1. The general understanding of “contingency” is a likely future event that may or may not occur. Anticipating such events often involves setting in motion a pathway into the future—a contingency plan, as it were—but with understanding that unknown factors can impact (redirect or foreclose) that pathway. Hence contingent action is always a temporary solution laced with uncertainty. This does not mean contingent action is not necessary; quite the contrary. Historical contingencies arise from strong interpretations of anticipated events that require action—events that can lead to cataclysmic destruction, if there is no change in their projected unfolding. Epidemics are one type of historical contingency mandating immediate human intervention pitched at preventing mass deaths in the near future. [return to text]
2. Data structures are particular ways of organizing and storing data in a computer. The form of these structures anticipates how specific data may be accessed and interpreted as information, and they are therefore of interest to media theorists preoccupied with the control and regulation of digital knowledge practices.
3. “The Thought of AIDS” is the title of a recent colloquium at Brown University (April 2013), organized by Jacques Khalip, where scholars convened to discuss the historical and present cultural work to be undertaken thirty years after the first outbreaks: http://news.brown.edu/events/detail/2013/04/05/pthe-thought-aids-humanities-and-epidemicp
4. Some of the panelists creatively hosted an unauthorized panel at Chicago’s Drake hotel as agitprop. I was one of the original panelists invited to present my planned paper for SCMS for this Jump Cut forum. Instead of that piece, however, as I continue to work on a comparative study of epidemic media in the United States, South Africa, and India, I thought it would be more constructive to think about what constitutes timeliness in scholarship.
6. How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France, 120 minutes) and United in Anger (dir. Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, 93 minutes) are feature-length documentaries, both appearing in 2012 and making a splash as prize-winning audiovisual documents of the mobilization around HIV/AIDS in the United States. Interspersing talking heads with footage of the high crisis years, the films mourn those who passed and celebrate the successes of that political moment. How to Survive a Plague draws from 700 hours of footage on ACT UP actions, while United in Anger features excerpts from the insightful interviews drawn from ACT UP’s Oral History Project. Appearing a year later, Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood (2013, 87 minutes) celebrates another struggle—for cheap generic anti-retrovirals—on a global scale. Shot on four continents, the documentary features luminaries such as Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton alongside actors from numerous campaigns and coalitions.
7. I choose these texts as placeholders for the many writings on the AIDS crisis in the United States at the current juncture. In If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (U Minnesota, 2011), Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed argue that the collective trauma of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. effectively recast the sexual revolution (and with it, gay pasts) as “a dangerous form of immaturity.” They caution against the temporal isolation of younger gays and lesbians from the generation hit hardest by the onset of AIDS. As such, this work represents efforts to rethink the meaning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the vantage point of queer historiographies. In contrast, Deborah Gould’s monumental ethnography (Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, U Chicago P, 2009) represents the many local histories of the epidemic that are being penned in the second decade of the 21stC. The book archives the internal negotiations and the public actions of ACT UP Chicago, formed shortly after the 1987 mobilization of ACT UP in New York City. She emphasizes the radical work of emotion—“rage, anger, indignation, hope, pride, and solidarity” as well as “fear, shame, embarrassment, overwhelmedness, desperation, and despair”—in holding open a political horizon to easily foreclosed by normalizing agendas (such as gay marriage or “don’t ask, don’t tell”).
8. More on the exhibit can be found on theVisual AIDS website (www.visualaids.org); at present, reviews of the show are available at http://www.visualaids.org/projects/detail/not-over-25-years-of-visual-aids - .Uj3PXxYTHFI
9. Statistically, high epidemiological crises show new disease incidence and deaths outrunning disease prevalence curves: that is, more people are infected or dying than the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. Experientially, people live through periods heightened precarity in which there is no affordable long-term treatment or cure. “High crisis,” then, suggests both the quantitative qualitative threshold in the intensity of the epidemic.
I track a few high crisis pockets in my book, The Virus Touch: Living with Epidemics. For example, the political emergency in Manipur, a tiny state in northeastern India (the site of one of my ethnographies) has ensured the constant disruption of anti-retroviral therapy shipments into the state. Such disruption has engendered immunological resistance to some of the life-saving drugs, bringing home the fact that one cannot depend only on the pharmacological fix. Instead, grassroots organizations have launched multi-pronged health strategies (diet, hygiene, exercise, transportation to the clinics, etc.) that reinforce immunological, endocrinal, and neurological capacities against the ravages of the virus. Such crisis scenarios are not anomalies, indicating the uneven and striated landscape of global AIDS.
