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Book in Progress

Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature

Infectious Affect: The Phobic Imagination in American Literature provides an intellectual history to explain how phobia first came to prominence as a category of analysis in American literature and politics, 1765-1900. In current political discourse, Americans rely on phobia as a concept to describe conditions of social injustice. Policies that negatively impact communities based on sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, or religion are understood to be homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic. These terms aspire to a familiar hypothesis: that systemic inequality originates in a nucleus of fear, on the part of those wielding the greatest political and economic power. My book in progress demonstrates that in the early 1800s a phobic imagination emerged by way of an experimental comparison: rabies and racism. The common name for rabies at the time was hydrophobia, named for the dread of swallowing water known to accompany the disease. In the 1830s, abolitionist editors Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison began to publish satirical editorials describing an analogous condition they called “colorphobia.” Eventually, what began as a pun began to be taken seriously, opening onto a discourse of public health activism that took as its primary goal the eradication of fear from the public sphere. In these competing uses, phobia comprised a complex discursive resource. In an expansive study of medical, literary, and political writing across the nineteenth century, I examine how phobia evolved into a framework for exploring myriad themes, including the relationship between individual psychology and social injustice, the benefits and limits of empathy as a political resource, and the diverse functions and potential value of fear as an affective force in civil society.