copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 47

Editors’ note: This essay is a long monograph that develops an important new theoretical approach to the understanding of AIDS in the United States. We are pleased to be able to present a work of such substance and original thought about one of our most existentially and socially pressing problems. We present the essay in two formats, a briefer, abstracted version and the full length version. Each section of the briefer version is also linked to that part of the longer version which considers the ideas from a given section in greater detail. Thus the brief version of the article is both an abstract of the longer version and can be profitably read just as is. The essay in its full length is available for printing out in text form. We encourage readers to make such a print out so as to have time to consider Tobias’ complex argument as a whole.

If you wish you can go to the complete version of the text now. If you print this page out, you will get first the abstracted version, then the full text version.

Meditation on a freeway suicide:
the sacrifice of autobiography

by James Tobias

1. 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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 1]

2. Media coverage, confusion, and contradictions

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 2]

3. Reality television:
an economy of pre-emption

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 3]

4. Performativity and medial agency

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 4]

5. The sacrifice of autobiography

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.

“Instead of a discourse of individual authorship, we find a discourse of situation; a ‘politics of location’” (119).

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?

[go to expanded discussion of section 5]

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

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 6]

7. Liveness as a game of violence

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 7]

8. Transformations of affect:
queer artists and AIDS activism

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 8]

9. Articulating the impossible:
discourses of self-deliverance

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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 9]

10. Los Angeles in the world

Agamben ([1993], 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.

[go to expanded discussion of section 10]


Complete version of text:

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.

Sections:

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.

2. Media Coverage, Confusion, and Contradictions

The above reconstruction of Daniel Jones’ death is based on videotape of the event from official and unofficial sources, network news coverage of the event after the fact, official and unofficial news web sites, radio and television roundtables on journalism and ethics in the days following, and press reports accessed in a variety of print and electronic forms. Media coverage had been immediate, lasted for the duration, and was broadly disseminated, with six local television stations (KTLA, KNBC, KTTV, KCOP, KCAL, KCBS) covering at least the last 15 minutes of the event live. Web sites affiliated with local and national news networks such as KCBS Channel 2000 posted images and reportage, and provided discussion forums for viewer and reader feedback. The graphic footage itself circulated months and years afterward, on the Internet and in disaster video compilations. For example, one site www.everwonder.com (accessed 10/28/98) posted video clips of Jones in particularly dramatic moments for viewer download. interactive links from the page offering clips of Jones’ suicide led to additional pages providing digitized footage of the deaths of Kennedy and Rabin. Was everwonder.com simply exploiting gruesome consumer interest for graphic violence—or editorializing as to the import of Jones’ actions by associating his death with political killings?

The site’s presentation of this material indicates the nature of the significance of Jones’ death at the same time as it points to difficulties in grasping that significance. The fact that everwonder.com leads viewers from footage of Jones’ suicide to footage of the assassinations of Kennedy or Rabin suggests an ad hoc identification of this event as a political one. Since neither was Jones a recognized political figure nor was criticism of HMOs featured on the site apart from the banner visible in the video clips, Jones’ televised death operated in terms of a spectacular excess which both prompted response but interfered with accurate categorization of its content.

National news broadcasts also followed the story in their evening broadcasts, while viewer outrage prompted apologies beginning the night of Jones’ death. Local broadcasters who had eagerly pre-empted regular viewing to follow the Jones story, though, claimed Jones’ final act of suicide to be a surprise, with some stations saying that they had had insufficient warning to pull cameras to a more distant view or to switch to another view altogether in order to avoid broadcasting the fatal shot that ended the standoff. However, these claims may have been based as much on ratings as on viewer comments. Ratings figures indeed indicated shifts from normal daytime and evening news patterns: as ratings rose, coverage was maintained. After ratings dropped, apologies were issued. According to The Hollywood Reporter (5/4/98), combined ratings rose 2 points to 18 shares for the six stations carrying the event at 3:45, near the time of Jones’ death, rather a less momentous jump than the controversy might suggest. The same six stations’ 5:00 PM news shows gained 2 share points, while the 6 PM news broadcast showed an smaller increase of only 1 point. However, 4 PM news programs lost a combined 3 points. (Higher than average shares for the 10 PM news market were attributed by journalist Jonathan Davies to a lead-in by a Lakers basketball game.) At any rate, fluctuating ratings indicated contradictory reactions on the part of the audience.

As if in search of a formula for a calculus of violence, information, and mediation, arguments articulated by viewers and by television producers and journalists in a variety of forums held after the event found support for and against the censorship of live news in controversial broadcasts from recent memory: a shooting in a Burbank bank robbery the year before; the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, the 1992 riots against the ensuing verdicts (with the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny cited numerous times); the notorious Jerry Springer talk show; the flight of O.J. Simpson and the particular genre of freeway pursuits that event helped to solidify; and so forth. There were also general references to social violence, fire arms, and memories of the rash of “road rage” freeway shootings from earlier years. In my research, the events cited as precedents belonged overwhelmingly to events having social and political dimensions, not natural disasters. This distinction between natural and unnatural disaster implied an agency, intent, responsibility. Broadcasters were widely, although by no means unanimously, condemned for breaking into afternoon viewing schedules and turning the attention of young, uninterested, or unwilling viewers to the catastrophic scene

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.

In the media environment of the late 1990s, more specifically, the differentiation of less “serious” programming generally slotted for daytime viewing and the more serious nighttime news or other prime-time programming had already become porous with the increased profitability of local news operations and the steady availability of events with which to fill emergency coverage. In this context, the coverage of Jones’ suicide epitomized the ways in which ubiquitous news coverage, increasingly important for maximizing the profits of network affiliates before and after prime-time network broadcasts, had already frayed long-standing assumptions about television’s role and authority in framing the often contradictory aspects of our social world as symbolically cohesive events (see, for example, the problematic of television and crisis in Doane 1990; television and liveness, in Feuer 1983, see discussion below; and on the media event, Dayan and Katz 1992, Fiske 1996). In this sense, it is not surprising that the debate ensuing in the wake of Jones’ suicide tended to center on broadcasters, the regulation of live television news, and the mandate for social responsibility that ensures their licensing: when to broadcast and when to censor. Of course, in that debate, these two questions—when to broadcast, when to censor—were not articulated in mutually exclusive terms. Jones’ criticism of health maintenance organizations was largely sidelined by media organizations as they grappled with their own vulnerability to public criticism.

3. Reality television:
an economy of pre-emption

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 whose 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. Reality on television is a valiant fiasco when it comes to presenting what it promises—the reconciliation of the local and the remote—because the documentation of public events for mass audiences is no longer necessarily a specialized, professional segment of production.

Any such reconciliation of the dynamics of displacement is necessarily related to a demand to articulate social being. Together, these processes entail a form of symbolic work perhaps more successfully, if less spectacularly, accomplished over the Internet. This symbolic work can be understood as the work of identity—a drive for speech as social being. So “reality television” of the sort seen in Jones’ suicide is more than a fast-buck genre for television’s industrial producers.

It is also an assertion of television’s primacy in narrating crisis

In these terms, televisual media events (whether delivered through analog, or digital broadcast or interactively over the Internet) emphasize a specific vector of social being and speech. Televisual media events articulate a now that is being contested. They articulate this moment as organizations or institutions speaking to, and in the name of, but without the direct force of, mass publics. And they articulate this “mass moment” across both disparate geographical areas as well as economic and cultural divisions.

In moments when transformation is sudden, as social being drives the television event in order to speak a living but already historical moment, identity is recast. The meanings of social being and of speech, of person and nation, of history and life, are transformed. Events distant in time and space and significant only in these much broader terms are often, in the process, paradoxically “localized” for distributed audiences. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, apparently long planned and involving global coordination, are localized as “New York, Ground Zero.” Evaluation of these emergencies by producers and audiences alike as to their importance works to modulate the state and status of the national profile. However, as distant events become paradoxically localized through their distribution in the media, the mediated version of the event, because of its importance to the national, may tend to exclude either the local bodies originally affected by it, or understanding of the broader complexities—history, cause, responsibility—in which social and national itself is embroiled. Televisual media events may mask and divide as much as they may inform or reconcile.

Reality television, more than simply a flawed assertion, is a conundrum in the narrative articulation of identities local and remote. These events—spontaneous, scripted, staged, or simply captured—rely on a particular economy of exception. They must always be somehow exceptional in order to be important enough to pertain to a local, regional, or national profile, which may then be seen to transform in response to historical events. This sense of an identity gained in the throes of change underlies the compelling visibility of the media event. But in order for the event to be exceptional, any such crisis articulated in televisual time must also seem to resound in its own right. It must be identifiable as an event in its own right, and so it must speak of otherness even as it speaks of its own extreme relevance. The economy of mediation within which televisual events take shape and are received is one of pre-emption, and of excess.

What might such media events pre-empt? Media events (in this case, Jones’ suicide) can only pre-empt two other kinds of events. First, they may momentarily pre-empt other media events granted visibility for their own apparent singularity (routine television programming, or historical events such as Kennedy’s or Rabin’s assassination). Second, media events necessarily pre-empt routine history whose complexity goes largely unapprehended in the media. For example, the everydayness of care or need experienced in relation to HIV/AIDS might conceivably be programmed as a nightly primetime feature until the pandemic is stopped—instead, HIV/AIDS tends to be a “special report” or an “update” spoken by media, political, or medical authorities, not survivors.

The perversity of this conundrum lies in the fact that while the televisuality of the news asserts its ability to report all that is of consequence, only events that have developed through a neglect that is itself excessive can sufficiently provide the surprise necessary to re-orient the regulatory economy which weighs the programming of one media event against another. All that is not spectacularized in this televisual economy may be taken for the undifferentiated conditions of the everyday, and therefore becomes unremarkable even when urgent. At the same time, as the momentous appearance of an already historical event, the media event presupposes its own outdating within the looming everyday beyond television’s interest, or beyond its capacity to show. This perverse economy of “reality television” materializes, finally, in relation to the ways that the speaking of social being is differentiated as production, distribution, and reception in media sectors. What a producer won’t share with its viewers, file-sharers on the Internet might share with one another.

