9. Articulating the impossible:
discourses of self-deliverance

As I have observed above, the understanding of voluntary death by marginalized sexual subjects has been marked by massive interventions in the political and medical realities from the late 19th through the 20th centuries from Hirschfeld to contemporary activists, artists, and critics (among, of course, many others in fields ranging from medicine to law to sociology). I have argued that in this regard the visual protests against the legal and medical intransigencies that have enabled AIDS to broaden a merciless path of destruction are signed by a collective autobiographical subject, a subject that is partial, fragmented, and transforming precisely in terms of the abandonment of its presence in history, and its hope for a futurity which is so far impossible to envision. Articulations of voluntary death function in a corporeal presence that interrupts history and futurity precisely in terms of a medial agency. These articulations may mitigate the discourse of “the suiciding subject” by those affected by moralistic intransigence as well as bodily immunological collapse.

John Rechy, in an earlier period of a medicalized, private homosexual identity becoming liberated as a public identity of social affiliation, once wrote of suicide in Genet-esque terms as “a beautiful secret.” This “beautiful secret” complicated subjectivity as self-presence transcendent to the masculine body. Not a world or a picture or a mirror, it was a thing for a gesture, a handkerchief, which he might take out of his pocket from time to time to gaze on. After AIDS, there appeared a different and while no less personal, still less private grappling with voluntary death as a way to fend off another death of exclusion—paradoxically by invoking it as terminal act.

For the HIV positive body, there is a marked difference, then, from both the classical theories of suicide as a problem of akrasia in the way that Montaigne sees voluntary death (undesirable because it may be a mistake based on an illusion of wanting to be other) as well as the understanding of an “out-law” sexual subject like Rechy who counters the socially-wished for death of the homosexual by taking it carefully in hand. While it has been difficult for activists and critics to differentiate the suiciding subject from the subject of self-deliverance, Jones’ actions were not entirely singular or unimagined. Before retroviral therapies were available, artists and poets had already explored the limits of the interruption of history and futurity which Jones brought home.

In “Vital Signs,” for example, Essex Hemphill (1994) had already provided exactly the kind of consideration of affect and responsibility that Watney would call for (see above). If Watney condemned “irresponsible” individual gay men who he saw as contributing to a second, non-viral, dimension of the etiology of HIV illness, Hemphill explores responsibility in terms of erotic mutuality. Here, rather than a demand on the irresponsible other, a desire for mutual protection is satisfied within the passional communicativity of the body. The body appears not as an individual, but figures as a series of positions of an endangered “I.” The numerous “I’s” and “you’s” who wend through each section of “Vital Signs” are men, couples, acts of being alone or in love. The cumulative effect is to suggest by the end of the work that the “I” and the “body” of the Other are known to one another precisely through their mutual positionings.

The positions of the “I” range from sexual to political positions:

“Please, Daddy. Sir. Please use a condom. It’s the best crash helmet we have if we’re going to play rough. If we’re going to play at all” (32).

Hemphill, who at the time of writing this work suffered from the dangerously low T-Cell count that qualifies the HIV positive body as having AIDS, died of AIDS-related complications on November 4, 1995, two years later. But the “I” of “Vital Signs” is not one who has been abandoned, one who is utterly alone, but as one, who, while often alone with himself, also faces a “you”—and an implied “they” whose hatred enters within the “we” and wreaks yet another death.

“Whatever commonality we shared
that at one time would not betray us,
I want to find it.
We were not loathsome then.
We were not dealing in cruelty,
sabotage, torment, grief.
Our anger burns so brightly
illuminating our hostilities.
I should be able to hold your gaze,
not fear what I find there,
but instead I see malevolence
tossed back at me.
Suspicion. Annihilation.
When I see the fires of death
flaming red in your black sockets,
when I know your heart is corrupt
with violence and evil
against brothers,
against your ancestry,
your greatness of being,
the sadness of that knowledge
kills me twice and twice more,
before your fist, your bullet,
your blade, your bad attitude
strikes me at all.” (36—37)

In the succeeding sections of the poem, the referents of the personal pronouns shift as different experiences are marked: experiences of memory, of coupled devotion, of spirits dancing beyond the exclusions of violent history or of impending death. The shifts in “I” and ‘you” work as placeholders to mark out a series of overlapping presences. In the passage quoted at length above, the Black, gay, HIV positive body falls to an external “cruelty” which invades the intimate trust of brotherhood, ancestry, greatness, to strike even before any physical blow. Still, however plural the sources of death—physical and affective—enumerated there, by virtue of the overlapping mutuality of this “I,” personhood is not limited to either a sexual or physical position; nor only to violence.

