Bacteriology and Modernity
Around 1900, bacteriology offered a new interpretation of the relationship between the individual and the surrounding world that problematized existing notions about humanity and contributed to the formation of new ones. On the one hand, the public awareness about the ability of bacteria to colonize the body and to proliferate within it gave rise to a wide-spread bacillophobia. On the other, it challenged the anthropocentric world view that had dominated since the Enlightenment. As a symbolic form, the interaction between the human body and bacteria was used conceptually to make sense of a rapidly-changing world, as reflected in the literature of the day. This chapter argues that the “bacterial focus” on the world moved the work of a number of prominent authors towards what can be termed an embodied modernism. From a phenomenological (Mach, Lefebvre), a biopolitical (Esposito), and an ontological perspective (Hird) respectively, it focuses on the interplay between bacillophobia and a dawning post-anthropocentrism in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884), Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” and Mark Twain’s 3,000 Years Among the Microbes (1905).