2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
Ghosts caught in our throat: of the lack of contemporary representations of gay/bisexual men and HIV
by David Oscar Harvey
He’s been pretty much yellow
And I’ve been kind of blue
And all I can see is red, red, red
Now what am I going to do.
—Fiona Apple, “Red Red Red”
A ghost, of course, haunts. A haunting instills a troublesome impression of its presence. Any verification of the ghost is dubious at best. It is intuited or felt, more so than it is conventionally perceived. It is there, or so it seems, while remaining undetectable. And so it is that HIV/AIDS—for me, but I imagine for others as well—is somewhat ghostly. Epidemiologically, I am HIV positive. I have it. And yet, in a way, I do not, as the good fortune of contemporary anti-retroviral treatment has rendered the virus undetectable in my blood. While not vanquished altogether, its presence is dramatically reduced, which also curbs the likelihood that I might transmit HIV to others. Within undetectability, Nathan Lee has identified a new variety of HIV status, one beyond HIV positive and HIV negative, he calls it
“an elusive third term…signifying a presence that is absent….[that] occupies an indeterminate space.” [open endnotes in new window]
Nested within the semantics of the undetectable is a nod towards its strange present-absence not only within bodies, but also within our daily conversations and cultural productions.
In the United States today one rarely hears mutterings of HIV/AIDS. HIV activist and author of the blog “My Fabulous Disease” Mark King recently composed a video blog in which he attended a national convention for LGBT journalists. King reported that mention of HIV did occasionally surface, yet it only did so incidentally and within forums and conversations dedicated to a number of other topics. In his interviews with other LGBT journalists, King discovered his colleagues taxed by an admixture of “beats” that have ushered HIV/AIDS to the sidelines, though rates of HIV/AIDS infection remain steady for men who have sex with men.
This silence also reflects the ghosts of ongoing forces of homophobia and racism that continue to accompany the contemporary persistence of HIV. In spite of rising infection rates that mirror the poverty and racism faced by black communities in the United States, mainstream black media also maintains a reserved focus on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. An important exception to this trend is End Game: AIDS in Black America a 2012 documentary that aired as a part of PBS’ series Frontline. End Game is remarkable in its concentration on the present dimensions of the epidemic. A recent crop of recent U.S. documentaries focused on the many roles played by the gay community during the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. We are lucky to have these films, but they are grounded in the past to such an extent it’s almost as if HIV/AIDS were over.
To be fair, the documentaries were made by a generation about themselves, about the stories surrounding and engulfing them, their environment. So, it’s my generation’s responsibility to do as the aforementioned filmmakers have done—get to work representing ourselves and the dimensions of HIV in the United States today. Yet, what might these representations look like? Today, the bodies that carry the virus, do not, after a period of gestation, noticeably surrender to its ravages. And so, how do we represent ourselves caught between the polarities of perception: the visible and invisible, as ghostly?
In addition to inspiring crises of perception, ghosts challenge common engagements with temporality. They are former beings, now gone, who continue to reside in our present reality, oftentimes as a disturbance. Like trauma, ghosts are a temporal hiccup, something grounded in the past that recurs in the present due to a lack of resolution. HIV/AIDS is unique in that unlike other historical traumas, say the Holocaust or the Vietnam War, it is not over. But if it is still here, why does it seem ghostly and undetectable? I will argue that it is a matter of representation, a matter that comprises not only a politics surrounding HIV/AIDS but also fabricates the very material of the epidemic itself.
In a foundational essay Douglas Crimp asserted,
“AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it and respond to it.”
Hence, if representations of HIV positive persons are minimal, how might our culture conceptualize sero-posivity or sero-negativity today? Conrad Ryan’s experimental film Things are Different Now (2012) implicitly asked this question. In the film, Ryan confessed in a throaty drawl,
“Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about dying. As a young faggot, I knew I was gonna die of AIDS, ‘cuz, you know, that’s what’s faggots did. But things are different now…”
The film articulated the difference, but never described or affirmed it. While the viewer might understand the titular difference of “now” as one of successful medical interventions and life, the optimism due this happy development is totally lacking from the film. Instead the film, a meditation upon death and legacies of historical trauma, is rather gloomy.
