"All Smell is Disease": Miasma, Sensory Rhetoric, and the Sanitary-Bacteriologic of Visceral Public Health

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Emily Winderman
Robert Mejia
Brandon Rogers


In this essay, we interrogate the power of sensory rhetorics to craft what Jenell Johnson (2016) defines as a “visceral public”: a public bound by intense, shared feeling over a perceived threat of boundary violations. Specifically, we situate miasma—that environmental degeneracy produces bad smells carrying disease—as a historical disease etiology overtaken, but not fully displaced, by the insights of germ theory. This sanitary-bacteriological-synthesis is capable of constituting
visceral publics so adeptly because germ theory’s explanatory power as a disease etiology continues to rely on the rhetoric of sight and smell as a set of publicly accessible sensory engagements. To illustrate the raced, classed, and gendered consequences of this sanitary-bacteriological-synthesis, we offer a comparative analysis of two images of disease capturing the public imagination: the early 20th century typhoid fever and the 2015–2016 Zika virus outbreak.

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