The way in which Hemphill’s “I” moves through and out of its confinements—this extasis—rests in an exceptional communicativity, not any refusal to communicate. He builds a textual place for the body of the “I” where it commingles with bodies of spirit (Esu, Ifa). These spirits dance as the “I” examines of his own vital signs, counting out his disappearing T-cells. This “I” knows a search that is the life of the text, and of the body, and he struggles to determine worldly time as a passion which may serve as a pretext for still another time yet to come:

“I have chosen you in other lifetimes. I have been your choice in other centuries. I spend each life I return to searching for you to give back the kisses from our previous blessings, so I will have something to return to Earth for in the light years ahead” (41).

In the here and now, however, living becomes a question of defenses (“twenty-odd T cells,” 51) which, carefully counted, are found no longer holding. Living becomes the task of inventing a constant healing, even beyond an end. The work now is one of becoming: “a more resilient being. Imagine transformers changing into God.” (49).

Against violence within and without, open to positions within and without the self, the “I” binds time as affect; and proliferates in this process of corporeal poesis. For healing transformation, already hard-won agency lives with threats that manifest from without and within, from outside the Black gay community, and from within it; from outside the body, and from within it. Weakness threatens to thwart his capacity to achieving a sanctifying death. He considers his own attenuating abilities to enact transformation, and finds a need for assistance from one, yet another “you,” one who merely professed a desire to love:

“Baby Can You Love Me?
Are you willing to kill me
if I ask you to?
If I’m unable to do so
Are you willing to kill me?

Can you be as brave
and clearheaded as you are now,
professing that you would
love to love me?
But could you kill me
If I asked you to?” (43)

The corporeal subjects of “Vital Signs” are encounters, sexual, passional—spiritually in the world before the self is present to itself, and after it becomes irrevocably apart from its body—which together watch over a failing body coming to know a narrowing confinement from the tasks of Black gay urban life in the day-to-day. He moves from “wearing my shirts and trousers, voting, praying, paying rent, pissing in public, cussing cabs, fussing with utilities,” 34 - 35) to the bedroom, where, for example, the “I” bathes and care for another “you,” before a television whose screen projects no images, merely colors that light a darkened room (42). This “I” numbers as many as the “you”:

“From grave to grave, I carry my loyalty to you.”

The meanings of death here waver from healing transformation, self-deliverance, to murder (“We must keep on loving one another through the killings” 38), against which the polyphonous narrator builds his textual speech, verbal architecture of a moment in time, within which to live, by virtue of the “attitudes” (46) which thus bear its edifice. Loyalty, a multiply enacted agency wrought in the grace of self-presence won at great odds, returns to testify to deliver the text as a “thorny dream,” a hope given back to the deprivation of inner-city America during AIDS with the wealth of African dreams and all the exactitude of a police stenographer:

“I am writing back to you
from the scene of the crime;
from the other side of disintegration
I employ telepathy for my conveyances.
From the rubble and the ash,
the turmoil and chaos,
this is the thorny dream
I fashion for you.
From the confines of disappointment
I draft this document,
part testimony,
part biography,
the essential evidence of living.” (45)

A more thorough reading of “Vital Signs” might designate the ways in which the positional and transcendent enumerations of an urban “I” bury the expansive frontiering of Whitman’s subject. Amore rigorous reading might take up the signifyin’ propheteering that sources the beyond from and to which the “I” travels to testify. But what I want to emphasize here is the ways in which the Black, gay, masculine and positive body faces down a violence appearing even in love to invoke an impossible anteriority as well as an impossible posteriority. This Black positive self locates its body in and beyond any single authorial physicality. The claim of the self extends from life to death and is recovered in affect that poses the search for the self in terms of a love for another.

