6. Responsibility, abandonment, dehumanization:
Daniel Jones’ life after death

At his death, a few facts were published about Jones. Describing him as a passionate man, his sister, Janet, confirmed that Daniel was infected with HIV. White, 40 years old, most recently he had been employed as a maintenance worker at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel. He quite his job shortly before his death. Previously, he had been an emergency medical technician in the Air Force. As a child, he was an Eagle Scout.

Jones had a history of neglect by his health providers. Prior to his death, he had recently been denied care by the HMO administering his medical plan. This possibly catalytic experience, though, followed an earlier episode some years prior in which Jones’ appendix burst after he had been sent home by an HMO doctor to whom he complained of severe abdominal pain. [2] Before his May 1998 suicide, his sister said, “His records [had been] transposed with someone else’s records and he was not rendered the care that he needed and he became sicker and sicker.”[3]

A co-worker confirmed that Jones was concerned about declining health in the days before the incident, and feared that a growth that had appeared on his neck was cancerous. [4] In the videotape he prepared before his death, Jones himself reportedly stated that he was “a dead man” and had chosen not to fight the disease. [5] He believed that immune system damage caused by the HIV virus had already resulted in neuropathological dysfunction. He feared, in addition to the signs of illness visibly manifesting on his body, the invisible—nerve damage, AIDS dementia. [6] While Jones’ identity and a short, inconclusive, and largely anecdotal medical history have been filtered to the public, no news report that I have read bothered to find out the identity or history of the health organization that was responsible for his care.

In life, Janet Jones said, Daniel was “a good man,” “obsessive about safe sex,” “the type who would help old ladies across the street.”[7] Friends were also surprised. Neighbor Don Lee commented,

“I can’t believe he killed himself. I can’t believe he killed his dog.” [8]

The Jones family was intimately if remotely involved with Daniel’s death, which not only disturbed news agencies but also his loved ones.

“I don’t think they should show my brother blowing his brains out. It’s pretty horrible for the family to see it.”

Jones was careful to announce that his declining health and his HMO treatment had much to do with his suicide, but media coverage of him relied on guesses about his mental state and intentions. CNN monitored the event as it was happening, but did not go live with the story because Jones appeared “a disturbed man who didn’t warrant live national coverage,” according to executive Sid Bedingfield.[9] In concluding that Jones’ televisual claims did not merit national attention and that any fault lay with a disturbed individual disturbing primarily his local environs, CNN’s observation that Jones was not sufficiently newsworthy suggests a capacity for neglect similar to that engaged by Jones’ HMO to deny his claims of medical need.

Network news the following day continued to report the incident, but with a shift of emphasis presaged by Janet Jones’ complaint of insensitivity. The disturbance that Jones offered as the story developed did extend beyond the immediate scene and to the national level, contrary to CNN’s mistaken first impression. National coverage of the event emphasized anger expressed at the local television operations which had interrupted children’s shows and game shows alike to bring the event home to Angelenos. Stripped of Janet Jones’ belief in her brother’s character, and devoid of investigation as to the charge of HMOs’ structural incompetence, coverage of Jones’ death turned into a problem of violence and mediation. Television’s authority to mediate the social was again a national concern, expressed in terms of a event whose details were selectively trimmed to emphasize its “local” occurrence. The characterization of HMO malfeasance, certainly not an issue limited to the local domain, was largely dropped.

In this vein, KCBS’ Channel 2000 web site ended a report on Jones by soliciting visitors’ feedback, but not on the question of health coverage. Rather, the site queried visitors as to whether “news coverage goes too far” or whether the broadcast was justified as legitimate public interest reporting because it “involved the safety of thousands of afternoon freeway commuters.” In doing so, KCBS turned the question away from the meaning of Jones’ act to a question of television’s competing responsibilities—to protect viewers at home or to assist in traffic safety. By turning questions away from the meaning of Jones’ protest, KCBS, like the HMO, like CNN, employed a discursive abandonment of Jones’ need for care even while prompting audience response.

While a variety of points of views were posted on the site, a number of posts were revealing in regards to this corporeal and performative abandonment. Analyzing the content of these responses to Jones’ death as presented in the television news, we see that interrelated questions of responsibility for care, responsibility for violence, and responsibility for coverage are now thoroughly confused. One visitor posting as “Ed” returned the subject of KCBS’ question to the capacity for action on the part of Jones himself, but not to describe problems with the health coverage provided by Jones’ private employer:

“I think the only problem here is people always looking to blame someone else. (the media) [sic] They never blame the idiot who kills himself. If anything this guy is more to blame than the media. Personally I’m glad he’s dead and not ending up in some gov’t paid institution or program sucking on my tax money because he ‘couldn’t deal with his problems.’”

