Queering AIDS historiography

23 January 2014
This piece was written by a member of the Queer (in) Crisis collective as an elaboration of a previous post on this blog.
This essay comes from an encounter with a text:  Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library.  For me, this is a novel that celebrates gay maleness, specifically a gay maleness of the early 1980s.  But it represents only a very particular version of this experience, a version tied to a white, male, economically-privileged body.  Not coincidentally, I think, this representation of gay maleness also omits experiences of—even language about—AIDS.  Maybe this seems like an arbitrary criticism (how can you condemn a text for omitting something it’s not about?), but I want to point out that this omission is itself a political act.  Histories (and nonhistories) of 1980s AIDS are always political.  I have no direct experience of this history, of the period now commonly historicized as “the AIDS crisis of the 1980s,” but I want to problematize and complicate this idea of experience as having-borne-witness-to.  This kind of “historicizing,” the temporal and historical method that results in thinking that I exist at a remove from 1980s AIDS, perpetuates notions of incommunicability and past-ness that work to erase ongoing crises of AIDS infection for queer and marginalized people.
In the interests of constructing a language in which I can discuss AIDS and crisis, I want to give a narrative account of my own (non-)experiences of AIDS.  Mine is not a generalizable narrative, I’m sure—but I offer it up here as one example that is in some ways peculiar to my generational cohort, the group of young queer people who have been born into times and spaces that are rigorously construed as post-AIDS or distant from AIDS.  I think of my relation to AIDS discourse as a queer relation, at least given my self-identification as queer and my anarchist-orientated politics.  But I’ve only settled on that relation through a kind of academic narcissism.  This narcissism first took form for me as a general but intense interest in my own gayness, a desire to learn about my sexuality by constructing a constellation of histories and texts around it.  This was a very particular version of the ethnicity model of sexuality, what Christopher Nealon summarizes as the tendency to claim metaphorical queer ancestors, an “imagined community” of gays and lesbians across history (7).  What I construed as an objective “history” of gay men was actually a self-affirming and largely normative transhistorical narrative, one in which AIDS and AIDS activism were absent.  I have only in the past couple of years become familiar enough with histories of AIDS in the 1980s to acknowledge that the particular histories attached to this “imagined community” of gays and lesbians deliberately and insidiously erase AIDS from the archives of queer experience.
Sarah Schulman—an activist with ACT UP and a resident of New York City in the 1980s—argues that this erasure of AIDS is a result of the “gentrification of the mind.”  She posits an exemplary narrative in which the AIDS-related deaths of entire cohorts of queer New Yorkers coincide with administrative policies designed to attract wealthy people to poor New York neighborhoods, as part of a plan to broaden the city’s base for tax revenue.  She calls this “a tragic example of historic coincidence” (25–6) in which demographic changes effected a kind of cultural gentrification:
Instead of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Eastern European and Italian immigrants, lesbians, noninstitutionalized artists, gay men, and other sexually adventurous and socially marginalized refugees from uncomprehending backgrounds living on economic margins (in an economy where that was possible), the replacement tenants were much more identified with the social structures necessary to afford newly inflated mortgages and rents.  That is to say, they were more likely to be professionalized, to be employed in traditional ways by institutions with economic power and social recognition, to identify with those institutions, to come from wealthier families, and to have more financial support from those families.  (26)
Schulman proposes that this process of cultural gentrification worked to erase the histories of AIDS that complicated and resisted it, in large part because those artists and cultural producers who embodied these histories—who might have been a kind of embodied cultural memory—were killed by the virus or displaced by the gentrifiers.  The gentrifiers brought their own histories with them, ones that work to replace “complex realities with simplistic ones” (36), and for Schulman these simplistic realities become easily naturalized because “gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves” (27).  The gentrification of the mind, then, manifests itself in a young queer population for whom histories of AIDS are so distorted, so sanitized and obfuscated, that we “don’t see how rigidly the marginalization of point of view is enforced in our own shared contemporary moment” (7).
Schulman’s arguments are far from unproblematic, but I turn to them in detail here because I wish to contextualize my own sexual acculturation alongside this post-1980s process of gentrification toward which Schulman gestures.  I was born in 1989.  I spent my early years not in New York but in the western USA.  These years were for me remarkably devoid of people who identified as queer, though I lived in a household of individuals who call themselves tolerant, who embrace a typical liberal ethic of inclusion for (as the party line goes) all healthy sexualities.  My state education taught me that these healthy sexualities are implicitly heterosexual and explicitly monogamous and safe—that is, oral or vaginal, and only involving a penis as long as that penis wears a condom.  In the schools I attended, if any mention were made of the unsafe sexual practices against which this heterosexual paradigm is constructed, it was only (first) to argue that pregnancy would result and (second) to suggest that unsafe sex results in disease.  The mechanics of this transmission were not discussed; testing and treatment were not discussed.  Discursively, at least, people with AIDS were invisible.
