I have been merrily researching the Spanish flu for several weeks now. My flatmates have been regaled with interesting facts about cytokines and death tolls. While discussing politics with my visiting family over spring break, I informed everyone at the table that Donald Trump’s grandfather had died of Spanish flu. When tackling this past week’s readings – on transnational actors and networks – I was therefore, unsurprisingly, already thinking of my own research. I plan to examine how modernisation contributed to the deadliness and scope of the Spanish flu in 1918-1919, and a large part of this examination involves the development of transportation networks. How convenient, I thought, as I began the readings. Transnational networks and actors are exactly what I should be exploring.
However, the more I read the more I began to notice a pattern that did not exactly align with what I had planned to focus on in my project, at least in terms of actors and networks. The networks described in Shaping the Transnational Sphere, for example, are constructed in spaces and enforced by humans making repeated connections – they are framed through tangible things such as conferences, journals, and letters but are not tangible themselves. Pierre-Yves Saunier, for example, defines a transnational network as a ‘[configuration] of individual and collective actors investing time, energy and social…resources in the establishment, maintenance and use of connections.’ Ulrike Lindner’s networks, involving the movement of workers between the colonies of the British Cape Colony and German South West Africa. Lindner discusses a physical movement of people, specifically the migration of ‘Capeboys’ and domestic workers following the simultaneous economic depression in the Cape Colony and diamond boom in German South West Africa. Still, what Lindner focuses on in regards to this network is social in nature. A key factor in her exploration of this transnational network is the identity of the workers in question – something I found particularly fascinating, for example, was her explanation of how workers of mixed-race, upon arriving in German South West Africa, had to write back to their former employers in the Cape Colony to request proof of their ‘whiteness.’ Again, here ‘networks’ are examined largely in a social or cultural sense. In fact – to cut straight to the point – actor-network theory and in fact the transnational approach to networks (or network approach to transnational history – I’m confusing myself at this point) appears to be centred around constructed networks.
I have nothing to criticise about this – the problem is that when I look at networks in relation to the Spanish flu, or disease in general, I am looking at physically substantive networks: railroads, shipping routes, and roads. The transnational networks in our readings and in class discussion revolve around cultural or scientific exchanges. The key aspect of this communication is the exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Can I still, therefore, label what I am focusing on in regards to the Spanish flu as studying ‘networks’? Or do physical transportation networks fall somewhere else? I realize that railroads can also facilitate the spread of ideas and the movement of actors. The actor that I am really interested in, however, is the flu virus itself, which of course has no ideas or sense of identity. I’m not interested in ideas; I’m interested in death tolls, morbid as that may sound. Andy’s blog post on ANT argues that nonhuman actors can still have agency, which would imply that I could still apply ANT to the flu. But this still doesn’t really help me: ANT seems to place an emphasis on actors affecting networks. What about how the network affects the actor, and what if the actor is something that is neither an abstract concept nor an actual human being?