Dear Gregg, John, Jack and Kendall,
I hope this message finds each of you well, wherever and whenever it reaches you. I hope, too, that it will serve to initiate an e-mail exchange about the virus and the pandemic that will appear at the conclusion of my recently completed The Brevity of Life: What AIDS Makes Legible. The manuscript, parts of which some of you may already have had a chance to read, and others surely not as yet, includes as the volume’s proposed frontispiece a photograph of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), dated 1987-1990, an installation that features two apparently identical clocks hung side by side, barely touching one another, and synchronized such that both read “2:43:58” (or “14:43:58”).
My hope was that Gonzalez-Torres’ work, photographed in situ, would resonate with a citation I was considering as an epigraph for the book: Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), writing in his “Foreword” to the Encyclopedia of AIDS that “the worldwide AIDS epidemic has become a permanent challenge to human integrity and solidarity. Given the scale of suffering, given the proven effectiveness of several approaches, and given the prospect of furthering other human goals through the fight against AIDS, an expanded response makes ethical and practical sense. Instead of letting AIDS turn back the clock, let us use our response to the epidemic to turn humanity’s clock ahead.”
Now John, who was kind enough to take the time recently to read the manuscript and to respond with characteristic generosity and insight, wondered in an e-mail to me whether Piot’s language in this instance set a tone in keeping with the chapters that follow. I take the liberty of citing from John’s message: “Peter Piot [citation]: for me it set the wrong tone, starting your book like that – I’m sure I’m carrying around too much baggage vis a vis UNAIDS and that very mainstream don’t really rock the boat agenda…. Couldn’t you start with Seneca – maybe juxtaposed with Ben and his phone card?” **
John’s thoughtful and wide-ranging response reached me on July 15, as I was reading the Report on the global epidemic just released by UNAIDS. Writing in the report’s preface, Piot notes that “In 2001, the world marked 20 years of AIDS. It was an occasion to lament the fact that the epidemic has turned out to be far worse than predicted, saying ‘if only we knew then what we know now.’ But we do know now. We know that the epidemic is still in its early stages, that effective responses are possible but only when they are politically backed and full-scale, and that unless more is done today and tomorrow, the epidemic will continue to grow…. The time has come to put all the pieces together. Plans have been made. Needs are clear. Solutions are available. Now act!”
With your permission, I would like to take Piot’s language in the preface to the UNAIDS report as a provisional point of departure for our exchange. In what context or contexts do you place this brief exercise in historiography on Piot’s part? More specifically, perhaps, how do you read and respond to its concluding imperative?
With my thanks in advance, and warm regards,
** John here alludes to one of the epigraphs to the prologue, which cites Ben, a long-time seropositive man who tells the New York Times that he feels like someone with a phone card who knows that at some point he will hear the inevitable “you have two minutes left.”