NeMLA 2022 - Panel - Contempt as a Virus: The Contagion of Ugly Feelings in a Post-Pandemic World

deadline for submissions: 
October 15, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Fred Solinger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
contact email: 

*Please submit your 250-300 word abstract at*

The title of this panel comes from the post-script to Zadie Smith's 2020 essay collection, Intimations, its composition more or less bookended by the start of COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd. In that final essay, she touches on the killing of the latter during the peak of the former, likening contempt, a feeling "less flashy than hate," to a lethal contagion. The object of contempt—George Floyd, murdered in slow motion by a man who look bored—"doesn't even truly rise to the level of a hated object" since that would "involve a full recognition of [one’s] existence.” As we find ourselves nearing an end to the pandemic and survey the damage, we see all too clearly how it has at once exacerbated, and laid bare, the toxicity and poison directed toward the most vulnerable among us. Smith's definition of contempt is compatible with the "bestiary of affects" that Sianne Ngai deemed ugly feelings, "minor and unprestigious feelings" that allow for no release or catharsis, that operate at low frequencies, that impel no action. And yet, at maskless rallies over the past year, coronavirus wasn’t the only thing spreading; feelings like contempt, disgust, envy, paranoia, nostalgia, and so forth, were very much in the air and took a sinister collective form. Following the major consequences such seemingly minor feelings produce, this panel welcomes papers on literature, film, and television that examine the ways in which such ugly feelings spread, poison, and kill, and especially papers on works in which members of a marginalized community are themselves viewed and treated as perceived threats to “purity” or “decency” by communities infected by such virulent states of mind.