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: experience
Thinking out loud in response to John’s last e-mail:
The analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Nazi holocaust was once very common in AIDS discourse in North America. I have, for a long time now, doubted the usefulness of analogies between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust (and by the term Holocaust I understand that to refer to the Nazi Holocaust) because through analogy we lose our ability to grasp the crisis at hand in its specificity. The use of analogy is somewhat useful to gain immediate attention and it’s perhaps useful as a shorthand for ethical criteria established through the experience of the Holocaust. However, we gain little through the analogy because we foreclose on the possibility of new outcomes when we resort to historical analogies. In other words, what we attempt to change and avoid through the use of analogy, we can doom to repetition in our analysis. Through analogy we risk closing our minds to current options and possibilities.
I do not accept the old adage that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Rather, I believe that those who fail to grasp the present, in all its complexity and specificity, are doomed to repetition. A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history.
Regarding the problem of doing something “here,” from the vantage of the privileged north, that will help “there,” in the disadvantaged south: I have been preoccupied with this problem ever since I returned to Chicago from Durban in July 2000. Initially, after returning from the Durban conference, I found receptive audiences for consciousness raising and fundraising, specifically about AIDS in Africa and the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign. These efforts were supported and amplified by the established press. Papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave a great amount of coverage to AIDS in the “third world” and the battles over pharmaceutical drug company patents.
The success of the efforts I have been involved with – fundraising, lecturing and the production of advocate video work – has reached a limit for a number of interesting reasons. Discussions here and in the U.S. about AIDS in the resource-poor world inevitably, and perhaps rightly, lead back to discussions about AIDS in our country [the U.S.]. When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S., all illusions of progress disintegrate. Sure, there are a large number of people on life-saving drugs, far larger proportionately than in the resource-poor world, BUT there are many other things to consider. Over half of the million people in the U.S. who have HIV don’t know it. Among those who do know it, the number of those who have access to drugs and adequate medical treatment is small AND may get smaller. The government is now attacking and seriously threatening to dismantle the benefit system AIDS activists fought hard to establish. ADAP (the AIDS drug assistance program) is currently under attack. Plus, the Bush administration is also quietly going about the business of undermining and discrediting already compromised and underfunded prevention programs.
The needs of people in the resource-poor world are far greater in scale than the needs of people in wealthy countries. There remain a great many unsolved inequities in wealthy nations. How do the needs of people with AIDS in poor countries and the needs of the poor in rich countries become separate and competing problems in the minds of those who think about AIDS? Given the shortage of resources to fight AIDS here or abroad, how do AIDS activists choose effective courses of action?
There is a crisis of community among those hardest hit in the U.S. A kind of complacency has set in about AIDS. The reasons for this are very complex and will have to be thoroughly considered in a following e-mail. For the moment, let us recognize that the negative effects of privatization, the suffocation of the public sphere through capitalist incorporation and instrumentalization of all organic community structures has stymied and arrested those hardest hit by AIDS. Though things are getting bad, in ways that feel very much the same as the late eighties, the communities hardest hit do not seem to have the wherewithal to fight back. And it is hard to rally people simply by referring them back to the late eighties. Again the problem with analogy.
In the past two weeks, I have learned of two friends, gay men, who after a decade or more of remaining HIV negative, have now seroconverted. This is by now a common experience for many of us, witnessing the seroconversion of our friends. And we have developed an ethical response to the experience. No judgment. We must immediately make ourselves available to our friends, support them, love them, help them to make appropriate treatment decisions, and help them get access to treatment. That may sound odd to others. Of course you should respond that way! It took some of us a while to get past our anger and frustration, to develop a complex understanding of the role of the unconscious and the limits of safer sex, to be able to respond ethically, with love and not anger or resentment, to recent seroconversions. The complexity of all this preoccupies me now.