Alongside these narratives of sex/uality—often for me in the same schools, even in the same classrooms—were the American-textbook world histories that, at the time, always seemed to conclude with Mikhail Gorbachev and the demolition of the Berlin Wall:  symbolic teleologies of the fall of Soviet communism to American capitalism, an ideology corporealized as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.  If 1980s AIDS were discussed at all in state-regulated classroom space, it was only as a footnote to these grand triumphalist narratives.  In family and home spaces, discourses of AIDS and queerness were erased in more insidious ways.  AIDS became a phantom disease attributed to variously defined groups of others—racial, sexual—or linked to variously nonnormative acts, like anal sex or intravenous drug use.  But, even more problematically, gentrified narratives of AIDS rendered these bodies and activities naturally infected and infectious, with the suggestion that gay men and IV drug users (this demographic was often racialized as non-white) could be “faulted” for the transmission of HIV to otherwise healthy (white, middle-class) bodies, like my own.  As a result, my early experiences of AIDS can only be characterized by their insistence on the fiction of my non-relation to AIDS.  Authorized discourses relegated non-heterosexual, non-white, non-middle class bodies to an elsewhere or elsewhen, and, with those bodies, an entire body of knowledge about AIDS, an entire sphere of discourse, was made inaccessible to me.
This phenomenon is at least partially generalizable to a larger American context.  Douglas Crimp, writing on popular visual representations of people with AIDS in American media, points out the tendency of mainstream news outlets to represent people with AIDS as, invariably, other, not only in their apparent lack of lifeliness or in their excessive deathliness, but also in their supposed racial and social alterity.  Crimp offers one example from a popular television newsmagazine, a late-1980s episode devoted to AIDS reportage
in which a service organization director says, “We know the individuals, and they look a lot like you, they look a lot like me.”  The program … is titled “AIDS Hits Home.”  Resonating with the assertion that PWAs [people with AIDS] look like “you and me,” the “home” of the show’s title is intended to stand in for other designations:  white, middle-class, middle-American, but primarily heterosexual(369)
Most notable here is the relegation of AIDS to spaces dissociated or distant from homeHome, of course, serves as a metonym for the classed, sexualized, and racialized spaces of American privilege, an emblem of the kinds of discursive manipulation for which I’m attempting to provide an account.  But because this account takes the form of a personal narrative of childhood and adolescent sexual acculturation, I also mean to provide, via Crimp, a critical context for my own racially and economically privileged upbringing in the USA.  I remember the particular newsmagazine Crimp discusses, a program called Sixty Minutes, hosted by Dan Rather.  If I was too young to have watched this particular episode, it’s entirely probable that I watched another like it.
However, Crimp’s reading of home—with the implication that non-home spaces can be neatly correlated to non-heterosexual bodies, in public discourses—is perhaps too simple a reading to extrapolate to the more highly gentrified contexts and discourses of a post-1980s American moment.  In this period, my own period, non-heterosexualities were (and are) not universally and unequivocally tied to abjected bodies.  As Lisa Duggan argues, sociopolitical changes during and following the Reagan and Thatcher years have produced some Westernized non-heterosexualities that are, paradoxically, heteronormative.  Duggan attributes these changes to the complex, contradictory, fractured trends of an emergent neoliberal politics, a networked pattern of cultural erasures and capital redistributions that reify corporate ascendancy and consumerism.  Duggan describes the so-called Washington Consensus, a set of international corporate policies of the 1980s and 1990s that have become central to post-Reagan/post-Thatcher conservatisms, as
a kind of backroom deal among the financial, business, and political elites based in the United States and Europe.  Its policies reinvented practices of economic, political, and cultural imperialism for a supposedly postimperial world.  Neoliberalism’s avatars have presented its doctrines as universally inevitable and its operations as ultimately beneficial in the long term—even for those who must suffer through poverty and chaos in the short term.  In other words, neoliberalism is a kind of secular faith.  (xiii)
Schulman’s descriptions of gentrification are amplified in Duggan so that they are international in scope.  Gentrification functions hand-in-hand with this “secular faith” of neoliberalism, an ideology that promotes routine attachments to what Schulman calls simple fictions, in place of more complex truths.  But for Duggan, neoliberalism is not an easily-mapped structure of bureaucratic and institutional policies.  Rather, neoliberal politics are messy, contradictory, fractured patterns of capital and cultural shift.  Sexual politics, for Duggan, figure strongly into these shifts, for the secular faith of neoliberalism is tied to what Duggan claims is a newly emergent “homonormativity,”
a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.  (50)
This homonormativity, a form of non-heterosexuality that falls in line with neoliberal forces of upward capital redistribution, forces a contextual reconsideration of Crimp’s reading of non-heterosexual bodies as universally abjected or expelled from home spaces.  My own upbringing attests to this too.  I can attribute a privileged life in a post-1980s USA to my whiteness, maleness, and relative affluence not in spite of what I now call my queer self-identification, but rather in tandem with these insidiously homonormative tendencies, tendencies to which I continue to feel attached.