Remarking upon his inability to fathom gay life of the 1980s and 90s in the crosshairs of an epidemic, Ryan stated,
“I’m haunted by an entire generation of ghosts…all these would-be friends.”
Though he was alive for much of its duration, Ryan did not experience the AIDS crisis as a part of the communities that it decimated. His epistemological vantage point if one from afar and better described as AIDS awareness, rather than a knowledge. It is present yet incomplete and because of these failures of coherency, it is recurrent and similar to a trauma. Things are Different Now finally complicates what the film’s title quite simply states: that HIV/AIDS is something other than it was before. Given Ryan’s pained return to notions of AIDS that are thick with loss, to what extent can we claim that the epidemic, or more specifically Ryan’s experience of it, has been drastically reconfigured?
HIV is not a ghost. It is in me and millions of others, becoming within and modifying us by processes both epidemiological and semiotic. These are facts, solid things, whose truths would be abetted by corresponding representations of being HIV positive today. I am interested in representations of HIV-positive people not as sick, dead or dying, and not implicitly or explicitly linked to the past era of crisis, but alive, well, and here in the present. Specifically, I track representations of HIV positive gay men in the United States. Reasons for this are not without elements of narcissism. My own HIV-status becomes tangled in the texts I research and it is inextricably a co-factor that fabricates HIV/AIDS into my manner of its articulation. As such, swatches of autobiography recur throughout my piece and a ruminative essayistic style predominates. Still, while I am granted the privilege of personhood—of being both gay and HIV-positive—the equation of these two terms is dangerously axiomatic and serves to perpetuate the notion of gay identity as toxic. Yet, the turn away from representations of gay men with HIV reflect that the epidemic no longer has such a stranglehold on gay lives and culture, but also an inability or unwillingness to identify with something, both a virus and an ongoing event, undeniably constitutive of gay identity.
Though I hone in on the representational paucity of HIV-positive gay men in the United States, I believe this will towards representation is felt by many people living with the virus regardless of identity or location and oftentimes in circumstances of outright censorship in addition to societal indifference. Indeed, though the past repertoire of images of gay men with HIV may no longer reflect our present circumstances, this history may in some ways mollify each newly diagnosed gay men’s self-acceptance of his sero-positive status. Sero-positive heterosexual men and women arguably do not have similar repertoires of images and because of his their journies of acceptances, both within themselves and within their cultures and communities, may be comparably more trying.
Other markers of identity, such as class, race, nationality and religion, also come into play, further assuring the distinctive character of each HIV-positive person’s engagement with their condition. In addition to the autobiographic inflection of my essay, my decision to concentrate on HIV-positive men in the United States is borne of precisely such an awareness and the concordant desire not to over-generalize—though of course narrowing in on any subset of the population, no matter how specific, bears the risk of type-casting and stereotyping. The HIV epidemic is individual and local, a semiotic drifter, seldom able to offer the comforts of settling down. Quite likely there are gay HIV-positive men who would disagree with the arguments I put forward, just as I hope it is the case that there are HIV-positive individuals neither gay, nor male, nor American who will find much in what follows with which to relate.
Herein, I emphasize and even dwell upon the cultural drought experienced by people with HIV/AIDS, as it progresses medically and epidemiologically but lags behind in the manner by which we fabricate its meanings and build an identity around and with it. Of course, wishing for representation alone is inadequate to any project of social redress. The nature of these representation matters very much. Left wanting, I imagine what these might be.
In March 2012, I noticed that not a single paper was presented on HIV/AIDS at the Cinema and Media Studies Society’s annual conference. Granted, I myself was not giving a paper on HIV/ AIDS. Yet, how can it be that at a conference that stages hundreds upon hundreds of talks, ones that touch upon seemingly every topic and text encompassed by film and media studies, none concerned themselves with HIV/AIDS? Distressing though not surprising, the absence of discourse on HIV/AIDS at the conference was yet another iteration of our culture’s indifference to the current problems surrounding the epidemic. And while the academy, perhaps particularly the liberal arts and humanities, can be counted upon for their attention to a number of mostly overlooked topics, HIV, as noted by Gregory Tomso in a recent article, is not one of them.
