During a short parenthesis of time this morning, I took my first real crack at Storify, a platform for curating social media that enables, for example, a reshuffling and reordering of tweets in the service of constructing a narrative. I tried to tell a brief tale about witnessing a chapter in the history of Kommons.com, a startup to which (as readers of this blog will know) I have become attached. You can find the Storify effort at http://storify.com/makurrah/good-times-kommons, and below.
Tag Archives: witness
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.
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.
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” , 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. 
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.
If Unbound is “weighted toward witness,” this attribute of the text attests to its author’s “cursed rare privilege” – his chance to have been the intimate observer of, and at times actor in, or party to, the experiences he commemorates, and further to have survived them. For by definition, one testifies only when one has (so far) outlived what has come to pass. The work’s status as the testament of a survivor opens its reflexive poetics onto, turns it into, historiography. But this history-writing itself takes specific forms in language that make their own non-negotiable demand on writer as well as reader: “to pay attention – poetics – as if one’s life depended on it.” As we read in “Notes from Under,” “So, a cloud of attendant issues and their griefs. Among friends – dead, dying, or scared, the sorrowful healthy – testimony: what I have seen that you must now know, see, for I have been surrounded and among my friends in adversity creating a life, their rising and falling beauties, death and tests and imagined fulfilled acts that have unleashed instructions upon us, the uninitiated” (14-15). The address that inscribes a prior address, bearing the word allegorically for, to and from the other (“I let them speak” ), delivers in the first instance not meaning, but the force of a testimony whose I/thou structure Shurin locates in the ubiquitous obituaries of the time (“and it’s hard to be impersonal when people are calling each other sweetie across that gulf” ), and that is for him the “only proper usage; what signifies is that the form functions while including the dead” (15). And that testimony’s imperative mode – “what I have seen that you must now know, see” – recalls the pivotal demand, or command, addressed by the I to the you in the second line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “And what I assume you shall assume.”
Unbound‘s project, however, is not strictly bound by the laws and limits that the designation “reflexive poetics” would appear to institute. For one thing, as “a book of AIDS,” with all the force of the partative, it does not simply thematize; it also refers. Its language lays claim to factual and undeniable referents in countless human bodies (it is of course in and on these bodies that HIV/AIDS first offers itself for reading, and first demands to be read), and to a host of others in the material events that constitute the history of the epidemic-turned-pandemic.
But it is not only the all too obvious referential function of Shurin’s language that opens his “reflexive poetics” onto a historiographical dimension. It is also the rhetorical function of a text that, again in its own terms, is “weighted toward witness” – structured, that is, as testimony addressed out of and as of a certain date. And it derives what authority it may claim from prior testimony: “Authority? – not mine, but an urge toward the integration of fear and immutable fact, and a heart for consequence. Who could have moved me to this end but the men whose names are mentioned here, who were my informants and guides, and whose natural affectional alliances made an epidemic based on love and desire possible? It soon became clear that for me writing about AIDS was weighted toward witness. Such participation’s cursed rare privilege is offered to you” (8). Here as elsewhere, Unbound apostrophizes the reader, willing or unwilling recipient of its uncompromising address (an address on the order of the paradigmatic apostrophe in the chilling final line of Keats’ “This living hand, now warm and capable”: “See, here it is, I hold it towards you”). More fundamentally, the grammar here signals that this testimony is offered, delivered, or at any rate promised to one who remains indeterminate, unnamed in the text: it is perhaps the lover, perhaps the stranger, for with the other, as with AIDS, it comes to the same. [Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth” in Midrash and Literature, ed. Hartman and Budick, 344].