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Our March 2022 meeting for LMCC took place on Thursday, March 31 at 5:30pm est via Zoom. We discussed Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s 2021 monograph from the University of Chicago Press, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror 1817-2020. Specifically, we focused on:Cover of Epidemic Empire by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

  • Preface: “Politics and Scholarship in a Time of the Pandemic” (pp. xi-xv)
  • Introduction: “‘Islam,’ Terrorism, and the Epidemic Imaginary” (pp. 1-25)

If you missed the meeting, you can still access the text on the Readings page of this site!

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Raza Kolb, Anjuli Fatima. Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror 1817-2020. U of Chicago P, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central,


Some key passages: 

(Edit as of 5-10-2022: In April, we continued our discussion of Raza Kolb’s monograph by exploring chapter 3, “Circulatory Logic,” so be sure to check out the notes and key passages from that discussion as well.)

“We are prone, as Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor, to liken the unknown to the known, as a way to domesticate and cognize it. The habitual tethering of deliberate and widespread acts of violence to plague shows the extensibility of this truth, binding one terrifying unknown to another, creating all manner of epistemic and hermeneutic confusion that ossifies into policy and shapes the world order in ways that are scientifically, analytically, and morally incoherent” (xii).

“Social theories that posited suicidal and life-negating cultures or ‘ideologies’ attributed their spread to qualities of contagion rather than to economic and political disenfranchisement, occupation, harassment, or outright war. Muslims or Islamists were themselves understood nearly universally to be the vectors of this contagion…. The effects of twenty-first century Islamophobia have now reached far beyond the West and are deeply embedded in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic” (xiii).

“It is a cruel irony that the demand for martyrs [‘essential workers’ asked to sacrifice for ‘the greater good’] to the so-called ‘war’ against the pandemic comes from the same mouths that have sought to pathologize ‘martyrdom’ as a behavior of religious fanatics and radical extremists since 2001” (xiv).

“The chapters that follow trace the ‘panic and neglect’ cycle that recent writing about COVID-19 has identified in ‘diseases’ both literal and metaphorical. Regarding the perennial metaphor of the terrorism epidemic, my hope is that facing a viral threat that has already overwhelmed us all and put a stop to the regular functioning of capitalism will also put a stop to the deployment of disease metaphors and the racial and economic injustices they proliferate” (xv).

“… the persistently collapsing political meaning of terrorism and Islam has been the most consistent driver of American foreign and domestic policy for the better part of two decades. This slippage did not emerge ex nihilo on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. A longer view of the colonial record reveals that the Muslim ban and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it are the culmination of extremely specific and durable ways of thinking that tie the idea of contagious disease to the conceptualization of Islam as an anti-Western, antimodern, and rapidly proliferating ideology” (2).

“Terrorism is a disease. An infection. An epidemic. A plague. We have heard these phrases thousands of times since the attack on the World Trace Center in 2001. They are spoken in Paris, in London, in Nice, Boston, Barcelona, Islamabad. As the reference to the war in the Philippines demonstrates, this favorite figure did not originate in the twenty-first century; it is a thoroughly colonial metaphor—one whose translation and circulation between times and places is isomorphic with the reach and endurance of the vast empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (2-3).

“…the dual figure of the Muslim insurgency and the terror epidemic function as philosophical paradigms that enable the consolidation of imperial power from the very highest levels of government to the most granular structures of feeling to which this power owes its social, cultural, and material longevity” (3).

“In its current political form, the idea of ‘Islam’ that ‘we all know’ is not a religion or a culture, not a set of beliefs and practices, not a history, not the Qu’ran or the Hadith. It is a dialectical foil for the West, and a racial category stitched loosely together from the remnants of an Orientalism requisitioned in the service of resource-exploiting colonialism. It is a function of racial capital and nineteenth-century counterinsurgency” (3).

“The twenty-first century construct ‘Islam’ in the Anglophone and Francophone worlds—and by extension in global internationalist discourse—is not just ‘barbaric,’ as in the language of the Middle Ages, but also contagious. Specifically, it is shaped by rhetoric around poverty, disease, and revolution in the British and French colonial holdings, by the metropolitan fear of the colonies and the Orient coming home to haunt and infect the heart of whiteness” (3).

