Symposium

A Discussion About (Mostly) Books as They Relate to a Theme of Contemporary Interest

What we talk about when we talk about virality

William Burroughs called language a virus as early as 1962, in The Ticket That Exploded, but it’s not clear whether he ever actually wrote the words “Language is a virus from outer space.” Laurie Anderson thought he did when she sang the same words in 1986, in any case, and since then the sentence itself has, arguably, gone viral.

The word virus came into Middle English from Latin, where it meant slime, venom, or poison. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, doctors used it to mean any infectious agent, applying it to smallpox, which is a virus according to modern understanding, but also to syphilis and typhus, which aren’t. (Edward Jenner, who figured out that people who got cowpox wouldn’t get smallpox, discovered vaccination—literally “cow-action”—without knowing why it worked or what a virus was.)

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Stephen Burt is a Contributing Reviewer of the Believer.

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