10. See, Jacob Bernstein’s “Surviving AIDS, but Not the Life That Followed,” The New York Times, February 22, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/fashion/what-really-killed-spencer-cox-aids-activist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)
11. Pushing beyond the salience of deliberative processes—reflecting, discussing, and arbitrating matters of public concern—to democratic consensus, in recent years, several social and political theorists have emphasized the cultural work of emotion and (what may sometimes seem) unreasonable action as good progressive politics. For those with little access to media platforms, for example, burning an effigy as public protest is a mode of expressing dissent, for becoming a part of history; and for those who have lost dear ones to social neglect, as was the case in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, acting out their grief and anger is sound strategy for mobilizing a different kind of public sphere.
12. The ecologist, Eric Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene,” while the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist famous for his thesis on the hole in the ozone layer, Paul Crutzen popularized it (see, Paul Crutzen, and Eric Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41: 17–18). There is some debate over the timescale of the anthropocene, ranging anywhere from the last 250 years (post-Industrial Revolution) to the last ~5000 years (William Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, Princeton UP, 2005).
13. The “human microbiome” is the total genomic makeup of diverse microorganisms that live in the human body. The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) launched in 2008 is the new “big science” initiative generating the same degree of excitement within scientific communities as the international Human Genome Project did a decade ago. A collaboration between the National Institutes for Health in the United States and the European Commission, the HMP plans to sequence approximately 900 microbial genomes of bacteria, viruses, and fungi from samples collected from specific sites of the human body (the digestive tract, the mouth, the skin, the nose, and the vagina), first from healthy volunteers and, later, from humans with specific illnesses; the European Commission’s MetaHIT (Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract Project) specializes exclusively on the microbiome for the human gut. At the 2012 meeting of the HMP’s international consortium, researchers presented the positive correlation between high biodiversity of microbes in the human body and the condition of good health. Clearly those invisible microbes feared as “our” worst enemies are proving to be eminently beneficial, even necessary, to human survival. See, Ed Young, “Microbiome sequencing offers hope for diagnostics,” Nature (23 March 2012) and Michael Balter’s “International Human Microbe Program Looks Ahead,” Science Magazine (March 22, 2012).
14. A bit of nucleic acid with no cell walls and a protein coat, the virus is seen to be a pre-LUCA survivor with primitive RNA that has managed to stay alive through latching on to hosts for 4 billion years. LUCA is the “last universal cell ancestor,” a pre-DNA cellular form. Scientists note that, as an obligate parasite, it is not in the interest of the virus to kill the host; if it does, it will lose its resources. Hence, if anything, the virus exemplifies a mode of living-in-obligation. Even the most pathogenic viruses ultimately strive toward a symbiotic relationship—a mutually beneficial biological partnership—with the host. Such a will to symbiosis, argue, evolutionary biologists, is the best option for survival.
15. “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, edited Douglas Crimp, October 43, Winter 1987.
16. “Viral,” edited Patricia Clough and Jasbir Puar, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Volume 40, Numbers 1-2 Spring/Summer 2012 (http://www.feministpress.org/books/viral).
17. The pharmacological turn arrives with a change in focus from human (livehoods, medical care, homes) to health security. Scholarship on health security follows Michel Foucault’s articulation of security as a distinct modality of power. In Security, Territory, Population 1977-78 (appearing as the Collège de France Lectures, 2007) Foucault distinguishes a third mode of power—distinct from sovereign juridical power that punishes or kills (through fines, imprisonment, execution) and disciplinary power that surveys, observes, and corrects (organizing bodies and minds in schools, churches, or families)—that calculates and intervenes in the vital circulations of human life. The locus of this third kind of power is not this subject of law or that docile body, but our very biological existence.