Emboldened by my obsessive knowledge about the HIV/AIDS activism of yesterday as well as a variety of do-it-yourself world-making at the heart of so much documentary filmmaking and theory, I decided I would do something about the silence. Good fortune has awarded me the friendship and unofficial mentoring of Alexandra Juhasz and if anyone could assist me in realizing my goal it is was Alex. Committing to a project in-utero with a matter-of-factness and instantaneity that reassured my purpose, Alex suggested that we propose a workshop that would explore relations between HIV/AIDS and film and media studies today. We conceptualized the parameters of the workshop broadly, calling upon pedagogy, activism and cultural production as touchstones, so as to inspire a conversation that was optimally inclusive and promiscuous in terms of its potential material.
We assembled a dream team as our panelists. I was stupefied to be included within such a group, much less to serve, with Alex, as its co-chair. After collaborating on the dimensions of the proposal, we sent it off. Given the variety and accomplishments of our collective, I imagined the workshop’s eventual acceptance as a given. We were rejected. With the combined heft of our cooperative’s achievements and influence, our rejection suggested that the academic concerns we chose to bring to the table did not interest the professional society to which we belonged.
Alex, tenacious and fabulous, wasn’t having it. With Marty Fink, myself, and Alex as our shepherd, we three staged a coup and held an unauthorized workshop in a public space during one of the conference’s lunch breaks. Being officially sanctioned yet present makes for a hectic occupancy, and the results of this can be witnessed by the video we captured of our event, available through our tumblr (www.unauthorizedscms.tumblr.com ).We hadn’t the space in a noise-free room to be heard with lucidity. What was important and, I think, moving is our attempt nevertheless.
After all, silence equals death. This reminder, coined and put to brilliant service by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) served as a call to arms that assembled the AIDS movement. The forceful noise that contravened the silence then has faded. This is not to say HIV/AIDS is gone, only its corresponding movement. The event we staged at the SCMS conference as well as our writings here in Jump Cut intend to trouble the current stasis. Though the large majority of HIV positive persons in United States are no longer dying, we remain burdened by many obstacles particular to HIV/AIDS. Perhaps our present circumstances do not merit the ruckus of protest or the impassioned death knells of a previous generation. Yet I am conjuring a register of noise, ultimately of presence, between screams of bloody murder and the quietude of resolution.
My friends on Facebook have lately taken to describing problems of minor consequence and minimal inconvenience as “First World problems.” Being snubbed by an academic conference may well merit inclusion within such a dismissal, though the apathy it suggests potentially opens upon a network of other concerns. I agree that HIV/AIDS activists in other parts of the globe have dilemmas more pressing than public indifference. Yet despite my position of relative of privilege, the problem and politics of representing HIV/AIDS are also of pressing concern for activists worldwide. Representational issues are still crucial.
It is the will towards just representation that has led a trans-national network of persons to found Steps for the Future, a program that funds, distributes and exhibits short films about varied aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan African communities produced by local filmmakers and artists. On the local specificity of the films produced by Steps for the Future, one of the project’s founders Don Edkins states,
“It’s about ‘here’ and ‘us’ that the films had to be made.”
Edkins reminds us that one must be cautious in forging connections between HIV/AIDS, in terms of representation and otherwise, within Africa and U.S. contexts. Yet the need for representation, across localities, identities and temporalities, is one commonly, urgently needed in order to assure that HIV/AIDS isn’t thought of as a static event with one homogeneous meaning.
The slogan “silence equals death” implicitly argues that a tree falling in an unpopulated forest makes no sound. Taking up a similar dilemma and seemingly offering a respite from its multifold difficulties, Andre Bazin famously wrote,
“all are agreed that the image helps us remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.”
