Tag Archives: “The Brevity of Life”

My informal Twitter poll, part II

Yesterday I wrote about my impulse to conduct an informal poll of a handful of folks I follow on Twitter, each of whom has something to say about one or more of the core concerns of this blog:  media, journalism, historiography.  To date, I have tweeted (some through DM, others by way of @reply) eight people, all of whom I know only through Twitter, some of whom have engaged with me in the past on various matters.  To each, I posed a version of a simple question:

Hey.  For an informal poll of some folks I follow on Twitter: who are your intellectual (philosophical/theoretical) exemplars/heroes?

As I noted yesterday, @CodyBrown was first off the mark, with his speedy and decisive nomination of Mario Savio.  Later in the day, another of my addressees got back to me with two tweets enumerating several possible candidates.

I still read Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, everything else collects dust.

But I also like the “self-help” genre:  Seneca, Thoreau, and so forth.

This from @nk, aka Nick Kallen, whose Twitter profile is, like his handle, succinct enough:  “Wealth and personal achievement expert.”  I started to follow Nick around the time that Twitter was rolling out its “lists” function, with which he was closely involved.  The only other things I know about him are that, at last count, he has roughly 300,000 followers, and that he lives and/or works in San Francisco, where I resided for part of the year that I taught at the Stanford Humanities Center.

While Seneca would no doubt appear on my own list of exemplars – after all, I borrowed the title of his essay on “The Brevity of Life” for my last book*, and urge anyone who will listen to read it (the essay, that is) – and while I have no problem understanding the “self-help” classification under which my hero appears in the tweet, the most striking thing about Nick’s response was not his short “list” of luminaries, fascinating as it is in response to my query, but the fact that a guy like him (as I imagine him, to the extent that I do so) would have volumes of philosophical writing lying around his place collecting dust.  Absent @nk’s reply, I would not have associated him with that particular particulate matter.

This morning, after sending another round of @replies to the malingerers, I promptly heard from @ryansholin.

Tough one.  I’m inspired by Chaplin, Hemingway, Godard, Han Solo, but certainly don’t try to live like them.  Except for Han. 

@ryansholin’s profile identifies him as “Product Manager, Local Sites at Gannett Digital.  I make/do/talk about cool things for journalists.  Also, a lot of parenting.  And some humor, if I’m lucky.”  It also provides a link to his website, http://ryansholin.com, aka Invisible Inkling:  Ryan Sholin on the future of news.  And other stuff.  I came to know of Ryan, and to draw on his expertise, through a very cool thing for journalists that he helped develop and distribute:  publish2, a news sharing and archiving program that I have found useful.  So evidently I’m in Ryan’s debt several times over.  And I congratulate him on his new job, where he is sure to do more cool stuff for journalists and their readers, thereby (to my mind) outdoing even Han.

Further poll results and (possible) aggregation thereof in due course.

* The text of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible appears in this blog’s archives.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 15

[Kendall Thomas, in continuation from “Cc…:  CCC, part 14]

My point here is that the landscape of “international AIDS” in the U.S. is, first and foremost, a psychic space whose field of action is the interiorized projection (Rorty’s “sentimental education”) that allows Americans to “feel” that they are part of the global culture of concern about the HIV pandemic.  Needless to say, the heightened sensitivity of the American public to the imagined pain of those who are living with (and dying from) AIDS in other parts of the world has yet to take the form of a collective public demand that the U.S. government increase its support for international treatment and prevention efforts.  (Tellingly, the Kaiser Foundation survey I mentioned earlier found that nearly half of those polled doubted that more money would result in any meaningful progress in the struggle against AIDS in Africa.)  If anything, the “international turn” in the U.S. domestic discourse on HIV/AIDS has served as an alibi for not addressing the intranational scandal of HIV infection and illness on our own shores.  Consider the following state of affairs.  The U.S. continues to record about 40,000 new infections each year.  Roughly one-half to two-thirds of the 800,000 to 900,000 Americans with HIV/AIDS do not receive regular medical care.  Up to one third of Americans do not know that they are infected.  African Americans, who represent 12% of the U.S. population, make up 47% of new AIDS cases.  African American women account for nearly two thirds of the new AIDS cases among women in the U.S.  Some 56% of the African Americans living with HIV are not on combination drug therapy.  They are 1.5 times more likely not to get preventive treatment for PCP.  Although they represent only 15% of the total U.S. population under the age of 13, African Americans make up 62% of the nation’s pediatric AIDS cases.  Half the new AIDS cases among young people between the ages of 13 and 19 are among African Americans.  AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.  A recent study of young men who have sex with men suggests that in parts of the U.S., one in three gay African Americans are infected with HIV, a rate fully comparable to that of the hardest hit African countries.

