Tag Archives: “On the Concept of History”

“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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“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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‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “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 concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.


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