Though the first metaphor makes recourse to sound (silence) and the second vision (photography), both rely upon a dynamic between existence and perception or recognition. Bazin implies that death first means a departure from the world by our spirit’s leaving the body, yet photography allows the spirit a secondary life. Bazin characterized this secondary life as vicarious soul that was re/animated by the remembrances afforded within another person’s look. Photography, Bazin’s Lazarus, seemed to him to have ontological capacities to resurrect the dead.
However, if we frame HIV/AIDS mostly in the terms of the dead, salvaging them from their secondary demise, we absent the epidemic from its present life, freezing it in a discourse of death and illness. In terms of the semiotic dimensions of HIV/AIDS, stasis as well as silence may both prove deleterious, if not deadly. For those of us now living with the virus, we may have the primacy, in Bazin’s terms, of life lived, but we still lack the secondary existence of social recognition. In fact, recognition of one’s selfhood is often conferred through identifications with the other, with community. Lacking this dialectic of conferred similitude, the subject is made to feel disjointed, alone, and even abject. Hence, the HIV positive subject today is potentially confused (about one’s self) and confusing (for others).
The absence of HIV positive representations today bestows upon us two types of death, both associative in nature. The first variety, of the silence equals death ilk, stems from our virtual exclusion in the field of representation and our associative poverty. The second is borne of the manner by which we link ourselves onto those representations available, ones that are not exactly of us and that are articulated in terms of a crisis that we do not experience in our everyday lives. While HIV/AIDS and its prospects have gotten better, these improvements are chiefly medical and epidemiological. Our field of representation, within the culture’s repertoire of images, has failed adequately to incorporate these changes. Culturally unaccounted for or misrecognized by anachronistic characterizations, we the HIV positive experience ourselves as befuddled, somehow off, and ghostly.
Within the past few years, very few publications within the humanities have engaged issues of HIV/AIDS and representation in the context of gay men in the United States. One that does, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image by Roger Hallas, should be applauded for its astute concentration upon a subject that has long fallen out of fashion. I have learned a lot from Hallas. And though I agree with many of his arguments, I worry over his approach that looks at HIV/AIDS today from a past vantage point and is framed by a discourse of crisis. Hallas is not alone in his methodology. The scholarship on HIV/AIDS and its representation that we do have remains nearly universal in referring to and re-producing the epidemic in its past traumatic form.
With theory drawn from trauma studies, Hallas argues that the corpus of films he discusses, mostly experimental documentaries, have self-consciously confronted the ethical and semiotic dilemma of bearing witness to AIDS. In arguing for the present relevance of work that engages films of the past, Hallas rightly makes note of a rampant moralism still dogging contemporary representations of gay men and HIV. To counter that moralism, he calls for a return to the legacy of queer AIDS media from the crisis era. With this I cannot agree. Grappling with representation under the hammer of approaching death is by-and-large not our reality. If we need to reframe representations of HIV/AIDS today, apart from anything else it is first and foremost against this very trope. We have a ghost caught in our throats and it is due a clearing.
Then and now
We cannot seem to articulate or envision HIV without harkening back to its past and to previous incarnations of failing immune responses and mortality. Take, for example, an episode of a contemporary ABC family drama Brothers and Sisters. In the episode “The Road Ahead,” which aired in May 2009, Saul, a gay man in his sixties, discovers he is HIV-positive. With his hearing aid and crotchety demeanor, Saul is marked by the show as an “old-timer,” a demographic further underscored by way of contrast with the show’s other, more central gay characters, Kevin and Scotty. These characters are partners who are expecting a child by way of surrogacy and are situated comfortably within the younger and current generation of gay men.
