chapter  6
42 Pages

“On the Mode of Communication”

John Snow, Cholera, and Victorian Visualization of Contagions
ByChung-jen Chen

Chapter 6 examines the way the Victorian medical modernity took shape under the cloak of medicine, science, and technology. By tracing the discursive formation of a groundless optimism in human rationality, as reflected in John Snow’s On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, I show how the concept of a safe England was constructed, both textually and cognitively, in spite of the pervasive awareness of the inevitability of risk. Snow’s famous discovery of the route of cholera transmission evinced the brimming confidence of modernity in rationality and a reflexive mentality of observation and surveillance. The ultimately successful cultural enterprise of governance was formulated with support from both the rhetorical construction of a safe England and the visualization of invisible dangers. The Victorian cosmology he represented was characterized by an acceptance of anonymous risk and an unprecedented confidence in the capacity of rationality for seeing our world in a drop of water.