Tag Archives: Gertrude Stein

“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.


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‘what history teaches,’ part 6

The epigraph to the essay “Some Haunting,” dated 1994, cites the Joyce of Ulysses alluding to the Shakespeare of Hamlet:  “He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow” (66).  The quotation opens Shurin’s evocation of his own ghosts (if they are his):

I’m no longer afraid these AIDS apparitions might be real (they’ve lost the advantage of surprise), but my subsequent clench at the gut or failing of the knees shows a terror more truculent than fear of the Impossible.  (The Impossible?  What, anymore, is that?)  These particular visitations – these “voices heard in the heart of him” – pursue.  They know my name, and my whole shaken body responds to their address….  The ghosts who walk in my city (my ghostly city) are cast as vividly as any childhood stored in a dipped madeleine – with that fleeting precision memory affords, and the rubbed-out edges it requires.  And they rise just as suddenly….  They flash and seize….  These visions are gone in the next shift of wind, of course….  Too late for me, who have been stuck by recognition, a madeleine-rush of memory that comes, alas, too frequently to be savored, but whose measure is too steady to be ignored.

I am haunted.  [66-67]**

The ghost, the shadow, the wind, the sea’s voice – always just gone – that pursue Shurin and address him by name again figure a demand made by the past on the present:  pay attention as if your life depended on it, recognize as your own concern what threatens to disappear irretrievably.  The sheer force of this demand disrupts the complacency of memory and amnesia alike.  As William Haver observes in the context of his own consideration of Unbound, “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification” (unpublished ms., 12).  And the same claim might be made for citation:  for example, the citation of the past readable in a photograph of the author and his friends at the Gay Freedom Day celebration in Golden Gate Park in 1975.  Contemplating an image of the past twenty years later under the title “Shifting Paradise,” Shurin writes:

…one no longer knows the actual from the iconic – the icon becomes the actual!  Where physical distance blurs temporal distance refines.  This much has not shifted:  on a shelf a lucite frame encodes the past in a photo – unregenerate – as a paradise of pure loss.

But something has shifted:  the resonant image, gingerly holding its chemical colors against the fading power of sunlight, remains the same, but the very nature of paradise has changed.  Even while – eyes dewy – focused back on primal beauty, the unforeseen – HIV – transfigures sight, beholder and beheld.  “This sceptered isle,” Shakespeare’s Gaunt has said, “This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection.”  The magic island is flooded in a breakaway recursive tide; what did not hold – infected – returns to the image of origin.  (78)***

What follows this reflection on the fading photograph that cites a paradise now irretrievably lost is a parenthetical quotation from Gertrude Stein, the concluding lines of a remarkable poem with the hypothetical title “If I Told Him” (and the more assured subtitle “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”):  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches” (78).  This history lesson, in the form of a citation that itself inscribes, or performs, citation, quoting itself as it unfolds, delivers not meaning, but what Unbound elsewhere terms “enactment” (35), demarcating the properly ethical dimension of its poetics and its historiography.


** The haunting of the survivor is powerfully figured by John Greyson in “Overtaken,” Alphabet City 7 (“Social Insecurity”), 2000, 68-79.

*** In In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, I propose that “the photographic image takes place in the mode of a pledge:  Everything may be preserved for history.  But if what is preserved is in the process of disappearing, perhaps what is kept is only the promise”  (Stanford UP, 1999, 3).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 1

[‘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. [16]

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).

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