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, 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.

4. Performativities of the media and medial agency

Writing in 1973, Hall (1980) carefully differentiated the “structures of thought” within the production process of television from those informing television’s interpretation by audiences. Arguing that televisual representations of violence are not violent, but messages about violence, Hall complains that researchers tended to analyze television violence as if they were unaware of the fact that “the dog in the film can bark but it cannot bite!” (131) For Hall, television production encodes “dominant” or “preferred” meanings received via one of three kinds of decoding:

These engagements are carried out through “performative rules” of competence and use, requiring attention to the practices of interpretive work performed by receivers (134).

 The tendency Hall noted on the part of television observers in the 1970s to conflate the decoded message of violence with the act of violence encoded in the message was continued in a specific way in the 1998 broadcast of Daniel Jones’ suicide. That steps were taken to prevent a similar event from being broadcast again after the fact [1] indicates that viewers putatively unable or unwilling to properly receive this event were perceived to be so harmed by it that its very broadcast produced the conditions for its prevention after the fact. However, there are several reasons why Jones’ act calls for a somewhat different approach than that derived from Hall’s notion of cultural decoding.

First, while Hall believed that audiences are ultimately the source of ideas encoded into television production, those audiences are alienated from the means of production, and will draw on a rather different set of experiences to decode them. For Hall, there is an asymmetric relationship rather than an identity framed between producer and audience. However asymmetric the relationship between broadcast production and audience in the age of reality television, Jones dictated the terms and conditions of this event, even though belonging more clearly to one or more reception communities than to any professional or alternative production organization. Second, Hall’s three types of decoding not only take as fundamental the distinction between audience and producer, but further that discursive struggles form the terrain for the interaction of these two terms. We can accept Hall’s distinctions between production and reception but only to observe that Jones radically undermines their structural opposition.

Jones’ self-destruction in staging the capture of what I argue is a life story produces more than discursive struggle. It also reproduces that which Hall’s interpretive framework finds unthinkable and which contemporary reality television threatens as its limit: the final effacement of the material, intellect, affect, and spirit of the body which originates the mediated event. Following Hall, we might say that the broadcast of Daniel Jones’ suicide was not the suicide itself. But such an account would emphasize, wrongly, the interpretation of the event over the event itself. In this case, both have to be considered together and in terms of one another, precisely because Jones’ authoring of this media event took place from a position outside the network system. Jones authored, or at least invited, media coverage of his own death not as a television producer but as a television receiver who had observed the rules governing the generation of the media event.

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.

5. The sacrifice of autobiography

Autobiography is not generally a genre associated with television news. Yet in the context I have presented here, studies of autobiography helpfully suggest that we broaden our understanding of the form beyond traditional literary or cinema studies approaches. Autobiography may be the communicativity of a self making claims on the act of living. The form of the life story may vary depending on the ways and means in which these claims are made. Accordingly, accounting for our technologically mediated social being and the performative aspects of identity will contribute to a more subtle understanding of the ways we make our claims to life. As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have it,

“Autobiography is contextually marked, collaboratively mediated, provisional. In telling their stories, narrators take up models of identity that are culturally available” (Smith and Watson 1996, 9).

This much may be true in many unconventionally delivered life stories. Certainly, as subject of the reportage, and as its instigator and organizer, Jones relied on a corps of aerial camera operators as much as on a corps of armed police. Yet while his is not a case of individual authorship by any stretch, his method was anything but collaborative.

As to the ways Jones carried out his death, was the HIV-positive Jones availing himself of the cultural identity of the PWA, a person whose death, according to conventional wisdom even after the advent of combination therapy, is inevitable? Even a cursory interpretation of the event suggests that Jones’ death contradicts this suggestion. If anything, Jones carried out a high-wire act between life and death for the greater part of the time he appeared in the camera’s view. It was this more general, more random, and so more ostensibly dangerous possibility of violence that compelled television to cover the event. Further, his death came with a specific if sudden decision, not a grudging acceptance of death by illness. While Smith and Watson’s focus on context, provisionality, and mediation are helpful, Jones’ entry from the freeway overpass into the television broadcast system begs other descriptors than “collaboration” or “cultural availability” in order to account for the agonistic agency exhibited in that event, along with its broadly resounding effects.

More fundamentally, reading autobiography as a tactical construction of viable identities from within the cultural options given doesn’t help us understand the stories of those who do not live on—whose stories produce meaning in death. What stands as the story of a self which no longer has a viable option on life? While Jones’ actions can usefully challenge recent nontraditional considerations of autobiography, of course, autobiography as literary genre has long made a point of recording a life in the face of death. The genre as literary canon is a virtual archive of recorded observations on the meanings of life for posthumous reflection by others. The impending or threatened effacement of the self constitutes one of this genre’s salient features.

Montaigne’s well-known essays, for example, while offering meditations on sadness, government, liars, prompt or slow speech, vanity, practices of taste and distinction, or the lessons of history, return again and again to the question of dying. In “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne suggests that since death is always the same, it must be the specifics of the way death happens which so frighten us.

“We must strip the mask from things as well as from persons; when it is off, we shall find beneath only that same death that a valet or a mere chambermaid passed through not long ago without fear. Happy the death that leaves no leisure for preparing such ceremonies.” (Montaigne [1572—1574] 1965, 68.

Whether due to the capacities of the genre, his medium of articulation, the essays’ encyclopedic embrace, Montaigne’s advancing age, or his own experience of painful kidney stones, Montaigne’s essays considered not only learning to die, but more specifically, suicide. In “A Custom of the Island of Cea,” Montaigne relates account after account of suicide illustrating the contradiction between the privilege of the free, self-authorizing subject and death. Not too surprisingly from our vantage point, perhaps, for Montaigne’s privileged subject,

“...the most voluntary death is the fairest” (252).

Yet Montaigne attends to the complications brought by the interests which God and country alike have in human life. Some believe, he writes, that it is up to “he who has placed us in the world” to allow our leave, and further,

“...the laws demand of us, for their interest, an accounting of ourselves, and can take action for homicide against us.”

Even more fundamentally, Montaigne writes, the desire to take leave of the world may be the work of illusion:

“It is a malady peculiar to man, and not seen in any other creature, to hate and disdain himself. It is by a similar vanity that we wish to be something other than we are” (254).

Montaigne presents, in his prolix way, a long and variegated list of suicides drawn from Biblical legend and classical literature, whose depictions well put contemporary media violence to shame and whose enumeration in Montaigne’s hands makes our own debates on television violence seem downright unambitious. There’s the (literal) political suicide of twenty seven provincial senators who, unfortunately, mix their poison with wine at a last supper, slowing the effect of the poison and nearly preventing them from dying with honor before the sure carnage of an approaching Roman legion (259). An Old Testament Hebrew man’s hastily inflicted, and insufficiently lethal, sword wound to his own gut in the face of enemies who would kill or enslave him leads him to stand before them, grasp his own entrails, and project them at the marauders before they finally killed him (257). The list goes on.

Montaigne’s litany closes with the peaceful death of a ninety year old woman, fulfilled with memories of a happy life, but now bedridden, and who, in full presence of mind, directs her two daughters and their children to live in peace and unity, and ends her life by swallowing poison. Still, Montaigne concludes,

“...unendurable pain and fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable motives for suicide” (262).

Similarly, sufferers of HIV/AIDS have experienced both painful physical devastation and social exclusion, especially in the years before combination therapy became available but by no means completely alleviated at the time of Jones’ death or since. Here, the term of choice may often be a rather different one. Rather than suicide, we may discuss “self-deliverance.” This phrase compounds the motivations of medical euthanasia and the language of political liberation with a confidence finally resting in the spiritual.

Of course, Montaigne’s autobiography is not an act of suicide. Nor are the cases of refigured autobiographical practices which appear in Smith and Watson’s analysis. 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 which, in the context of a transnational feminist criticism, 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.

“Instead of a discourse of individual authorship, we find a discourse of situation; a ‘politics of location’” (119).

Kaplan’s Gramscian “out-law” autobiographies and Smith and Watson’s emphasis on acts of self-inscription in the everyday remind us that contemporary autobiographical practice may challenge the more traditional life story of the literary subject, and that the stakes of autobiography extend beyond a recollection of life lived and towards resistance to domination. And in these ways, 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?

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.” Friends were also surprised. Neighbor Don Lee commented,

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

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. 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!”

“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, 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.

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. 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. 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.

7. Liveness as a game of violence

As indicated above, the economy of abandonment and dehumanization operating in the production, distribution, and reception of Jones’ death resulted in a gain of the responsibility for control by the television networks. Between the reception of shock and the formulation of television ethics and procedures, the story of Daniel Jones was processed in a rehash of ongoing debates on the competencies of televisual subjects and spectators, framed as concerns around children’s exposure to television violence, the race for high ratings during sweeps week, and the implications of technological convergence. Media discussion of Jones’ suicide indeed focused on whether the event should have been televised, how technological solutions could provide safeguards against this kind of situation, and why editorial policies allowed such sensationalism. But television news also demonstrated evidence of the ways its goals and procedures were undermined by Jones’ actions.

Most of the print and television reporting surrounding Jones’ death gave the impression, contrary to the responses cited above, that audiences interpreted the event as a call for television to more effectively censor itself. These producers apparently see audiences as volatile qualities. They seek information and entertainment violent in appearance, but are angered by the spectacle of self-destruction when it appears too real. (In fact, as I will further clarify below, audience postings to web forums and letters to editors of local newspapers suggest no such consistency.) In keeping with this perspective of official media producers, roundtable discussion ensued on NPR and ABC’s Good Morning America attempting to pinpoint journalists’ responsibilities, some ethical safespot for television broadcasters, and technological solutions. MSNBC took action by implementing a longer delay (by several seconds) between capture and broadcast, giving the network even greater editorial control in streaming live reports to the public. The measure of liveness was being redefined.

