From Dormant to Disruptive Memory: Ebola in the American Imagination


The 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West-Africa sparked a “scare” in the US, in which potential patients (“Ebola suspects”) were implicitly criminalized. The event appeared to revive a dormant discourse, straight from slavery and colonization. How do events like the Ebola epidemic trigger such dormant, ethically problematic cultural memories back into collective consciousness? And what does such resurfacing “do”: is it disruptive in the present? I specify that question by focusing on how pre-existing conceptual metaphors constructed narratives about Ebola that, effectively, impeded American intervention.

Located at the intersection of postcolonial and memory studies – fields that traditionally focus on narratives and memories of previously suppressed groups – this project instead studies online discourse on Twitter that revives “non-pc” memories which, because of their antagonism, have the potential to become disruptive in the wake of destabilizing events. It develops digital methods for aggregating and analyzing resurfacing memories by focusing on metaphors operational in online discourse. Using an innovative combination of close and distant reading and machine learning, I test the hypothesis that, confronted with a potentially disruptive event, US Americans reactivate a dormant discourse from a problematic past to frame and mediate it, through metaphors like “Ebola patient is zombie/criminal/vermin”.


Professionele publicatie

Publicatie bedoeld voor een breed publiek





Dr. S.A. Polak MA

Verbonden aan

Universiteit Leiden, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS)


01/09/2016 tot 01/09/2017