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Embattled Hygiene: Narratives of War in U.S.-American Public Health Campaigns

Alexander Scherr

Pages 457 - 474



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This article examines the role of narratives of war in early twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century U.S.-American health campaigns by studying several public health posters with the methods of visual analysis. It offers two complementary approaches to theorize the semantics of war. First, in cognitivist terms, the contribution posits that the conceptual domain of war provides a narrative framework for rendering an invisible danger intelligible to human observers. Second, assuming that public health posters seek to promote hygienic behavior, the article conceptualizes hygiene as a specific form of discipline. With regard to Foucault’s notion that discipline is a form of behavior in surveillance societies, to be internal­ized not only by state authorities but also by citizens, the article argues that public health campaigns employ narratives of war to appeal to their addressees’ awareness of ever-lurking threats to the U.S.-American nation. In so doing, they contribute to the formation of vigilant “citizen-soldiers.” After analyzing the semantics of war in the early twentieth-century “crusade” against tuberculosis, the contribution turns to twenty-first-century online campaigns against COVID-19. It demonstrates that the narratives of war used in these campaigns constitute a striking and recurrent “pandemic pattern” in the U.S.-American imaginary of medical crisis.

Key Words:hygiene; public health campaigns; narrative of war; visual culture; disciplinary power

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