Yet the quality of liveness in television shows such as Good Morning America, Jane Feuer argued in 1983, always emerges as an ideological construction somewhere between a media “effect” and “unconscious work.” Rather than being a function of temporal limits, liveness as an ideological construction works to unify a diverse audience as “family” or “nation.” Amplifying Feuer’s point, Bersani (1988) argues that in relation to the coverage of HIV/AIDS on national television,

“The ‘general public’ is at once an ideological construction and a moral prescription. Furthermore, the definition of the family as an identity is, inherently, an exclusionary process, and the cultural product has no obligation whatsoever to coincide with its natural reference. Thus the family identity produced on American television is much more likely to include your dog than your homosexual brother or sister” (203).

Bersani is concurring with Watney’s (1987) close documentation of this dynamic of exclusion observed in British television coverage of HIV/AIDS.

I’m as concerned here with the broadcast of Jones’ suicide as the subsequent reporting of it in various media forms, but Feuer, Watney, and Bersani’s discussions help us understand the slippage from Jones’ experience into the media debates that ensued. Television attempted to refine the rules for its privatized censorship in terms of a moral prescription to defend the family and to exclude its others. And so a violent political protest against inadequate healthcare becomes a discussion of the responsibility of commercial television to “protect” children, its own technological capacities, or its ability to differentiate “exploitive” local news from “serious” national journalism which can make, as CNN believed it had, the “right call.”

But there are important critical and historical differences here. Feuer analyzed Good Morning America, a show regularly scheduled as a live event. Bersani and Watney were observing, similarly, scheduled news programming. In the case of Jones, in an age in which reality coverage had already emerged to compete with more traditional news and talk offerings, an unprogrammed live event pre-empted regularly scheduled features in a landscape of digital convergence, expanded cable television, and of course, continuing media tendencies to neglect the experience of those suffering HIV/AIDS, but increasingly manageable and visibly marketed combination therapies. In this changed environment, live television begins to attempt to rescript Jones’ death, but the contradictions inherent in a live interrupt coverage planned outside the system of television production were harder to mask successfully.

Local channel 11 pre-empted an episode of Power Rangers to provide coverage, and for many parents, some of whose reactions were posted to CBS’ web-based forum on the event, the televisual montage of children’s programming with freeway showdown was especially threatening. Local channel 4 interrupted a broadcast of The Rosie O’Donnell show. Then-closeted lesbian O’Donnell’s Emmy-award winning talk show was marketed to parents and children, so pre-emption here takes on particular ironies as programming shifted to coverage of a visually horrific protest suicide by a person with AIDS from the comic’s humorously earnest presentation of may have been a more socially inclusive “prescription for family” than that which Bersani observed. For those viewers that saw the event as simply more of TV’s increasingly common reality programming, the shunting aside of syndicated game show Debt on local channel 2 might perhaps have been only somewhat more of a disturbance than their own channel surfing.

For television producers and spokespersons’ parts, apologies for and defenses of the broadcast began the night of the event as news programs attempted to assuage the massive insult some viewers vocalized. This reversal on the part of television professionals from provocation to contrition indicates that coverage of Jones worked to express unwanted contradictions, not to suppress them. Rather than the bonds of the social imaginary being successfully addressed to the public as “family” or “nation,” the legal, medical, and mediatic performativities of Jones’ actions gave the news a dramatic instance of the violent exclusion of the “dysfunctional” other whom television news had long pursued but for whom the news had most often provided a more reassuring conclusion in the observation of his apprehension by police.

Here, then, the “disturbed individual” is the negative image of the ideological coherence of the nuclear family in an age of increasing media traffic between domestic and work spheres. An “outsider” to the family home had not only terrorized domestic space but had stopped home-bound traffic. While on one level, the bogey man was back, the most important difference here was that in this case, the outsider was more lure than fugitive, situated in a scene he had scripted himself. Even for live-interrupt coverage, this scene was an exceptional and confusing state, for after all, while constituting a bonafide emergency, this interruption had been planned—but not by news producers.

News professionals struggled to articulate direction amidst the state of exception precipitated by Jones’ actions. Warren Cereghino, executive producer for Chris-Craft TV, the Los Angeles production company which owns KCOP, appeared on the May 3 1998 edition of Good Morning America to insist that while the Jones suicide “fell through the cracks” of what he felt was justifiable coverage of “chases, … fires, riots, [and] earthquakes,” nonetheless, coverage was “inevitable” given the informational needs of a sprawling megalopolis and television market demands. The suggestion is that violence that can be secured by successful police action or that results from “natural disasters” would not give such offense. Daily Variety television critic Ray Richmond’s response was that while Jones’ televised death was “revolting, and it hurt to watch,” still, he admits, “violence is part of the game.”

“I mean, [news producers] are apologizing on the one hand, and on the other hand, this was the money shot that they’ve all been waiting for. This was the ultimate moment for them. I mean, … here we had some—a man doing the ultimate momentous act right there on their screen.”

Prompted by the uncertainties in the economies of liveness and authority, the rationality of censorship was directly pitted against the claim as to the subject’s unreason. The debate that raged, like the responses above, continued to paint Jones’ act as senseless. While the Internet postings discussed above indicate the injury to the social that the spectacle of Jones’ death produced, media authorities’ responses are more revealing of the ways television’s capacity to communicate the historical event was undermined.

Los Angeles Times television commentator Howard Rosenberg depicted the story as “a massive traffic tie-up before it spun out of control.” After noting that the anti-HMO banner Jones displayed for news helicopters indicated that the actions were planned for television, Rosenberg borrowed from Jones the figure of the gun but turns away from Jones’ overtly political act to question the broadcasters’ technical and editorial capacity to assure program quality. Rosenberg commented,

“Live coverage of a volatile situation is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette,”

He stated this in a particularly callous granting of all agency or responsibility even in chaotic or random situations to the very networks, whose role had been limited by Jones as relatively passive “ambulance chasing.” He continued on to insist, as numerous other commentators had insisted, and as MSNBC already had taken steps to achieve, that broadcasters maintain the ability to pull back to safety to avoid televising violent accidents. The discursive point here, of course, is to make violence a certain kind of thing. Something that is visual can play out on or against an individual body in a localized place: a body which television can frame.

In this account, violence does not begin with the refusal of medical treatment that resulted in Daniel’s ruptured appendix some years earlier. Nor does violence here begin with seroconversion to HIV positive status or the general emergence of the AIDS pandemic. Nor does it begin with institutional intransigence in the face of this health crisis. Rather, this account places the event of violence at a point within live television’s scope, a point that like any other could only have been predicted afterwards, given Jones’ tactically unpredictable behavior. In this account, that point of violence should have been indicated at some point in the broadcast. Accordingly, MSNBC redefined its live broadcast standards as if the violent event in question could be pinpointed precisely. But Daniel’s freeway occupation lasted forty minutes, and in fact, the duration of this event, as opposed to its momentariness, provided the appeal for news broadcasters.

Rosenberg’s suggestion that there was a point when this “traffic tie-up” turned into a violence too horrific to witness can not be specified, really. This desire for a constraint on mediated violence is on the one hand suggested by the competing regimes of law, medicine, and mediation attempting to produce a strained visual order for this violent event, and on the other hand, this desire is countermanded by Daniel Jones’ staging of the co-occurrence of the legal, medical, and mediatic regimes locating the corporeal subject. Rosenberg’s demand that the line be held against violent spectatorship indicates a critical fantasy rather than an action-item, and that fantasy is further indexed by Rosenberg’s appropriation of Jones’ very terms of articulation. Suicide by firearm slips from being Jones’ chosen means of making his point and moves into place in Rosenberg’s argument as “Russian roulette”—a “loaded dial” of sorts that turns violent intent against the self, that turns the situation of the body into a televisual numbers game.

Rosenberg’s fantastic appropriation of Jones’ method of action doesn’t stop there. In December 1998, Rosenberg advocates broadcasting state execution of capitol offenders in order to incite the public against the death penalty, but his logic again revolves around Jones and the firearm. Rosenberg reconciles his position that coverage of the suicide should have been cut off with his support of televised execution of death-row inmates by claiming once more that Jones’ act was “Russian roulette, a reckless, high risk spin of the chamber by TV news that just happened to end violently.” The firearm that first established Daniel as a threat to order comes to rest finally, in Rosenberg’s continued revision of the event, in the hands of television journalists and producers. Over time, Rosenberg attempts to lay Jones’ story to rest as but another act of random roadway violence, everyday bad traffic gone horribly wrong. At the end of the day, Rosenberg’s metaphorics delimit a fantasy according to which it is the networks who hold the gun.

Because of the frightening proximity of “disturbed loner” and “domestic security” revealed and relayed between the freeway and the home, local television on the crest of the act, however insincere the later apologies or justifications, was positioned in a very different way from the secondary revisions of Good Morning America. Local framing of the event was indeed an issue, as Rosenberg claims, not because technology outstripped editorial policy, but rather because of Jones’ tactics. Jones framed his act for aerial capture as well as for freeway viewing. His banner was spread out on the roadbed of the freeway overpass itself. He made obscene gestures at the police who maintained sharpshooters at ready with Jones in their sights. Jones’ actions were directed at Los Angeles, the Los Angeles of OJ’s flight in the white bronco, the Los Angeles of the riots, the real and virtual Los Angeles.

There’s no way, for example, that anyone could say about Jones what is sometimes said about snuff films or the moon landing: that the events portrayed are only a Hollywood fabrication. The interruption in the transportation network and the television networks guarantees that the actuality of Jones’ claims goes recorded. This tactical synchronization between the orders of the real and the virtual ensure that each order warrants the operation of the other. That synchronization was an effect of the detailed mise-en-scene Jones supplied to the mise-en-cadre of news cameras and police rifles.

