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Accepted Paper:

Beyond the deliberate infector: narrating moral ambiguity during COVID-19  
Sheila Bock (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

Paper short abstract:

Stories about transmission in the early months of COVID-19 aligned with and diverged from familiar “deliberate infector narratives.” This paper considers the relationship between narrative framings of moral ambiguity, invisible threats, and the destabilization of clear-cut categories of culpability.

Paper long abstract:

Deliberate infection is a recurring, well-documented motif in the narratives that circulate in the midst of disease outbreaks, ranging from the plague to HIV/AIDS, and now to COVID-19 (Bird 1996, Brunvand 1989, Goldstein 2004, Kitta 2019, Lee 2014, Mayor 1995, Smith 1990). In addition to giving voice to broader anxieties about contamination and one’s own susceptibility to infection in times of uncertainty, stories about the intentional weaponization of a deadly disease, as transmitted through the body (or bodily fluids) of infected individuals, work in powerful ways to unambiguously designate scapegoats, assign blame, and reinforce boundaries between self and other. They are morality tales that identify clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable behavior, offering insight into the moral structures of social worlds.

The sudden emergence of the COVID-19 crisis laid bare, and in fact intensified, ruptures in the broader social contexts within which stories about the transmission of the new virus circulated. This fraught social context set the stage for emergent narrative patterns in the early months of the pandemic that offered alternate constellations of intent, consequence, and blame. This presentation identifies how these emergent narrative patterns both aligned with and diverged from the familiar “deliberate infector narratives” documented during earlier outbreaks. In the process, it considers how these multiple narrative framings both allowing for and resisting moral ambiguity can deepen our understanding of social contexts shaped by invisible threats and the destabilization of clear-cut categories of culpability.

Panel Narr03
Open paths - coping with uncertainty through ambiguity in and of narratives [Narrative Cultures Working Group]
  Session 2 Friday 9 June, 2023, -