has not similarly changed. Though we do not medicate that ear infection because it might be “just a virus,” that is not to say that we have agreed that we should live in harmony with that virus. The long history of military-infused virus discourse makes the viral always already an other in the us-versus-them division. As Ed Cohen writes, “the reason we (i.e., humans) want to contain such [viral] diseases is precisely because we (i.e., living organisms) already contain them”. (15)

In this piece, I want to explore how thinking about virality might complicate our microscopic thinking. Because even as we have expanded our view of the microbial, the viral remains framed as an invading enemy, as solely replicating. Though we might “go viral” in ways that both disappear and yet remain somewhere in the memory of cultural contexts, our thinking about viruses and viral time remains limited. To go viral is to reproduce uncontrollably and, generally, unexpectedly. That reproduction is what matters, whether we are talking about a viral video, an idea, or a virus itself. Our collective sense of what a virus is, its adjectival form, is all about the reproductive.

In that reproduction, however, is a fleetingness. The viral does what it does, it moves on, destroys, finds more hosts. It might reprogram the original host, taking control of it and how we come to understand it. It might otherwise overtake the host, making them fade away except in service of the viral. But what this understanding doesn’t tend to offer is a particular sense of the idea of longevity. In other words, in general popular depictions of viral activity, the virus coexists only insofar as is in its interests to search and destroy.

However, viral infection—with both Covid in particular and with other viruses more generally—is not such a simple on and off switch. Have you had chickenpox? Then within your body remains the chickenpox virus, sometimes reactivated to lead to shingles, and sometimes simply dormant. We co-exist with the viruses in our bodies, are changed by them; they lie dormant, a part of our holobionts. (Gilbert) HIV may be the most readily accessed version of this, but this is more broadly true of viruses in the aggregate. I argue that our expansion of thinking about the microbial and microbiome needs to be accompanied by attention to virality in all of its forms—reproducing, latent, entangled—in order to more fully capture the realm of lively activity in which we live. And though we may make room for some models of long-term viral coexistence—the flu and common colds as inescapable parts of our world, as well as HIV as a long-term presence in certain bodies and (as I talk about later) in relation to certain identities, these are the exception rather than the rule. Cultural models of thinking about the viral, and specifically about our current pandemic, fail to consider many of the many instances of long-term viral existence.

And thus, we find ourselves bewildered by the ability of children who contact no one who is readily ill getting sick during lockdown. As an article in the New York Times published in late June explained to confused parents of children who had been socially isolating, viruses—including, for example, roseola and coxsackieviruses—do not leave the body after an infection, but rather lie dormant; they can then be reactivated, which can lead to viral shedding and reinfection (Wenner Moyer). Within our current pandemic, we find ourselves struggling, even more than a hundred years after the persecution of “Typhoid Mary,” to come to grips with the concept of asymptomatic carriers. Ideologies of guilt and patient zeros, as well as models of viruses as awaiting their moment to control everything, make it difficult for us to think about the longue durée of the viral, about things like “long-Covid” and other viral interactions—harmful, neutral, and beyond. (Greenhalgh, Trisha et al.) 

And so, within this piece, I use “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” and considerations of the microbiome as a contemporary model of symbiosis as jumping-off points through which to think about these questions of viral coexistence, infection, and contemplation. How, I ask, might we reimagine the viral in ways that make room for its temporal complexity, and what might this kind of thinking help us do to better comprehend the pandemic and our pandemic-inflected future?  My analysis allies itself with work related to our multispecies entanglements. (Kirskey, Helmreich, Lowe, Cohen) As recent analyses of SARS and H5N1 (Lowe, Cohen) illustrate, our thinking about viral containment and relations often fails to think through the lateral, multispecies relations and changes that occur through the viral. But here, I am particularly interested in considering the language and phenomenon of latency, of not just the viral as definitionally intermingled with the genetic, but its inherent intermixing, its latency, its geographic and temporal connections. 