The deliverance of this love, in the hindsight of an impossible future that precedes the impossible past, is a reality whose manifestation does not fail, even though this truth comes as a “thorny dream.” The “I” posits in its transformations a corporeal poesis before, through, after death, as pronominal struggles for presence gain over meaninglessness. Facing nothingness, it recovers all, including its own impending loss. While there is never any final dramatic exit, the “I” writes to move past the overlaid perimeters of carefully delimited textual architectures to see the “vital signs” of love. Or at least, it asks for those signs to be revealed further:

“I have spent all these years trying to live ways of being I’ve seldom seen” (54).

The self is thus distanced from the self; death becomes an opening, not an ending.

It is possible to read into Hemphill’s references to “rough play” an abject but productive masochism of which indeed the text itself sometimes speaks. We could derive from the poem, as Bersani (1995) wrests from Genet, an account of an “anti-relational thrust” that might provide a positive exemption from a social riven with symbolic and physical murder of homosexual desire. But the reverse is more appropriate. For Hemphill, the image of the murder of a Black man whose cock has been severed and stuffed into his own mouth (Hemphill 22) is answered not by a exceptional and sovereign aesthetics of evil against the social order, but comes rather under a vigilant dance of Ifa and Esu, African tricksters. Hemphill invokes an ethics that answers the call of murder with a different prescription of the uses of pleasure:

“Use [this cock] for anything but raping, anything but killing” (27).

This text refuses to be marked in any simple way by a masochistic aesthetics of the out-law or of evil because the work it sets out to do is quite counter to that Bersani proposes. Bersani sees in Genet’s masochism—one that is indeed fascinated with the death of the subject in favor of a sovereign evil that disorders the social—the productive possibility of a sexual pleasure distinct from intimacy (Bersani 165). Literature’s task for Bersani, as we have seen for Watney vis-à-vis gay activism, above, to “imagine a nonsuicidal disappearance of the subject—or, in other words, to dissociate masochism from the death drive” (99). Bersani praises Genet for precisely that quality for which Bataille condemned the French writer: Genet’s non-communicative writing of gay desire, which for Bersani offers the potential for a disruption of the social (168). The “I” of Hemphill’s “Vital Signs,” then, is exceptional all the more, for he succeeds in communicating, that is, in living through, the murderous exclusions acting against Black gay desire (which Genet fetishized so worshipfully) as well as the literal corporeal exclusions of AIDS. Further, this “I” pre-empts these exclusionary violences by taking them within the body of his text, but opening up that textual body to a worldiness that belongs as much to the here-and-now as much as it moves through and beyond it. Hemphill’s shape-shifting “I” moves in place towards a transitory yet ecstatic glimpse of life beyond social and physical death to resist the exclusions of history and community and AIDS—even while acknowledging the terrible finalities by which these exclusions proceed.

Tellingly, that television in his bedroom bears not images but merely dimly lights a room where darkness—Blackness—provides the painful but saving embrace. Hemphill doesn’t flinch from locating terror against Black men in his text, but the fact of the text allows him to rework that terror’s claim. We may ask again, then, whether Bersani’s outlaw masochism helps explain Jones’ death. Is his death an act of ecstatic masochism that disappears the subject against the social? After all, Daniel was not literally killed by an HMO, as his sister claimed. In fact, hers, too, is only an interpretation of his enactment. Daniel Jones killed himself so as not to live out a death of neglect—much the same way Hemphill imagined a lover’s hand helping the positive body at the task of “transforming into God.”

But Jones killed himself also to more explicit ends. By locating his death not on the page but at the intersection of the physical and the virtual, he point outs what is at stake in the way we create our responsibilities for each other and our political viability in a broader public expanse. The order of inscription here is enacted as the urban, the suburban, and the nation as such. By ending his life as he broadcasts his messages on sex and HMOs, Jones links the value of the lives of those fighting HIV with a general question of health care. He establishes that these lives are at risk to support his claims that HMOs are organs of exploitation. Forcing news coverage of this argument would be a way of redeeming a life already felt to be lost to the future. His refusal of that loss-to-be can perhaps be better understood in terms of the location he chose and the means of his actions.

