Going viral: microbiologist Joseph Osmundson's 'Virology'

  • by Mark William Norby
  • Tuesday May 31, 2022
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author Joseph Osmundson
author Joseph Osmundson

On March 9, 2020 a gay male New York City microbiologist chats over Zoom with queer sex party organizers who bitch at him and tell him he's "full of shit" when he advises they need to shut down their upcoming Saturday night sex party.

Still early in the developing pandemic that is now an active worldwide disease that continues into our present day, the recommendation to stop the sex party and temporarily close the arena for queer sexual expression was not only educated and informed, but in retrospect, a foretelling of a major health crisis. With the potential to halt the spread of illness and even possibly the threat of death, early education is exactly what was needed.

"Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between" by Joseph Osmundson establishes itself as a unique and singular archive of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), HIV/AIDS, queer theory, sociopolitical criticism, and a record of the viruses that are present in our guts, on our skin, and in our blood.

A New York University Professor of Microbiology, Osmundson turns hard science into juicy, racy-queer reality accessible to anyone who decides to buy the book, read it, and live it. COVID-19 and its profound parallel to the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, both viral infections with us to this day, shows how both have redefined, in their individual ways, the way we live day to day.

You can geek out over science in this book, queerness, and the sociopolitical impact of all things viral, which are present in the foods we eat, the people we kiss, and inside of our own bodies. We live on a planet teeming with viruses and all aspects of life have the potential to go viral. Humans, including some animals like dogs and cats, are susceptible to COVID-19. With Osmundson's essays we are provided lyrical, fascinating analyses of queerness related to exposure and everything viral in the disease's effects through what we choose to do with our bodies.

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2022 by Lit Hub, "Virology" is its own technology motivating the mind to think, write, speak, be queer, and live louder. Every inch of life is viral in distinctive yet consistent ways, entities that spread the more we live our lives, a virus being the submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates inside the living cells of an organism.

Osmundson deeply respects HIV/AIDS critical scholars like José Esteban Muñoz who navigated during his lifetime the intricacies of risk reduction and helped develop what it means to go viral.

Fond of quoting American writer, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag and her masterwork, the 1988 book "AIDS and its Metaphors," he shares Sontag's ability to define the semiotics around how we talk of disease — the "war" on HIV/AIDS, the "fight for our lives," the "battle" over infection.

Osmundson has compiled the riches of incredible research and as an out gay man with anxiety who attends New York City bath houses and never flinches to dive into his own gay sexual experiences. He possesses a bold approach with many tales to tell, like the first time he went down on a guy and was processing mathematical equations in his head at the same time.

Throughout the pandemic, Osmundson has maintained an enlightening pandemic journal that proves to be an effective panacea for the anxiety he faces. He shows how using the tools of sitting, being with pad and pen or keyboard and electronic document open on the screen, and expressing our internal states, is an analyst of our indispositions. Like a virus, the indisposition needs new treatment. He shares a section of interesting excerpts of his journal, which provides a model of how we might approach our own journaling in a time of unprecedented challenges.

Jumping through the hyperspace of cyberspace, Osmundson writes about viral social media posts that briefly imprint our memories and are forgotten just as quickly. We are all blips on the evolutionary consciousness of a multiverse with so many stars, planets, creatures living somewhere else in far distant galaxies that themselves are briefly meaningful. Yet, everything is meaningful, especially viruses. Osmund writes of scientific attempts to subvert nature to cure cancer by using a virus.

In one of the essays, Osmundson, with novelist and social critic Patrick Nathan, cowrite that, "A new rhetoric of care, empathy, and respect for life is needed to face COVID-19 and survive — a rhetoric of care encoded not only in how we speak but also in the structures and infrastructures of our nation, from our healthcare system to our need to dominate by over policing, to our economy, our military, our education... Medicines aren't weapons; they are treatments necessary to live. At least in the best scenarios they are, as with HIV after 1996."

The author treats humanity with tenderness and delivers a direct message that says we are being asked to become even more awake to the empire of our great planet that seems now to have entered a time where it is very late, and shall we survive all of the events of viruses everywhere. There's a slim chance we'll make it through unscathed. It hurts to be alive.

On the lighter side, Osmundson quotes Sontag writing, "... all aesthetics have politics, even ones that claim none, like camp."

Queers invented camp, or was it God created camp and queers slipped into its metaphor, whereby becoming differently political? Osmundson does camp well and for a highly entertaining lecture on COVID, see the YouTube video above.



"Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between" by Joseph Osmundson, W.W. Norton & Company, $16.95

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