More later. XOXO Gregg
This partial, elliptical restoration of what remains inaudible and illegible in the lines scratched in the margins of “The First Part of the Second Half” yields the formidable task of reading Andrews reading Carson reading the scriptural account of Lazarus. At every turn, the event in question – which is not represented but figured – is a resurrection, among whose incalculable effects is an unsettling in the order and the measure of time. What Carson’s director of photography, translating and paraphrasing Rilke, terms “the flip-over moment” relegates chronological time – “Before and after” – to virtual irrelevance; hence this impossible documentary (“Our sequence”) purports to open and close with the time (“that moment”) of a singular upheaval.
The radical disordering of the time of lived experience as well as that of narrative succession leaves us with discontinuous, heterogeneous moments, each exerting a certain “pressure,” each with an again incalculable bearing on us, now.
We know the difference now
(life or death).
For an instant it parts our hearts. [Carson, 95]
The poem’s first-person plural here inscribes the reader in a claim to “know the difference” (the interposed parentheses that demarcate “life or death” signal an interruption in the unfolding of the utterance itself), a claim tied to a moment (“now”) that is of necessity itself different with every reading. And because it is impossible to determine in strictly grammatical terms whether to assign “now” to “know” or to “difference,” the difference in question may also differ from one reading to the next. For another “instant,” a time with no measurable duration, the difference “parts our hearts,” engendering a further difference, not between but within us, each of us. The effect here is perhaps akin to the disturbance that Derrida locates in Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, which is also a remarkable (autobiographical, autothanatographical) reinscription of the Lazarus narrative.
A disturbance in the measure of time and a paradox of these instants, which are so many heterogeneous times. Neither synchrony nor diachrony, an anachrony of all instants…. There is not a single time, and since there is not a single time, since one instant has no common measure with any other because of death, by reason of death interposed, in the interruption of reason by death, so to speak, because of the cause of the death there can be no chronology or chronometry. One cannot, even when one has recovered a sense of the real, measure time. And thus the question returns, how many times: how much time? how much time? how much time? [Derrida, Demeure, 94]
The pressing question posed (how many times?), though not answered, in and through the story of Lazarus and its allegorical reinscription (Blanchot’s, Carson’s, Andrews’) is quantitative, a matter of duration: How much time? How long a reprieve from a death that will be – when it comes to stay, as it surely will – premature? In each instance, the uncertain response is figured and refigured as “a sort of tomorrow, a sort of postscript,” for “this remainder that remains…will have been but a short sequel of sorts, a fallout, a consequence” (Derrida, Demeure, 94).
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.
Another work created by Gonzalez-Torres in 1994 makes a compelling case, in a different medium though in much the same terms, for the necessity of this experience (of the aporia). Postdating “Untitled” (The End) by four years, “Untitled” (Beginning) affords its viewer an experience of nonpassage discernibly different from that initiated by the earlier paper stacks. Its belated exhibition in the artist’s New York gallery was posthumous, in the January following his death from AIDS-related illness in 1996.
“Untitled” (Beginning) consists of hundreds of floor-to-ceiling strings of plastic beads in green, clear and silver extended across the width of the gallery on a metal rod. It is one of five bead curtains assembled by Gonzalez-Torres, who specifies on their certificates of authenticity that “A part of the intention of this work is that it may be installed and displayed in any entranceway of the owner’s choice.” “It is necessary that the beads hang from the top of the entranceway to the ground.” “It is also necessary that the beads fill the entranceway completely from side to side” [Catalogue Raisonnee, 15].