The television, the freeway, and the firearm belong to the urban mythos of Los Angeles in complementary and dangerous ways. Jones marshaled these elements in ways that resemble Hemphill’s narrative of self-deliverance, but of course, Hemphill’s polyphonous narrator still lives, while Hemphill died of AIDS. Further, Jones’ performance engaged not a textual delineation of self-deliverance, but forms of performance and violence.

Here, Jones’ actions can be seen in relation to the performance of traumatic gesture in response to the mediation of death. His would not be the first instance we have seen responding to murderously irresponsible media representations of the positive body with either performance or terror, or a discourse of self deliverance complicated by self-violation.

Before combination therapies were mainstreamed, Diamanda Galas, a performance artist who had created and performed a number of works intended to shatter complacency around AIDS explained in an interview,

“One of the most dangerous things about the AIDS pandemic is the way we are conditioned to think about it, which encourages the sense of isolation that people end up with, a suicidal prognosis. […] Death by media” (1994, 182).

Asked whether her transgressive vocal performances invoking, for example, Biblical texts on “the unclean” might not disturb both people living with AIDS and audiences looking for positive representations of the pandemic, Galas attempted to explain the ways her controversial vocal art invoked the violent mourning rituals of southern Europe (she herself is of Greek descent). She responded that her own performance re-invests such mourning rituals with protestations against AIDS deaths.

“When someone’s son was killed, they sacrifice everything in their homes. Traditionally, there was a sacrifice of everything to avenge that person’s death. So sacrificing one’s public image, or sacrificing the intelligibility of one’s performance, when confronted by this intense emotional experience, is a small price to pay by comparison [with the death itself]” (195).

Galas sees a sacrifice of a female and familiar self which grieves the lost son, contrary to Bersani’s account of male homosexual masochism—the women, she herself, give up materiality, “intelligibility.” Destroying communicativity in either object or voice works aggressively to re-invest the social as disruption “avenges” loss. The productivity of mourning in relation to the traumatic, here, while also breaching the limits of communication and of the social, pales next to the very real death one mourns. But the violence of this mourning nonetheless gestures precisely in terms of and in response to that loss.

The distinction between this masochistic mourning and the anti-relational masochism Bersani sees in Genet is not simply that for Galas traumatic mourning is invested in relation to the social, while for Bersani masochism may attain a radical oppositionality to the social. A more important distinction rests in that Bersani’s “anti-relationality” locates masochism in the self-defiling of the receptive male body in order to psychically manifest the reality of its own masculine difference against patriarchal symbolization. He suggests that with this differential, masochistic masculinity holds the possibility to transform patriarchal symbolization. Galas’ lacerating performance, or the mourning of the women she cites, projects mourning at the social in order to defile it. Does Jones’ body accomplish both of these ends? Clearly, the work of performance art shares with the work of fiction its lack of finality for the body producing it—at least in most cases. In any case, the AIDS pandemic prompted radical treatments of precisely the relationship between terror (‘death by media” or death by medicinal or governmental abandon in the context which I have developed here) and performance.

Sabatini (1986) suggests that performance art and terrorism generally may share certain characteristics. Performance and terrorism, he argued, may both be site-specific, and the “aesthetic” provocation of people in a public environment bears some resemblance to the disruptions caused by terror. Video tapes of performance events are often their only trace, while terrorism may depend on television as an essential element. Further, actions may proceed spontaneously or according to a given structure to accomplish desired effects. Sabatini notes that chance figures significantly in both performance art and terrorist attacks (29). Also, terrorists and performance artists “play in real historical time.” Each figure involved “plays” himself, but also acts as a symbol for something else. Both performance and terror make plain that life exists in a symbolic as well as a historical field—simultaneously. Foregrounding this simultaneity can be dangerous and disturbing, as we realize our own roles in symbolic and historical fields of action (33).[28] Transformations may occur as a result. We might say that in Jones case, these transformations included camera operators becoming spectators, or spectators demanding an end to for-profit health care.

