Meditation on a freeway suicide:
the sacrifice of autobiography

by James Tobias

The being which, under a human name, is me, and whose coming into the world—across a space peopled with stars—was infinitely improbable, nevertheless encloses the world of the totality of things precisely because of its fundamental improbability (which is opposed to the structure of the real giving itself as such). The death that delivers me from the world that kills me has enclosed this real world in the unreality of the me that dies.

— Georges Bataille, “Sacrifices,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) 136.


I am searching for whatever
we relinquished that was
deemed sacred between us.
A living memory of this exists
and I want to find it.
Whatever commonality we shared
that at one time would not betray us,
I want to find it.

— Essex Hemphill, “Vital Signs,” in Thomas Avena, ed., Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS. (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994) 36.


1. Introduction to an event:
framing a life

On April 30, 1998, at approximately 3:00 PM, Daniel Victor Jones, an HIV positive man, drove his pickup truck to the top of a south Los Angeles freeway interchange. After making threatening gestures at other drivers, he stopped the truck and effectively shut down two Los Angeles freeways during the afternoon rush hour. On the roadbed, he displayed a large banner, weighting it with a heavy container against the power of the wind. Clearly visible from the air, it proclaimed to the news helicopters capturing the scene from above,

“HMO’s are in it for the money. Live free, love safe, or die.”

Jones made a 911 call which was routed to the Highway Patrol. He explained that he was in pain and claimed mistreatment by the HMO in whose care he had been placed. (Doctors confirmed after the event that Jones in fact had developed cancer.)

At one point, Jones set his truck, and himself, on fire. His dog, a golden retriever, perished in the burning truck. Hurrying out of the pick-up, he extinguished his own burning clothing, then, stepped up on the freeway wall, perhaps with the intent of being seen by motorists caught in the traffic below or of jumping off. However, he only threw off a bag containing a videotaped statement. According to news reports, the videotaped statement gave details of his symptoms, explained his anger at the HMO which had refused him treatment, announced his decision not to fight the disease any longer, and stated that he was “a dead man.” He ended the tape with a sardonic, “See ya.”

Moments after throwing the bag off the overpass, after close to 50 minutes of a stand-off during which Los Angeles Police Department sharpshooters stood at ready with Jones in their sights, Jones aimed a shotgun into his mouth, leaned over it, and shot himself instead. Jones’ graphic display of self-inflicted violence was broadly televised. Jones’ self-inflicted carnage left a torrent of blood streaming away across the concrete. His banner had become partially obscured, folded by a gust of wind. Jones died at approximately 3:50 PM. All four directions of freeway traffic impacted by the event were released by 7 PM that evening.

Visibly and visually, Jones directed the framing of his life in terms of the threats he experienced to his body, the medical organizations that abused their responsibility to secure it, and, finally, its effacement. In this essay, I will argue that Jones’ freeway suicide constitutes an act of authoring—the authoring not simply of a life story or of a news event, but more importantly, of an event that happened to television. In this authoring, Jones locates and identifies the system of televisuality, as he brings it to reveal its own operations. His claims speak beyond the frame and its emergency broadcast system to name a broader order of mediation and corporeality—of justice and punishment, of health and illness, of sanctity and sanction, of life and death—in service of which the “live” networked medium operates. It’s as if the receiver finally managed to direct the producer, as if the subject had finally managed a third term between body and discourse, between performance and performativity, between materiality and event. For a moment, Jones managed to grasp the devouring tiger of mediation by its tail—before being, momentarily, devoured. The authoring of this televisuality through a system of reportage equipped to gauge the relative market value of emergency situations reads finally as an act of autobiography—albeit under conditions and in terms with which we may not be familiar or comfortable.

Full text, section 2:
Media coverage, confusion, and contradictions

Abstract, section 2

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