by James Tobias
on a freeway suicide:
by James Tobias1. Introduction to an event:
framing a life ended
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. 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.
The fact that afternoon television viewing is aimed at significant numbers of children and homemakers who constitute the daytime viewing public deserves consideration in an accounting of Jones’ actions along with, for example, the timing of his suicide during rush hour traffic. Numerous scholars (among them, Williams 1974, Morley 1986, Spigel 1992a, 1992b, or Haralovich 1992) have observed a specificity of television viewing by analyzing television programming as it intersects with social dynamics and cultural practices. Viewer habits have been understood in relation to, for example, youth- or family-oriented programming as media companies have sought demographic targets such as the suburban housewife or the teenage. Here, strategies of appeal may build on social identity (Morley or Spigel). More generally, Williams noted the larger problematic of television in relation to “mobile privatization.”“Televisual flow” enables a conflicted knitting together of private experience necessitated by the loss of public, social built space incurred in the process of suburbanization (Williams). The timing and placement of Jones’ television suicide and the conflicting responses it prompted becomes clear within these large-scale critical perspectives. Jones’ death interrupted the flow of traffic through a key freeway intersection of greater Los Angeles at the time of day commuters begin their return home, and so delineate the difference between afternoon and evening viewing.
Historically, Jones’ suicide broadcast comes at the juncture of two periods in television reporting. An earlier period deployed advanced visual technologies (for example, extending real-time remote coverage to freeway pursuit, or offering immersive camera set-ups for sporting events, giving producers or consumers a choice of framing angle) and established new conditions for the reporting of reality, apparently bringing “the real” ever closer to the grasp of mediation. Our own later period, on the other hand, claims the video footage of the stricken and falling World Trade Towers, available because of now ubiquitous video capture of the everyday, as a temporal icon for a bruised national psyche. And the national psyche’s anxiety of the real exceeds what can be securely mediated through the “embedding” of journalists in warfare or the staging of a “heroic landing” by a president on an air craft carrier. The difference here is in televisual orientation towards capturing what is real: An earlier emphasis on renewed possibilities for technological capture gives way to a more recent emphasis on somehow recouping, re-framing, or restoring the symbolic import all the more important because of the amount of material available. This process today extends beyond what Williams understood as mobile privatization.
Media producers, in pronouncing events worthy of receivers’ attention, make a performative claim to capture or articulate reality that is novel to, exclusive of, opposed to, ignorant of, or otherwise incommensurate to the experience of life held by the interpreter. This is in spite of the fact that it is precisely this interpreter to whom the event is supposed to matter. The operative distinction — producer/receiver, narrator/interpreter — historically has been seen to be structural and dynamic. But television’s rhetoric of mediatic eventuality revolves around one element above all others. That distinction between narrator and interpreter, between representation and social experience, is framed most powerfully as televisual violence. For these reasons, an understanding of Jones’ freeway suicide matters not only in relation to the historicity of the media event, but also in relation to mediations of identity and social being—technology-intensive processes of living speech.
Jones engaged the performativities of violence, of information, of mediation generally, to author from outside the system of “live media” even as he was captured within its televisual frame. If the coverage of Jones’ violent death was, indeed, shaped within a larger framing of discursive violence, that discursive violence itself became part of the meanings of the event, as I demonstrate below in a discussion of the varied responses to Jones’ death in the form of Internet postings and letters to the editor.
In this case, a body takes a direct action amid networks of historical and discursive violence—and our mediated communications or knowledge thereof. So this event, tied to a reviled body as its origin, is hard to “localize” in a collective investing of identity. Here, as the body performs the very abandonment to which been subject socially, a correspondence of act and reception beyond Hall’s encoding or decoding frameworks takes hold. This event goes beyond merely discursive struggle in an economy of pre-emption. This correspondence of act and reception suggests that even broadcasters attempting to retake control of a message stolen away from them (in Hall’s terms, dominant readings decoding an oppositionally encoded event) are in important ways already implicated in the exceptional event itself. The dominant framework of production and reception here is reversed as reception becomes an act of authorship. In this reversal, television’s power to assert the historical is undermined as a life is, literally, historically inscribed.
To read Jones’ death as an act of autobiography might impose a distorting lens in two ways. Kaplan (1992) cautions as to the viability of autobiography understood as a Western genre dedicated to recounting psychosocial growth stages over time in an individual life (118,127). More to the point, Kaplan argues for narratives articulating life in resistance to the laws of the privileged Western subject and the laws of autobiographical genre alike. For Kaplan, testimonial literature, women’s prison narratives, and other documents marginal to the practice of autobiography as literature constitute crucial “out-law” genres. In the context of a transnational feminist criticism, these genres are seen to challenge the generic conventions and forms of autobiography. Kaplan is careful to say that these “out-law” genres must be read as more than merely autobiographical.
In this way, we might read Jones’ death as an out-law autobiography which instead of engaging the melancholy of the subject instead forces a political challenge. Daniel Jones’ last words were delivered in a spectacular suicide made for the local news, designed to present his death to the people of Southern California and beyond.
But might this “out-law” death end in mere mediatic transgression, or worse, capitulation—the satisfying of a phobic desire to maintain order by exterminating the Other? Precisely how would Jones’ display on that freeway interchange constitute autobiography? Is this a performative text or an act of terror? Can an author be produced in an act of self-destruction? If so, is such authorship partially accomplished in the media coverage of that act? Are the protests, debates, or empathies expressed in the aftermath of such an act part of the “text”? What did Jones have to say about HMOs, sex, love, and freedom? And who exactly was Daniel Jones?
In this case there is ultimately no clear-cut distinction between a public and private identity for the individual subject. Instead, we see that 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.
