Tag Archives: Derek Jarman

“Cc…: CCC,” part 3

Hi all:

There’s certainly nothing to argue about with Piot’s imperative:  “Now act!”  Deb, if your book among other things is tracing the myriad ways in which “time” as both metaphor and material fact has indelibly marked the work of Derek, Felix, Stephen, et.al., then few phrases could be more on the nose, echoing down the years.  (Among other reverberations, ACT UP’s national network acronym was of course ACT NOW!:  AIDS Coalition to Network, Organize and Win.)  Think how many times we’ve heard those words, said them, shouted them, bellowed them, repeated them to the point of platitude.  Indeed, AIDS over two decades and six continents has been marked like a music score by this same recurring lament:  Now act.  Act.  Now.

Though the “now” part has almost never been “acted” upon – big and small power brokers seem equally incapable of doing anything “now” – there has nevertheless been some acting:  often begrudging, often too little, often too late, but nevertheless.  Over time, through time, people have acted, continued to act.  Except of course, like Felix’s clocks, when their batteries, when their time runs out.

John G.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 1

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.  [17]

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.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 1)

In the context of the preceding posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible,  I am tempted to engage another example, one more instance of an artifactual remnant of the pandemic to date in yet another medium, and within it a genre, whose impact and longevity seem destined to be of the slightest.

In an episode of the television series The West Wing, broadcast by NBC in October, 2000 under the title “In this White House” [season 2, episode 4], one of the multiple subplots evoked some of the medical, economic and geopolitical stakes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.  Particularly telling were two scenes organized around a meeting in which the White House communications director (Toby) and the assistant chief of staff (Josh) sought to broker an agreement between the president of a fictitious African nation and the heads of several major pharmaceutical corporations.  In each of the scenes, the tense conversation around the table was further unsettled by the ongoing, not-quite-simultaneous two-way translation provided by the president’s aide.

Josh:  How much would it cost for you to provide free drugs to the Sealese Republic, Kenya and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu?

Pharmaceutical executive:  I have no idea.

Josh:  Why not?  We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills three times a day, every day.  What’s the x factor?

Executive:  We don’t know how long they’ll live.

Toby:  We know where.

In this equation, whose stakes are nothing short of life and death, the crucial variable proves to be time:  specifically, time as duration, as the “how long” inscribed in the life expectancies of the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of lives that, painfully and shamefully, depend on the outcome of such conversations around such tables.

(Writing late in October 2002 under the title “Where Are We?”, John Berger provides an eloquent analysis of the pain and the shame in question, which saturate and perhaps exceed the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Everyone knows that pain is endemic to life, and wants to forget this or relativize it.  All the variants of the myth of a Fall from the Golden Age, before pain existed, are an attempt to relativize the pain suffered on earth.  So too is the invention of Hell, the adjacent kingdom of pain-as-punishment.  Likewise the discovery of sacrifice.  And later, much later, the principle of Forgiveness.  One could argue that philosophy began with the question:  why pain?

Yet when all this has been said, the present pain of living in the world is perhaps in some ways unprecedented.  Consumerist ideology, which has become the most powerful and invasive on the planet, sets out to persuade us that pain is an accident, something that we can insure against.  This is the logical basis for the ideology’s pitilessness.

I write in the night, although it is daytime.  A day in early October 2002….  I write in a night of shame.

By shame I do not mean individual guilt.  Shame, as I am coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead.  We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.

People everywhere under very different conditions are asking themselves:  Where are we?  The question is historical not geographical.  What are we living through?  Where are we being taken?  What have we lost?  How to continue without a plausible vision of the future?  Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?….

The shame begins with the contestation (which we all acknowledge somewhere but, out of powerlessness, dismiss) that much of the present suffering could be alleviated or avoided if certain realistic and relatively simple decisions were taken.  There is a very direct relation today between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony.

Does anyone deserve to be condemned to certain death simply because they don’t have access to treatment which would cost less than $2 a day?  That was a question posed by the director-general of the World Health Organization last July [2002].  She was talking about the AIDS epidemic, in Africa and elsewhere, in which an estimated 68 million people will die within the next eighteen years.  I’m talking about the pain of living in the present world. [John Berger, “Where Are We?”, Harper’s March 2003, 13-14, emphasis added])

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 10)

It is fitting, then, that the final sequence of “Untitled” (2000-2001), subtitled “the future” (deliberately rendered in the lower case), should take the form of a multiply-mediated citation of Derek Jarman:  a series of blue frames traversed by the scan lines that Andrews produced by videotaping a vacant television screen, photographing the resulting tape as it appeared in turn on his monitor, then photocopying and transferring the frames onto the mylar strips.  The last part of “Untitled” is thus readable in part as a homage to Jarman, as Blue itself is readable in part as a homage to the work of Yves Klein.  More specifically, Andrews’ photocopy transfers stand as so many mute (or “still”) commemorations of the eloquent testimony in the voiced soundtrack of Jarman’s final film, which is pointedly not reproduced, but rather entrusted to the viewer’s fallible memory and unpredictable sense of responsibility.  Attesting to the distance, the mortal difference between Blue‘s provenance and its own – “Untitled” (2000-2001) is of a time that Jarman did not live to see – Andrews work proffers a series of afterimages of what is itself an afterimage:  “the future” figured, poignantly, as “a short sequel of sorts.”

In the context of this blog’s trajectory of readings, Andrews’ inexact visual quotation may also evoke one of Seneca’s own citations in “De brevitate vitae,” enlisted to substantiate his claim that life, whatever its duration, “is long if you know how to use it”:  “so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets:  ‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time” (Seneca, trans. Costa, 60)  [adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem:  “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivmus.”  Ceterem quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est].  Because, as the philosopher’s English-language editors and translators acknowledge, “The quotation has not been identified,” what Seneca bequeaths to us is but a “prose rendering of an unknown poet” (Seneca, ed. Costa, 117 n4).  The erstwhile “greatest of poets,” relegated by time to the rank of unknown, lies degraded in the compost of cultural memory, surviving in and as a prosaic paraphrase of a brief remark, partaking of the shared fate that Andrews’ work never lets us forget.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 11)

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]

Or again,

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?” [33].  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.

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