It may be that Jones’ “I”—his body itself—finally combines the modes of performance and terror that Sabatini wants to set apart in order

  • to clarify radical acts of aesthetic protest against social, political, or aesthetic norms yet
  • to maintain an ethical role for the artist who refrains from physical violence.

But the problem in such a straightforward application of Sabatini’s suggestions lies in the finality of Jones’ actions in relation to the historicity of the AIDS pandemic. Unlike that of live television, this historicity, as we have seen in Hemphill’s work, implies an outside to the historical moment that grounds the body, a temporality which is nonetheless available to the body’s imagination and transformation, even beyond the social. And as Hemphill’s work has so profoundly shown us, the historicity of AIDS for those who are dying from it is above all an affective one, a matter of body and spirit.

There, the textual embodying of affect produces a wild historicity in which the self precedes and survives violence in the face of radical exclusion. It is only at this point where voluntary departure or death becomes transformation or deliverance. This is point where a voluntary act of physical death learns the lessons of histories of violent exclusion—that power which Hemphill writes out of the urban Black experience. Further, even while Jones’ actions might have produced transformations such as those Sabatini suggests may result from either performance art or terror, the problem is that Sabatini’s formulation cannot capture either the bodily anguish that Jones so physically wrought, nor, given the reality of our loss of that body, the violence to the social order to which that hurt was transmitted.

Bersani’s concerns are not far away here. He speaks not of masochism for the sake of aesthetic effect, but in the terms of Genet’s “sovereign evil,” in pursuit of an ascesis of gay sexuality seeking to retain a transformative position external to a patriarchal social. Here, masochism might performatively act against the normalization of identity. Nor so distant, for that matter, is Galas’ aggressive projection of unintelligibility at social being which refuses to acknowledge intolerable loss, and so which may prepare the way for more death yet to come. Here, mourning is an embodied process aimed at vocalizing trauma in a highly social performance. Jones’ death plays in both of these registers of masochism and mourning.

Yet any resemblance between art and terror is understood by Sabatini in terms of effect, not in terms of enactment or embodiment. The distinction between effect and enactment can be clarified by reference to the introductory sequence of Rosa von Praunheim’s Silence = Death (1989). This sequence strikingly presages’ Jones death in a work of performance for the video camera. The performance deploys an aesthetics of terror against the “death by media” that Galas spoke of. It also tests the uses of Bersani’s masochistic ascesis in representational terms. The sequence is almost a step-by-step reworking of the query which initiated Bersani’s treatment of masochism:

“Is the rectum a grave?”

The film opens with what appears to be the recording of an interview of a man living with AIDS (played by poet, performer, and director Emilio Cubeiro). Asked about his experience living with AIDS, the man becomes upset. His discursive position as the subject of an interview before the camera leads us to expect him to share his experience as a gay man living with AIDS. But he swiftly turns the tables on the fictional interlocutor. Insisting that cultural violence against homosexuals has never been as clear as it became with the AIDS pandemic, the man speaks his refusal to be made the victim of a disease whose destruction has been as much a cultural artifact of hatred and neglect as a fact of viral infection.

The man brandishes a hand gun, pointing it vaguely in the direction of the camera, apparently threatening the interviewer. Instead, he turns his back to the camera, squats, inserts the pistol into his rectum and pulls the trigger. Blood appears to rush out of the man’s rectum—but in actuality, it is prune juice administed by enema before the camera rolled. The sequence is a recording not of an actual interview, but of a performance Cubeiro had previously developed separately, and which von Praunheim filmed for inclusion in his documentary on New York artists and activists fighting for recognition of the extent of the AIDS crisis, for health care, and against discrimination that contributed to the debilitating effects of the illness. The symbolization of the fallen body is but a media spectacle in reverse, a retort to the trivializing spectacularization of AIDS in the media of its time.