Reviewing the exhibition for the New York Times, Holland Cotter remarked that, in each of the five beadworks, “the colors he used were symbolic. In this case green predominates, suggesting vegetation and water, and looking through the curtain, one does indeed have the sensation of peering into a fluid surface glinting with light. Water suggests baptism, and green is the color of hope, symbols that this artist, acutely alert to the power of metaphor, surely factored in” [NYT, January 17, 1997, C27]. An interpretation such as this one, valuable as it is in rendering a visual encounter with the installation, comes to rest on the bead curtain’s “symbolic” or metaphorical sense, and thus overlooks the multiple temporalities inscribed in “Untitled” (Beginning). One of these, shared indeed by all of the works analyzed here, is an effect of its tacit citation of the artist’s earlier endeavors. Once again, Simon Watney provides an incisive analysis, urging that
[w]hat we should notice is the way in which he relays meanings between different works, by means of the formal development of individual elements. Thus the row of light bulbs from “Untitled” (Go-Go Dance Platform) from [the] 1991 [exhibition “Every Week There Is Something Different”] have now taken on a formal life of their own in numerous subsequent light pieces involving strings of light bulbs, just as the gently chiming curtain of glass beads that gave access to the platform has been reworked with red and transparent beads in a visually and conceptually stunning analogue of red and white blood cells, blood vessels, and medical technology [in “Untitled” (Blood) (1992)]. Thus the light pieces [like the paper stacks, billboard works, candy spills and bead curtains – Ed.] also carry with them, as it were, memories (and forgettings) of their original context and its associations. And all his light pieces, with their poetic connotations of garden parties at night, discos, the Fourth of July, as well as boxing arenas and operating theatres, also carry with them an ever more ghostly shadow of the beautiful Go-Go boy on Prince Street in 1991, proudly and expertly dancing to his favourite Pet Shop Boys remix, and by contingency on the associative field of Placebo, which is also a packed dance floor…. [Watney, 44]
In explicating the significance of his work, Gonzalez-Torres had recourse more than once to Rilke’s concept of “blood-remembering” [Bluterinnerung], alluding to a passage in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge wherein, as Spector recalls, “true aesthetic achievement is deemed impossible without a lifetime of accumulated experiences that have almost literally become a part of the artist – his lifeblood…. ‘Verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings…. They are experiences. For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and things, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly.’ Accordingly, artistic expression should reflect the complexity of a life lived, take account of the myriad events – both significant and seemingly trivial – that occur and are then forgotten, only to be recalled in altered form….” [Spector, 42]
Such blood-remembering seems to saturate Gonzalez-Torres’ recollection of the initial impulse behind the 1993 series “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) and its precedents dating from 1987, in terms that are in the strict sense biographical, and in the event autobiographical: “It was this that struck me when I first saw an extensive bloodwork done on Ross, in the form of numbers and codes. I said to him, ‘Honey, this is your blood. Right here. This is it.’ There was not a drop of blood there. There wasn’t anything red. And it was even more frightening because all the numbers could be easily reversed. It is a total abstraction; but it is the body. It is your life” [quoted in Spector, 167; emphasis added]. In the context of the present, partial account of the artist’s body of work and the unfolding of its effects over time, the “right here” reinflects the “this place” reiterated in the aporetic enunciation of “Untitled” (1990) – “Somewhere Better Than This Place,” “Nowhere Better Than This Place” – as a site of decision, and the viewer’s experience of nonpassage as the condition of a certain responsibility. Anyone who elects to participate in the collaboration that the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills seek to initiate does so in response to an appeal, and indeed a provocation: As Gonzalez-Torres observed in 1993, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility….” (Rollins, 23). The stakes of the viewer’s decision to take part in the work by taking part of the work, partaking of its generosity, are in the artist’s own estimation high indeed. And the outcome, whether reckoned in pragmatic or theoretical terms, is far from certain.
good conscience as subjective certainty is incompatible with the absolute risk that every promise, every engagement, and every responsible decision – if they are such – must run. To protect the decision or the responsibility by knowledge, by some theoretical assurance, or by the certainty of being right, of being on the side of science, of consciousness or of reason, is to transform this experience into the deployment of a program, into a technical application of a rule or a norm or into the subsumption of a determined “case.” All these are conditions that must never be abandoned, of course, but that, as such, are only the guardrail of a responsibility to whose calling they remain radically heterogeneous…. [Hence] the necessity of experience itself, the experience of the aporia…as endurance or as passion, as interminable resistance or remainder. [Derrida, Aporias, 19]