Does this mean that AIDS analysis and activism in the U.S. should turn inward and cut itself off from the rest of the world?  Not at all.  I am not urging a narcissistic return to the isolationism that has characterized too much of the history of the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS.  I am saying that in engaging with the question of where to act now, we in the U.S. have a responsibility to continually think the global around the axis of the domestic.  We have a responsibility, too, to develop and defend a radical vision of solidarity across the mental borders that AIDS sentimentalism has drawn between the international pandemic and the intranational epidemic.  In my view, the measure of those of us who live in the U.S. must be taken by our willingness to fight AIDS as fiercely at home as we do abroad.

Kendall

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 14

I’ve been thinking about the original question Deb posed about how we might read and respond to the “concluding imperative” of Piot’s preface to the UNAIDS report:  Now act!”  Ensuing discussions have raised other questions that are nested in Piot’s injunction (I’m thinking in particular of Gregg’s intervention, which, as Deb notes, takes up the issues of “What,” “Who,” and “When”).  I keep returning, though, to a question (or rather a set of questions) that, to my mind, is at least as urgent as the questions of agency and temporality on which Piot’s imperative invites reflection.  That question is simply this:  “Where?”  Where is the space or field or geography of the action(s) “we” are enjoined to take?

The document in which Piot’s injunction appears is called the Report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.  The nominative anachronism of this title is worth remarking, since it takes us back to an earlier time in the history of the naming practices that have enveloped the life of the virus (which, as Cindy Patton has recently reminded us, includes the pre-history before “The Name” of the virus itself).  We all remember the moment in the 1990s when we began to speak of the “HIV/AIDS epidemic” as the “pandemic,” in order to register the emerging consciousness that this was a cluster of epidemics that covered, or would soon come to cover, the entire world.  In the U.S. context, this new nomination has over time had the important and salutary effect of opening the national consciousness about HIV/AIDS.  My sense is that U.S. based global AIDS activists have been able to use the language of an international HIV pandemic to expand the domestic discursive space accorded to HIV.  The recognition that “we are not the world” has enlarged the national conversation about AIDS on issues from U.S. government spending abroad to the drug pricing policies of the transnational pharmaceutical corporations.

This shift in the U.S. public imagination has increasingly made it impossible not to think about HIV/AIDS in international terms.  Surely that is a good thing.  However, it would probably be a mistake to read too much into the broadened public perception of the AIDS crisis in the U.S.  For example, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans are able to correctly identify Africa as the region of the world with the largest population of people living with HIV/AIDS.  However, only a minority of those surveyed believed that the U.S. government should be more involved than it has been in responding to AIDS in Africa.  To paraphrase Richard Rorty, the “globalization” of the U.S. public’s perception of AIDS has meant little more than an increased interest in “hearing sad and sentimental stories.”  During the first two decades, the “face” of AIDS in the American mind was the headshot of the “ravaged” Rock Hudson or the “courageous” Ryan White; by the third, that “face” belongs to the “frail” South African Nkosi Johnson.  In many ways, the image of the “international AIDS pandemic” in the collective U.S. consciousness serves  much the same purpose as that of “international human rights”:  it is a tool (to borrow again from Rorty) for “manipulating sentiments, [for] sentimental education.”