When Saul is painfully grappling with his promiscuous past and trying to make sense of his diagnosis, he eventually blames his situation on a lack of role models. Brothers and Sisters then seemingly rights this wrong by instilling “positive images” of HIV negative men who are family minded and endorse normative values such as monogamy. Indeed, television today has no shortage of married or civilly unionized gay men dreaming of, expecting, or having babies. Modern Famiy and The New Normal, with titles that simultaneously function as warning and self-congratulation, are the most obvious examples. Taking a different perspective in her astute analysis of “The Road Home,” Melanie Kohnen praises Brothers & Sisters as something of a pleasant surprise—a network drama dealing with the now unfashionable topic of HIV/AIDS in the LGBT community, Yet, Kohen ultimately faults the show and identifies it as in concert
“with a normalizing discourse that advocated couples like Kevin and Scotty as representatives of a new way of gay life. [Meanwhile,] queer identifications and practices that fell outside of this norm became reprehensible reminders of a past that gays and lesbians should leave behind….[Brothers and Sisters] relies too extensively on a model of queer visibility centered on normative visions of generational and historical difference to challenge televisual tropes of gay men living with HIV/AIDS.”
As Kohnen helped remind us, representations of HIV/AIDS within the gay community never enjoyed a gilded age wherein our image was recast in a great many of incarnations, in sickness and in health, across a field of identities, and always with respect. No, these representations, especially in the mainstream, acted as morality fables that depict gay men as suffering as a consequence of bad behavior.
My contention that there are no longer adequate representations of gay men and HIV/AIDS is perhaps paradoxical. For, if I am decrying the previous representations for their rampant moralism, lack of humanity and, penchant for exploitation, what issues can I possibly have when networks abandon these strategies? Those of us who were once social outcasts are now being offered a degree of screen time. Yet, perhaps even more than the particular identity construct of the homosexual, what’s displayed in his or her representation is the neoliberal logic of incorporation and, ultimately, assimilation. Such an appearance is largely motivated by a neoliberal project that maximizes its potential by imagining its reach in the most liberal of terms. Hence, homosexuals are trotted out, but with at least one condition: “No AIDS.”
Now and then
In summer 2010, Alexandra Juhasz published an article in Jump Cut. In it, she lays out a three-phase periodization of AIDS video work, a genre of texts that she both studied and produced. The first stage, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, marked the birth of the AIDS movement and its corresponding works of video activism. The second, occurring in the mid 1990s, was an ambivalent one. The works of videos and their creators achieved a degree of success, but the accolades were frustrated as AIDS continued killing the artists and their friends. Within the third stage, beginning in the late 1990s and arguably still holding court, AIDS related deaths have abated due to anti-retroviral treatments. Video work now concerned itself with remembrance and memoriam. Juhasz categorized the period “as a time for healing and history.”
From all I knew of AIDS, art, and activism, Juhasz’s summarization was dead-on. Still, it left me wanting. “Shouldn’t there be a fourth period,” I wondered. “One that concerns itself with the present dimensions of living with HIV?” So I went and asked Alex, who told me something I already knew quite intimately—that AIDS activism was dead, that there was no fourth stage, that these works did not exist, at least not in any number significant enough to found a category.
Coincidentally, at that very moment, I was finishing an experimental documentary, a video essay, on Iowa and HIV criminalization, Red Red Red. The majority of states within the U.S. possess laws specific to HIV and its potential transmission. Iowa, the state I then lived in and would until 2012, had the most strenuously worded of all these laws. While many of the states included punishing an intention to transmit the virus within their laws and most necessitated that the virus actually be transmitted, Iowa criminalized any sexual act in which an HIV positive person did not disclose their status. In other words, an HIV positive Iowan need not intend to transmit HIV, nor actually do so, to be deemed a felon
By focusing on the present of HIV/AIDS, my video belongs to a fourth stage of work that explores HIV in the 21st century. But Alex was right; a corpus of videos with which Red Red Red would belong, a fourth stage, did not yet exist. And so my video is also about that, about cultural apathy and about personal and representational poverty juxtaposed against nostalgia for previous era and its commanding presence.
