My first op-ed for Al Jazeera appeared this week. A shout-out to their editorial team, and especially to Naz, for a seamless experience.
Tag Archives: archive
As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function. It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part. I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…: CCC.” The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange. “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”). The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation. In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”
The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18
Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains. The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.
In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it. Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question. As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,
Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal. It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term: at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations. 
With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well. The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.
“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.” Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.” Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.
The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily: that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.
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.
[‘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).
In these terms, living with AIDS is an apprenticeship, or more precisely a series of unique apprenticeships, instructing us in what we know already but are too apt to ignore: that our days are numbered, our time counted. If AIDS takes time, subtracting it from life expectancy, it also gives time – time dedicated to living and dying freed from the amnesia that plagues us, that plagues Herve, for example, as he recollects the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1987:
It’s strange to wish someone Happy New Year when you know the person might not live all the way through it: there’s no situation more outrageous than that, and to handle it you need simple, unaffected courage, the ambiguous freedom of things left unsaid, a secret understanding braced with a smile and sealed with a laugh, so in that instant your New Year’s wish has a crucial but not weighty solemnity. [E 125; F 139]
In truth, this situation is neither strange nor outrageous, or rather only as strange and outrageous as our mortality. For we always know – though we are liable to forget – that the friend to whom we offer the wish may not live long enough to see its fulfillment, with which it can never coincide. (In Seneca’s stark reminder in “The Brevity of Life,” “You are living as if destined to live forever…though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”) To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life is a labour of writing dedicated to making that knowledge freshly legible, reminding Herve and his readers alike that human life is the presentiment of a death that, whenever it comes, will arrive prematurely.
To this extent, Guibert’s text “is but a gloss, a justification and expansion of a title that speaks of itself and for itself” (Derrida, Demeure, 53). As Roland Barthes has observed, “‘To dedicate’ is…’performative’..[the] meaning merges with the very act of enouncing… ‘I dedicate’ has no other meaning than the actual gesture by which I present what I have done (my work) to someone I love or admire…[through] the act of giving…and this modicum of writing necessary to express it” (“Sagesse de l’art” in Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 12).
Like its first sentence, the work’s title adopts the first person (“my life”) and the past tense (“did not”), signaling in advance what the narrative finally spells out: that in the end Bill failed to make good on “his promises, which he’d been making for a year and a half now but had never honored…. Bill told me he’d sensed all this, admitting that my reproaches were justified, that he’d misjudged the timing involved [qu’il n’avait pas bien mesure le temps] [E 220; F 240]. The time that Bill misjudged, his friend’s henceforth counted time, eventually runs out. And in the dedicatory title, the titular dedication, the friend he did not save addresses him as if from beyond the grave, through a rhetorical structure proper to fiction rather than autobiography or testimony, in the text’s first and ultimate instance of a non-coincidence, an impossibility of coincidence between the time inscribed in the text and the time of lived experience. To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, the dedication that arrives as if from the far side of a death that came too soon, already guarantees the work’s status as fiction, a full 257 pages before the narrative, nearing its end, glosses the generic stamp roman:
I’ve decided to be calm, to follow to the end this novelistic logic that so hypnotizes me, at the expense of all idea of survival. Yes, I can write it, and that’s undoubtedly what my madness is – I care more for my book than for my life, I won’t give up my book to save my life, and that’s what’s going to be the most difficult thing to make people believe and understand. [E 237; F 257]
More than his life, it is his book that counts. Hence the difficulty will be to convey this madness to the reader, through an experience of reading that does not yield knowledge of what right to confer on a text that, not only from its first sentence but from its very title, renders problematic an effort to secure its referential and rhetorical modes once and for all, to ascertain what remains as permanently elusive as the “perhaps.”
When I learned I was going to die, I’d suddenly been seized with the desire to write every possible book – all the ones I hadn’t written yet, at the risk of writing them badly: a funny, nasty book, then a philosophical one – and to devour these books almost simultaneously, in the reduced amount of time available [dans la marge retrecie du temps], and to write not only the books of my anticipated maturity but also, with the speed of light, the slowly ripened books of my old age. [E 61-2; F 70]
Hastened by HIV/AIDS into the category of the books of a young writer’s premature old age, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life emerges, if not as “every possible book,” then at least as one readable by turns as a testimony, as an archive, as a document, as a symptom, and indeed as a work of literary fiction that simulates all of these, “almost” (but not quite) “simultaneously.”
Neither does Blue spare us the related task of accounting for the other crucial incommensurability it renders: that between the time of its recorded testimony and the time of the experience to which it testifies, with which it cannot coincide. Blue‘s blind address to the blind summons us to hear the difference as the spoken soundtrack reverts to the past tense:
The virus rages fierce. I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest. It started with sweats in the night and swollen glands. Then the black cancers spread across their faces – as they fought for breath TB and pneumonia hammered at the lungs, and Toxo at the brain. Reflexes scrambled – sweat poured through hair matted like lianas in the tropical forest. Voices slurred – and then were lost forever. My pen chased this story across the page tossed this way and that in the storm. [Blue, 7-8]
It calls us as well to register the prophetic cadences of the outraged witness:
How did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman? As they set out for the indigo shore under this jet-black sky – some died on their feet with a backward glance – did they see Death with the hell hounds pulling a dark chariot, bruised blue-black, growing dark in the absence of light, did they hear the blast of trumpets? David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night. Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears. Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded. Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe. [Blue, 16]
We all contemplated suicide
We hoped for euthanasia
We were lulled into believing
Morphine dispelled pain
Rather than making it tangible
Like a mad Disney cartoon
Transforming itself into
Every conceivable nightmare [Blue, 17]
In a journal entry dated August 1993, written contemporaneously with preparations for the release of Blue, Jarman alludes to the temporal asymmetry between perception and attestation in experiential rather than conceptual terms: “The stinging eyedrops are in, the reading chart which has a flaw – as if you read with your good eye first you can remember the letters, to whose benefit? My illusions…. Eleven o’clock and still waiting for the dragging minutes to pass…. I feel less and less like fighting, giving up, giving in. Writing blind now…. Yawning void” (Smiling, 224). For the blinded Jarman, of course, visual perception belongs to recollection, as the editor’s preface to the posthumously published Smiling in Slow Motion confirms: “In the final diary he wrote without vision, his semi-legible scrawl only possible from his memory of the scratch of nib on paper” (Smiling, np).
(In his Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida poses “a thoughtful question: what would a journal of the blind be like? A newspaper or daily of the blind? Or else the more personal kind of journal, a diary or day-book? And what about the day, then, the rhythms of the days and nights without day or light, the dates and calendars that scan memories and memoirs? How would the memoirs of the blind be written?” . Smiling in Slow Motion answers Derrida’s questions by and for example, in chronicling the rhythms of Jarman’s final days and nights without day or light.)
In his journal of the blind, as in his film without images, Jarman attests that he has finally seen enough. “The blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness. In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind. Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception. The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time, and the interest of the attestation, like that of the testament, stems from this dissociation. No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable witness sees, or rather, has seen and now keeps in memory” (Memoirs of the Blind, 104). Nearing the end of his journey without direction, with no prospect of an afterlife beyond the horizon, Jarman finds that no image can show in the present what he has seen and now keeps in memory. In place of the “pandemonium of image,” he bequeaths to his viewers an imageless archive: one that preserves a time that was “all awry,” along with its own fundamental incommensurability, as testimony, with the awful devastation of AIDS.