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 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.
Where television treated the incident as a game of violence, minimized the political implications of Jones’ critique of for-profit health care, and branded Jones an irresponsible subject so as to motivate further televisual control over live broadcasting, that is not to say that these official responses were the only response to Jones’ death. One important point missing from television’s account of the incident was precisely how much of the incident had been planned by Jones.
Jones death occurred as a contradictory instance of authorial agency working between the levels of the built and the mediatic city, the local and the national, the public and the private, to transform potent silences into plural responses. It’s necessary to see this medial agency at work in Jones’ actions, not only in order to understand his power grab of the regions’ thoroughly troubled real and imaginary systems of place, but in order to understand the reactions it provoked as well. Against the performativities of abandonment motivating Jones’ death and accumulating in its wake, empathy responds across differentials of identity, to the point of demanding the elimination of HMOs.
Still, Jones’ specific demand for “safe love” speaks to his experience of living with HIV or AIDS. If one of his objects was criticism of the national health industries, lack of treatment for HIV-related illness was a primary motivator for his protest. But even HIV/AIDS activists were taken aback by Jones’ performance. Shared identity within the various sectors of AIDS demographics did not guarantee comprehension of Jones’ death. AIDS activist and critics tended to see the voluntary death of an HIV+ man as a tragic suicide, an unnecessary death by a person unable to overcome his social marginalization.
There is no futurity in the tragic gay suicide; self-deliverance implies some such futurity. To the degree that some meaning is found in voluntary death, the self that undertakes that death can is delivered from the abandonments by which its body had been violated, and the social may perhaps become subject to transformation. The social ceases to be an eschatalogy for the marginal subject. Yet this futurity is also an impossible one. It is not a future that can be seen exemplified in a body, now gone, that would warrant the intents of the person, now silent. This futurity can not be securely grasped or taken as evidence, a model. If abandonment is ended by voluntary death, history as impossibility, as diasappearance or as exclusion, opens to its reverse: futurity without a secured history. This futurity can not be linked to a body constrained or supported, violated or cared for, within the social.
In just this way, Jones’ release from the social which he condemned engages a larger problematic of, simultaneously, an impossible futurity and an impossible historicity—like every other HIV/AIDS death in the so-called “post-AIDS” era, he dramatizes the transformation of the impossible itself, as a long-hoped for future care in a history-destroying pandemic arrives but comes up short.
While it has been difficult for HIV/AIDS 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, poet 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 abandoned to their loss, 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 meanings of death here waver from healing transformation, self-deliverance, to murder, against which the polyphonous narrator builds his textual speech. 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. The self is thus distanced from the self in a textual performance. Death becomes an opening, not an ending.
What Jones’ death shares with Hemphill’s poem is a characterization of a physical communication of the receptive male body as a site where violence occurs. This characterization 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.
Agamben (, 2000) argues that instead of either the prison, the clinic, or the madhouse (those institutions through which Foucault tracked the particular epistemic ruptures of modernity), the abandonment of the subject takes another location: the camp. The camp refers not simply to the physical forms of concentration or refugee camps, but any “de-localized location” in which those who do not fully qualify as “people” or rather, those who have already become merely “bare life,” are to be kept. The camp is not a physical or natural place. It is a liminal space, coordinated in the name of the sovereign state for the abandonment of the subject whose body will be nakedly exposed to power there. By claiming in the video tape which he threw over the freeway overpass to police that he was already “a dead man,” Daniel Jones suggested the scene of his freeway suicide as yet another camp, another “de-localized location.” The former Eagle Scout and military medical technician placed his televisual location in the no-man’s land between home and city, between HMO and prison, but also between the marginalized “bare life” that he refused to become and the mediation through which he would communicate the senselessness threatened in his abandonment.
In order to properly recognize the sense of Jones’ actions, we concentrate not, finally, solely on the state of exception through which he lived, but that through which he enacted his death: mediation. In mediating the story of his life as an end to the state of abandonment in which he lived, Jones’ story can be seen, problematically, as autobiography. But the difficulties in taking this life story as autobiography can perhaps be solved by posing the biopolitical, or in Agamben’s alternative term, “thanatopolitical” context explicitly here. Jones’ life story, even as it continues to stream on the Internet, is not simply autobiography, but “auto-thanatography” as well.
Above the city and its viewers, an HIV + worker, displaying a banner condemning his abandonment by the health institutions charged with his well-being, self-destructs as cameras hover, traffic stopped below. Police sharpshooters lower their rifles unused as his body falls, while the image of the bare life he exposed refracts back into the public eye. Ending his life with the weapon of choice of American men, Jones terrorizes popular representations of the AIDS victim. He makes his body unable to perceive this scene and himself impossible to recognize.
In the creation of this irreparable misrecogntion, he upsets the specular rhetoric of visibility and perspective that gives HIV and AIDS their coherence in our popular, legal, and medical imaginations. At the same time, he brings the bare life abandoned in biopolitics, in thanatopolitics, into view. He marks a point of exchange between the orders of speaking and perceiving, of phantasmatic and historical reality, of public and private, of the camp and a state without sovereignty. The message he extends from this point addresses the health care system writ large, to finally say: Born for love and learned of pleasure, this body faced abandonment from ones meant to help. So might yours.
“Live free, love safe, or die.” These words, on the other hand, describes the conditions of the biopolitical imperative from which Daniel Jones delivered himself. That terrible injunction served once as the script for his spontaneous performance, but serves now, to name the system which he made to appear. With the lives of health institutions more important than the lives of the humans which animate them, their maintenance more important than our nurturing or our deliverance, their goals more loudly pronounced than our needs—the name of this system is terror.