Power and the Plague

Sheryl C. Stanley****

University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work



In Foucault’s (1995) exploration of the economy of power in his historical and philosophical treatise on punishment and the organization of all of modern society through discipline in Discipline and Punish, no concept comes through more clearly than the distribution of power through surveillance. Nowhere is the power and efficiency of surveillance more apparent than in the execution of quarantine during plague as described by Foucault (p. 198):

The plague stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing [reporting on those observed and arrested]; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all the individual bodies - this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. It was “a political dream” with its “strict divisions … [and] the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power.” (p. 198).

Foucault seems to have identified, and, as philosophers do, defined a widespread, if in some cases unconscious, understanding that government exercises greater power in periods of social breakdown, such as plague. Authors have seen the drama inherent in the subject and have made good use of it. One Flea Spare (Wallace, 1997) is a play that vividly illustrates the “capillary” functioning of power under plague situations. Daybreak (Peterson, 1995) is a made-for-cable movie that portrays the separation of the medical or social leper, and Outbreak (Callender & Tolkin, 1993) illustrates in a film our understanding of the ease with which government domination of everyday life is possible.

My intention in this paper is to compare aspects of these selections from popular culture in order to illustrate points from Foucault’s discussion of power and plague, and, in a few examples, to apply them to actual occurrences.

One Flea Spare

Foucault’s (1995, p. 195) account of the governance of a town in plague was taken from an order published at the end of the 17th century, an order describing a contingency plan for the administration of quarantine in the case of plague. The order appears to have been as detailed as one would imagine the D-day assault on Normandy must have been. Exact execution of day-to-day operation of quarantine was described in meticulous detail, down to the persons who would be responsible, street-by-street, and quarter-by-quarter, for the daily census of the living and dead, the feeding of the inhabitants, the cleansing of infected houses, the removal of the dead, and the guarding of the living.

The authors of the order must have learned from the experience of those who survived the Great Plague of London, first discovered in April 1665. Before that, “many continental countries built large plague hospitals - 'pest houses' - to hold victims” (Channel 4, Independent Television Channel, UK, Posting Date Unknown); Foucault’s order seems to have adopted England’s cheaper methods, where “'plague orders' decreed that victims should be shut into their own houses and left to die” (Channel 4, Independent Television Channel, UK). At least, those unlucky enough to be left behind were locked in:

The rich left the city and most of the physicians went with them. Many clergy left too. The king and his court decamped to Salisbury. The poor, on the other hand, were forbidden to leave London. Seen as carriers of the disease, they were turned back at the boundaries.

In One Flea Spare (1997), Naomi Wallace depicts an aristocratic couple that waits too long to attempt flight from the afflicted city. She uses the device of the plague to form a crucible where social distinctions are leveled, the master becomes prisoner along with the servant, and the lowest street person holds the power of life or death as he discharges his double responsibilities of service (bringing essential provisions like food and water) and surveillance (the careful counting of all within the house) on a daily basis.

In the play, the Snelgraves (a wealthy couple) have been unable to flee with their peers because plague broke out among their servants. As the play opens, all of their servants have died, but the mandated 28 days of quarantine are almost over. They are horrified to discover a sailor named Bunce and a young servant girl named Morse masquerading in the dress of a daughter of an aristocratic neighbor, entering the house under cover of night. They know that if the two are detected by the guard, a new 28-day quarantine will begin, and this is exactly what occurs. The Snelgraves challenge Kabe, the guard and watchman, with having let the intruders in on purpose. He doesn’t deny it, taunting them that he gets twice as much to guard a grand house like theirs, and later we sense his satisfaction at the fear and helplessness of the Snelgraves when he tells Morse that they would have fled, but “They just got unlucky; their servants died before they could leave ‘em behind to starve” (p.17).

Bunce, whose dress and accent mark him as a social “inferior,” is expected to take over the menial chores, while Morse, in her stolen finery, is treated as a daughter. “You are one of us,” Mrs. Snelgrave says (p. 7) This use of clothing as a way of defining the classes, and by Wallace, as a metaphor for the superficiality of the differences people use to distinguish themselves from others, is repeated when Mr. Snelgrave, in a condescending manner, has Bunce try on his shoes (p. 21). He is trying to make the point that it is birth, not clothes that make the man, but Bunce proves him wrong in an ironic twist when he steps into Snelgrave’s shoes in a symbolic, but much more significant way when he has a highly charged sexual encounter with Mrs. Snelgrave (p. 51), something that could never have happened under normal (non-plague) circumstances.

Foucault (1995, p. 198) discusses “two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures.” One is in separation, as was done historically with lepers, where the “political dream” is in the “pure community,” and the other is in the segmentation (hierarchy of power) of the plague, where the political dream of the disciplined society is fulfilled. One Flea Spare illustrates both, giving us the perspective of those so closely regulated until they are dead, and in the treatment of the poor, who were separated by virtue of their class. It was only by the operation of fate that the wealthy Snelgraves were detained in London. The city had become a kind of leper colony, where the poor were left to starve and die.


