April 15, 2019. Bacterial Imaginations: Regime of the Microscope in the 1950s People’s Republic of China


3:30-5:00pm, University Club 212; Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Seeing the enemy was crucial in the early 1950s People’s Republic of China (PRC). Domestic consolidation by the new regime targeted spies, counterrevolutionaries, and bourgeois ideology, hidden yet harmful elements that threatened the health of the new body politic. Meanwhile, the allegation that the United States was using biological weapons in the Korean War brought the PRC to an unexpected encounter with germs, reinforcing the urgency to see, pinpoint, and annihilate the bacterial enemies.

This talk examines the role of the microscope in enabling the power of seeing the enemy in the 1952 anti-germ warfare campaign. Widely used for science education and mass mobilization of the campaign, the microscope visualized, magnified, and exposed the bacteria and by doing so inculcated a mode of seeing that was at once scientific and political. On the other hand, microscopic images of bacteria also triggered imaginations uncontained in the state’s discourse of national security. Understanding the microscope as both an emerging mechanism of hygienic visuality in socialist China and an apparatus of power that produces the socialist subject, I trace the affective ramifications of the microscope from the early twentieth century to the 1950s, and explore how modern China’s traumatic past with diseases and imperialism was projected unto an affirmative image of the new China within and through the logic of visual abjection. By attending to where the regime of the microscope cracks, this talk rethinks the abject and the disavowed in the early PRC’s various purification campaigns. Theoretically, this talk also engages with the agency of the nonhuman—optical technology and microbes—as a formative aspect of socialist subjectivity.