“Ed’s” incoherent comments reveal a particularly violent form of the performativity of abandonment. While placing full agency with Jones by attributing responsibility for the broadcast to him (an attribution that is not wrong), “Ed” is happy that a person with AIDS is dead and will not be needing public assistance or any form of subsidized medical care—an issue that would be completely irrelevant had Jones’ HMO operated efficiently.

“Ed’s” response recapitulates a long standing and broadly circulating rhetoric blaming HIV/AIDS and the needs it incurs in humans on the humans challenged to live in resistance to HIV/AIDS. The logic is well-documented (among many treatments, see Watney 1988, 1993, 1996 or Sturken 1998; I discuss certain points made by Watney or Sturken below). Further, “Ed” insists that the primary cost here is likely to accrue to the public—in spite of Jones’ private employment and private insurance. For the moment, I want to note the strange attribution of responsibility and irresponsibility “Ed” provides. Jones is publicly irresponsible, an “idiot,” for causing the violence with which the local CBS affiliate interrupted scheduled programming. But at the same time, for “Ed” personally, Jones is also not an idiot, apparently, since he “privately” has taken responsibility for his “own” problems by killing himself in public. The economical ends justify the illogic of “Ed’s” discursive means.

The way that responsibility is attributed here allows a logic of abandonment to proceed, and this abandonment entails dehumanization. Another poster, “A Nonymous,” who wrote a series of comments praising the media for their coverage, stated simply in one of his posts:

“The horrible thing was the dog’s death, definitely NOT the man’s death.”

Here, the figure of the “innocent” dog allows “the disturbed individual” to be more fully distanced from any legitimate political speech. Neither the HMO nor the man’s death matter at this level of neglect. The media coverage is shocking because an animal died.

Other posts also show the way that attributing or denying responsibility functions discursively in the service of a social abandonment, one which ultimately entails Jones’ dehumanization. “Bernie Foster” writes:

“What’s the big deal? I hope that every station should [sic] cover the suicide of this MORON. This idiot has removed himself from the gene pool and society should be ecstatic. Don’t like to see it? Don’t watch!”[10]

“Bernie” is overjoyed because Daniel Jones, incompetent as a “moron,” has quarantined himself not only from human society but from all of human biology. Yet here again blame and responsibility waver uncertainly. The incompetent viewer appears to be of little more “competence” than Jones, who, Bernie admits, has effected a rather decisive result. Bernie helps the viewer out by suggesting a spectacular sequence of leaping illogic. Since this kind of exceptional, pre-emptive interrupt coverage should be ubiquitously imposed, the viewer will have to assume the responsibility of deciding that they don’t like it before they don’t watch it.

These responses demonstrate the virulence of the discursive performativities of abandonment, and the ways these performativities produce a logic of violent dehumanization. But they are interesting in that they routinely miss what seems most apparent in the event: Jones’ careful planning. These posts thus testify to a collective tendency to first engage, then to defer or deny, Jones’ political protest against living as abandoned. If we recall that Jones took care to rewrite the slogan of “safe sex” as a demand to “love safe,” these posts become even more revealing.

As speech denying the coherence of a demand for love and for care, these posts recapitulate the violent exclusion of the person with AIDS on the basis of a homophobic projection which disavows the passional dimension of gay sex. According to this logic, those who engage in gay sex, and more broadly, any sex that does not take place within a relationship of lifelong fidelity, “deserve” AIDS (see Watney 1996, 126). These postings thus bear out the overlap, observed by Watney and others,[11] of homophobia and AIDS-phobia. The “disturbed individual” circulates through these responses specifically as both “the homosexual marked for death” and “the murderous homosexual.” The larger framing discourse here is that of the “disturbed individual” whose abnormal, diseased sexuality wreaks violence on the very notion of social responsibility as such.

While responsibility and agency are divested from Jones in this logic, that divestiture invites the appearance for a powerfully, properly gendered and sexed figure on the scene: someone whose steady hand, or steadfast gaze, will restore omniscient authority and reliable truth-value amidst a general discursive collapse of responsibility. Or, as “M. Kay” put it in criticizing the “comfort addicts” who cried foul in regards to television coverage of the event,

“If there were just one so-called News Director with a pair a [sic] balls between his legs, we would see our world as it really is, not through primrose [sic] -colored glasses. This, contrary to the fears of the trembling masses, would be a healthy option. Because denying that we live in a violent, AID’s-infested [sic], narco-punk populated world of fornicating carjackers only plays into the hands of the dysfunctional sectors in our midst.”

“M. Kay” goes on to suggest that concerns regarding media violence equate to a desire for feminized coddling. Such affective insulation simply denies the reality of disturbance which requires us to remove our “primrose glasses” in order to “see.” This vision of the news would oddly be a more immediate one, even as this “healthy” gaze would be entirely apart from the dysfunctional world it views. We lack only “one” fully endowed male “news director” in order to generate this impossible scene.

