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“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.

Deborah

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 12

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

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 4)

If these portraits are of lives lost, of friends and comrades no longer accessible to perception, the relation of image to model in this instance cannot be conceived according to the representational criteria of mimetic fidelity.  Fidelity to memory is of another order, and operates otherwise.

The manual translation that produced these pixelated portraits (the marks were left by a jeweler’s screwdriver applied to the oil- and graphite-coated beeswax) was not that of a hand following the prescription of a model.  The movement of memory left these traces, so many notations for future reference.  Facsimile documents what was virtually a state of emergency in an affected community – the artist’s own – in the early 1990s, respecting the specificity of individual instances even as it locates them in a geographical and historical context.  The series format itself attests to this history’s unfolding over a critical time:  The quasi-mechanical enumeration, case by case, is not dialectically resolved, comes only arbitrarily to a close, and could conceivably go on indefinitely.

But how can a crisis go on indefinitely?  The portraits ranged in Facsimile‘s four parts address this question both to members of the community in question and to those at some distance (spatial or temporal) from it, who may imagine themselves untouched, even immune.  As Thomas Keenan notes in a conversation published in 1991 under the title “The AIDS Crisis is Not Over” (a text that, like Facsimile, retains all its pertinence decades after the fact),

There’s a way in which the telling of the story, the testimony of the affected community, functions or can be received as an accusation, by those who thought they were uninvolved.  The testimony is an address, which means that it’s a provocation to a response.  And that’s what they don’t want to give.  They don’t want to respond to the person who has called – for responsibility.  When someone says “I don’t want to hear about it”… they are telling the truth.  They are creating themselves as something insulated in its generality from the specificity of the address, by disavowing any involvement with the one who appeals.  [American Imago, 1991]

In the commemorative portraits gathered under Andrews’ resonant title, the appeal comes to the viewer not only from before and beyond the grave, but from the moment at hand.  It is a call to recollection and to responsibility, one that we ignore at our own risk.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 2)

The critical force and historiographical import of Andrews’ project may be traced to Facsimile, a four-part series begun in 1990 and first exhibited in 1991.  A consideration of what the title itself gives us to think affords one opening onto the complexity of this work and the challenges, even the imperatives, it continues to pose for the viewer.  “Facsimile” is first of all the making (from the Latin facere) of a copy or likeness (similis), the work of imitation constitutive of portraiture.  Read through Andrews’ title, the images ranged here are understood to refer themselves to models that they reproduce or represent by way of a particular medium and material:  in this case, drawing on bleached beeswax tablets coated with oil and graphite.  From the first, however, these portraits trouble conventional premises about the fundamentally mimetic relation of art to nature, image to model.  For these “copies” are made not at one, but at several removes from their “originals,” and remarking the specificity of the resulting distances, spatial as well as temporal, is part of the project here.  The “Proud Lives” to which these likenesses recall the viewer are those of men and women now dead, commemorated in a regular feature of that title in the Toronto bi-weekly Xtra!, which publishes photographs of and tributes to members of the community lately lost to HIV-related illness.  Andrews’ images, then, have their antecedents in these photographs, snapshots donated by the survivors.  The multiply-mediated gazes that look out from these portraits do so from a then and there that is divided from our own here and now not just by the passage of time, but more radically by death.  They address the viewer from that other time and place, from a past that remains, in ways to be elaborated and analyzed, determinant for our present and our future.

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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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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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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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