“The medical antecedents and evolution of this mythos of the body are, I will argue, specific to the British and later French colonial and US imperial contexts. The association of Islam with irrational and fanatical forms of violence becomes particularly dominant after the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which the terror of an anti-imperial uprising against Britain was bound to an image of Muslims as crazed murderers and vectors of ideology akin to the actual epidemics that were at the same time decimating the British Army in India” (4).

Epidemic Empire makes two connected arguments. First, that the imperial disease poetics that casts insurgent violence as epidemic is grounded in narrative and scientific practices central to the management of empire and neoimperial formations; and second, that a comparative historical study of the rhetorical commingling of colonial science and counterinsurgency can offer us urgently needed lessons for reading the global political and public health landscapes of today. In our putatively postcolonial moment, we continue to observe the wedding of terrorist violence to the epidemic imaginary in the use of this figure by writers, public intellectuals, lawmakers, scientists, and policy experts along the political spectrum” (4).

“In this book, I ask how the idea of a ‘terrorism epidemic’ had become so pervasive in the first decades of this millennium that it all but ceased to register as figural. Where does it come from, what has it meant, and how has it ceased to mean? How have literary and cultural production held this idea both in and out of view of Anglophone and Francophone readerships for more than two centuries? How do such texts—fictional tellings and journalistic ones, political utterances, films, philosophy, think pieces—influence and transform the practical applications of medicine, diplomacy, and war?” (5-6).

“To illuminate the rhetorical history of this present—shot through with fears of counterdevelopment, global crisis, and the stagnation of waning empires—I assemble in this book a diverse archive of literary, medical, administrative, legal, military, and visual documents from colonial India and Ireland, imperial Britain, French and independent Algeria, the postcolonial Islamic diaspora, and the neoimperial United States. This archive reveals in the colonial encounters of the nineteenth century a genealogy of the concept of epidemic terror emerging from the very heart of Anglophone and Francophone letters” (6).

“Despite their shared obscurity and incoherence, definitions of terror and terrorism reliably betray a unifying, if enigmatic shift from observable acts and events perpetrated by human actors to something more atmospheric and ontological, something distinctly at odds with the human” (8).

“Dialectical Islamophobia, we might argue…is a literary effect, and writers—novelists, lawmakers, journalists, and academic experts—are its agents. As fraught and objectionable as the term ‘Islamist terrorism’ is, I use it in this book in deference to its lived existence in contemporary discourse and to distinguish it from what I see as the largely discontinuous history of anarchist and revolutionary terrorism at the turn of the twentieth century. As a figure of pathogenicity, the trope of Islamist terrorism as epidemic must also be read through the narrative sciences of health, demography, and sanitation in the colonial sphere” (9).

“This book offers a sustained critique of a discipline and form of knowledge that originates in colonial science, but my reading method has also been responsive to and influenced by an epidemiological mode of reading. Epidemiological approaches to public health are social, transverse in both time and space, and multifactorial…. epidemiological reading shares foundational methods with comparative, interdisciplinary, and postcolonial discourse analysis, especially those studies that aim to compass discontinuous events across large swathes of history and geography” (9-10).

“At the same time as I draw from epidemiological insights and optics, therefore, I am also sharply critical of the disciplinary and discursive history of epidemiological science, its related fields of study, and their literatures. The epidemiology of terrorism in particular, now a flourishing subfield, returns the discipline to some of its most unsavory assumptions, motives, practices, and programs…. Terrorism epidemiology thus maintains and justifies military and policing programs designed to prevent the very causes of morbidity and mortality it studies” (11).

“Secondly, although epidemiology can be and very often is practiced outside the framework of governmentality, it is my goal here to excavate the particular relationship between a conception of epidemic and a conception of terrorism, a specifically nonstate and increasingly international phenomenon that is being ‘fought’ by both state and international governmental and nongovernmental means” (13).

