Sonia Shah’s The Fever

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

A moment of textual serendipity, when, in the midst of reading Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years for a Pop Matters review, I decided to begin Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity and discovered that the first chapter is titled “Can The Mosquito Speak?”

I’m still not sure if it spoke, but through Mitchell (and throughout Shah’s book), the mosquito drops clues. Shah’s book sets out on a terrain that Mitchell articulates early on in his book: “Disease often moves with the changing movements of people, and modern war causes large numbers to find routes outside existing networks of trade and migration.” The interesting thing about Shah’s The Fever, to me, was how she consistently mapped out the changing face of malaria in relation to the changing face of empire, and the subsequent merging of modern warfare and modern disease treatment, or what in Mitchell’s words boils down to “physical elimination of the enemy species” where malaria is concerned.

Mitchell’s central project is to acknowledge, examine, and uncover the ways in which “human agency, like capital, is a technical body, something made” – which is something that became brilliantly clear as I made my way through Shah’s book. Shah’s book, I think, undertakes a similar mission even though it’s marketed as popular nonfiction instead of an academic text. Mitchell’s interrogation into the concept of human agency is his attempt to destabilise and dissolve the binary order that social science and its attendant disciplines are determined to (re)create. A binary order in service of agency and expertise (versus nature and the material world), which in turn acts in service of technopolitics and imperial ambitions. As Mitchell explains, in the Egypt situation there were specific factors at play:

The connections between a war, an epidemic, and a famine depended upon connections between rivers, dams, fertilizers, food webs, and, as we will see, several additional links and interactions. What seems remarkable is the way the properties of these various elements interacted. They were not just separate historical events affecting one another at the social level. The linkages among them were hydraulic, chemical, military, political, etiological, and mechanical. No one writing about Egypt in this period describes this interaction. There are studies of military tactics, irrigation methods, Anglo-Egyptian relations, hydraulic engineering, parasites, the sugar industry, and peasants. But there are no accounts that take seriously how these elements interact. It is as if the elements are somehow incommensurable. They seem to involve very different forces, agents, elements, spatial scales, and temporalities. They shape one another, yet their heterogeneity offers a resistance to explanation.

I’m blathering about Mitchell’s book, which is fascinating, although I’m only about a quarter of a way in. But this post is supposed to lead you to my review of Shah’s The Fever, a book that, truth be told, I thought was going to be sheer drudgery. It turned to be lively, sharp, and engaging – largely because, I suspect, Shah never wrote like she was dumbing down the facts and research for a bleary-eyed audience, and also because I felt her project mirrored Mitchell’s – consciously or not – determined as it was to complicate easy, pat conclusions about the nature of human agency vis-à-vis “mother nature” or the material world.

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