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Ebola: or the Anatomy of a Semiotic Analysis

posted: 10.30.14 by Jack Solomon

A few days ago, a piece of fan mail flooded in.

So OK, it was really an email from a former student hoping that I would address the reaction to the Ebola epidemic.  At first I was reluctant to go anywhere near the topic (for reasons that will emerge presently), but I’ve come to the conclusion that this could be a very good “teaching moment” about semiotic analyses (besides, I can hardly afford to disappoint my few readers here), so here goes.

The first thing is to review exactly what a cultural semiotic analysis does.  It moves from the denotation of a sign or semiotic topic (that is, what it is or what its primary significance is) to its connotation (that is, to what it suggests or signifies at a broader cultural level).  This movement proceeds by way of a placement of the denotative sign into a system of relevant historical and contemporary associations and differences.

A lot of different people have already essentially done this with respect to the Ebola epidemic.  Some are arguing, in effect, that the epidemic signifies (connotatively) a failure on the part of the presidential administration.  Such an interpretation implicitly (or explicitly) accordingly situates the sign within a system that includes the upcoming November elections, the current unpopularity of the president, and a general (or, at least, widely reported) sense that things are not quite under control in this country at present.  Of course, this interpretation is politically motivated and is usually presented for partisan electoral purposes.

The converse interpretation, which also often has political overtones, interprets the reaction to the Ebola epidemic as an act of mass “hysteria,” and (at least implicitly) decries those who are using it either to bash the president.

Then there is the way that the mass media are using the epidemic as click bait and for other audience-generating purposes. With my local CBS news radio affiliate now including regular “Ebola Updates,” even though the disease has not appeared in Los Angeles, I can readily see how the mass media have more or less construed the sign of Ebola as something looking like this ($).

But underlying the political and the commercial significations of the sign “Ebola” lies something more fundamental, which is, quite simply, fear.  It is this fear that makes Ebola something that can be exploited for political or profit making purposes, and it too needs analyzing.

Ebola fear stems from a number of unknowns.  First, there is the unknown involving just what, denotatively, Ebola is.  How infectious is it?  Is it the “coming plague” that we have been warned about?  Will it mutate into something more infectious?  Could it spiral out of control?

To these questions no one can offer confident answers.  This is why we see some pretty strong reactions to the epidemic that are not partisan nor a reflection of media greed.  Such reactions come from nations like Jamaica (which has banned in-flights from affected west African nations), individuals like Los Angeles’s Congresswoman Maxine Waters (who has called for Ebola preparedness at Los Angeles International Airport—  ), from Mexico (which blocked the docking of a Carnival cruise ship on Ebola worries) and from colleges that have discontinued student admissions from Ebola-affected countries (like Navarro Community College in Texas).

And then there are the nurses, who have been asking for better equipment and training for a long time in the wake of the epidemic.  Some of the new protocols that are now appearing (including medical hazmat suits that leave no portion of the skin uncovered, and which also call for trained observers to watch medical personnel as they take their suits off after patient care exposure) are not reassuring.

When we take such things into consideration, we can see that the Ebola epidemic fits into yet another system.  This system includes all the signs that potentially fatal infectious diseases (which have been on the run ever since modern medicine began to develop both vaccines and the antibiotic treatments that floored such one-time killers as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the casual infections that we now hardly notice thanks to antibiotics) are making a comeback.  AIDS is a signifier in this system, and so is the very real problem of antibiotic overuse that is already undermining the effectiveness of the “silver bullets” we have come to take for granted.  Within this system, Ebola can be very scary indeed.

For this reason, I am inclined to withhold judgment.  I simply am not certain what Ebola is—what, that is, its full denotation will prove to be.  The sources of my information (the public mass media), give me not only sensationalized reports but also fumbling misstatements from the CDC (a lawsuit against the CDC seems to be brewing in Dallas on the part of the second Ebola-infected nurse whose actions in the wake of her initial fever her lawyer claims to have been misrepresented).  Since I do know that the Ebola virus is a really nasty killer, and that it is infectious (much more infectious than AIDS), I am not inclined to interpret Ebola fear as mere “hysteria.”  Basically, I think it is better to wait until we know more about the denotation here before moving towards connotation.

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