Why Nation-States and Journalists Can’t Teach People to Be Healthy: Power and Pragmatic Miscalculation in Public Discourses on Health

Abstract

This article analyzes how Venezuelan public health officials collaborated with journalists in producing information about cholera in January– December 1991. It uses Michael Warner’s (2002) observation that such public discourse involves a contradiction: it must project the image of reaching an actually existing public at the same time that it creates multiple publics as it circulates. The analysis explores the language ideologies that hide complex sets of practices, networks, and material conditions that shape how public discourses circulate. At the same time that epidemiologists targeted poor barrio residents, street vendors of food and drink, and indigenous people as being “at high risk,” health education messages pictured women in well-equipped kitchens demonstrating cholera prevention measures. The gap between these ideal audiences and the discrepant publics created by their circulation limited the effectiveness of prevention efforts and created a substantial chasm between public health institutions and publics they sought to reach.