In a striking moment in Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address in January 2021, the new head of state asked the nation to join him “in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic.” This was, he told the millions watching worldwide, his “first act as President.” It was a moment unprecedented in Inaugural Addresses. Biden, in both personally gracious and canny political terms, recognized the need for a moment of collective mourning and remembrance, a small act of commemoration as a necessary part of moving forward as a nation.
For their final writing assignment in a course on contemporary art, my students were required to analyze a single artwork from the last sixty or so years. The point was to encourage them to apply the theories of visuality that we’d studied throughout the quarter, and the assignment had one nonnegotiable stipulation: the artwork must be accessible somewhere in Chicago, where our class was held.
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For the past five years, I have been immersed in research on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic and the unexpected ways it weaves its way into modernism. My book on the topic came out last October, about two months before a worrisome new illness began to emerge in Wuhan, China. We all want our research to be relevant, to be able to articulate the critical “so what” question we struggle to answer in grant requests and cover letters. But the sudden thrust into an actual version of the sensory and affective climate I’ve been studying for so long has been surreal and unsettling, like a B movie where an author awakes to find her work has come to life. Even as we expose troubling elisions and injustices within the works we analyze, we may still use theory as a buffer between us and the world, and the past as a shield against our present realities. When a radio program recently approached me about an interview on Viral Modernism, they said that their listeners had been overwhelmed by COVID-19 coverage and would find it comforting to hear about a pandemic safely in the distance. I understood what they meant, even if patterns of viral and human behavior threaten to make the past the present.