Jones was outfitted with Molotov cocktails, a can full of gasoline, and a shotgun. He set fire to his truck but jumped out to extinguish his burning clothing. He stepped up on the freeway wall to jump to his death, but turned away from the brink. Finally, he shot himself. Why the gun? Perhaps he recognized that had he jumped to his death his body would be difficult to track as he fell, or that the sight would be too easy for cameras to pull away from before he actually died. Fire was too painful, clearly, but moreover, in a fire he might have disappeared into the smoke and flame, out of camera view. Perhaps by shooting himself he provided the least painful, as well as the most graphic, the steadiest shot, of his death. This way, he might make his death appear most intentional, but it would also be fast. Finally, his body lay destroyed near the banner that broadcast the words that no journalist’s microphone could ask him to speak.

His careful scouting of locations, his display of last words, the videotaped message, his anticipation of “live interrupt,” his rush hour timing. In anguish, Daniel Jones scripted his actions carefully, with insight, expertise, and any viewer’s knowledge of exactly what TV might do with the image of his death. And something happened to television’s operators as a result of his actions, something which explains why television was so slow to pull away, and which leveled the differences between news producers and consumers. Said KCOP news director Steve Cohen:

“Many of us became observers instead of journalists.”

More than the moment at which the traffic situation became a violent suicide, it is this moment that matters. In this moment, television producers became receivers.

By making himself both receiving subject and primary producer of television’s violent symbolic processes, Daniel made spectators of those lives intending his death as spectacle. All the ways that television, print and web-based media tried to regain control of itself from his grasp—by monitoring but not broadcasting, by calling him crazy, by increasing censorship, with edited and editorialized versions of his death, by offering apologies and crocodile tears, even by attributing his actions to his sexuality or his HIV status—all of these gestures only became necessary because even as television rechanneled his life story, he had already succeeded in telling it.

Daniel’s performance was not foiled by television’s reactions to it—far from it. Television’s reactions were only the least of the results that he planned. These reactions appear to have prompted Jones’ choice of elements in his hijacking of the live broadcasting of Los Angeles. Television’s injury was the degree to which it became a passive witness instead of a forceful narrator. The news only marshaled gains in its capacity for self-censorship as a result of having lost the authority to enunciate the meanings and implications of the event.

While television news never accurately reported or responded to Daniel Jones’ political claims, Jones’ message was received, even given television’s predictable distortions of it. The public reaction was not only, as television editorials would have it, outraged at a vision of human self-destruction ported into the home. In fact, the public response went far beyond either censorious demands for the protection of domestic space or gleeful nihilism. “Tamara Tate,” a respondent to CBS’ web query (mentioned above) suggested that the media take responsibility for the representation of violence:

“NAME THE HMO and let the burden of proof be on the HMO. […] I, too, am the victim of an HMO doctor and it’s about time the HMO’s carry the burden of proof.”

Response to the violence inflicted on Jones’ body took more empathetic forms as well, in a small number of letters to the editor and email postings. Lois Yung of Downey wrote to the Los Angeles Times of her experience of alienation and despair when receiving treatment for fibromyalgia. Yung suggested that she could understand “a little of what he may have felt”:

“There is no soul in medicine today, and this is most evident in HMOs, where profits, not patients are their main concerns. I hope that Jones’ dramatic suicide was not in vain and that, perhaps, some changes in medical care will come as a result of it.”

In the same edition of the Times, another letter writer proposed that the public should join together to ban HMOs just as people should unite to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In other words, both HMOs and nuclear weapons kill, en masse.

As these responses make clear, Jones wasn’t only talking about HIV treatment. Significantly, a year after his death, national studies on the efficacy of HMO-based healthcare confirmed Jones’ claim that these enterprises sacrifice treatment for profit. Studies commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Committee for Quality Assurance found HMOs to work most effectively for those who are healthy, not those who are sick.

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.

8. Transformations of hope:
queer artists and AIDS activism

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. Two responses were representative.

“Anyone who needs drugs in this state can get them,” stated James Loyce of AIDS Project Los Angeles, changing the subject of Jones’ claim, then blunting it by re-stating it as a policy query which could not be immediately answered:

“The HMOs have specialists. The question is, do they have the numbers to accommodate the number of patients?”

Priscilla Munro, executive director of the AIDS Services Foundation in Irvine, stated,

“Managed care companies are very reluctant to be involved in any kind of experimental medications. It’s very shocking to think this man reached that level of despair. There are organizations like ours that are willing to go to the wall for people like that. Hopefully, we’ll never see anything like this again.”

Jones knew that treatments exist for HIV. As I’ve explained above, while HIV motivated his actions, the object of his critique was for-profit health care, not access. In addition, Munro’s implication that the emergency health care organizations established to handle the large numbers of uninsured persons and underserved HMO clients have succeeded in bringing the pandemic under control is disturbing. Most fundamentally, the medical failure to produce a cure is re-cast here as adequate management. Yet there is also in Munro’s comment a tacit indication that her knowledge that all patients who need care can get it is rather a “hope,” although any hesitancy on her part is framed in terms of a preference not to “see” violence.

Perhaps Loyce and Munro responded in muted denial of the fact that while AIDS drugs have increased in efficacy, the high cost of their patented formulas continues to ensure that most AIDS patients in highly populated but less wealthy countries worldwide will never receive them. But even today, five years later, the economic determination of patented treatments for HIV/AIDS within world markets continues to be itself subsumed within a larger set of legal determinations made at the level of the nation-state. U.S. trade representatives to the WTO held up agreements allowing trade in generic versions of patented formulas through two years of delays (and deaths), only in August 2003 finally allowing generic versions of HIV/AIDS drugs to be manufactured and traded among poorer nations as long as the visual appearance of the medications can be distinguished from domestic versions, thus preventing generics produced in India or Brazil from entering the U.S. market and driving down the costs of treating American HIV/AIDS patients.

Some activist commentators on Jones’ suicide had a perhaps more insightful, if in certain ways more trivializing, understanding. In a wrap-up of the year’s events entitled “The Best, Worst, and Weirdest 1998,” POZ magazine gave Jones another brief mention:

“Out with a bang! Off the LA freeway, under circling news choppers broadcasting live, in front of a banner reading ‘Live Free, Love Safe or Die,’ PWA Daniel Jones blew his head off. Why? To avenge an HMO mix-up of his records and because he feared an ugly AIDS death. ‘He wanted his death to mean something,’ his sister said. We read it as flipping the bird to the post-AIDS chorus.”

The cynicism dripping from this interpretation points to a queer set of camp, if mean-spirited, strategies marked by an arch use of the ridiculous. Jones’ death here appears as grande guignol, performing abjection through live horror with comic overtones. Kafkaesque bureaucratic malfeasance is archly characterized as a mere “mix-up” that is outweighed by a righteously excessive “avenging” while the vanity of narcissism is celebrated even as it is mocked, with Jones’ motive ascribed to a desire to forestall an “ugly” death—rather than one marked by the enduring pain and the loss of self-recognition that his past medical history had led him to expect.

Here, Jones is seen as signifying horror through camp to reject a false sense of security given in a refrain by a mocking, tragic “choir.” Jones is taken for a kindred spirit by writers attempting to blunt dangerous new illusions through a brand of subversive humor. Rather than Jones’ death specifying a political valence for a televisual and Internetworked public, the POZ writers appear to be aiming at “post-AIDS” administrators like Loyce and Munro who believe the growing global crisis has become somehow manageable. This deployment of a darker camp sensibility is by no means unique to POZ, and in fact has long been deployed in HIV/AIDS zines, theatre, and activist video.

Video artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz, characterizing his work as an attempt to make the AIDS crisis “visible” in the face of official neglect and lack of attention or accuracy from mainstream media (Bordowitz 1993), writes:

“There are historical, material conditions that create a situation of crisis, but there is no reason why some people die, why some people get sick, why I am infected. There is no reason, but there is meaning. My experiences are filled with meaning. They’re filled with pain, irony, and hope” (211).

Bordowitz writes of his appreciation of Charles Ludlam’s “Theatre of the Ridiculous.” Ludlam’s theatre articulates what Bordowitz calls “queer structures of feeling” through which countercultural communities of resistance are forged. Surveying a number of activist video projects and his own work, Bordowitz notes that while topics addressed in these videos ranging from HIV/AIDS, safer sex, homophobia, women’s health and reproductive rights, political action or the work of remembrance, they share a demythifying rhetoric of the ridiculous by engaging mockery of self and antagonist alike. Noting that Ludlam’s theatre developed over years and positioned itself within the broader history of theatre, Bordowitz explains that HIV/AIDS activist videos have faced a very different temporality. Participants were often sick or would become ill, or might die. With no time to lose, goals had to be pragmatic and well-defined (217). In Bordowitz’ video activism, as in his critical writing, crisis may be tempered by humor with no loss in urgency. Theatricality may be tested against the exigencies of medical politics.

The irony and cynicism of POZ’s review of Jones’ death can be read in relation to transformations in “queer structures of feeling”—against abandonment, then, an effort to articulate, sometimes ironically, both hope and defiance. Similarly, Roman’s 1998 book Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS claims an association between the “social processes of theatre, AIDS, and hope,” demonstrating the same urgency in gay theatre and performance activism that Bordowitz described in queer video activism. Where for Bordowitz forwards a hopeful mockery of the ridiculous senselessness of AIDS, Roman sees hope as a “social process” (271) that may be circulated through gay theatre communities. Performance works may provide grounds for acts of protest or mourning. And like the writing and video work of Bordowitz within HIV/AIDS coalition politics, Roman’s account of gay performance emphasizes autobiographical identification with a larger collective subject demanding the visual inscription of excluded bodies into the social.

