What time is it here?

by Bishnupriya Ghosh

Prelude: As the meetings for the Society for Cinema and Media unfolded in Chicago, 2013, a phrase made idle rounds in my head: what time is it there? Predictably, it was a cinematic reference, the title of a film made by the acclaimed director Tsai Ming-liang in 2001. Yearning to be always in sync with somewhere other than Taipei, a young street-vendor who sells watches tries to set all clocks to Paris time. “There” marks the melancholic distance between his life, newly bereft of a father, and the life of the woman to whom he sold his watch. “There” measures the distance from the “here,” his everyday life-world. It signals being global as living in several time zones at once and therein to feel untimely in one’s immediate milieu.

What constitutes timeliness? More to the point: what is timely action, timely scholarship, or timely talk? For media scholars, activists, and practitioners, timely thought and action are necessary responses to historical contingencies.[1] [open endnotes in new window] We need to document this audiovisually now before its ephemera evaporate. We need to recognize the visual field of war now in the face of the hidden U.S. war machine. We need to better understand data structures[2] now as the government amasses our phone records. These are grave and fundamental concerns not only in the everyday news but also for scholarship: one only need glance at edited collections, listservs, calls for papers, dissertation topics, journal issues, residencies, and of course, conference panels as evidence of their timeliness.

But as these new “crisis scenarios” emerge, they edge out other, once important, arenas for contingent action. The latter disappear as crisis-events, even as scholars debate the event-horizon of endemic, global, never-ending crises. They become “periods” or world-historical “events” to be remembered, recounted, or archived. Then scholars, activists, and media practitioners look back at them as history. We ask: how was the Great Depression mediated? How did the media make the event? For those invested in a history from the present: What does a media history of the 1929 crash tell us about 2008? When such questions arrive, the crisis-event is once more timely in its relocation to the present as a stable, well-demarcated spatiotemporal plane. Archaeologies, histories, genealogies begin to mushroom. But the pressing urgency of the “now” that organizes media action—direct action, writing, talking, building, making, designing—dissolves.

There are crisis-events that no longer appear to command urgent redress, but that are not as yet relocated to a historical plane. In transition between a timely now and a timely then, they enter the black hole of the untimely. Has the “thought of AIDS”[3] become untimely? One might well believe it, when the Society for Cinema and Media Studies turned down a panel featuring scholars, filmmakers, and activists reflecting on surviving thirty years of the AIDS crisis through media action.[4] That was the occasion for this reflection on timeliness. I was a panelist who did not attend the unauthorized panel at SCMS, but who is privy to the videotaped version, as are you (on Tumbir[5]). But instead of giving you a taste of the “untimely” paper I might have presented there, I choose to reflect on this not-yet historical moment of the AIDS crisis.

In the United States, we are currently witnessing a deluge of histories of the AIDS crisis. These are not the runes of loss, but retrospection on the efficacies of contingent action. There are the widely discussed documentaries marking thirty years of AIDS activism, such as David France’s How to Survive a Plague (2012), Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s United in Anger (2012), and Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood (2013).[6] There is a steady stream of scholarship theorizing the affective-performative public sphere of AIDS activism erected against the inertia of deliberative democracy, such as Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (2009) or Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed’s If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (2011).[7] There are venerable institutions invested in the commemorative gesture: consider the Kris Nuzzi and Sur Rodney curated history of Visual AIDS, Not Over: 25 years of Visual AIDS, launched in June 2012.[8] I could go on. And I could criticize what is consigned to history and how.

But the point is that these media events are symptomatic of a conflict over how to think the timescale of the “AIDS crisis” as a historical or ongoing event. Is it really over? If so, where is it over? Certainly in resource-rich contexts, after the anti-retrovirals hit the market in 1995, HIV/AIDS has become a chronic condition, a private medical matter monitored through an array of diagnostic and therapeutic technologies. Yet it is equally the case that the anti-retrovirals are not uniformly available, accessible, or affordable across resource-poor epidemic contexts. So “high crisis” pockets exist among disenfranchised communities, especially in contexts where political and cultural norms police and segregate infected populations from the healthy, leaving the former to die.[9] Such high crisis pockets create spatiotemporal disjunctures in the prevailing timeline of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—the story that distinguishes “early AIDS” from the post-antiretroviral era. In turn those disjunctures make us question the streamlined idea of “global AIDS.