Opposed to this great (news) communicator are violence, AIDS, narcotics, petty crime, and libidinally excessive carjackers. Symptoms of social and maternal irresponsibility. Together, a combustible mixture of oversexed, drugged-out “punks” and mediated feminization synthesize a decay that is invisible to most of our eyes—in spite of its being rampant. Here, Jones’ person loses any remaining specificity, and falls from even from a position of abandonment to become entirely invisible amidst the havoc of the social. Jones is generalized into an abandonment of social relations understood as a mediation produced by and for a healthy masculine vision. The passional capacity of the positive body incites a visual riot, from which this body becomes essentially indistinguishable.

While his HMO’s abandonment of the HIV positive worker is refigured again and again as abandonment in legal and mediatic terms, the denial of Jones’ personhood is always situated as a permutation of the question of “responsibility.” The televisual address of this question results in the following outcome. If Jones was disturbed, and if his HMO was beyond access, television might shoulder the responsibility. In this crisis of authority and responsibility, Jones is now situated on very different grounds. His body becomes the marker of an epistemic crisis in addition to marking a public health “threat” or an illegal siege of public space. Removing agency from his person risks television’s authority but only to television’s advantage. Television gains in its controlled articulation of historical events.

Nonetheless, political demand and political abandonment played out in public view instead of the private channels of health maintenance and HIV/AIDS medicine. Merely noting, however, this shift as a transition from private to public is too easy. It is, after all, the hallmark of HIV medicine as well as HIV/AIDS legislation that the responsibility of the private individual is bound up with the public health concerns of the state, and vice versa. For example, it is illegal for non-citizens infected with HIV to enter this country. In at least one state, those testing positive for HIV are signed into registries. In others, contact with others that might conceivably result in infection is a felony, even if no infection occurs.[12]

So in this case there is ultimately no clear-cut distinction between public and private. The bodies of the medical subject, the legal subject, and the mediated subject co-occur and overlap, and in ways that may be threatening to receivers. Given that medical, legal, and media regimes routinely work to assert their own mutual boundaries, we rarely glimpse the overlap. Jones managed to author a situation in which this overlap became visible. Rather than say that Jones’s body moves from the private to the public, it’s more appropriate to say that Jones’ death placed these three regimes of the corporeal subject on display all at once. The medical and the juridical visibly coincide as media event.

The unusual visibility of this display explains why the legality, intent, and effect of Jones’ acts were named and re-named in terms that wavered between law, medicine, and spectacle. Wire service City News Service headlined its report the day of the incident, “Sniper.” The next day the same wire service corrected the mischaracterization as the dust settled: “Suicide.” The Chicago Tribune called the scene “bizarre,” and quoting a California Highway Patrol officer who spoke to Jones via mobile telephone, reported that Jones had “rambled on” about a “grudge” against his HMO.[13] If CNN had pronounced Jones crazy, the CHP and the Tribune found him incoherently reacting to unjustified anger.

Janet Jones challenged those stories, but unpersuasively as far as media reports were concerned. Coming to her own conclusions about responsibility, “I believe my brother was killed by an HMO,” she said. Janet Jones’ belief that Daniel was suicided by an HMO reflect Daniel’s own videotaped last words, as well as somewhat later headlines in the HIV press.[14] At the same time, her conclusion completes the discursive knot binding considerations of agency, intent, and mediation.

Who is responsible for the events captured in the arresting gaze of the media event? This problematic has grown no less urgent since Jones’ death, given the horrific documentation of horrific torture at Abu Graib prison in 2003, for example, or the absurd formulation of “wardrobe malfunction” required of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake as an apology for their musical performance of a rape narrative at the 2004 Superbowl. The repetitions of this problematic of responsibility, abandonment, and dehumanization in the media event ultimately requires imagining, albeit through the license granted media producers and the producers of media technologies, the abandonment of bodies which haunt the regional, national, or international political scenes. This knot of agency, intent, and mediation hearkens back through debates over coverage of the Vietnam War, for example, but reaches to the very nature of the relationship between the sovereignty of the state and the life of the person.

To accept Janet Jones’ conclusion that Daniel was suicided by an HMO is perhaps, then, to suggest that Daniel’s freeway suicide enacts perhaps the spirit, if not the letter, of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. But at the same time, it is crucial to place the larger measure of responsibility, agency, or intent with Jones himself. Jones acted as an author, not of a text, but of an event. In this authoring, he availed himself of the enunciative aspects proper to a specific network and mode of mediation. Jones exercised a form of medial agency. He was not simply a man suicided by the social—and there are ways in which the social was injured by his suicide. The discursive riot noted above is an indication of that injury.

Section 7, full text:
Liveness as a game of violence

Section 7, abstract

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