Roman writes of a man who kills himself in 1982, apparently feeling isolated and stigmatized as one of the first victims of AIDS, and choosing voluntary death instead of further alienation (22). Roman’s account of AIDS performance responds to this threat of suicide as affective abandonment by emphasizing a communitarian ethic for performance that might counter such personal desolation. Through Roman’s account of performance and community, runs insistently a thread of personal witnessing and remembrance, even as he emphasizes the presence of the HIV positive body in performance.

Recalling a 1993 performance by Ron Vawter, he writes of noticing Vawter cut his leg mid-performance, and cued by the small stream of blood released, of Vawter’s own body appearing in spite of the character he was playing. Despite the performer’s intent, Roman sees the spectacle of HIV expose Vawter’s physical condition, “HIV’s belligerent tendency to ham it up and take over the stage” (117). This silent thought on the part of Roman in response to Vawter’s performance is not terribly far removed from the spectacular logics of Jones’ death. And like Jones, albeit in an academic vein, Roman evinces an aim shared with Bordowitz as well as many artists and activists grappling with the pandemic share: to make HIV/AIDS visible.

By 1996, Roman suggests cautiously that the conditions of hope for people living with AIDS had changed, as the co-chair of the 11th Annual AIDS Conference in Vancouver, Canada that year announced “glimmers of hope” (268). But the hope brought by new treatments, concludes Roman, must be tempered by the issue of access. To recover the past and secure the future of gay communities, he says, HIV/AIDS interventions must continue to be created and performed (284).

The articulations of affect seen in response to Jones’ death as a form of self-deliverance (Janet’s hope, POZ’ defiance) or as suicide (Munro’s despair) do not only indicate distinct receptions predicated on Jones’ acts but in experiential ways clarify the extended crisis of a pandemic undergoing historical transformation. Jones’ death occurred as activists were struggling with a newly complex set of realities and attitudes resulting from the hopes gained in the middle 1990s by increasingly efficacious advances in medicine. In the “post-AIDS” era procedures for HIV/AIDS treatment were institutionalized through a patchwork administration of care ranging from HMOs to an emergency health care system largely bearing the imprint of successful activist efforts. But contrary to the implications embedded in the assertions made to the press by Loyce and Munro at Jones’ death, or even in Roman’s thoughtful critical study, access was not the only issue.

Treatments centered (and continue to center) around a problematic set of often public-funded but privately patented therapies which, while mitigating the effects of immuno-suppression for longer periods of time, do not cure the syndrome nor kill the virus. Combination therapies do not work for all patients, lose efficacy over time even for those whom they help, and while are offered only as a long-term option, the potency and make-up of even the least taxing regimens produce an array of serious long- and short-term side effects. More than an epidemiological periodization or a historicization of the development of pharmaceutical treatments, “post-AIDS” refers to a false sense of security enabled by temporary and flawed remedies, newly institutionalized health care organs and HMO policies, and a preference, yet again, to believe that the pandemic is tractable. The violence of this notion reposes in the way that it allows concern about AIDS or care for those affected to be, effectively, abandoned.

How had an understanding of social identity, voluntary death, and hopefulness transformed with the advent of this “post-AIDS” era? In this context, suicide by gay victims of HIV/AIDS was understood in the immediate after-effects of a gay and lesbian liberation movement which had successfully worked to de-medicalize homosexuality. Suicide had been accurately identified (although in the terms of an essentialization that will later become problematic, as I will show) as one of the effects of oppression of sexual minorities.

Critics and activists of the post-Stonewall period of gay and lesbian liberation movements historicized, within a new problematic of de-medicalization and public sexual identity, Durkheim’s (1897) classic sociological account of suicide. Durkheim had moved beyond earlier theorizations of voluntary death to locate suicide not as pathological, racial, geographical, or imitative but rather specifically in relation to social dynamics (52). He offered three categories of suicide, noting that particular cases may share amongst these three general causes (258—259). Each of these causes might describe to Jones in one way or another.

First, the cause of “egoistic suicide” was collective social distress internalized by the individual ego:

“He effects communion with sadness when he no longer has anything else with which to achieve it. […] The individual yields to the slightest shock of circumstance because the state of society has made him a ready prey to suicide” ((214- 215).

Second, altruistic suicide describes the voluntary death prescribed for those subservient to a superior: the death of the satisfied old woman in Montaigne, who dies according to cultural custom to make way for the unity and peace of her daughters, or the death by a follower for a leader, or one who dies for a cause. Here, said Durkheim, individuation is too weak, where it was too strong in the former category. These two categories may describe archaic deaths as well, but a third category is specifically modern: anomic suicide. Modernity upsets traditional social bonds, and can fail to provide sufficient “regulation” for individuals. This problem is seen most specifically in economic fluctuations. Third, anomic suicide is primarily a problem of a loss of social status, understood with a materialist inflection. The constant suicide rate in the industries of trade and industry, emphasizes the particular modernity of anomic suicide, but it also describes that of a widow impoverished at her husband’s death. (While Durkheim suggested that anomic suicide tended to be a symptom of modernity, we might see Montaigne’s examples of the senators or the Hebrew father who chose death over slavery as anomic self-destruction—the threat of the dependency of slavery would surely qualify as a sudden shift in status.)

But activist critics such as Rofes (1983) suggested that Durkheim’s framework worked together with the psychiatric account of “the homosexual as invert” to rationalize gay suicide (3). The weak individuation whose “communion with sadness” Durkheim saw resulting in egoistic suicide found a prime model in the myth of the “suicidal homosexual” (7—8). For Rofes, Durkheim’s analysis must be preceded by the public availability of a viable gay or lesbian identity. The work of Rofes and others demonstrated that a logic of exclusion must be identified to show that “the status which lesbian and gay men are granted as societal outcast is directly related to increased suicide rates” (118).

Suicide here is the effect of a prior “casting out” of the homosexual body from the social body, an exclusion anterior to the social individuation which fails in “egoistic suicide.” Coming out of the closet, affirming gay or lesbian identity, against this logic of exclusion, affirmed the homosexual body in an act of social affiliation against a broadly sanctioned violence understood to precede, in fact to prompt, voluntary death. The visible enactment of public identity achieved a political voice against medicalization, against exclusion, against death.

The strategies of an earlier period of HIV/AIDS activism in visual art followed on this understanding. They are established definitively, and perhaps most succinctly, in graphics production by ACT-UP-affiliated artists such as Dan Keith Williams and artist collectives such as Gran Fury (see AIDS Demo Graphics, Crimp and Rolston, 1990). The graphics collected by Crimp and Rolston as well as the accompanying text emphasize a positioning of activism against neglect and abandonment. Crimp’s preface reads,

“This book is dedicated to the memory of thousands who have died because of government inaction in the AIDS crisis, and to the survival of the millions who are fighting to stay alive.”

A strategic essentialism must be noted here—by identifying “inaction” on the part of government, art institutions, media , or health organizations, activists sought to articulate the urgent necessity, intent and effects of their own actions. For even the graphics collected here mention actions on the part of the government and health authorities that were anything but “inactive.” Graphics against AIDS made a consistent “characterization” of (and against) symbolic and physical violences as neglect or abandonment, to communicate what a collective subject, speaking autobiographically although often anonymously, knew to be more appropriate, relevant, and timely responses to HIV/AIDS.

Urgency speaks through concise textual messages, sometimes paired with appropriated graphics which countered official texts and images. In a 1988 graphic by Williams, words in emphatic black typeface on white background proclaim “We Die—They Do Nothing.” Small bracketed text next to these words clarify the characterization of “inaction.” Next to “We,” Williams lists “people of color, gays, lesbians, prisoners,” and other sectors of the population suffering. Next to “Die,” Williams places text indicating the 16,534 victims so far, “42% of all deaths,” next to “They,” he lists Reagan, Bush, Dukakis, the FDA, the US Congress, the national media, and national minority leaders, and next to “Do,” he merely emphasizes “absolutely,” as the textual protest ends in “nothing.” A textual border around the edge of the poster clarifies that action is to be oriented through recognition against violence:

“We recognize that every AIDS death is an act of racist, sexist, and homophobic violence” (Crimp and Rolston, 82)

While Williams specifically points to a “we” who “recognizes” violence in inaction, Gran Fury’s 1988 “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands” (80) makes much the same point. That phrase is printed above a graphic red hand print, while below, the phrase “One AIDS death every half hour” times official statistics closely against the life of those at risk. Numerical refiguring identifies the urgency of the crisis as measurable only in terms of the lived experience of collective subjects rather than administrative priorities.

By the middle 1980s, as HIV/AIDS deaths mounted, the insights from this experience were mobilized in ACT-UP’s signal graphic: “Silence = Death,” often printed over the pink triangle. In questioning the historical appropriateness of the symbol, Marshall (1991) points out that the pink triangle could not possibly have summed up symbolically the contradictory if no less exterminatory attitudes of German Fascists against homosexuals, since the Fascists jailed and killed far fewer gay men and lesbian women than their own arrest records indicated existed (84).

But what Marshall fails to emphasize is that the tactical power of a voluntary and counter-association with mass extermination was more likely marshaled in the 1970s as a community-based sanction against the need for the kind of hiding which, apparently, saved some homosexuals from extermination under Fascism. Further, the pink triangle worn in political appearance in the 1970s was similarly tactically renewed and differentiated all over again by ACT-UP in the 1980s under conditions that had changed yet again.

Public appearance through the pink triangle by ACT-UP was not so much an indulgence in the “victimology” which Marshall criticizes, as much as it was a collectively-invested symbol marking a refusal of symbolic effacement. In this light, of course the symbol was renewable. A symbol which had marked an overturning of various logics of exclusion in the 1970s was extended in the 1980s in a refusal of “death-by-abandonment” on the occasion of an even more virulent, if that is possible, penalization of the homosexual body. And this time this penalization was complicated by the emergent transdemographic epidemiology of the HIV virus, all the more powerfully necessitating the public marking of a militant and factional self-articulation.

