This article reads Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Inferno (2013) not as a cinematic techno-thriller, but as a “science novel”: a literary document that allows us to discern some of the tensions, paradoxes and inner dynamics of virology as a contemporary (“hyper-scientific”) biomedical research field. It will be argued that Inferno can help us to “assess the present” by pointing out what we find so intriguing and uncanny about virology and its model organism of choice: the potentially lethal virus. To highlight its cultural relevance, I will approach the novel from a Lacanian perspective. Specifically, I will use Lacan’s “four discourses” to assess the various roles and positions that determine its basic structure. On the one hand, the novel’s key characters function as experts (representing expertise in academic research fields such as molecular life sciences, global health policy and cultural studies), giving voice to what Lacan refers to as “university discourse”. On the other hand, they are tormented individuals, suffering from a range of pathologies and symptoms which allegedly have become endemic in contemporary society (“hysterical discourse”). But the novel also gives the floor to the “Master discourse”: the authoritative voice which apparently knows the truth about the current human condition, articulating a vision of the future, encasing its prophetic messages in intriguing bio-art gadgets. In Inferno, these discourses are challenged/ subverted/altered by “analytical” discourse, putting the key characters on the track of their “object a”, the cause of their desire. Thus, a Lacanian reading allows us to discern how Inferno reflects, in a condensed and emblematic way, the public discontent in contemporary “hyperscience”, under the sway of the potentially lethal virus as its fascinating and commanding “object a”.
“Fascism is sadism”. This is the central thesis in the long opening chapter of Frank Vande Veire, Take, Eat, This is My Body – Fascination and Intimidation in Contemporary Culture (2005). In his essay, Marc De Kesel comments on the main theoretical source of Vande Veire’s definition of fascism, Lacan’s theory of perversion, and on how it reveals the cruelty that is typical of fascist practices. However, defining fascism as perversion is a bridge too far, argues De Kesel. Fascism must first and foremost be defined as a discourse, and both the definition and the analysis of fascism must follow from this. That the fascist discourse enables a perverse subject position does not imply that fascism is to be reduced to that position. Such reductionism falls into the trap of a moralising – and, more precisely, diabolising – view on fascism. De Kesel warns against any such moralising use of the critical tools of psychoanalysis as it weakens substantially its critical potential.