Red Red Red gained titular inspiration from Derek Jarman’s last film Blue (1992), a sixty-two minute film that famously contains but one static image of a blue screen. Jarman’s bold choice bears in it many logics. For one, he was going blind and the film’s lack of representation, its absence of images, alludes to the despairing consequences of its creator’s malady. Second, the blue of the film is particularly the blue immortalized by the artist Ives Klein, an artist Jarman admired and hoped to make a film about. Understanding he would not make such a film, Jarman utilizes Blue as an occasion to pay Klein tribute. Finally, and most compellingly for me, the static blue of the film was made as a protest against a cultural warehouse of images that have manufactured AIDS as spectacle. With Blue, Jarman is adamant that he would represent AIDS differently. If AIDS connotes the red of ribbons, of distress, blood and emergency, he gives us blue and its accordant tranquility.
In 2010, I felt as I do now, that the cultural warehouse was vacant. I pined for a return to red and my film calls for it thrice, emphatically. Indeed, the circumstances around HIV criminalization are dire and the situation calls for a rancorous response. Such a response has yet to come and so the tone of the film, like AIDS is Different Now, is melancholic. Moreover, and unlike Ryan’s film, it is cross and bitchy. Though I am happy with my video, as I imagine a fourth stage of work representing HIV in connection with gay men but also otherwise, it is not the stuff of Red Red Red. What I imagine is articulated with less affective and polemical tenacity, less drama. It is quieter, simpler and more in the register of orange or even yellow.
Kind of a big deal
Earlier this year, a glimmer of the fourth stage caught my eye in the form of a public service announcement aired on Logo TV, a gay-themed cable network. Upon first viewing, the PSA nearly dumbfounded me. It seemed almost surreal. Foreign to me had been representations that confronted HIV and gay sexuality with a sober rationality and a comedic finesse that wore minimal traces of anxiety or doom. The PSA was one of six created by Jeff Twitty, the author of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q, and “starred” three of his characters from that production, all puppets. In a press release announcing the ads, Amy Wigler, a marketing executive at Logo TV, stated:
“These ‘puppet service announcements' address issues surrounding infection including frequency of testing, anonymous sex, stigma, open communication and more…It is the goal of this partnership to reignite a discussion around HIV, especially in the gay community -- a population that is still seeing HIV rates rising in spite of increased awareness and education.”
The first PSA is a one-minute scenario in which the puppets/characters Rod and Ricky are on their first date. Both men wished to escalate their encounter towards sex, but are unsure if the other feels similarly. Upon Ricky’s disclosure of his HIV status, Rod is relieved. He fears an admission of Ricky’s romantic disinterest as he attests to his own lack of hang-ups with HIV, though he understands many men have them. Meanwhile, to control HIV, Ricky has received anti-retroviral treatment, which with safer sex further decreases the chances of infecting others. Finally, Lucy the Slut encourages viewers to speak openly with sexual partners about HIV, before concluding, “spread the word, not the virus.”
Another lengthier episode, clocking in at two minutes, self-reflectively takes place on set as Ricky and Rod are filming the first episode. This second installment acknowledges that real life acts of disclosure are likely more complicated than the idealized version imagined in the first. Yet, having made such an acknowledgement by way of Ricky’s redoubled hesitancy to disclose, the second ad ultimately mimics, in Rod’s instantaneous acceptance, the logic of the first. Transmission of the virus is represented as preventable, while alternative logics are sidelined by a straight-forward embrace of facts: Safer sex and anti-retroviral treatment alone and especially in concert decidedly minimize risks of infection Furthermore, the reference to treatment represents HIV itself as a manageable condition.
The PSA’s slogan “HIV: Spread the Sign, Not the Virus” rallies viewers around not only issues of HIV transmission but also around dismanteling its stigma. Between the two terms, transmission and stigma, the slogan implies a causal relationship. In today’s climate, silence may no longer be death, but it does yield false impressions and misinformation. The ghost caught in throats of HIV-positive people can foster a disavowal of our status. Speech and representation are a recursive remedy for the silences of HIV. In speaking himself, for instance in the avowal, “I am HIV-positive,” the subject bears the very real risk of being misheard and framed by discourses that judge and greatly exaggerate. The tendency to falsify is apparent in the colloquial propensity to conflate HIV and AIDS. For many, these terms are used interchangeably, though AIDS stands in for HIV far more often than HIV does for AIDS. To have AIDS is to be sick. To have HIV is to be well, if under certain conditions. HIV and AIDS are vastly different and always have been, though perhaps especially today.