The questions are not settled, and perhaps they will never be. Especially when personal and collective losses—of health and of life from inaccessible, intermittent, or long-term medication—continue. Deaths of public icons erupt periodically. Most recently, the tragic demise of the indomitable 44-year old Spencer Cox, the man whose push for timely drug trials saved millions of lives, reinforced the eddying traumas of the epidemic in the United States.[10] And then there are those personal losses of friends dying despite drug regimens. Whatever the event, the early decades of the twenty-first century provokes a time of reflection for those of us who were queer and active in the pre-retroviral era. The ethnographic “I was there” does not bank on the privilege that is often granted to the native informant; rather, it is the participatory mode learned from the affective-performative[11] politics of AIDS activism. For it was a distinctly different, embodied mode of politics, fluid and kinesthetic, personal and worldly, fierce and flamboyant. That significance is still debated today in meetings, gatherings, demonstrations, conferences, print and digital media: what should be the legacy of the intense media activism that mobilized resources for the fight against AIDS? What modalities of the period erupt in arenas of “high crisis” all over the world?

Unsettled, the question trembles. The “thought of AIDS”—like most untimely things—remains discomforting, arousing, refusing peaceful reassignment to history. And so this polemic on timeliness, partly compelled by the brouhaha over an unauthorized panel at a conference that I have attended for almost two decades but missed this year. I do not seek to set an agenda. Rather I offer a few propositions on why the “thought of AIDS” can seem untimely now.

A viral particle approaches the human cellular membrane (screenshot of “The HIV replication cycle” animation). Credit: Boehringer Ingelheim

Proposition One

A change in the timescale of imagining human-microbial relations alters what we perceive as a crisis-event. Once that scale was human history: the mass deaths of an epidemic. Now natural time replaces historical time. We worry about coming planetary catastrophes: the crisis-event expands with the Anthropocene, a geologic periodization of the last 250 years of burning fossil fuels.[12] We struggle to grasp the human-microbial relations at the evolutionary scale, at a time when mapping the “human microbiome” is the next “big science” project.[13] Geologic time, species time, the timescales of the nonhuman are necessary to inhabit a rapidly unhomely planet. Such scenarios recast human-viral relations as slowly evolving interspecies encounters in which once profoundly antagonistic species ultimately learn (or will learn) to live together—in uneasy truce or mutual cooperation. The movement is inexorable, nonhuman. The great exertions of AIDS activism are a speck in the eye of natural time. It is the future, not the past that commands our attention as site of inquiry and struggle.

In the glare of the future, the premiere microbial protagonist of the AIDS crisis, HIV, morphs into a generic bug—the virus, feted in some accounts as an intelligent life form that has survived the 4 billion year primordial soup.[14] As we await the new viral mutation, evolutionary time evacuates the weight of history. The historical lessons from self-organizing affected communities who understood and reflected on what it means to lose the evolutionary war with a microbe, and therefore to live an uneasy truce with it, personally and collectively, seem insignificant, miniscule as behavioral modification. Certainly that interspecies encounter is not as captivating as bioart activism where “life”—our biological substrates (DNA, cells, tissue)—marvelously appears as “itself.” Amid the squeak of timescales, the story of AIDS becomes untimely.

Journals: Think of the journal special issues that punctuate the AIDS crisis. There was a special issue of October 1987 (edited by Douglas Crimp), “Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” famous in some scholarly circles, that focused on an urgent crisis of representation.[15] Twenty-five years later, the recent Women’s Studies Quarterly 2012 special issue (edited by Jasbir Puar and Patricia Clough) named “Viral” arraigns reflections on HIV/AIDS epidemic media alongside ruminations on interspecies art.[16] Both are memorable landmarks; both mark the changing concerns of HIV/AIDS scholarship.

Proposition Two

The new fascination with scientific and technological solutions devalues other modes of contingent social action. Once the retroviral drugs became widely available in the fall of 1995, the pharmacological panacea gained an upper hand. There is no question that the retrovirals have been life-saving; indeed they had been the locus of grassroots activism until that point. And yet one of the consequences of the “pharmacological turn”[17] has been an intensified focus on biomedical interventions as the frontier in the struggle against AIDS. If social justice had been the core of AIDS media activism, the fight, now waged on a global scale, continues: AIDS media activism unrelentingly intervenes in public policy, drug legislation, and prophylactic measures attempting to ameliorate the quotidian struggles of living with AIDS.

