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the Complete Review
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Philipp Sarasin

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To purchase Anthrax

Title: Anthrax
Author: Philipp Sarasin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 196 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Anthrax - US
Anthrax - UK
Anthrax - Canada
»Anthrax« - Deutschland
  • Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy
  • Translated by Giselle Weiss

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting issues and ideas, but presentation less than convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 2/7/2004 Anne Haeming
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 5/5/2004 Uwe Justus Wenzel
TLS . 1/12/2006 Adam Wishart
Die Zeit . 19/5/2004 Elisabeth von Thadden

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wie klar Sarasin Anthrax als zeitgenössische Ausformung kolonialer Logik durchschaut hat, die ihre Politik in erster Linie auf Fiktionen und Metaphern aufbaut, bezeugt das Kapitel über "Fremdkörper". Drohkulisse, Fiktion, Szenario: was Sarasin beschreibt, ist nichts anders als das Funktionieren von Propaganda, allerdings benennt er sie nicht als solche." - Anne Haeming, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Wird durch "kulturwissenschaftliche" Spurensicherung irgendeine der angebotenen Auflösungen des Rätsels plausibler als die anderen ? Die Antwort dürfte lauten: nein. Wer die "unauflösbare" Verflechtung von Fiktion und Realität zur Geschäftsgrundlage seiner Forschungen macht, vermag den kursierenden Spekulationen nur weitere hinzuzugesellen. Diskursanalyse wäre denn -- eine verfeinerte Gerüchteküche ?" - Uwe Justus Wenzel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Anthrax is an incisive, intriguing and well-researched cultural history of the anthrax attacks. (...) The only flaw in the book is that without real answers Sarasin begins occasionally to speculate himself. At times, the narrative verges on the kind of counterfactual imagining he is so good at dissecting when it is penned by other people." - Adam Wishart, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Was ergibt diese hoch konzentrierte Indiziensuche ? Vielerlei, wenngleich Sarasin, was sonst könnte er tun, nur öffentlich zugängliche Quellen verdichtet (.....) Über die Empirie hinaus: Sarasins Essay Anthrax zeigt, wie Politik gegenwärtig, aber doch schon seit langem zur Seuchenkontrolle wird. (...) Vor allem anderen aber: Dieses Buch macht deutlich, wie Gesellschaften, die vom fiktiven Albtraum der biologischen Bedrohung regiert werden, dem kollektiven Imaginären erliegen." - Elisabeth von Thadden, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Philipp Sarasin's »Anthrax« is an attempt to describe and analyse recent events -- in particular the reactions to the terrorist attacks of September, 2001 in New York and Washington D.C., all the way to the American-led invasion of Iraq -- as phenomena that are not based on rational decision-making, but rather on specific cultural (in the broadest sense of the word) expectations. Illness isn't the defining metaphor, bio-terror is. Sarasin explains his position in his introduction:

»Bioterror« ist der Name jenes Traums, den post-modernen Gesellschaften im selbst gewählten Kriegszustand träumen, und »Anthrax« seine Wunscherfüllung.

("Bio-terror" is the name of the dream that post-modern societies dream in their self-appointed state of war, and "anthrax" the fulfilment of that wish.)
       Sarasin argues that the prevalent fear in industrialised nations, led by the US, has been of an attack that is essentially (and possibly literally) viral: the use of biological, chemical, or radiological weapons that, at least in a manner of speaking, infect their targets. The facts support much of this claim: among the first actions taken by the government of 11 September was to give the antibiotic cipro to White House staff, and among the first on site at the World Trade Center were teams to test for biohazards (while fighter jets remained grounded despite what was happening in the air, a scenario that, even though it has been contemplated, the government was clearly not prepared for).
       Despite the fact that all of the many terrorist attacks internationally since September 2001 have been of the similar crash-something-into-something or simply blow it up variety, it is the possibility of biological and similar weapons being unleashed that continues to be held out as the greatest (and likeliest) danger. Similarly, the self-serving fear-mongering practised by the junior Bush administration regarding Saddam Hussein focussed almost exclusively on the danger he allegedly posed because he had and was making so-called weapons of mass destruction (a notion that, it appears, was largely unfounded and entirely false). In misguidedly invading Iraq, ostensibly to prevent the use of WMDs by Saddam Hussein, the junior Bush subverted his own so-called war on terror, inadvertently (at least one hopes it was inadvertently) strengthening parties who pose real threats while taking down (at an incredibly high cost) one that was essentially toothless.
       Sarasin explores the mythology of subversion and attack through, especially, biological agents; mythology it largely remains to this day. Richard Preston's 1997 novel, The Cobra Event, is the most prominent of the fictional readings he discusses, offering what appears to be a plausible danger, or even a vision of the inevitable. It was eagerly embraced by then US president Clinton, who even insisted that his aides and Pentagon officials read it. Fiction in its most obvious form (a novel) was chosen as a guide over any facts because it was the reading that most appealed to Clinton, a terrible threat that he desperately wished was plausible. His successor, the junior Bush reads little fiction, but clearly finds the myth as enticing, and it continues to be a leading story-line in the government script.
       Actual bio-terror did rear its head, shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington D.C., in the form of letters containing anthrax -- in some cases so high grade that it appears likely it originated in a government or military lab. Sarasin also considers these events, as well as previous threats (the mailing of letters allegedly containing anthrax, but in fact only containing generally harmless substances, was apparently a popular anti-abortion tactic for a while).
       For Sarasin, what has happened after September 2001 is a veritable "Anthrax-frenzy". A receptive public, historically conditioned to fear and hate this foreign invasion -- pernicious, invisible -- sees bio-terror as the ultimate incarnation of the threat it can't quite get a grip on. Hence its constant invocation by, especially, American leaders: it is an ideal unseen enemy which requires that citizens place their trust in the state in order to be protected from it.
       "Anthrax ist nicht immer mit Anthrax identisch -- und schon gar nicht mit »Anthrax«" ("Anthrax isn't always identical to anthrax -- and even less to »Anthrax«") Sarasin reminds his readers. For one:
Anthrax, caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis, is rarely seen in industrial countries but is common in developing countries.
       But it is specifically the un-real form, the phantasm -- of »Anthrax« specifically and bio-terror generally -- that has taken hold of imagination and of policy.

       Sarasin's essay criss-crosses all this territory and more. Heavily laced with English quotes (including the occasional misspelling -- the frequently mentioned 'cotton swaps' (rather than swabs) are particularly irritating), and based on Internet sources (mainly international newspapers and government sites, but also a wide variety of other sites), it is a dense and far-flung essay. Sarasin also frequently resorts to theory: Slavoj Zizek, Baudrillard, Derrida, Freud, Marx, and all your other favourites are quoted and referred to; it's not something that we found contributed greatly to an understanding of the underlying issues or their interpretation (though it's apparently obligatory for this sort of text in our day and age).
       »Anthrax« is ultimately a more convoluted text than seems necessary. A very interesting premise and solid arguments are diffracted (and weakened) by the presentation. Still, an interesting text.

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Anthrax: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Philipp Sarasin teaches history at the University of Zurich.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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