Kuru: The Science and the Sorcery

December 23, 2010

Trembling bodies populate the documentary Kuru: The Science and the Sorcery (dir. Robert Bygott) that screened on SBS on Sunday night. Kuru is a famously mysterious brain disease afflicting the Fore people of the eastern New Guinea highlands, its victims suffering tremors and dementia before inevitable death. Its explanation as a spontaneous, transmissible and long-incubating disease similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob was one of twentieth-century medicine’s most hunted quarries, and its connections to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow”) remain central anxieties of twenty-first-century biopolitics. Thought to be a psychosomatic response to the trauma of colonial contact, an infection, a genetic disorder, dubbed the  “laughing death” by media, called a “slow” or “unconventional virus” by science before its agent was controversially given the name of “prion,” and its mode of transmission was identified as cannibalism, this epidemic was a cultural tragedy and the site of fraught exchanges at the frontiers of colonialism and biomedicine.

The documentary prioritises as its central thread the role of Australian doctor Michael Alpers, backgrounding somewhat the pioneering research of Carleton Gajdusek, the conflict of this fascinating American with the Australian administration and scientists, and his subsequent rivalry with the biochemist Stanley Prusiner, both of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes for their discoveries. Their squabbling after fame is contrasted to Alpers’ humility and loyalty to the Fore. If at first Alpers’ original frisson at exotic contact is disclosed, in the end he is accepted as family and devotedly remains with their still declining bodies to see out the waning epidemic.

As often, cannibalism here is a site of border marking and exchange between the human and the nonhuman, the supposedly civilised and primitive, and a powerful metaphor for colonial and capitalist knowledge-practices such as anthropology and medical science. For all that the film empathises with the PNG locals and their banned mortuary rituals, and attempts to undermine western pretensions to superiority, it makes use of a primitivist lure in the cannibalistic practices (“Human flesh tastes very sweet”) and sorcery beliefs (“I can make you shake”) of the Fore. Yet amid interviews and archival footage that entice with these scandals to morality and science, as well as depictions of autopsies and experiments, remote trecks and charts, biological graphics and close-ups on scientific papers, the most striking images are the succession of shaking, laughing kuru victims presented for the doctors and their cameras, touching their noses and attempting to stand, their relatives assisting them and later recollecting the pain of that period. We viewers are screened by our televisions from this troubling spectacle; but we are yet unable to truly immunise our modern lives against contamination by the primitive and the material.

If at first these afflicted natives are distressing yet distant, they are soon joined by less remote similars. We witness the animals who mediate the risk of human prion disease: the veterinary analogies of scrapie sheep, the potential food hazards of staggering cows on farms, and the scientific sacrifices of shaking chimpanzees in laboratories. This procession of fragile bodies culminates with white vCJD patients in urban and clinical settings losing their balance and undergoing coordination and reflex tests just like the exotic natives. It is in the intertwining of these suffering, contaminable persons that the “bond of common humanity” the film urges is most potently forged, even if this common bond and risk is still striated by numerous relentlessly policed boundaries.

As if to provide reality’s endorsement of western taboos and colonial control, it was found that the Fore’s mourning practice of funerary endocannibalism had spread the disease after its single spontaneous origin. As if a prophetic warning against interfering in nature, the mad cows and the humans who ate them were afflicted via the enforced cannibalism of the rationalised meat industry and its recycling of rendered remains. As the documentary’s images progress through suffering creatures—dark-skinned, wooled, mottled, dark-coated, white-skinned—the group of neurological diseases becomes increasingly known but simultaneously more threatening as our food sources are contaminated by intraspecies consumption and an outbreak erupts not at the remote frontier but this time in the centre of civilisation. If the Fore would sometimes respond to kuru attacks with revenge killings of suspected sorcerers, our own reaction to this toxicity in our midst was much more harsh and merciless, as the end of the century saw the large-scale rationalised destruction of millions of only potentially infected cattle.

Yet even as we fiercely protect ourselves against the biomedical peril of vCJD, can we immunise against the symbolic threat of our own cannibalistic behaviour? The documentary closes with mention of recent genetic studies that suggest that “we were cannibals ourselves” in the ancient human past. Yet however salacious, this universalisation of cannibalism as original sin can be easily endured in its temporal distance that once more relegates the Fore to prehistory. As much as it taints our ancestry it affirms our advancement. We must instead tie this inner threat to the exocannibalism of  colonial culture and economy and the tautological capitalist biopolitics of rendering. The film shows the desire of Alpers and the Fore, as much as they are still dealing with kuru, to get on with the task of living in common. Our own globalised, postcolonial condition is such that our insulated lives are ever more threatened with the recycling of misfolded proteins and with intercorporeal leaking in general. Against this contagion we wield all our habitual sorceries.


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