Let’s step back into definition. Viruses were discovered at the very end of the nineteenth century, though they could not be imaged until the early 1930s. Their discovery hinged upon their size—they were found only after being passed through a device that filtered out all bacterial-sized—that is, microscopic rather than submicroscopic—particles. Though in the twenty-first century the discovery of giant viruses such as the mimivirus, which are closer in size to and even larger than some bacterium, has altered this size-based definition of the viral, the boundary-busting nature of those viral entities reflects broader definitions of the viral as category-less. The common explanation of viruses as neither living nor non-living reflects a similar discomfort with the breakdown of these categories—what do we do with our definitions of life if such things exist? Viruses cross boundaries; they gather and collect and move through and switch up and arrange genetic material. As Ed Cohen points out, “because viruses must participate in the cellular processes of organisms in order to replicate, their existence testifies to the partiality of definitions that localize life within bounded membranes and against the world (as immunological theories usually suppose)”. (19)

Stefan Helmreich further traces the relation between the viral and the genetic, particularly thinking about the lateral shift that allows organisms and viruses to co-evolve and co-mingle. He writes:

Viruses, entities imagined as other to the body and its health, as foreign material that poisons the familiar space of the self, are alien to vitality yet enmeshed with it. Viruses operate by employing the replicative genetic apparatus of the hosts they infect to make more copies of their own genetic material, a propagation they are unable to accomplish on their own. In the baroque history of evolution, viruses have not only or merely parasitized organisms in which they have taken up tenancy but also laterally contributed—think tangled tree of life—to the genomes of those creatures, as viral material has been transduced into host DNA. (192)

But this understanding of the virus as co-mingled with the genetic stuff of life—as a co-producer or co-existent of the human—fails, I’d argue, to move to the popular understanding of viruses, which still rely on concepts of the viral as ultimately reproductive, and solely so. This failure is important for many reasons—but long-Covid and other contested illnesses are a particularly vital and practical one. For, in addition to causing acute infections, viruses are thought to be responsible for numerous chronic conditions—conditions that remain contestable and complex. Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), often appears after viral infection, and these contested illnesses press on our definitions of what evidence, infection, and embodiment can bring together, as Abigail Dumes discusses in her reading of the (bacterial) contested illness of chronic lyme.

But this contestability, I argue, also appears in the form of cultural forgetting. Viruses linger; they also alter our immune system, as well as potentially having long-term effects on other parts of our bodies. But in the case of our ongoing pandemic, we can see the erasure of viral complexity in the drive to make the virus quantifiable. Each day since March, I have practiced the almost religious ritual of visiting media and public health websites to check the available numbers in my county, my current state of Texas, my home state of New York, and an assortment of other states and geographic boundaries. I can recite with confidence the viral counts of my locality, state, and the nation for the past several days, as well as their assorted reported deaths and the state’s hospitalization numbers. This meeting point of the available data, my facility with numbers, and my anxiety provides an overview of the public data: here is what we know, here is what we share.

Others with perhaps differently wired math brains and different political and public interests might fixate on other regularly shared data: the positivity rate, the number of active cases, the number of recovered cases, or the regional hospital census data. All these numbers tell us different things to different effects, emphasizing case counts, care and resources, and mortality over different temporal and spatial divides. However, none of these numbers report anything about long-term Covid infections. Recovery numbers relate infection to a binary, a switch, wherein after a period of time—generally two weeks—patients, minus a percentage assumed to be either hospitalized or dead—patients are categorized as recovered, as back to normal.