Following Foucault, Stefan Elbe argues that all three modes of power articulate together around the problem of “emerging diseases,” the moving target for the predictive calculus of health risk. Emerging diseases are obvious targets of national security: of military preoccupations with protecting soldiers, civilian populations, and sovereign territories that mandate containment (eradication, blockage, and inhibition). But they also threaten human security in laying waste individual lives and livelihoods. So they further motivate governmental and non-governmental humanitarian disciplining of behaviors, habits, and lifestyles so as to ensure a productive citizenry. Working alongside these two modes, health security regulates vital circulations, statistically quantifying populations into risk groups (the children, the elderly) and promoting pharmacological intervention.
See, Stefan Elbe’s Virus Alert: Security, Governmentality and the AIDS Pandemic (Columbia UP, 2009), as well as Melinda Cooper’s Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (U Washington P, 2008) and Andrew Lakoff and Stephen J.Collier on biosecurity in their introduction to Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question (Columbia UP, 2008).
18. The fact that the “life-saving drugs” are inaccessible in resource-poor countries has made public discussions of the problems associated with long-term HIV management a secondary issue in those contexts. The result has been an “anti-retroviral globalism”that focuses on the introduction of drugs, but does not invest resources in chronic management of the consequences that follow. See, Vinh-Kim Nyugen, “Antiretroviral Globalism, Biopolitics, and Therapeutic Citizenship,” in Aihwa Ong & Stephen Collier eds., Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 124-144.
19. The scienticization of human experience and its underlying technoscientific rationality is the subject of Ulrich Beck’s (1986) work, The Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1992). Indeed, in his view, most people living in societies organized around risk respond to risk every day, be it in the habitual popping of pills or in the following of travel advisories. Even as risk discourses fuel anxiety, paranoia, and global panic, we turn to the probabilistic sciences and mathematical tools to manage and tame the threat of uncertainty.
20. Marsha Rosengarten, HIV Interventions: Biomedicine and the Traffic between Information and Flesh (In Vivo: The Cultural Mediations of Biomedical Science), University of Washington Press, 2009.
21. We know that HIV was globally resurgent as early as 1971, but it would take around two decades for the notion of pandemic—a swiftly spreading epidemic uncontainable to localized territories such as towns, cities, or nation-states—to become the central focus of organizing around HIV/AIDS. The 1992 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam was the first to announce a global agenda: the theme that year was “a world United Against AIDS” (8000 participants).
22. By “pandemic media” I mean modular media that are at once standardized and portable, originating in one context but transposable and but localizable to another. Media campaigns organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Global AIDS outreach media, and so on exemplify managerial risk media that aspire toward one strategy for HIV emergence everywhere. Thus we are witnessing the rise of a new breed of public health ventures that materialize the aggregative logic of probability—what happens in one instance will occur in the same way elsewhere. Such standardization of media activism calls for comparative studies that refuse an all-too provincial focus on a particular global region or an all-too synthetic tracking of global networks.
My present monograph, The Virus Touch: Living with Epidemics, attempts such a study, constellating HIV/AIDS “epidemic media” from the United States, India, and South Africa. The idea is to attend to the multiple praxes that complicate the global as one spatiotemporal plane.
23. The two PBS-funded documentaries, The Age of AIDS (2006, Frontline, Season 24, Episode 7, 240 minutes) and A Closer Walk (2003, dir. Robert Bilheimer, 85 minutes, narrated by Glenn Close & Will Smith) and the HBO-funded series Pandemic: Facing AIDS (2002, 42 minutes, narrated Elton John), for instance, allots equal time to a number of situations, formalizing equivalence between the selected palette of “real life stories," even a classic voice-of-God documentary narration yokes the spectator to an empathetic but “objective” witness. Periodic inter-titles/sub-titles recounting pandemic facts and figures manage contextual differences, bringing them into the statistical reason of percentage and fraction. Such documentaries are effective pandemic media in which testimony is private confession within the larger liberal spectacle of distant suffering.
24. Bila Kapita, Chief of Internal Medicine in Kinshasa, Zaire, one of the first public figures to talk openly about HIV/AIDS as a the serious problem in the African region. He delivered an opening lecture at the 1986 convention (the other was delivered by Luc Montagnier). Kapita was consequently sentenced to jail for his disclosure upon his return to Kinshasa, but the arrest was prevented through international diplomatic interventions.