The pure community concept, where the diseased are removed and segregated from the rest of society, is the premise of Daybreak (Callender & Tolkin, 1993). Set in the near future, Daybreak tells the story of a sexually transmitted disease whose symptoms bear a close resemblance to those of AIDS virus. People are encouraged to go in for blood tests at free public health centers. The moment someone tests positive for the disease, they are detained and sent away. They are not allowed to go home to gather clothes or belongings. Health center personnel reassure friends and relatives with brochures purportedly from a sanitarium where those infected are supposedly being sent. Photos of nurses in spotless white uniforms, spacious verandas, and lush green lawns give the impression of luxurious and attentive care. The truth is that they are tattooed with the letter “P,” sent to a grim section of the inner city, and left to die. No lawns, no nurses, no medical attention of any kind are to be found. The parallels to Foucault (1995, p. 198) are clear. He said, “The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile, enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate.”

What also seems clear is the parallel to real life in the United States. When the public first became aware of the syndrome that later came to be known as AIDS, many called it GRIDS, or gay related immune deficiency syndrome. This was significant, because as long as the public perceived that only gay males died of AIDS, research money and public concern were conspicuous by their absence. Harold Jaffe of the Center for Disease Control was quoted in Newsweek (as cited in Kanabus & Fredriksson, 2003) as saying,

When it began turning up in children and transfusion recipients, that was a turning point in terms of public perception. Up until then it was entirely a gay epidemic, and it was easy for the average person to say “So what?” Now everyone could relate.

No longer could the public think of AIDS as being confined to areas like Montrose in Houston and Castro Street in San Francisco, and the disease changed from one that seemed incurable, but containable, to one that must be addressed.

Another example of the operation of the pure community concept in recent American history was the institutionalized segregation of African-Americans in the South. Segregation, though not buttressed by law, still exists, and black skin or poverty can insure that a person can still be treated like a leper.

A factor that has increased troubles in the black community, and inhibited the ability of many to join in “the American dream” is the sale and use of illegal drugs, which has been called an epidemic by some, but could also answer to another name: plague. A participant at the Women and War Conference on May 1, 2003, referred to an entry from H.R. Haldeman’s published diary that allegedly detailed a plan to introduce and encourage the use of addictive drugs in black communities. Whether a deliberate plan was followed or not, it remains that drug use, and more importantly, prosecution of drug related crimes has been a factor in the putting forward of the drug economy as a plague and the further treatment of African-Americans as lepers.


In Outbreak (Peterson, 1995), the premise turns Foucault’s description of government’s role in the outbreak of plague upside down, as people are kept prisoner, not to protect society from the plague, but to protect the plague from public scrutiny. Although the military has a vaccine that will stem the spread of the virulent disease that has broken out, the general in charge of containing the virus prefers to incinerate the entire town rather than reveal that the virus is identical to one developed by the military as an advanced biological weapon.

How farfetched is this scenario? It brings to mind the events after September 11, 2001 and the anthrax scare that followed closely the air attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. At the time it was easy to believe that the two incidents were linked. Upon further reflection, however, it didn’t seem that the two necessarily had much to do with one another. There was a similar effect on the public: they induced terror, and more importantly, a willingness to accept curtailment of civil liberties. On the other hand, the possibility that the second “attack” was not foreign at all begged for consideration.

Was this an attempt to introduce in the United States the political dream of government under plague conditions? This was a thought that seemed so paranoid that an internet search to see who might think the same thing seemed in order. A cursory internet search turned up the following:

There is every likelihood that those responsible for mailing anthrax spores to media and government targets are right-wing extremists bent on spreading panic and creating the conditions for new attacks on democratic rights. Many such elements have close political links to the Republican Party and the Bush administration. (Martin, 2001, Para. 1)

Of course, the quote was from the World Socialist Web Site, and the force of any argument must take the source into consideration, but the author quotes the Washington Post in support of the theory:

Even more suggestive is a lengthy front-page article that appeared October 26 in the Washington Post, reporting that the anthrax mailed to Daschle’s [who is a Democrat, incidentally] office had been chemically treated to make it spread more readily through the air. “The United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq are the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives” [and] “A government official with direct knowledge of the investigation said yesterday that the totality of the evidence in hand suggests that it is unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.” (Martin, 2001, second from last paragraph)

One of the recurring questions of the past semester has been, how is this time like Germany in the 1930s? Perhaps this is one answer: our willing curtailment of personal liberty in the name of security and nationalism.


Discipline and Punish, with its brilliant deconstruction of power, particularly in the operation of quarantine during plague, has particular relevance to life in the U.S., and synthesizes the consciousness of the American public as reflected in popular culture.


Callender, C. (Executive Producer), & Tolkin, S. (Writer/Director). (1993). Daybreak [Television Motion Picture]. United States: Home Box Office.

Channel 4, Independent Television Channel, UK (Unknown). Story of the plague. Retrieved April 1, 2003,

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (2nd ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Kanabus, A. & Fredriksson, J. (2003, February 12). The history of AIDS 1981-1986. Retrieved May 19, 2003,

Martin, P. (2001, October 27). US anthrax scare: Why the silence on right-wing terrorism? Retrieved May 16, 2003,

Peterson, W. (Producer/Director). (1995). Outbreak [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.

Wallace, N. (1997). One flea spare. New York: Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.

Sheryl C. Stanley

Sheryl Stanley is a master's candidate at the Graduate School of Social Work, University of Houston in Houston, Texas. Upon graduation in May, 2004, Sheryl plans to combine her love of theatre and popular culture with her new education in psychotherapy to develop a practice in psychodrama.

Sheryl can be reached at sherylstanley@houston.rr.com

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