Mapping Fever: Disease Archives in Ling Ma’s Severance and My Class’s Google Earth Project
“The city was operating on a different kind of time,” observes Candace Chen, the protagonist of Ling Ma’s alarmingly prescient 2018 pandemic novel, Severance (248). During the devastating global spread of the fictional Shen Fever, Candace—immune to the disease—begins to take long walks to capture the collapse of urban life via her popular photography blog, “NY Ghost.” Compelled to witness the virus’s impact on a seemingly invincible New York City, she asks, “If New York is breaking down and no one documents it, is it actually happening?” (254).
She produces and captions haunting images of devastation: from an influx of security forces, to dwindling masked commuters, to an explosion of vegetation in the absence of maintenance, to lone fevered characters, to absolute abandonment. She responds to comments from her distant audiences, too, venturing out to survey their requested sites across town. In fragmented yet expansive ways, Candace’s photo blog thus becomes both a public repository of nostalgia for an iconic, altered setting as well as the de facto news source on the rampant infection. As one of the students in my “Health and the Humanities” seminar claimed in response to our reading of this novel, Candace’s digital archive, like Severance itself, constitutes a “blurry, disorganized web of images and emotions that pits mundanity against crisis and eerily parallels our memory of the scrambled events of our own pandemic years.”
When I taught Severance in the spring, I was struck by my students’ interest in the main character’s documentation project. They related deeply to Candace as a complicated figure mediating unprecedented events through her camera lens and digital interface. We determined that the photo blog approach feels uniquely equipped to demonstrate how mass illness produces new configurations of time and space, new forms of evidence, and new structural realities that appear contradictory to social myths.
We supplemented our discussion of the novel by engaging with Priscilla Wald’s study of contagion narratives, in which Wald notes how epidemiological tools supply outbreak stories with patterns that tend to conclude triumphantly or tragically (19, 21). While Candace’s digital diary indeed locates itself in the urban setting standard to epidemiological tales, her blog otherwise diverges from what Wald identifies as the formulaic facets of disease investigation, such as patient zero tracking, identification of “primitive” pandemic origins, or profiling of heroic scientists. Instead, we noticed how Candace’s project is productively conflicted about its own characterization, exemplifying disaster as terrifying and natural and calming all at once. Her shots focus not on the core image of fever itself but on scenes which emerge in and around pandemic time, or what Wald might call “the social experience of disease, the image of communicability, and the materialization of interdependence” (18).
Inspired by Candace’s approach, my students and I endeavored to construct a similar digital archive of encounters through which to register our own pandemic experiences and to expand our narrative toolkit in the medical humanities. Since none of us had been practicing photographers during our season of COVID-19 isolation, we collaboratively turned to taking tours on Google Earth in an attempt to mimic the perambulations of the protagonist of Severance and to experiment with form as a way of encapsulating lockdown. Cartographers MacEachren and Kraak have argued that virtual map tours are highly effective presentations that tend to be either “realistic and designed to produce an affective response” or “symbolic and designed to support cognitive processing” (129). In our class experience, Google Earth tours actually seem to straddle the divide between the real and the symbolic in original, experimental ways, allowing a user to mix creative interpretations with satellite imagery. The projects take viewers on an orchestrated (but untimed) journey through renderings of physical space. Any one pit stop may be selectively accompanied by photographs, writing, zoomed-in street shots, bird’s eye visuals, and/or layered drawings. Because users pace the tour themselves or may choose to deviate from the intended order and sights with a simple click, the platform can act like a gallery as much as it acts like a guided linear narrative, toying with the viewer’s senses of space and time.
Our class set out to produce a multimedia tour that charted a collective narrative of COVID-19 in our own city, Madison, WI. We compiled a number of photographs, personal reflections, news bits, and perspectives pertinent to the pandemic into more than twenty scenes mapped across local neighborhoods, emphasizing less-explored images and stories that felt representative of the affective and logistical dimensions of our 2020 experiences. The result was a fascinating, immersive journey through familiar places—our homes, our workplaces, our parks, our hospitals—made strange by the powerful hand of disease. Indicative of a moment in which we were largely unable to stroll down our streets and were forced to substitute online contact for physical presence, the group Google Earth tour project was particularly well-suited for inhabiting the contradictions of health crises: intimacy and collectivity, speed and slowness, emptiness and liveliness, disorientation and coherence. Similar to Candace’s photography blog, the virtual tour revealed how the preset “realistic” images of our environment could be colored by the addition of raw samples and snippets from our own lives. As Candace remarks, “I have always lived in the myth of New York more than in its reality… But toward the end, in those weeks of walking and taking pictures, I came to know and love the thing itself” (Ma 257). Through our simulated journeying, we grew to better know both our space and ourselves.
This mixed visual and textual model of virtual storytelling is for a number of reasons an attractive experiment in contemplating crisis. By grounding narrative in place, creating informal historical records, revealing shadow plots, mingling the personal with the structural, mimicking the fragmentation of memories, and paralleling the digital participation that continues to shape our daily lives, our collaboratively-built Google Earth tour advances a new kind of chronicling.
Furthermore, this digital archiving tool aligns with disability scholars’ and activists’ calls for more flexible and accessible forms that can adequately capture the effects of disability and illness. In her writing on “crip time,” Ellen Samuels says that illness can “extract us from linear, progressive time” and “cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings” (Samuels). Virtual map exploration, at least in our class’s design, validates such sensations of partiality and disorganization, building user-driven connections across entries without allowing any single account to dominate. The dizzying sensation of being jerked across time and space is replicated by the map transitions and can be embraced or abandoned at any time. So, too, are some scenes elaborate and exhausting while others are blunt. The benefit of the Google Earth tour is that it doesn’t require a singular, proper mode of reading, viewing, or navigating its expanses; rather, it offers a participatory and observational tool capable of showcasing and mirroring the disruptive nature of illness itself.
Severance concludes with Candace describing the buildings around her as she walks on foot into a new life in Chicago. “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems,” she announces; “It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out” (290). As we continue to come up against crises in which our landscapes, bodies, and routines are shaken, I’m certain we will find it increasingly crucial that we explore new narrative techniques and multimodal engagement through which to recognize, challenge, derive pleasure from, and survive in such impossible scenes.
See our Google Earth tour, “Capturing Covid Narratives Across Madison,” here.
The header image of this article shows a close-up electron microscope image of COVID-19 virions overlaying a photograph of a main street in Madison, WI, demonstrating how navigation of physical space is often entangled with navigation of health challenges. The collision of microscopic and macroscopic scenery reveals how lived events that seem to take place outside and inside our bodies exist on the same continuum. The two overlapped images are:
NIAID-RML. “Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.” 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Novel_Coronavirus_SARS-CoV-2.jpg.
Yinan Chen. “Street View of Madison from the Observation Deck.” 2013. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gfp-wisconsin-madison-street-view-from-observation-deck.jpg.
Ma, Ling. Severance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
MacEachren, Alan and Kraak, Menno-Jan. “Exploratory Cartographic Visualization: Advancing the Agenda.” Computers & Geosciences, vol. 23, no. 4, 1997, pp. 335-43.
Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017, https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i3.5824.
Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press, 2008.