After Cubeiro has fallen to the ground, miming death, his telephone rings, and the answering machine comes on. In the distance, sirens sound, and a jazz saxophone wails. Cubiero’s voice continues, now emanating instead apparently from the answering machine, speaking a sardonic indictment of homophobic fascination with—and sadistic pleasuring in—the death of the homosexual. The listener—the viewer—of this message is positioned by the “suicided” man. Cubiero’s spoken word performance now describes precisely the symbolic exchange formulated around the punishing of the positive body as an act of sodomy, wherein the absent figure fascinated by and insisting on the death of the homosexual is caught in an impossible auto-erotic exchange that is designed to forestall his own death.  "You wanted your own dick up your own asshole, and I got in the way.”

The homophobic desire that searches out sodomy in a sadistic fascination has everything to do with the disavowed death wish acted out in the refusal to recognize the existence of homosexual desire. By refusing to play the role of the victim in this circulation of homophobic desire, Cubiero clarifies the perversion of the symbolic exchange that places sodomy within a regime of personal disaster justified in the anti-gay rhetoric of “death by irresponsibility.” He frees his fictional creation with a final gesture at the frustrated listener:

"Death is your slave, even as it is your master. No regrets, I leave with a smile, let’s just say it was ... interesting.”

Here, it is the viewer who is forced to confront the facts of violence experienced by the positive body who remains captive to death.

The insertion of that gun (loaded with blanks) in his rectum mimes the symbolic exchange by which the receptive male body is made to suffer at the hands of homophobic desire. This scene shocks the viewer. Some viewers have seen it as the acting out of violence on the already beleaguered homosexual body, while others see it as a brutal trivialization of the very real issues of health and well-being, love and pleasure that gay men have tried so hard to articulate and perform for themselves. But the scene, it seems to me, works very much in terms of Sabatini’s description of the historical and symbolic synchronization at work that performance art may share with acts of terror—until we realize this apparent documentation was a performance.

As the message reels out on audio tape, the camera pans through the scene of violence, finding nothing. We must listen for an explanation, for the effects of the performance, for its implications. There is nothing there to see. But the film comes up against a limit in its reflexive deconstruction of the visual body of HIV/AIDS. The symbolic insertion of the weapon into the rectum which the camera cannot penetrate may mime the symbolic exchange operating in homophobic assault. But this symbolic exchange is represented in realistic terms, and while that mimetic treatment of violence is meant to be an emphatic demonstration of the real effects of symbolic violence, its realism can become confused with homophobic violence as well.

Still, the negation of the power of the gaze, projected as an empty room dominated by the voice of a body that no longer moves but continues to speak, is grounded in the insistent corporeality of the receptive male body. As Bersani (1988) concluded as to the problem of receptive male homosexuality determined as the other of dominant heteromasculinity, “Male homosexuality advertises the risk of the sexual itself as the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self, and in so doing it proposes and dangerously represents jouissance as a mode of ascesis.” Yet the purposeful representation of symbolic violence in this opening performance of Silence = Death fails to emphasize the logic of masochistic pleasure that Bersani sees in the act of gay sex itself, which is to be celebrated “because it never stops re-presenting the internalized phallic male as an infinitely loved object of sacrifice” (222).

If the film asks, with Bersani, “Is the rectum a grave,” Silence = Death appropriately answers with Galas. It disallows any identification by the audience with the pleasures Bersani sees operating so powerfully in receptive male sex. With that, the film makes any homophobic use of that pleasure unintelligible, instead traumatizing the viewer who expects a visual subject receptive to questioning, constrained for the camera through the audiovisual tropes of documentary realism.

The film berates the audience in an angry, mournful protest against death. As the violent interruption of the fictional interview is resolved by the recorded voice which explains, after the fact, the dynamics that precipitated the scene, we see another instance of the wild historicity that Hemphill draws on in his consideration of self-deliverance. The “live moment,” insufficient for the communication of an extended crisis compounded by embedded social violence, is suspended in favor of this upset in the order of “real time,” which turns out to be the effect of mistaken identifications on the part of the audience.