In this way, too, ACT-UP’s pink triangle signs an autobiographical record of the larger collective gay or lesbian subject within a larger and newly urgent politics of health, this time not of psychology but of immunology. Here, “Silence=Death” means that hope is found in collective forms of speech that can force change in medical knowledge production as well as politic administration. For queer communities, hope is now no longer associated with de-medicalization or anti-psychologies, but is rather implicated in a newer biopolitical medicalization—a necessary and still evolving set of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures—attending a specifically viral immunological collapse.

Correlatively, within the histories of “death-by-abandonment” and given the specific context of the AIDS pandemic, individual suicide appears as the very embodiment of hopelessness. Given the circumstances, suicide cannot easily be dissociated either from an earlier history of homophobic exclusion or from contemporary immunological threat. As a result, what separates Jones’ actions against his HMO from political acts against AIDS is the difficulty of identifying suicide as self-deliverance instead of abandonment. Activists tend to associate such “self-deliverance” with an abandonment of the queer body—not revelation or empathy. Given the responses of “Bernie,” “Ed,” and MSNBC described above, this attitude is understandable, if incomplete.

Watney’s 1996 discussion of grief, mourning, and hope is a useful case in point. Here, Watney discusses lists the affective costs of a “disorder” newly identified as the crisis continued. Called “Multiple Loss Syndrome,” the symptoms included: numbness, anger, isolation, guilt, abandonment, disbelief, depression, inability to emote, feelings of loss, socially irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, preoccupation with one’s own mortality, panic, self-doubt, loss of control, resentment of never-ending memorial services. Among the suggestions for coping given, he notes, are taking care of one’s self, volunteering, getting emotional support, and finding “a new place in life for the deceased,” options that Watney (although I disagree with his position on this point to a considerable extent) finds insufficient and apolitical (160, 166). Watney notes that with suicide reported in 1992 as one of the leading causes of death among gay men in San Francisco and unsafe sex as one possible manifestation of self-destructive behavior resulting from the experience of multiple loss, a “secondary” syndrome such as that of Multiple Loss must be re-conceived as existing proper to the pandemic itself (159—160).

For Watney, as misrepresentations of homosexuality continue from without, compounded by the more recent linkage of AIDS-phobia to homophobia, mounting effective discussions of either safer sex or the multiple loss that can undermine it meant grappling directly with the pain of loss. AIDS, within the context of the gay community, produced a double pandemic: one proceeding through viral infection, the other proceeding through a newly observable incapacitation caused by the pain of loss to AIDS. In 1993, with reliable (such as it may be) combination therapy still on the horizon, Watney seeks ways the community might articulate the pain of multiple loss as a primary manifestation of AIDS itself.

Watney’s treatment of suicide situates the understanding of gay suicide as the outcome of a logic of violent exclusion, much as the work of such activists as Rofes’ did before the pandemic. And Watney’s counsel that we keep in mind the “slow-motion” of HIV/AIDS as an pandemic is important. The temporally extended epidemiology of the illness is precisely counter to the urgency which those experiencing and responding to the illness know. The various histories of homophobic exclusion only contribute to the complexity of the interplay between the urgency for care and the violence of exclusion.

Since Watney sees gay liberation as a legacy that enables the continuing vibrancy of queer affiliation—a birthday gift of sorts to a younger generation (165), his grief, it seems to me, is doubly felt, and rightly so. “Making sense” of loss for Watney means addressing those coping mechanisms for pain which may include unsafe sexual behavior that finally equates to suicidal behavior (168). Yet here again, now within the context of mourning AIDS and preventing infection, suicide is understood in terms of flawed individual agency that works against the very political viability of a mass for whom an important means of political articulation has been the maneuvering of its experience of sexual desire, of passions, and of hope away from marginality, away from loss, and towards a collected self-presence.

And while he doesn’t intend to, Watney risks an unfortunate recapitulation of the same punitive logic which he himself identified as being projected against gay “promiscuity” nearly a decade earlier (Watney 1987). The problem his discussion poses is two-fold. On the one hand, Watney treats suicide as a collective failure taking form in the flawed agency of the bereaved but, nonetheless, irresponsible individual. This treatment means that he sees little value in the discourses either of spiritualized mourning or of “self-deliverance” that HIV/AIDS and gay communities had learned to articulate, clearly without much recourse and not in isolation from political action, in the earlier years of the pandemic.

For example, Watney describes as “appalling” a poem, delivered at a number of memorial services he attended, which invokes the proximity of the deceased loved one (166). Watney sees the sequential repetition of this poem at memorials as a regression away from a more direct political articulation. I see no reason why the faithful need refrain from keeping the deceased “nearby” in favor of a political action distinct from mourning. It seems to me that precisely for those who have died and for those who will die, political action must be waged.

But in addition, Watney suggests what he sees as more specifically queer structures of mourning: Barbra Streisand songs at funerals, or shop window displays, for example, honoring beloved figures such as Derek Jarman. But how could any of these possibly relieve the physical symptoms that Daniel Jones suffered? How would such displays retract Jones’ accumulated experience of abandonment—especially in a suburban megalopolis where shop windows may not much be seen? Mourning and activism themselves are articulations of the queer experience of law and medicine during AIDS—they are not exterior to law and medicine. Further, mourning and activism are motivated along with changes in law or medicine on the basis of an earlier event: the body’s falling to violence instead of to care. Here, hope cannot be a singular gesture against this violence and towards care. Hope for care can not be resolutely separated from either mourning or violence given the fallen body which calls for hope.

If the collective articulations of queer hope that Watney, Crimp and Rolston, Roman, or Bordowitz document in relation to mourning, activist graphics, performance, or video do provide resources for fighting AIDS, these instances underplay or reject the enactment of willful and voluntary death precisely because of the problems such death poses for a community whose struggle against marginalization required an understanding of suicide that would strenuously reject it. Historically, historiographically, suicide was a symptom of the very marginalization against which community formation struggles. For this reason, Jones’ death was difficult for gay activists against AIDS to grasp.

However, POZ magazine attributed just such a “queer structure of feeling” to Jones. For in claiming his 1998 death as a defiant gesture against any false sense of security (“the post-AIDS chorus”) provided by the new combination therapies, POZ aligns Janet Jones’ sense of Daniel’s hope that his death would mean something larger with the experience of those like Bordowitz who deployed irony, sarcasm, or mockery to maintain and extend hope against the draining away of the very meanings of personhood. Jones’ death, then, also demonstrates a queer structure of feeling, albeit of a kind that struggles to resist being overcome by a traumatics of loss.

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 eschatology 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 disappearance 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.

Watney’s crucial reminder of the slow-motion nature of AIDS along with Crimp and Rolston, Roman, and Bordowitz’ sense of the fast-motion urgency of artist and activist response to it suggest a crucial problematization of any claim to televisual liveness as adequate to historical depiction. Jones’ death made the impossibility of narrating liveness during HIV/AIDS palpable even as the pandemic continued its biopolitical transformations.

Television uses technologically advanced but not dissimilar means to those developed by cinematic newsreel some 70 years ago to represent history: visual quotation, montage, mise-en-scene, voice-over, direct address. Add to these essentially cinematic rhetorics those of electronic picture-in-picture, tickertape and captions, live compositing, or convergent web-television models, and television’s historicity as a medium is synthetic at best, even when broadcasting “live.” As for the Internet, Daniel Jones lives on in the orders of digital mediation. Reportage and images of the event remain available. The historicity of the Internet as a medium is just beginning to be revealed as a partial, and problematic, “archive” in distinction to broadcast television’s fleeting synthesis of “liveness.”

Yet the synthetic and partial capacities for narrating or recording history on television or the Internet is further breached by the historicity of HIV/AIDS. The ongoing pandemic as an event of biopolitical exclusion from the living remains to be reconciled with the futurity of the pandemic’s corporeal subject. This interruption for the HIV positive body, an interruption between this body’s historicity and its futurity, give the measure of the crisis to which Jones called by playing abandonment against hope. His death can not have expected to re-order a historical depiction of sexual marginalization as a social death, or as suicide. But it is just as important to notice that with his epigrammatic demand for a personal responsibility that was demonstratively off-limits for himself, his own self-deliverance from the biopolitics of HIV/AIDS was also framed as a politicization of the responsibility of the subject.

But the considerations I have presented so far speak only to his statement against HMO’s, and the first two terms of his triple command: “Live free, love safe, or die.” What about the disjunctive imperative through which these terms are joined? And the finality of their co-articulation, demonstrated and confirmed by Jones’ own death? His act exceeded a protest against HMOs, was more than a demanding hope for love as passional care of the positive body. And beyond any specific intents articulated in word or act, Jones’ interruption of television’s mimetic claim to historical “liveness” resulted in the broadcast of something else: another life, a life exposed in its very physicality, a life no less physical for its mediatic dissemination.

I do not mean this last as a formal question. We need to ask: how far in time does Jones’ body stream, to make the pandemic visible? Further, what does his interruption of a synthetic televisual historicity mean in terms of the possible demonstration of, and for, an other life? What does it mean that a man dies, and so marks, through this cleaving of the varying historicities of the electronic media, undeniable affect and presence, event and entity? How is this declamation of the difference of a dying body at odds with television’s moment-to-moment projection of the same in a violent regulatory game? If liveness is finally a device of fiction dependent on all manner of mediatory conditioning weighed against a history of care that so far goes unannounced, what body was it that fell with such immediate force?

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). 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

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.