Spreading the sign of HIV freely, if absented of false notions and panicked affect, can curb infection. Should HIV positive people expect news of their disclosure to be received as Rod receives Ricky’s news, we would make such avowals far more often and freely. Once known, people can then make more informed decisions regarding risk and circumnavigating HIV infection. Stigma and fear also prohibit many people who have engaged in unsafe activity from getting tested. Should healthcare be an option for the newly HIV-positive person, they can commence treatment, which minimizes the chance of infecting others. Fear and stigma encourage infection. They stymie one’s self-identification as HIV-positive, just as they obstruct the creation of the safe spaces and candor needed to comfortably discuss HIV. While I could not agree that HIV/AIDS is “no big deal,” I am confident that today it is not quite as big of a deal as we so often make of it. Indeed, absenting it of dramatics, we can begin to better deal with HIV.
Though I believe in its logic, my recourse to prevention tactics is somewhat put upon. My longing for the fourth stage is not rooted in these terms. This is not to say that I wish for the proliferation of the virus; the case is quite the opposite. Yet what I desire more truly, perhaps in a primordial sense, is to regard an image that I, HIV-positive, finally identify with, recognize, and dance before with jubilation. I long for recognition as an experience, indeed as experiences available in numbers adequately significant to found a sort of collective: a fourth stage.
My dream is ever challenged by an awareness of something sentimental and quixotic about it, but it is threatened far more concretely in remembering Wendy Brown and her theorizations of identity. Brown posits identity as a defensive reaction against injury. We experience obstacles, criticism and difficulties in life deeply. Should these troubles result from something about us that others view negatively, this attribute is endowed with a special significance. Meanwhile, should the attribute be present in others, a community of those with that attribute may be built so as to cope more ably with the pains of difference. This, in the barest of terms, is how Brown imagines identity construction.
Before such a manner of thinking, the fourth stage seems unlikely. If identities commence through empathy and recognition of another’s plight as like that of one’s own, how might a demonstrable identity around an HIV-positive serostatus be instilled if such a diagnosis now entails less hardship than it had previously. I find myself in a rhetorical bind, perhaps even a paradox. In answer to this and in conclusion, I can offer little closure. Still, having HIV is far from easy. Its troubles with representation are but one of many. The depictions currently available most often look back at HIV/AIDS, duly bidding remembrance to incommensurable losses as well as significant victories. The era was difficult and widely injurious and so many are often compelled to speak of it. Lacking the dire stakes that motivated the organizations of yesterday, we may well remain silent. Indeed, engaging in a comparison between the eras, we may feel that we have little to complain about or express. Should we choose to look not only back but also ahead, we might usefully challenge such a sentiment.
Acknowledgements: In 2006 while working towards a MA in Cinema Studies at New York University, Prof. Robert Sklar oversaw an independent study in which I explored the same topic as that herein. Throughout my six years as NYU, as both an undergraduate and graduate student, Prof. Sklar was a source of inspiration and encouragement. A reservoir of information, he delighted my cinephilia just as he bettered my scholarship. Though vastly different from my work of 2006, this piece is indebted to Prof. Sklar and is dedicated to his memory. My essay also relied upon the support and insights of my partners in crime, Alexandra Juhasz and Marty Fink, who, as we gays are fond of saying these days, are everything.
1. Lee, Nathan. “With the Aim of Making it Snap,” in Undetectable (New York: Visual AIDS, 2012). Lee’s recent art exhibit for Visual AIDS, “Undetectable,” worked toward signifying the rather vague parameters of HIV/AIDS today. “Undetectable” was staged May 31-June 30, 2012 at the La MaMa La Galleria, 6 E. 1st Street, New York City and subsidized by Visual AIDS. [return to text]
2. These include United in Anger (Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, 2012), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), and How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2011).
