A review of A Deeper Sickness, an online collection curated by Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson to accompany their book A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year (Beacon Press, 2022)
Margaret Peacock, University of Alabama
Erik L. Peterson, University of Alabama
A full list of the project team and partners is available on the site.
Nabeel Siddiqui, Susquehanna University
What historical structures of power and violence made it so difficult for the U.S. to collectively address the crises of 2020? What could we have done differently, and how can we prevent something like this from happening again? These are the questions that Erik Peterson and I address in our digital humanities project, A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year. As we argue in the digital museum and in the accompanying book (Beacon Press), U.S. racism, selfishness, anger, shallowness, and apathy prevented the nation from saving itself. These factors led to the pandemics of disease, disinformation, poverty, and violence that the U.S. experienced.
A Deeper Sickness illustrates many of the advantages that digital humanities offers for modern scholars. The scope of our research demanded the use of a scalable medium that would span the boundaries between the print and digital medium. The book and site function independently, but are also one unit, each reinscribing the argument put forth by the other, each performing a critical pedagogical function that will hopefully be of use to future generations.
In January 2020, we started two simultaneous and complimentary projects: the writing of a book about the historical roots of the U.S.’s response to the unfolding pandemics and a digital humanities site that would offer fuller analysis of the year, including our additional writing, space for outside research, other contributors’ voices, and an archive of over 4,000 sources stored in a Zotero database. At the center of the site are over 200 different exhibits on individual days in 2020. To create these daily exhibits, our team mined historical and current sources daily and interviewed over forty experts. These included epidemiologists, directors of domestic abuse centers, specialists on the opioid epidemic, Black Lives Matter organizers in Portland, right-wing militia members, business owners, the chief of the River Sioux tribe in South Dakota, the Mayor of Albuquerque, a Michigan senator, an Amazon striker, and a number of frontline workers. We combined these sources and interviews with contributors’ stories and our own experiences and analysis to create each daily entry.
We were intent on preserving events as they were unfolding in real time. While future projects will have the conceit of hindsight, they will not be able to capture how difficult it was to understand what was happening, how mistaken we often were, how distorted time felt, and how powerless we turned out to be at times. The daily exhibits offer an immediacy that later works will not be able to replicate, representing an invaluable primary source for future research and teaching.
The conceptual impetus for this project came from Charles Rosenberg’s work on the ways that populations experience epidemics dramaturgically, in well-defined, theatrical acts.1 We were interested in tracking the evolution of the COVID pandemic from the U.S.’s slow realization of the presence of disease, to our attempts to make sense of it, and finally to our negotiated public response. Borrowing from Roy Porter’s work on the methodologies of medical history, we focused on the material conditions of different communities, belief systems, images and symbols, and how people reflect on pain, death, and dying.2 As the pandemic progressed, we sought to examine the normalized structures of power and violence in the U.S. that manifest through law enforcement, everyday practice, and language.
We established a process and rationale for our source collection early in the project, creating an Entity-Relationship Diagram and hiring a content manager to systematize our data entry. We decided that exact copies of the sources, with all their accompanying errata, would have to be preserved in a database. We did this because modern news data is dynamically generated and constantly shifting, meaning that the material was likely to disappear, be edited, or lost. We also anticipated that the history of this monumental year would not be free of contention because people in the U.S., as we found, too often substitute folklore for history. Our programming team designed a new tool that pulls our source materials from Zotero and loads them into our WordPress environment. We are continuing to hone the site’s user interface design, making it WCAG compliant, and conducting extensive usability, accessibility, and security testing.
A Deeper Sickness stands apart from other 2020-related archival projects that have emerged in the last year. Unlike the archives at Arizona State University and the Smithsonian, A Deeper Sickness is a curated space that encourages visitors to address the historical forces that brought us to this experience. Users navigate our carefully researched and written daily exhibits, preferably with the accompanying book. They encounter our growing collection of source materials, our written analysis of the day, and the stories of diverse groups whose experiences give texture and variance to how we understand those moments. Simultaneously, the site uses peer-reviewed digital exhibits to trace certain scholarly themes through the year, exploring the intersection of history, race, and violence, the relationship between income inequality and access to healthcare, the role of the press and social media in spreading disinformation, and the increasing violence of 2020 as a symptom of a much older trend in American history. Users are also invited to contribute to the conversation by submitting their own stories for publication.
We also conceived of the site as a place for future study of the pandemic year. We created a general “Exhibits” space to house scholarly research, creative projects, digital collections, and meritorious undergraduate contributions. Currently housed there is an article examining television network coverage of the pandemic in the early months of the year; a creative exhibit from the renowned Menominee poet, Chrystos; a data collection of the memes of 2020; and an undergraduate project tracing the protests of George Floyd’s brothers and nephews in the wake of his death. Additional contributions are pending, awaiting peer review.