10. Los Angeles in the world

Will we recognize Daniel Jones when next we see him? The problems of intelligibility, of trauma, of history, of futurity, is considerable. Inspectors of Daniel Jones’ autobiography demanded an identification: sniper, deranged, HIV+. But he fired the gun at his head, destroying his face, leaving his body exposed, inert, and in the open. The human head: creator of form, receiver of phenomenal experience. The face: figure of both public recognition and personal identity. Suggestively, Agamben ([1995] 2000) writes,

“The face is the only location of community, the only possible city.”

The difficulty in recognition here has to do with the logic of abandonment through which we live. We are unable ultimately, given our need to hold on to loss and make it meaningful, finally to differentiate suicide from deliverance, mourning from anguished hope, self-dismissal from defiant anger.

The varying responses to Jones’ death make the contrary communicativity of medial agency clear. Those responses suggest that we would like to make Daniel Jones responsible for this contrary communicativity as a failure of resolution. We would like to take hope in “his” death (our continuing deaths), or to continue to make “him” pay for it (our continuing deaths), or a variant of making him pay, to abandon his act (and our continuing deaths). Instead we should make him responsible for the eventuality of this communicativity’s becoming visible. If Jones received himself in a literally ecstatic exit that cannot know the form of life of which his image remains but from which he has departed, our responses, on the other hand, are uniformly abject because his loss is not for him but for us. The appearance of our abjection, our abandonment, is the symptom of his disturbing disappearance, a disappearance enacted and embodied to say: Bodies meant to be seen and to speak are being destroyed.

This relationship between disturbance and abandonment articulated by a medial agent requires further determination of its communicativity, its place as entity and event. In Jones’ radical critique of HMOs for their harmful effects on public health has to do with the phantasmatic quality of HIV, as Roman observed, to upstage the body. What does this mean within mediatic communication systems?

Sturken (1997) has argued that our narratives about HIV center around the technological representability of the virus in medical contexts, and she points to the resulting catastrophic equation of the virus with the body that harbors it and through whose tissues it is glimpsed. To see the virus

“will reveal its truths, imaging the immune system will reveal how it functions” (231).

Within the regime of medical imaging, the camera, capable of both aerial views and microscopic views, has been historically granted the power to “capture” reality. Inner and outer space become accessible in spite of the fact that the human eye cannot see either of them. The representation of the HIV virus, then, is structured in a conflation between imagery of inner and outer space, of life within the body and the world beyond it. The body itself is featured as the terrain of a battle which marshals space age technologies to hunt out the hiding places of the virus ( 231).

“The microscopic images of the immune system depict a universal, unmarked body, one stripped of gender, race, sexuality, or age—precisely the kinds of differences that have marked bodies in the AIDS pandemic. They let us inside the body as if we have not wrenched past its borders. These images operate with an anchoring context, profoundly distanced form touch, smell, sight, and other everyday bodily functions.”

“Into this ‘sacrosanct’ and distanced landscape comes HIV, which popular graphics and microphotographs depict as visual chaos. [....] In these images the virus looks huge and lethal, as if it would explode if dropped on one of its prongs, which tend to resemble detonators. The coils in the center of the image have prompted some critics to describe it as a ‘grenade’ that would explode if the coil were pulled.” (238)

As medicine goes to war against chaos, the body thus stripped of its identifying features can become confused with the virus, with blame displaced from the virus to the body which the virus attacks (247). This displacement is all the more inevitable given that the diagnostic transparency achieved in medical imaging of HIV is unfortunately not reflected in the therapeutic reach of combination therapies. While reducing the existence of the virus in the patient’s circulatory system, combination therapies currently are unable to eradicate the virus in its “hiding places” in the lymphatic system in which it continues to reproduce.

So, even if the territory to be won might have been his own body, Daniel’s refusal to take up arms is significant. To fight on that terrain is to risk locating himself as enemy ground, both topology and figure of blame. Instead, the ex-Air Force emergency medical technician sets up camp for a last stand on a freeway overpass, invoking a topological view of a vast urbanity only seen in its full expanse from the air, from networks of cameras—a virtual geography of reportage that, as the responses from viewers which I surveyed reveal, is nonetheless well-traveled and much feared. The choice of this locale places a defense of the self against the popular fears of the dangerous outsiders that are believed to be running amok in the city, and so presumably justify the escalating surveillance and militarization of the megalopolis.

Davis’ Ecology of Fear (1998) maps what Davis calls the “scanscape” of Los Angeles, in which new technologies monitor the city’s high-value structures and shut down institutional access to those who are, effectively, non-persons in that environment (366). Davis situates the circulation of high cost high tech surveillance systems into the home market within an urban environment that increasingly fights its battles virtually and remotely. Davis argues that the disavowal and ignorance of the natural environment evinced in the sprawl of Los Angeles coincides with the disavowal of the needs of those who work there. He tracks the representational catastrophes visited upon Los Angeles in fiction and cinema to show that routinely, invading hordes and natural disasters stand in for the violence of exclusion, containment, and neglect by which the environment is destroyed and workers (like Jones) exploited.

He adds the category of fear to a classical sociological model of urban decay which shows L.A.’s simultaneously rich and decayed urban center radiating through zones occupied by workers, and continuing into richer belt cities surrounded by a prison archipelago at the very fringe of the region. Adding in “fear” to the sociological analysis of class and zoning allows Davis to map child molestation free zones, drug free zones, neighborhood watch zones, gang free parks, and prostitution abatement zones to an urban planning scheme that is as much concerned with “riot tectonics” as the protection of corporate headquarters and the privacy of gated cities. Similarly, in the pulp fictions that depict the city, Davis maintains that non-whites, workers, and sexual minorities bear the fictional brunt of the developmental forces that have polluted and overdeveloped the region even as they have sacrificed it to the very dynamics unleashed in that process (364-365).

In The Turner Diaries, Davis, notes, the notorious pulp fiction which inspired Timothy McVeigh, right wing warriors “cripple LAX, blow up freeway overpasses, set the harbor ablaze, and cut the aqueduct” after slaughtering Jews and Blacks (333). Independence Day, Davis argues, ranks America’s top cities in terms of destructive appeal. Aliens first tragically destroy New York, then parodically destroy Los Angeles, which appears as “a caricatured mob of hippies, new agers, and gay men” dancing ecstatically atop a skyscraper as they await vicious aliens (277). Televisuality, what Davis calls a “scanscape,” functions as a relay in Los Angeles’ virtual topography to help provide a popular view of this city as urban chaos. This virtual topography, a phantasmatic one projected in the relative absence of public space, is the locale of Daniel Jones’ autobiography. Jones’ “last stand,” then, staked out a space from which to expose the chaos of HIV within his body to the chaos of the megalopolis outside it. He left his body exposed in a mediatic state of exception to a state of medical emergency—AIDS as corporeal chaos—counterposed against a juridical one—the Los Angeles region as political chaos.

Foucault’s ([1978] 1994) observations on the concept of the disturbed individual, rather than the work on sexuality that informs just about all of the treatments of AIDS and identity discussed above. provide some insights here. It is in neither the medicalization of the homosexual nor the disciplining of the prisoner that the significance of Foucault’s late theory of biopolitics emerges. Rather it is in the regimes that emerge between them:

“[…] Since the great crimes without reason of the early nineteenth century, the debate did not in fact revolve so much around freedom, even though the question was always there. The real problem, the one in effect throughout, was the problem of the dangerous individual. Are there individuals who are intrinsically dangerous? By what signs can they be recognized, and how can one react to their presence? [Contemporary] penal law did not evolve from an ethic of freedom to a science of psychic determinism; rather, it enlarged, organized, and codified the suspicion and the location of dangerous individuals, from the rare and monstrous figure of the monomaniac to the common everyday figure of the degenerate, of the pervert, of the constitutionally unbalanced, of the immature, and so on.”

“It must also be noted that this transformation took place not only from medicine toward law, as through the pressure of rational knowledge on older prescriptive systems; it also operated through a perpetual mechanism of summoning and of interacting between medical or psychological knowledge and the judicial institution” (198- 199).

Foucault’s critique of institutions is accompanied an account of “technologies of subjectivization” through which individual bodies, in relating to the self in terms of social identity, also bind the self and its consciousness to external sovereign power. Foucault’s suggestion that what is distinct about modern state power is its inclusion of the biological life force of the individual within its operations of power. Foucault’s point, of course, is that individualization and political sovereignty operate in a double bind. Techniques of power operate along with those technologies of the self that allow the subject movement, transformation, speech—broadly, for my purposes here, the poesis of the corporeal.

But as many critics have observed, the nature of the way Foucault formulates this double bind that poses difficulties for theorizing cultural memory, collectivity, or community—or autobiography. Kaplan’s “out-law” narratives and Smith and Watson’s interest in “collaborative mediation” are only two theorizations of autobiography that respond to the challenge Foucault posed.

In his critique of Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics, Agamben ([1995] 1998) offers a revision that is useful to this discussion of the mediated, voluntary death of a “disturbed individual” positioned between medicine and law. Agamben points out that Foucault’s analysis of sovereign power concentrates largely on juridical models even while attempting to overthrow them. This concentration makes it difficult to see, even if we grasp conceptually the double bind within which Foucault argues that individuals are caught, that is difficult to identify its (figural or physical) location.

“Where, in the body of power, is the zone of indistinction (or at least, the zone of intersection) at which techniques of individualization and totalizing procedures converge? […] Confronted with the power of the society of the spectacle which is everywhere transforming the political realm today, is it legitimate or even possible to hold subjective technologies and political techniques apart?” (6)

Agamben pursues just this question of the figural location of power, locating it not in the body of the individual but rather in the location of individuals in states of exception: the “camp.” In the camp, a permanent state of exception is established. Life is stripped bare under an absolute sovereignty. Humanity is asserted as a biological condition at most (10). Agamben is thinking here of the concentration camps of Fascist Germany but is prompted in his thought by the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the former Yugoslavia during its dissolution into smaller states. But the camp is not, as the prison or asylum were for Foucault, simply a place of confinement (20).