The exception, perhaps, to the rule of understanding viruses as something other than companionate, or at least something other than long term, comes in discussions of HIV. Framed as a disease that is inextricably a part of the body, HIV has long been treated in and of itself an identity category. We can see this even in practices of risk calibration around HIV, wherein certain bodies—male bodies that have had sex with other male bodies, particularly, as well as those who may have used intravenous drugs—are marked as never fully HIV negative by discourse such as blood-donation regulations. These bodies are not marked just as always at risk of HIV, but always accompanied by that risk, a risk that is seemingly inescapable. Viruses do not work in isolation. As Celia Lowe has argued in her analysis of the H5N1 virus strain of 2003, we might think of viral pandemics as part of a broader “multispecies cloud” in which “viral and vital materials reassort, changing the taken-for-granted boundaries not only of species, but of nations, organizations, and economies”. (643) And during the epidemic of 2013-16, Ebola survivors struggled to become reintegrated into their communities due to worries about infectiousness. Moreover, Ebola has been found to persist and lay dormant in unique spaces throughout the body, including most notably the immune-privileged eye. (Shantha et. al) Though there is certainly much more to be said about these two diseases than can fit in this brief piece, I mention them here because of the way that they highlight the paradoxes of rhetorics of the viral: bodies are marked as virally inflected even without infection, while other bodies are marked as infectious while recovered, leaving little room to think about the complexities of post-viral conditions, viral persistence, and latency. 

To return to Wang, though the primary vein of thought that cyber-cuscuta emerges from here is microbial—marked by an interest in digestion as well as its forms of digestive evolution—there is also inarguably a virality about the cyber-cuscuta, which centers itself around its replication: “During all these years, we have never generated anything new. We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you.” The very entrance of information coming to life calls upon a long-lived science fiction trope, from Blood Music to even the much-maligned first-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “I Robot, You Jane.” This trope mixes the viral, the atomic, and the digitized to centralize reproduction, to imagine a latency that only awaits its moment to strike. The conflation of the computer virus, viral phenomena, and the virus focus on a malevolent digitization, a mindless replication. But, returning to the above quote, cyber-cuscuta also connect ideas about replication with remixing and change. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” in its thinking about the microbial and digestive, pushes us to think beyond the viral, replicative trope, to consider how the digital might also be fodder for the microbial, how remixing and digesting might do something other than destroy.  

To understand the viral beyond replication is also to rethink that very idea of replication as mindless, as having no effect other than zombification. Moreover, it is to invite broader thinking about what we ignore in our thinking about the viral and microbial—from environmental and animal husbandry considerations (Squier) to better considerations of patient experiences with chronic illness. (Dumes) If we have redefined our understandings of what counts as a part of “us” to make space for the microbiome, how do we continue to talk about viruses as invaders, as other? There’s a reticence to think outside of morality, outside of good and bad. In this model, the virus exists unequivocally on the bad side of that equation, the enemy. And yet we live with them all the time. I do not mean or want to suggest that pandemics function as a possibility or, frankly, anything uplifting; they are moments of grief, of endless piles of grief.  And, certainly, during this moment I have no particularly warm and fuzzy thoughts to share about the viral, with whom I feel little affective relation in my socially distanced corner. But even, or perhaps especially, at this moment we must recognize that the viral is the stuff with which we live—not just during this or any other pandemic, but at all times. They are realities, and, as a result, they are things to—things we must—think with. And thinking better with pandemics, thinking better with the viral, allows us to more fully comprehend how the lived experience of viral companionship, viral mixing functions. Dormant, latent, asymptomatic, symptomatic, aerosolized, other—outside of us and within. To allow our thinking about the microbial to turn to companionate species, to understand our symbiotic relationship within our holobiont selves without also considering the viruses and plasmids also in that relation is to overlook a broad swath of our viral condition. Might we think, then, beyond simple replication and replacement? Beyond the metaphors of zombification and children of the corn, leaning into complexity, into fraught companionship, balance, imbalance. Through such rethinking, we might begin to consider the lives of those—of all of us—living with the viral with more care and nuance, with more attention to what makes us, connects us, reproduces in and through us, is us. 


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Sara DiCaglio is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her work, which is interested in embodied relations on multiple scales, has appeared in journals such as Body & Society, Feminist Theory, and Peitho. Her current book project, tentatively entitled Tracing Loss: Feminist Anatomies of Reproduction, Miscarriage, and Time, argues for a reintegration of reproductive loss into models of pregnancy in order to broaden our cultural discourse surrounding reproductive justice and maternal-fetal health. More information about her work can be found at saradicaglio.com.

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