Margaret Peacock is an Associate Professor of History at The University of Alabama specializing in the History of the Cold War, Media, and Propaganda. She also has an MS in Information and Library Science from UNC-Chapel Hill and six years of experience as an Oracle database designer and Java programmer. Erik Peterson is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama specializing in the History of Science and Medicine, with an MS in Anthropology and five years’ experience working in the graphic design world. We are joined by Anne McDivitt, the Director of the Alabama Digital Humanities Center (ADHC), who has created a sustainable, dedicated design environment that will support the site for the foreseeable future. We have a team of eight programmers, a post-graduate project manager with degrees in History and Computer Science, and an advanced undergraduate who manages and systematizes content.
By the end of 2020, close to 400,000 people in the U.S. had died from COVID-19. As policy leaders and health experts determined how to respond to the pandemic, the virus' dominance in the U.S.’s collective imagination made perceiving broader issues about racial inequality, poverty, and disinformation difficult. Historians Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Petersons sought to tackle and foreground these issues by documenting and preserving news stories, social media posts, interview transcripts, eyewitness accounts, and videos throughout the year. The result is A Deeper Sickness: Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, an online collection of twelve thousand sources, curated by the authors to accompany their 2022 book A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year published by Beacon Press. Drawing on the work of Charles Rosenberg and Roy Porter, the authors underscore the dramaturgical experiences of the pandemic and the broader cultural and social ills that worsened the U.S.’s ability to respond to it.
At the project’s core is a “journal” with entries users can navigate. Unlike similar projects from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Arizona dedicated to preserving the pandemic’s materials, Peacock and Peterson’s work benefits from their real-time curation of information and resources. As users navigate the site, the entanglement of critical junctures surrounding public health, racial division, and nationalism come to the forefront. For instance, on the entry for March 13th, we see the juxtaposition of President Trump's declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency and the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY. Likewise, on October 1st, we find the Trump administration limiting the number of refugees to its lowest level since the enactment of the 1980 Refugee Act at the same time as news media focuses on Donald Trump’s positive Covid-19 test. Through this collation of materials, the site forces users to confront their own biases and selective amnesia of the year and ask “What is it that we paid attention to?”
Along with journal entries, A Deeper Sickness hosts exhibits of scholarly research, creative work, artifact collections, and undergraduate projects. One of the most provocative exhibits is a series of writings by Menominee poet, two-spirit activist, and educator Chrystos, entitled Excerpts from Hell. What becomes clear through their writings is the vivid trauma experienced by the author and the affective shock surrounding them. A curation of memes on the site shows that while some responded with humor, others leaned into classism, racism, sexism, and harassment. The authors highlight how these creative works and memetic images are all part of the materials necessary to make sense of the year and give insights into their research findings, such as an article exploring how mainstream news websites covered the pandemic. The inclusion of an undergraduate research project tracing the march of George Floyd's family after his murder exemplifies the desire for this digital space to move beyond academic hierarchies and serve as an emergent space for new voices.
The technical infrastructure underlying the website is WordPress. The platform’s simplicity often obscures the steps Peacock and Peterson have taken to ensure the project's accessibility and capacity for expansion. At the project’s inception, the authors created an entity-relationship diagram with the assistance of a content manager to standardize data entry and worked with a programming team to streamline the movement of source materials from Zotero to WordPress. However, there are some areas where the platform's limitations bump up against the research questions the project seeks to answer. For instance, due to the impact of January 6th, 2021, the authors have created a journal entry for that day. I only stumbled onto it accidentally believing there was an error for an entry marked "December 37." Given the extensive usability, accessibility, and security testing the authors conduct, I am sure they will resolve these issues along with expanding the exhibits section to include more voices, which are currently sparse.
In short, A Deeper Sickness serves as a notable lens into a complicated year. Peacock and Peterson's work effortlessly moves between microscopic subjectivity and macroscopic cultural and social affliction and serves as an inspirational model for digital humanities scholars interested in understanding future events. They ask us to reconsider how we think about humanistic argumentation. How do we determine what to curate when we do not know what will emerge and how it will meet our research needs? How do issues of power define an event and manifest in the archive surrounding it? What spaces are there for resistance? What were the deeply ingrained cultural and social norms that exacerbated America's inability to respond to the pandemic? A Deeper Sickness brings these questions to the foreground challenging us not only as scholars but also as witnesses of collective trauma.