Yet that activism is now regarded as “soft power” when ranged with the heft of new drugs, therapies, and vaccines. The “hard power” of biomedical and biotechnological intervention that can “secure” the disease—regulate and control but not eradicate it—is the new site of agency. Critics decry the consequent “anti-retroviral globalism,”[18] wherein pharmaceutical companies of the Global North make money off resource-poor contexts in the Global South, even as a narrow emphasis on market solutions fail to address the social and political dimensions contributing to the epidemic. No longer a social, political, and cultural crisis, AIDS appears as scientifically quantifiable risk with a biomedical/biotechnological solution.[19] So it is not facetious to suggest that what happens in the lab—where cures are promised, where viruses are engineered—has become a site of public fascination, as hoary tales of scientific feats and failures consistently circulate in mainstream popular scientific media. As the critical and representational gaze shifts to the lab, it is not surprising that scholars (myself included) rush to make sense of this biomedical imagination and artists rush to intervene in bioscientific innovations. Hence more talk about soft cultural activism around the AIDS crisis appears untimely: not urgent to address or redress, not where the real action is.

Books: Books on AIDS science tell their own story. In the beginning there was Cindy Patton’s Inventing AIDS (Routledge1990), a critique of the medicalization of the epidemic experience, but also the tale of how activists once motivated and directed what science could and should do. The role that ACT UP played in designing the drug trials for the anti-retrovirals is possibly the premiere example of such activist intervention. Now there are accounts of the negotiations between patient-subjects and biomedical interventions that reconstitute the human body (for example, Marsha Rosengarten’s HIV Interventions, 2009[20]). Since HIV/AIDS chronic therapies are highly dependent on compliance to the drug regimens, Rosengarten emphasizes the agency of the patient in the success stories of biomedical treatment. In the new tales, the scientist and technician set the terms of the intervention, but the patient, the caregiver, and activist modify or negotiate those terms.          

Sex workers at the alternative International AIDS Conference, Kolkata, July 2012
Credit: Dibyanshu Sarkar (Getty Images)

Proposition Three

Strategic risk management of global public health effectively streamlines the AIDS crisis as the same everywhere. Such strategy transcribes concrete experiences of living with AIDS into abstraction, as one instance equivalent to every other in the global pandemic.[21] Marshaling a totalizing world picture, “pandemic media”[22]—such as PBS-funded documentaries, The Age of AIDS (2006) and A Closer Walk (2003) or the HBO miniseries, Pandemic: Facing AIDS (2002)[23]—situate all levels of crisis on one spatiotemporal plane. Crises become generalized, dispersing and dissipating the historical urgency of the singular high crisis at a particular corner of the world. The value of local strategies born of situated activism seems ever more obscure. As places dematerialize into abstract space, the study of epidemic media in conditions like no other—a small-scale documentary from Cape Town, an art installation from Mumbai—is relocated to the safe corners of area studies. Hence urgent media activism “elsewhere” is of peripheral critical or social relevance to the non-crisis here—in the resource-rich global North.

Conferences: Flashback to the International AIDS Conference (IAS). In the second conference (Paris 1986), Bila Kapita, the Chief of Internal Medicine in Kinshasa, Zaire, already spoke openly about the pandemic in Africa. When jailed for his speech, the international community mobilized to free him.[24] Flash forward to the 2012 meeting in Washington D.C.. We know sex workers could not attend it, since they cannot get visas to travel to the United States. In a sudden emergence of global disjuncture, during that IAS meet, the city of Kolkata hosted sex workers from 40 countries (at the Sex Worker’s Freedom Festival) organizing to discuss homegrown strategies to curb HIV/AIDS transmission.[25]


I catch an intermittent replay of the film reel in my average week. Whenever my mother calls from India—and she has been calling for the past thirty years—she always asks, “What time is it there?” Now it is inconceivable that she cannot calculate the 10-12 hour difference between Kolkata and California. So in time I came to ponder what exactly it was that she was asking. Perhaps it meant: what were you doing? Perhaps, it was less a question than a melancholic reminder that her sleeping hours are my waking hours. That our times are so disjointed, so different that she fears her untimeliness in my new life—over there. “There” marks her urgent sense of the widening distances between our life-worlds, a perception of the global as always untimely somewhere. It has taken me a while to syncopate an answer: to assure her that it is always the perfect time for her call.

Timeliness: a setting to the other’s clock.

Go to Notes page

Introduction: Ghost stories by David Oscar Harvey, Marty Fink, Alexandra Juhasz, Bishnu Gosh

Ghosts caught in our throat — of the lack of contemporary representations of gay/bisexual men and HIV by David Oscar Harvey

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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