[Kendall Thomas’ e-mail continues in the following post]

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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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“Cc…: CCC,” part 7

Dear all:

Perhaps Jack and Zackie could outline more of the circumstances of their tea party with Nelson this last Sunday – which sounds like it just might shake the world, or at the very least rattle the President’s china.  Photos of the tea service, please!  Menu tidbits:  you said he drank mint tea with honey, but the biscuits?

Because Jack’s right – what could be more about right now, more about acting right now, more in the present tense, more about hope, than Zackie having tea with Nelson, while Jack shoots every sip and crumb?  Now there’s some activism as performance art that would make Derek & Co. purr!

John

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While we await details of the historic tea party….  I just had my first opportunity to see Gregg’s powerful video, Habit, which borrows footage from Jack’s work to great effect, and features Zackie, speaking on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign in July 2000, making the point that well-meaning volunteers who might want to contribute to current efforts on the ground in South Africa “should have the humility not to arrive in the morning and try to rule the country by lunchtime.”  For me, this resonates powerfully not only with the images of Gregg’s calendar pillbox, helpfully dividing the days for those who have access to the most effective therapies at this stage, but also with the red thread of our conversation to this point.

For the record, I also want to impart two further points that John raised in his response to reading the manuscript of The Brevity of Life.  The first has to do with an argument made by Andrew Sullivan, writing in the New York Times Magazine to the effect that (I’m quoting John) “the AIDS cultural debate is ‘dated,’ ‘old-fashioned,’ ‘nineties’… the art world has moved on, and artists have followed suit, almost no one is making AIDS work any more – these are all oft-repeated commonplaces that seem to need some unpacking…partly because these assumptions go right to the ugly heart of who actually decrees suitable subject matter, and trends, and practices.”

John’s other observation also has to do with material practices:  “I kept thinking about the time it takes to make work, when you’re running out of time.  Felix chose to expedite – his pieces took almost NO time – go to the department store and buy two clocks.

With Blue, Derek had no shoot – he called the lab and said give me ninety minutes of blue.  Manufactured solutions replacing the labour of the artist’s hand….

And then there’s Stephen – faced with the ticking clock, he dreams up excruciating, labour-intensive projects which replicate industrial processes which could be accomplished in minutes by a phone call:  scan this, blow this up.

Faced with a deadline (what’s the origin of that word, anyway?), these five made radically different choices about how to spend their time.”

Again, my thanks,

Deborah

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 5

Gregg,

For me, at least, your unsparing “What,” “Who,” and “When” effectively expose the bad faith of a certain alibi inscribed in the general lament condensed in Piot’s phrasing (I do not here ascribe the bad faith to Piot himself).  I’m struck by the imperatives you offer in response, as a kind of necessary supplement – a supplement of hope, as you note – to the official “Now act!”:  “Let us be superstitious.  Let us hope the utterance this time works.”  Would you (any of you) care to gloss the hope that Gregg has invoked – vis-a-vis its possible sources or outcomes, for example, or in terms (whether conceptual or pragmatic) of negotiating the multiple temporalities specific to hope with those specific to impatience, say, or to despair?

With thanks,

Deborah

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Did u get this pic?

[Jack’s reference is to a J-peg image of Zackie Achmat, co-founder of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), at tea with Nelson Mandela, which he circulated among the participants in the e-mail exchange.]

From where we’re sitting, it’s about as “hopeful” as things can get….  Mandela has written a letter to our president.  We don’t yet know its contents – but I suspect it appeals for treatment to be made available to save lives.  The political class is prickling after Mandela said that Zackie was a “loyal and disciplined member of the ANC” – words which I first heard him use about himself just after his release when explaining his standpoint on negotiations with the white government.  Something is up!

Jack

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