“… the figuring of terrorism as epidemic opens up and epistemic and practical convergences between health security and pervasive, seemingly organic forms of violence that escape other existing hermeneutic frameworks. In horizontalizing and proliferating signification, the epidemic figure also disrupts metaphorical systems’ customary relationships between the sign and the referent, surface and depth. The mobile legibility of terror epidemics thus bespeaks a reading practice always in excess of, and nevertheless inadequate to, its object. I’m interested in how this discourse, local and purposive but not necessarily intentional, becomes practice at a global scale” (14).

“In its unreconstructed forms, empire’s disease poetics shapes colonial history and historiography and solidifies the intractable association between violence and epidemic. In so doing, the epidemic thesis produces an ‘inhuman,’ natural enemy in order to negate political demands, and to justify a global security apparatus in defense of ‘humanity,’ a category that is constituted by its exclusion of phenomena perceived as contagious: like terror, like Islam” (17).

“Sontag’s position on the inevitability and immutability of an ordering of society based on an analogy to the human body [Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1990] is a crucial feature of how I understand the process and outcomes of epidemic figuration. If certain forms of violence are metaphorized as epidemic, these metaphors render such forms of violence ‘inevitable’ and ‘immutable,’ just as they justify responses to those forms of violence as compulsory and unassailable. The effect, when we draw this claim through a century of colonial and postcolonial literature, is that a way of thinking about epidemic organizes a way of thinking about terrorism such that the possibility of agency, and with it a certain conception of politics, is obscured, irrespective of what we might think about the content of that politics. This happens both in the projection of adversity and in the response to it, which is consequently made to look like an obligation beyond good and evil, above politics, namely to protect the health of the imagined social body whose anatomy is isomorphic with the very globe. In this scheme, terrorists become subhuman—microbial, cancerous, viral—while their enemies retain status as a collective human body, projecting and protecting a baseline image of health and integrity” (17-18).

“Following Wald [Contagious, 2008], and in my own research in early nineteenth-century epidemic writing, the reading and narrative-making practices of epidemiology constitute their object through narrative at the same time as they make up the interpretive framework by which these narratives can be understood and made useful as predictive and preventative evidence. In this way, epidemiology can be understood as a paraliterary genre that aspires to both social history and scientific prediction” (19).

Epidemic Empire is intended primarily as a contribution to postcolonial criticism and theory and to reading the disease poetics of empire as they undergo various crises and sublimations in the geopolitical landscape that has come into focus in the twenty-first century, a period in American an imperial history that has consistently stretched and redefined the meaning of the most foundational terms of the political: war, enmity, sovereignty, security, and health. one of the main goals of this book is to look at the relationship between these shifting epistemologies, narrative form, and imperial strategy” (19-20).

“In the face of the growing institutional power of ‘world literature’ as a depoliticizing scholarly paradigm, I insist here on the ongoing necessity of postcolonial reading methods that are adequate to the long history of racial capital global health, and the postcolonial geographies of the ‘Islamic’ world” (20).

“The global project of European colonization brought noncontiguous polities, cultures, and histories into contact with one another and in spaces of translation (literal, conceptual, and metaphorical) in ways that would radically impact later political and narrative formations in addition to disrupting the building of national literary canons. Barring the fact of subjugation, there is no homogeneous experience of colonialism, and even less so of anti- and postcolonialism” (20).

“My impulse to continue in this anti- and postcolonial vein is reparative, and is grounded in the observation that in the hands of their most capable practitioners, subaltern history and comparative postcolonial approaches always resist the homogenizing impulse of both Eurocentric comparative literature and the center-periphery models of imperial power and the vehicular languages of empire. I follow this critical practice because it is committed from its inception to the possibilities and promises of a global resistance to economic and political exploitation, crystallized in early and mid-twentieth-century international efforts to repudiate colonialism” (20-21).

“…epidemic fiction always draws into its orbit the cultural and social memories of outbreaks and crises past. The epidemic is, in this sense, a kind of archive, shaped by and responsive to colonial expansion” (21).

“An epidemic materialist historiography brings into view a nodal temporal map of the shared precariousness of progress and order—the constant threat of something nascent or endemic exploding with new force out of the local and into the global, laying waste not just to the material facts of progress, but also to the very idea of it” (22).


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