Duggan’s most forceful indictment of American homonormativities is her reading of mainstream American gay politics as a narrowing of queer AIDS activism into various social movements for marriage entitlements, all framed by the rhetoric of “civil rights.”  Marriage, for Duggan, is an inherently heteronormative institution easily coopted by (and perhaps structurally implicated in) neoliberal consumerist tendencies.  Calls for gay and lesbian “rights” are themselves predicated on the same discourses of privacy that underpin and naturalize neoliberal economics.  In other words, for Duggan, marriage can be figured as “a strategy for privatizing gay politics and culture” (62).  Tellingly, many mainstream voices of Western gay political activism figure gay marriage as sexually normative:  un-promiscuous, monogamous, family-oriented, safe, and healthy—providing a means for gay people to be personally responsible for their own sexual health, in the same way that conservative and neoliberal politics are predicated on the personal responsibilities of model citizens and consumers, the capacities of the private market, or the idea that the government doesn’t care what you do in the privacy of your bedroom.  Indeed, AIDS is (un)conspicuously absent from these representations of homonormative marriage.
As long as prevention is the American gay man and straight woman’s private problem, it will continue to be a public disaster.  The insistence on bootstrap prevention has produced prevention campaigns for “men-who-have-sex-with-men” because we recognize that homophobia is so punitive that calling homosexual sex, homosexual, will keep people who are having homosexual sex from the support that they need to avoid HIV infection.  We decide to replace truth with falsity, to gentrify the truth about sex in order to save lives.  Lying becomes constructed as “saving.”  (Schulman 44)
The construction of AIDS as a private, not public, problem—even the artificial construction of variously sexualized private and public spheres—not only gentrifies AIDS histories and crises, but also inhibits forms of meaningful signification or communication about AIDS more generally.  AIDS becomes a non-experience, anathema to consumerist homonormativities and marriages, the invisible specter against which an apparently healthy experience of neoliberal acculturation is constituted.
By far, the most insidious aspect of this homonormativity is its structural enmeshment.  The promises of social and economic well-being that are figured as rewards for well-disciplined neoliberal subjects promote affective attachments to the very behaviors or institutions that cause detriment.  This is a version the secular faith of neoliberalism, the way in which the paired processes of attachment and subjection interpellate the neoliberal subject.  Julian Carter suggests a version of this structure in his investigation of affect and homonormativity in queer pulp fiction.  He points out how disidentification, as a means of affectively negotiating sub/cultural identity formation, can adopt two paired, inverse forms.  In Carter’s formulation,
[h]omonormativity is a minority stance, and as such it reflects minority subjects’ resistance to everyday forms of oppression, yet it also allies itself with conventional affect, and as such it tends to shrink from radical change in existing relations and structures of power.  (604)
In other words, homonormativity can be figured as either—or perhaps both—disidentification with heteronormative subjects or/and disidentification with decidedly queer subjects (“queer” referring here to those who construct themselves or are constructed in opposition to neoliberal discliplinarity).  In this way, gentrified, homonormative narratives of AIDS—those that locate AIDS in variously defined elsewheres and elsewhens—are themselves symptomatic of the cruel optimism of homonormative attachments, for such fictions of AIDS only serve to obscure the present risks and realities of infection.  Put differently, affective attachment to the notion that AIDS is past and distant—though this attachment may indeed sustain the fictions of inclusion and “the good life” upon which many safe, healthy homonormativities are constructed—contributes not only to the ongoing invisibility and erasure of contemporary AIDS crises, but also denies language to those, like myself, whose relation to AIDS cannot be figured in terms of historical catastrophe but must instead take form as a crisis ordinary.  Homonormative attitudes toward AIDS are a form of cultural irresponsibility.
Hollinghurst himself gestures toward this question of responsibility in an interview with The New York Times.  The interviewer, Catherine R. Stimpson, notes that one of Hollinghurst’s own friends was allegedly among the first in the UK to die from AIDS-related complications, during the same period that Hollinghurst composed The Swimming-Pool Library.  This death triggered for Hollinghurst a “dilemma” over how to represent in fiction the English sexual sub/cultures linked, in the popular imaginary, to AIDS infection.
“I came to feel that if I played down the sexual side of the book, it would somehow be giving in to all of the new social and political pressure,” Mr. Hollinghurst said.  “I wanted to retain an element of celebration in the novel.”  Even if, or perhaps especially because, he said, the party about which he was writing was already over.
