“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 4)

In both instances [the New York Times editorial and the Boston Globe report], a journalistic appeal to progress in the form of late-breaking bio-medical developments (“The newest AIDS medications,” “recent advances”) operates in effect to overlook, if not to excuse, the unmistakable racism inscribed in language that may or may not simple imitate TV.  (In the scene from “In this White House,” the audible irony in Toby’s response to the question “What’s the problem?” – “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time” – has the thinly-veiled racism of the fictional pharmaceutical executives as its target.)  The promising advances signaled by the new treatment regimens (which effectively date this episode of The West Wing, relegating it with dispatch to the cultural archive) may indeed reduce the burden on those who have access to these therapies, whatever their circumstances.  And what such “progress” may mean (and portend) for the millions presently living with HIV/AIDS is difficult to overestimate.  What it emphatically does not mean (as this series of posts attempts to make plain) is that “there is no need to tell time.”

On the contrary, the need – the unavoidable imperative – to tell time has perhaps never been more urgent.  Part and parcel of the work of correlating the order of events and the order of language in the face of the interminability of AIDS, telling time is itself at least a twofold task, as the archive of the pandemic instructs us.

1.  It is first of all a matter of accounting for the multiple specific temporalities inscribed in the virus, in the epidemic-turned-pandemic and in its artifactual remains to date, among which would number not only the episode of The West Wing but also the journalistic reports that speculated on its impact on the subsequent policy debate.  In the latter cases, for example, we are obligated to recognize the time that divides the scripting of “In this White House” from its eventual broadcast, as well as the interval between the episode’s airing and the adoption of its language by American policymakers, which is partly co-extensive with the time of the “recent advances” in treatment regimens cited with the effect of side-stepping the racist overtones of the bureaucrats’ arguments.  Far more importantly, these documents from the archive of the pandemic raise the matter of the (much longer) time between drug development in the west and access to “the newest AIDS medications” in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it that of the (still longer) time between the date assigned to the official inception of HIV/AIDS in North America and any consequential attention to its global impact.  Ultimately, they summon us to reflect on the variable temporalities of what we call human lifetime and on the diversity of the times death takes.  Under the pressure of reading, they remind us that what has become a widely-accepted state of affairs, and indeed a norm – that vastly divergent lifespans can and shall co-exist, that life expectancy of, say, thirty-seven years in some parts of the world can and shall obtain alongside life expectancy of more than double that figure in others, and this for an unspecified period of time to come – is also legible as a damning indictment of a shameful history.  In these and innumerable other instances, the need to tell time translates as the imperative to discern – which is to say, to read – the time in question, the always crucial variable that is never quite the same from one reading to the next.  Only a work of reading attentive to time as the x factor can ground a responsible theoretical consideration of the temporal and historical questions with which the pandemic never ceases to confront us.

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Filed under Culture, Death, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, Reading and writing

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