The problem here is that this scene does not, as Hemphill is able to do, both depict violence against the receptive male body and command the uses of sex for “anything but rape, anything but killing.” Where Hemphill manages to consider death as self-deliverance beyond the violences of the social, this sequence conflates gay suicide under conditions of violence with a self-deliverance that would transcend that violence. This indistinction between suicide under violence and self-deliverance from social abandonment is what charges the sequence with masochistic pain for a viewing audience. Ultimately, though, this pain is different from Bersani’s masochistic pleasure. Yet in this sense, too, Sabatini’s description of similar effects achievable by performance art and terror seems to apply in a way that it does not in the case of Jones. A terrorizing effect of this performance art corresponds, in an anguished way, with the violences of history, of which the director, however brutally, intends us to become aware.

Director Rosa von Praunheim screened this sequence from Silence = Death some two weeks before Jones’ suicide at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. At that time, he used it as a provocation, and followed up by asking the audience whether such an act could hold a message for us, whether there might not be some message in such a death that could not be communicated in any other way. Because of the graphic nature of the act depicted, von Praunheim also asked the question television asked itself: Can it ever be ethical to capture and distribute the suicide of a human being? Would it matter if the performance had not been staged? For all of us, von Praunheim intimated, the meanings of self-destruction must be thought, because so many, of varying sexualities, have come to an enactment of voluntary death.

Like the fictional subject of self-deliverance who opens Silence = Death, Daniel Jones also left a taped message that would clarify, after the fact, his intent not to wait for death by AIDS. He too taunted viewers with obscene gestures. Further, a decade later, he too ensured that his death would affectively interrupt the presumed historicity of “post-AIDS” mediations which refuse to see that anguish and hope are irrevocably joined as the crisis takes on new dimensions amidst changed conditions.

Yet for all the resonance with Jones, the staged suicide in Silence = Death only mimes the symbolic exchange by which the male homosexual body is made to suffer abandonment. By contrast, the televised site of Daniel Jones’ death was crucial to a widespread, immediate, and persistent response to his actions—however muffled the recognition of that response, however distorted the response itself, however historically inaccurate. But the cost of the performance of life is unimaginably higher than that of art performance, even if the release of the self caught under the damming condition of the imperative of love, freedom, and death articulated for the individual body is undeniably final. In both cases, to the degree that we refuse the collective agencies and histories of those who have taught us anguish and hope, a terrible simultaneity of history and fantasy are performatively pinned in place on HIV positive body—with a firearm.

Jones’ televisual, networked autobiography—although shortly I will clarify what is by now an extraordinarily demanding use of the word “autobiography”—can be partially understood as overlapping and counterposing the effects of performance and terror through a point of simultaneity grounded in the violent reality of his body’s experience. By destroying himself in an interruption of television’s synthetic denial of the impossible historicities so urgent to the corporeal subject of HIV/AIDS, Jones marked his body as a primary site of reception. The visible sight of his body’s laceration makes its presence undeniable. The networks, on the other hand, communicate that corporeal site of reception to audiences. In receiving himself, Daniel receives our gaze—and we his mournful and angry, his anguished and mocking beratement. The man marked as victim for the illness and pain that he suffers, for his weakness, for his being a site of reception becomes instead a force that must be responded to.

This physical communication of the receptive male body as a site where violence occurs diverges from many feminist theoretical accounts which locate the site of violence as the feminine, precisely as it finally diverges from performance art by undeniably exploding the terms of active and passive through which the male body is supposed to direct its actions. For the finality of his physical death requires an account of enactment— not merely the effects of performance. In interrupting media time, in his anticipatory and posthumous positioning of the media between failing medicine and overzealous law, Daniel Jones demonstrated a particular kind of medial agency, not individual or personal agency. Daniel Jones, a self delivered: from death by AIDS, from death by abandonment. But delivered from what else? Repentance. “See ya,” he said.

The self of that body is guaranteed never to be marked as victim—or its life hopeless—again. Yet if Montaigne pardoned voluntary death when it pre-empted an even worse anguish or suffering, Jones’ death mounted a horrific display of visible torment in unintelligibility. At the cost of the world, Daniel Jones was released. The loss is then only ours.

Section 10, full text:
Los Angeles in the world

Section 10, abstract

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