What Hollinghurst here refers to as the “celebratory” component of The Swimming-Pool Library is what John M. Clum calls a form of “defiance,” a turning-away from the trauma of AIDS by glorifying gay male sex and cruising cultures in an ostensibly radical refusal to temper representations of an “erotic underworld” (660).  Other readings, like the one that Stimpson proposes in her review of the novel, suggest that the specter of AIDS takes the form of a ghost from the future, such that the text’s backward temporal turn anticipates an apparently inevitable catastrophe.  The novel does produce retrospection when the narrator declares at the opening that his “life was in a strange way that summer, the last summer of its kind there was ever to be” (3); later, as the novel concludes, our narrator admits to feeling “that most oppressive of feelings—that some test [is] looming” (280).  (Stimpson reads this concluding rumination as a reference to future AIDS.)  But the text’s temporal self-positioning as well as Stimpson’s and Clum’s readings—and, for that matter, Hollinghurst’s own attitude toward the “already-over-ness” of gay sex—participate in what Steven F. Kruger argues is a tendency in AIDS imaginaries “to remove HIV/AIDS not only from spatial and social proximity but also from a present, proximate moment” (256).  This takes multiple forms.  AIDS is often read “as a break in modernity,” for example, because
the disease-free life seen to have been promised by “modern medicine” and medical technology is given the lie by an illness that is anything but modern, belonging to both the medieval world of “plague” and a “primitive” realm in which plagues are thought to have their contemporary origins.  (Kruger 256)
Given this tendency, Clum’s formulation of the backward temporal turn as an affirmation of the “erotic underworld,” far from refusing or negating what Clum and Stimpson imply is the future specter of AIDS, perpetuates normative discourses of the temporal dislocation of AIDS.  The very notion of the “underworld” is an invocation of the premodern and mythological in connection with non-heterosexuality, a trope of modern representations of gayness that has served simultaneously to stigmatize and liberate (Kruger 261).  And even in its occasional figuration as postmodern or eschatological, AIDS is similarly displaced from the present in “a move that … is in fact complementary to such affiliations of HIV/AIDS with the past” (265).  This complementarity, for Kruger, even takes on linguistic dimensions when
verbal constructions operate in such a way that the claim of present-tense narration—to describe an action now, as it emerges—is contradicted by its fusion with a future tense that presents, as known, an action logically unknowable in the present.  Such a temporality, with its denial of the contingency of present and future, reflects the consistent Western understanding of HIV/AIDS as fatal … .  Such an understanding is clearly related to the impulse to make HIV/AIDS, as pandemic and crisis, either (both) an archaic phenomenon “properly” consigned to a past moment or (and) a “postmodern plague,” only “improperly” intruding on a present modernity.  (268–9)
This trend does discursive violence to those subjectivities affected by AIDS.  It also does violence to those who exist in a precarious affective relation to AIDS, like those who are construed as distant from AIDS because they have no direct experience of it.  Not only do these discourses prefigure death for (and attribute deathliness to) bodies with AIDS, they also inhibit the construction of diachronic affective relations that can, I would suggest, constitute an experience of AIDS outside of or after the period now historicized as “the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.”  Even Schulman, despite her arguments against the mentality of AIDS gentrification, participates in a generational discourse that disallows young queer people from formulating even an affective relation to this crisis.  Schulman seems to suggest that a proper experience of 1980s AIDS must be authorized, somehow, by an experience of death.  This disallows an entire cohort of queer people from talking or thinking about AIDS in relation to its fraught political history.
De-gentrifying the mind involves engaging a queer critical historiography of AIDS.  I follow Kruger here.  He distinguishes between two predominant forms of AIDS historicism.  The first is unchallenging, a form of historicism that reproduces the homonormative temporal dislocation of AIDS histories, that reinforces the eschatological associations of AIDS-time, that locates AIDS in the bodies of racialized and sexualized others.  In opposition to this historicism, Kruger advocates an activism-orientated process of historiography, one that functions as an “analysis of the ways in which temporal constructions have operated during the years of HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as a consideration of the ways in which activist responses to other crises have been contained” (276).  These historiographies must be, “all at once, a consideration of the past, a grappling with the present, and a movement toward a better future” (278).  That is, they must be political.  These historiographies must insist on the presentness of historically-mediated experience for young queer people. I can attest to the difficulties this process involves:  because my adolescent exposure to discourses of AIDS was always circumscribed by the liberal rhetoric of tolerance, I was left with little reason to question the information delivered to me, which is perhaps one of the most dire effects of the gentrification mentality.  I don’t want to posit a narrative of self-discovery, for my own fantasies of the good life are still—despite everything I argue here—quite tightly bound up with narratives of homonormative existence.  I have developed cruelly optimistic attachments to these fantasies of the good life, as I think others have as well.  But the work of a queer AIDS historiography must force confrontations with and reconsiderations of these very attachments.
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