3. Crimp, Douglas, “AIDS:Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, October 43, Winter 1987, 3-16, quotation on 3.
4. See Gregory Tomso, “The Humanities and HIV/AIDS: Where Do We Go From Here?. PMLA, 125:2, March 2010, 443-453.
5. A Red Ribbon Around My House(Portia Rankoane, 2009), the film discussed in the introduction to our special section, is one of the dozens of films produced by Steps for the Future. For a fuller discussion of the project see my essay David Oscar Harvey,“Sub-Saharan African Sexualities, HIV/AIDS Educational Film and the Question of Queerness” in LGBT Transnational Identity and the Media, ed. Christopher Pullen (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan) 2012.
6. Edkin’s remark was made in personal email correspondence with me.
7. Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What is Cinema, Volume 1, ed. and tran. By Hugh Gray (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967). 9-16, quotation on 10.
8. See Hallas, Roger: Reframing Bodies, AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
9. For another example see Castalgia, Christopher and Reed, Christoper, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promises of the Queer Past (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
10 Kohnen, Melanie, “AIDS, Generation and History in Brothers and Sisters,” Flow TV, volume 12, 2010. <http://flowtv.org/2010/09/aids-history-and-generation-in-brothers-sisters/> Last Accessed July 7, 2013
11. Juhasz, Alexandra, “AIDS Video: To Dream and Dance with the Censor,” Jump Cut, 52, Summer 2010.
13. For a version of my film Red Red Red in textual form, see my essay David Oscar Harvey, “Red Red Red: an Essay/Film in Eleven Pieces, Wsq 40:1&2, Spring/Summer 2012, special issue on the “Viral.”
14. Red Red Red discussed the intergenerational dynamics inherent to HIV/AIDS at greater length. In it I state:
“During the crisis era of the epidemic, that is during the time before successful treatments of the virus, communities, like the activist coalition ACT-UP, passionately fought for rights and accessible treatments for people with HIV/AIDS, as well as more just modes of representation, one that would combat the grotesque and sensational one set forward by the traditional media. These people, who came a generation before me and whom I tremendously admire, were vigilant and militant in making themselves and their cause seen and listened to. But they are gone.
Gone, not meaning deceased, though some are, but the vibrant movement that they championed is a thing of the past. This is understandable. AIDS is different now. In the U.S., the virus, when treated, oftentimes does not progress to AIDS. We might say we are no longer living in the era of AIDS but of HIV. The cause is less dire, the stakes less high. But for those of us who are positive, perhaps particularly for those of us are recently diagnosed, it is difficult to parse what exactly being HIV positive means.
Compared to the early days of the epidemic, we are lucky, fortunate to be the bearers of a hopeful and healthy forecast, no doubt. But this does not mean that virus doesn’t change us. With it, we inherit a history; one of pride and shame, activism and defeat. Identifications with most of these things, however, entail a feeling backwards, amended by assurances of a long hold on futurity. But what of the present? What does it mean to be living with HIV now? I do not know. I don’t see anything.
I have heard it said that this feeling of nothingness, this absence of a secure identification with what it means to be HIV positive is a luxury. I can’t entirely accept this, though I’m sympathetic to the both the sentiment and manner of thinking. It does mean something be HIV positive. But what? I long for this; long to see it. To orient myself, not to it, but towards it—whatever this it may be.”
15. For both a convincing close reading and a chronicle of the circumstances of Blue’s productionsee Lawrence, Tim, “AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and the Pluraity of Derek Jarman’s Blue” Social Text 52/53, Fall/Winter 1997. 241-64.
16. Quoted in “Puppet Service Announcement,” The Hufffington Post, January 23, 2013, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/24/avenue-q-logo-hiv_n_2536650.html> last accessed July 1, 2013
17. Brown, Wendy, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Introduction: Ghost stories by David Oscar Harvey, Marty Fink, Alexandra Juhasz, Bishnu Gosh
Two ghost stories: disability activism and HIV/AIDS by Marty Fink
Acts of signification-survival by Alexandra Juhasz
What time is it here? by Bishnupriya Ghosh
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