In opposition to Foucault’s thesis that biopower is a relatively recent mutation achieved in institutional confinements, Agamben places its origins in the founding of the sovereign power of the state to which individuals are bound. Agamben argues that the sovereign power of the Western state was originally established by means of the anterior exemption of the sovereign from the laws which the sovereign will enact (15). (Agamben is careful to note that this exemption continues today. He cites the example of the American constitution which allows impeachment to remove the president from office but which results in no legal punishment in and of itself [103].) In the mirror image of the sovereign who is beyond the law, archaic law allowed the killing of persons who for whatever reason had been sacrificially consigned to the underworld. This person, abandoned to the social order, was no longer of the living, and therefore could be killed (71). The agency of the sovereign, then, is mirrored by the abjection of the subject precisely in terms of their sacred status in relation to the law.

Homo sacer denotes this non-person, as Agamben puts it, this “bare life.” It is a life which becomes exposed to power even as it is “banned” by the state.

“He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable” (28).

If sovereign law is established in a “ban,” the law’s operation operates not in terms of logos but rather in terms of abandonment. Homo sacer is the one who can be killed by those who are subject to the sovereign state, and who themselves are potentially subject to the ban of exclusion which in its most extreme form is the punishment of death (84).

Such citizenship, of course, comes with the privilege of the free man:

“It is as if male citizens had to pay for their participation in political life with an unconditional subjection to a power of death [….]”

Further:

“The sovereign tie is more originary than the tie of the positive rule or of the social pact, but the sovereign tie is in truth only an untying. And what this untying implies and produces—bare life, which dwells in the no-man’s-land between the home and the city—is, from the point of view of sovereignty, the originary political element” (90).

Agamben clarifies elsewhere that what he means by bare life may apply today to a range of “social-juridical identities,” all of which re-code the problematic of bare life in contemporaneity:

“the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman” (Agamben [1993] 2000, 7).

The banned figure should be more generally familiar: Agamben suggests the wolf-man, that is, the man who is indistinguishable from the animal (107). Or he refers to the bandit (183).

“...what is banned is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it.”

It is not difficult to see either Foucault’s prisoner or lunatic in these terms, nor is it difficult to see Jones in these terms—the man taken at first for a sniper, who brought the police and the media out in force, who, according to one Internet respondent, might well have killed himself, but did he have to kill his dog too?

Agamben argues further that instead of either the prison, the clinic, or the madhouse (those institutions through which Foucault tracked the particular epistemic ruptures of modernity), the state of exception which calls our attention to the abandonment of the subject takes another form: the camp. The camp is a “zone of indistinction” where sovereignty abandons bare life, but it belongs to centrally to modernity, not the classical origins of biopolitical being.

The camp, then, 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. The camp of biopolitical modernity, as much as the refugee camp, is just as much to be found in the hospital room where a patient who continues to breathe and whose heart continues to beat, yet whose brain is already dead.

What distinguishes contemporary from classical biopolitics is that the figures tending to this contemporary zone of abandonment are representatives of modern regimes of knowledge, not direct representatives of the state:

“...the physician and the scientist now move in the zone of indistinction once occupied by the sovereign alone” (159).

Between law and medicine, modernity has produced a new homo sacer:

“When natural life is wholly included in the polis—and this much, by now, has already happened, these thresholds [separating life from what is outside it, political life from non-political life] pass […] beyond the dark boundaries separating life from death in order to identify a new living dead man, a new sacred man” (131).

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.

For Agamben, neither the declaration of rights, on the one hand, nor the extension of biologico-scientific principles into the political order can be recognized unless they are understood in the “biopolitical (or thanatopolitical) context” in which modernity has re-established them (123). In this regard, it is important to recall the traumatic masculinity that I have established at work here, above. It is important not to assert Jones either as the “idiot who removed himself from the gene pool” or as a messiah figure who brings hope. As Agamben notes, in the state of exception,

“...it is impossible to distinguish transgression of the law from execution of the law” (57).

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 abandonment as an end to the state of exception, Jones’ life story can be seen, problematically, as autobiography. But the difficulties in taking this life story as autobiography can perhaps be clarified by making the biopolitical, or in Agamben’s alternative term, “thanatopolitical” context explicit here. Jones’ life story, even as it continues to stream on the Internet, can be established not simply as autobiography, but as “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. This short-circuit negates the identity of the receptive male as “sodomite,” as named in the homophobic circulation of the murderous abuse of identity often misnamed masculinity. The carnage that results is the remnant of a particular person, not a universal symbol for bodies suffering AIDS. 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.

Where the media’s scheduled liveness promises continuity and connection, Daniel’s live broadcast operated through the pause—cessation. In forty minutes and a split second the circulation, not the confinement, of the bare life of the human comes into view, and Daniel is delivered. As bare life releasing himself from a state of exception, suicide and self-deliverance are conflated in a traumatic and traumatizing corporeal poesis. With this sight, we were called to imagine any number of ways to love and live which would not demand that the cost of autobiography be the life that performs it. Autobiography enacted, then, incurs a sacrifice, occurs as autothanatography in the sovereign politics of the abandoned. And to recognize this sacrifice, we must learn to read beyond the imperatives of identity, beyond the constitution of selfhood, and into the ways we destroy these.

Daniel’s freeway suicide renders our world understandable in his death. This transmutation of flesh and the world is what George Bataille referred to in the epigraph above:

“The death that delivers me from the world that kills me has enclosed this real world in the unreality of the me that dies.”

No media stunt, no aspirations of celebrity, and nothing, after all, left to chance. In an autobiography of voluntary death and an autothanatography that continues to write his name on the electronic screen, Daniel becomes a constellation aligned over the virtual and physical world of Los Angeles. In inscribing himself into the constellation of our understanding, he changes a mediated ecology of fear into a terrible performance of life. Our world is inscribed in his body.

“Live free, love safe, or die.” These words, on the other hand, describes 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 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.

Notes:

1. The measures taken were concrete and specific, on both the levels of production and distribution. As I mention farther along in my discussion, MSNBC increased the lag between camera capture and television broadcast to ensure greater editorial control over live events. Even more revealing for the scholar, of five local Los Angeles stations I contacted in hopes of obtaining a recording of the broadcast, only one, the local Paramount affiliate, was willing to offer a videotape copy, at a cost of $450.00. All other local affiliates refused to provide research copies of the broadcast, all mentioning that the event had brought them a degree of criticism that they could not afford the further discussion on the issue of Jones’ suicide to which, ostensibly, scholarly research and discussion might lead.

2. The Orange County Register, May 1, 1998, “Freeway Suicide Televised” A1.

3. City News Service, “Suicide,” May 1, 1998.

4. City News Service, “Sniper,” April 30, 1998.

5. Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1998.

6. “Gazette: Death by Bureaucracy. PWA Said HMO Made Him Do It,” POZ Magazine 9/98

7. Orange County Register, “Freeway Suicide Televised,” May 1 1998, A1.

8. City News Service, “Sniper,” 4/30/98.

9. USA Today, May 4, 1998 3D.

10. KCBS Channel 2000, “Talk Back: Does TV News Coverage Go Too Far?” 5/1 –7/98, accessed 6/16/99.

11. See, for example, various treatments in Crimp (1988), Crimp and Rolston (1990), Crimp (2002), Bad Objects Choices (1991), Halperin (1995) , Gever, Grayson, and Paramar (1993), and others. For a pre-AIDS discussion of a similar dynamic linking homophobia and syphilis, see Hockquenghem ([1972] 1996), etc.

12. In California, the legal standard for felony prosecution for passing on the HIV virus through sexual contact is somewhat stricter than elsewhere. But it still turns around requirements of discourse, not individual privacy, since affirmative defense is allowed for consenting adults. According to the ACLU, felony prosecution requires knowledge of one’s own infection, non-disclosure of one’s HIV status to one’s partner, unprotected sex, and intent to infect. American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network, “State Criminal Statues on HIV Transmission,”
http://archive.aclu.org/issues/aids/
ß HIV_criminalization.html
, 6/2000, accessed 8/31/03.

13. Chicago Tribune, “Freeway Suicide Captured on Television,” May 1, 1998, 8.

14. See note 7.

15. NPR, All Things Considered, “L.A. Freeway Suicide Roundtable,” May 1 1998.

16. ABC, Good Morning America, “Suicide on the Freeway,” May 3, 1998.

17. ABC News, Good Morning America May 3 1998, provisional transcript.

18. Howard Rosenberg, “The Russian Roulette of Live News Coverage,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1998, F1.

19. Howard Rosenberg, “Reviving Argument for Televised Executions,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1998 F1.

20. Rosenberg May 2 1998.

21. KCBS Channel 2000, “Talk Back: Does TV News Coverage Go Too Far?” 5/1 –7/98, accessed 6/16/99.

22. Los Angeles Times, “Letters Desk,” May 9 1998 B7.

23. Los Angeles Times, “HMOs Perform Best for the Healthy, Doctors Say,” 7/29/99 A1.

24. Orange County Register, “Victim’s Troubles Prove Confusing to AIDS Activists,” May 2, 1998 A16.

25. Reuters News Service, “Africa Greets a Medicines Pact With Anger and Criticism,” 8/28/03.

26. I do not mean by the term “double pandemic” to connote “The Second Pandemic” of AIDS-based discrimination treated in the videotape of that title produced by Amber Hollibaugh in 1987—1988. For a discussion, see Crimp (1988).

27. Jones’ manipulation of live interrupt coverage falls far from the varying goals centered around “identificatory mimesis” to guide community-specific educational public access television (Freedman 1998, 251) or activist video (Juhasz 1995, 75) as a framework for safer sex education or AIDS advocacy on television.

28. Sabatini’s claims may be weighed against the more rigorously detailed studies of media coverage of terrorist acts. See, for example, Paletz and Schmid, Terrorism and the Media (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992) for a useful collection.

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