[‘what history teaches’ is a series of posts drawing on and reworking material originally published under that title in Alphabet City 8 (“Lost in the Archive”), ed. Rebecca Comay. Fall 2002, pp. 357-65.]
‘Now to date now to date. Now and now and date and the date.’
— Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso”
Starkly subtitled A Book of AIDS, Aaron Shurin’s Unbound collects writings dating from 1988 to 1996, their individual provenance indicated at the end of each chapter. It is a chronicle, then, of the unfolding of the epidemic during those years in San Francisco, the author’s home and one North American epicenter of the crisis. But it is a chronicle that Shurin repeatedly and emphatically characterizes as a poetics, and more precisely a “reflexive poetics.” What might appear as incompatible, even mutually exclusive projects – historiography and poetics – prove inextricable in the instance of Unbound. Because this text, and indeed Shurin’s entire corpus, deserves a greater readership than it has yet attained, it warrants citation at some length, beginning with the preface, dated 1996.
The range of information AIDS presents keeps one at full attention. Who knew, to begin with, what dimensions the replicate virus would come to occupy? The various works collected here are the stations of an enlarging question…. I’ve dated the texts here, and let facts and figures remain as they were originally, to mark the developing way. But the numbers, their aggregate lines (their additions, multiplications and subtractions) were not my story. For that reason call this small but incremental book a poetics: Its way was made with both hands stretched, investigative, crossing and recrossing. The process – poetic, even lyric – tests the threads as it leads them – as it’s led by them – and coaxes their meeting, otherwise statistical, toward meaning(s). [Unbound: A Book of AIDS. Los Angeles, 1997, 7-8]
Poetics, according to one late twentieth-century definition, is a “descriptive or prescriptive discipline that lays claim to scientific consistency. It pertains to the formal analysis of linguistic entities as such, independently of signification,” and “it deals with theoretical models prior to their historical realization” (Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory, 1986, 56). To judge by the language of its preface, Unbound‘s poetics has hermeneutic aspirations, seeking to coax its findings toward sense. As Shurin had already written in 1995, however, in the chapter here entitled “Inscribing AIDS: A Reflexive Poetics,” “But one may neither make meaning, as I’d thought, nor find it, after pursuit. Meaning may be delivered – bouquet or bomb – head on. For a writer, this is experienced as a demand. How to write AIDS named me” (72).
Before meaning or meanings may be delivered, before a hermeneutics or a historiography of HIV/AIDS, the epidemic-turned-pandemic makes a certain demand on writer and reader alike: “The pure rampage of facts unleashed by the disease demanded scrutiny, the heartbreaking lure of incessant efflorescing information – to turn mortal details beneath the scoping light of sentences, to penetrate them, to release them, to be released from them. [Whitman: ‘As they emit themselves facts are showered over with light’]” (73). In these terms, “how to write AIDS” and how to read AIDS entail an ongoing negotiation with language as the vehicle of meaning’s delivery. For, as Shurin records in his “Notes from Under,” dated 1988, “It is alphabetical from the start, as if the full name were too terrible to be spoken, or because we don’t want to know the elaboration that would cause a true and necessary engagement with its nature; prefer a modest, even pleasant-sounding acronym to keep it hidden: AIDS” (14). Unbound‘s “reflexive poetics” here engages the epidemic as alphabetical, elliptical acronym, and goes on to elaborate what amounts to a linguistics of HIV/AIDS, comprising lexicon, syntax, semantics, semiotics, grammar, dialect.
I’m infected by a vocabulary, a prisoner of its over-specified agenda. I know OK-T4 helper cells, macrophages, lymphadenopathy, hairy leukoplakia; I know the syntax – the route of congregation – more than the definitions. By how they appear in the sentence I can pretty much tell what the end is going to be. I read their appearance on the body of a text and get its message. I see a sign which means one of these words is going to insist on being used….
Am I in or out of control? I’m learning this alien vocabulary by sight – it’s symbolic – but I don’t understand the grammar. I can’t apply it to any other situation; it’s a purely local dialect. Desperate, I use these medical words as markers, to chart the distance between my body and absolute fear, or my body and the hope of health – represented as control by the command of scientific terminology and its promise. 
Yet another of the author’s “Notes from Under” takes account of speech-acts and literary structures: “For this, reading the world, new language events by which we measure grief and fear; how the virus has made us talk about it – forms of disclosure, witness, vocabularies, stories. A new literary structure I feared becoming master of: the obituary” (15).