Tag Archives: Stuart Marshall

“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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Current events, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

“Cc…: CCC,” part 10

Dear all:

TAC’s call, “to prevent a holocaust against the poor,” inevitably reminds me of another holocaust, and another puzzle of time.  In 1987, UK video artist Stuart Marshall produced an extraordinary tape about AIDS, history and representation entitled Bright Eyes.  Stuart was certainly one of the first artists (and PWAs) to critically historicize the pandemic, using a mixed-genre collage of fake news reports, critical interpretations, and dramatic excerpts to tease out AIDS and its historical metaphors, lurking like the dancing shadows around the hearth of the virus.  In particular, he explored if and how useful analogies could be drawn between the slaughter by design of pink triangle prisoners in the concentration camps, and the slaughter by indifference of so many gay men in the early years of the epidemic, succumbing to AIDS while the world dithered about green monkeys and Patient Zero.

His representational techniques always leave this explosive question hanging in the air, for his viewers to wrestle with:  is it illuminating or productive to juxtapose the Third Reich’s homophobia with that of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney?  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?  Are the fruits of history apples and oranges, or indeed Granny Smiths and Macs?

One extraordinary scene involves archival footage of the burning of the Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Institute in Berlin.  Hirschfeld was of course the pioneering sexologist who had led the campaign against the recriminalization of homosexuality under the Nazis, the infamous Paragraph 175.

In retaliation, the Nazis razed his institute, committing to the pyre a lifetime’s achievement concerning human sexuality.  Stuart shows how Hirschfeld actually witnessed the incident.  It was weeks later, and the good doctor was in a film theatre in London, having fled the Nazis, watching a newsreel about the incident before the main feature.  There’s something unbearably poignant about the scene:  the footage itself, of course, but more, the flicker of blue light on the expressionless face of Hirschfeld, as he watches his life’s work incinerate, a thousand miles and several weeks’ distant from the real event.

Stuart’s puzzle:  How can we ever hope to truly imagine the times of Hirschfeld, and his relation to time?  Last week on CNN, we perhaps watched a TAC speaker address the side conference on sustainable development in Jo’burg, live [at the Earth Summit convened in Johannesburg in September 2002].  Next week, we perhaps may watch the incineration of Iraq, live.  Real time commands the new, true-blue test of value:  We now only venerate images of towers if they’re tumbling as we watch them live, the realness of the digital clock on the lower left of the screen goldplating our participatory frisson.

[John Greyson’s e-mail continues in “Cc…:  CCC,” part 11]

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Current events, Death, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, Reading and writing, Tech