Beyond the AIDS Quilt

Beyond the AIDS Quilt

Last year marked the “twentieth anniversary” of AIDS, a grim occasion, to say the least, that put major US newspapers in an unenviable predicament.


Last year marked the “twentieth anniversary” of AIDS, a grim occasion, to say the least, that put major US newspapers in an unenviable predicament. Any assessment of the epidemic was bound to be an indictment, and not the sort we generally like to read about, in which the guilty are few and absolutely so, and the innocent many and untainted. Any writer willing to connect the dots would conclude that the systemic political response to AIDS has been a signal failure. While the advent of antiretroviral therapy has dramatically lowered the number of AIDS-related deaths in Western nations (in the United States from over 51,000 in 1995 to just over 15,000 in 2001), the vast majority of HIV-positive people now live in the developing world and have little or no access to treatment. In the United States, AIDS is the leading cause of death among young black men, and racial minorities account for more than 70 percent of new infections. The current demographics of AIDS, marked as they are by severe economic and racial inequality, were not preordained. AIDS is a preventable and treatable disease, and it exists as it does because it was allowed to unfold this way, through the same kind of gross political negligence that permitted the disease to become an epidemic in the first place.

Into this damning context rushed the most beguiling of narratives, one that began with “How AIDS Changed____” and, with minor variations, depending on what filled the blank (pick one: America, New York, San Francisco, Art, Literature, Medicine, Culture, Sex), presented AIDS as both a natural and redemptive phenomenon. We couldn’t really do anything about the fact that people got AIDS and died from it (and still do), so the story went, but it sure made us better writers, artists, doctors, scientists, philanthropists, a better and more humane people. This is hypocrisy and denial at its most pathetic and, because it instills a sense of powerlessness and feckless optimism, at its most dangerous. It is precisely in this moment of danger that reading one of the AIDS movement’s most prolific and astute writers is vital–as diagnosis, to begin with, and, may I suggest, as political curative too.

Trained as an art critic and historian, Douglas Crimp edited the 1988 anthology AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism and co-wrote (with Adam Rolston) 1990’s AIDS Demo Graphics, an account of ACT UP’s activism through its graphic propaganda. Groundbreaking books, they started, along with Cindy Patton’s Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS and Simon Watney’s Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media, the still-small field of AIDS scholarship and made key contributions to cultural studies, queer theory and science studies.

Melancholia and Moralism, however, marks the first time that Crimp’s own writings on AIDS have been collected in a single volume. Crimp’s essays, composed over the past fourteen years, many during the late 1980s and early ’90s, when he was a member of ACT UP and editor of the journal October, were intended as immediate political and intellectual interventions. Individually many merit rereading today. Consider, for example, Crimp’s critique of the art world’s early response to AIDS:

Within the arts, the scientific explanation and management of AIDS is largely taken for granted, and it is therefore assumed that cultural producers can respond to the epidemic in only two ways: by raising money for scientific research and service organizations or by creating works that express the human suffering and loss.

Crimp’s concern then was that the very ability of representations of AIDS to raise money and generate publicity were predicated on the extent to which the disease itself was depoliticized, sanitized, deracinated from its social and political conditions. Now consider the recent Bono-led, all-star benefit recording of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a glossy production so detached from the actual experiences of people with AIDS in the Global South that half the profits were diverted without protest to United Way’s September 11th Fund. When AIDS charities are big business and global AIDS a cause célèbre, Crimp’s admonition against a form of “aesthetic idealism that…blandly accepts art’s inability to intervene in the social world and simultaneously praises its commodity value” ought to be heeded and amplified.

Crimp called for a more engaged response to AIDS, one that required a “rethinking of all of culture: of language and representation, science and medicine, health and illness, sex and death, the public and private realms.” It is this expansive vision that has guided all of Crimp’s work on AIDS, and thus, read end-to-end, his essays become more than individual polemics. Collectively they present a counterhistory of the AIDS epidemic. Throughout, Crimp demonstrates an unflinchingly critical gaze in the face of crisis and a determination to articulate a genuinely humane political vision. This task is difficult enough when one is taking on the homophobia of people like Jesse Helms (who suggested the quarantine of HIV-positive people), William F. Buckley (who proposed that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed” on the forearm and buttocks) and Jerry Falwell (who claimed that AIDS was God’s punishment of homosexuals), or even the purportedly liberal editors of the New York Times (who didn’t deign to mention AIDS for five years, and when they finally did, cheerily observed that “once all susceptible members [of specific risk groups] are infected, the numbers of new victims will decline”). The task becomes especially treacherous when one takes on sacred cows like Randy Shilts, Larry Kramer and the NAMES Project AIDS quilt, or the deeply ambivalent contradictions within the art and activist worlds from which Crimp writes. There are no guarantees here, no places to rest. Crimp’s essays are shot through with a profound sense of urgency and flashes of brilliant anger, and if some of the earlier pieces now read as a bit breathless, that is understandable. Breath was precious then.

For gay men of Crimp’s generation, those who came of age during Stonewall and encountered the epidemic in their prime, AIDS was devastating, representing not just loss of life, although death was certainly pressing, but loss of the entire sexual culture around which gay liberation was built: the “back rooms, tea rooms, bookstores, movie houses and baths; the trucks, the pier, the ramble, the dunes.” Crimp acknowledges that to “those who have obeyed civilization’s law of compulsory genital heterosexuality…to say that we miss uninhibited and unprotected sex as we miss our lovers and friends will hardly solicit solidarity, even tolerance,” but the absence can’t be stressed enough, nor can it be readily and transparently understood, even by those who lived through it. Thus we come to the first theme of Crimp’s anthology–melancholia.

In Freud’s classic formulation, melancholia is a form of unsuccessful mourning, a “turning away from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead,” “an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests.” For Freud, melancholia is an unconscious formation, a “turning away from reality,” in contrast to mourning, which is avowed, a conscious grappling with loss and a return to reality, to “normal” life. For gay men, however, the return to “reality” or “normal” life proved impossible, nor did it hold much promise.

Consider, for example, the obituary, a normally dignified ritual of public mourning that for gay men only presented homophobic options at every turn. Either AIDS was erased entirely or, in vicious mimicry of pre-Stonewall-era cryptography, coded as “cancer” or “pneumonia.” Not that full disclosure offered a more sympathetic set of representations. As Crimp points out, “AIDS has often resulted in a peculiarly public and unarguable means of outing.” The cumulative effect of public AIDS deaths confirmed the Stonewall slogan “We are everywhere,” but only again as perverse fulfillment of that old homophobic joke. The only known homosexual was a dead homosexual. And that suddenly incontrovertible knowledge itself, that homosexuals exist, that they have lives, careers, friends and especially lovers, was so abhorrent to straight America that it could only be alluded to through euphemism (as the deceased’s “longtime companion”) or, in its more malevolent instances, as genocidal fantasy–a voyeuristic desire to survey the dying-dead gay male body, to speculate about what it did, where and with whom, to express disgust at it (as many a public health official and senator did) and then, finally, to be glad of its death. Like insecticide, as another joke goes, “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.”

So when Crimp discusses these “daily assaults on our consciousness” and concludes that “seldom has a society so savaged people during their hour of loss,” he is not overstating the case. It was not just that there was a “social interdiction on our private efforts [at mourning],” but also that the very counterculture that had sustained gay men during liberation, that had created an alternative set of ideals and values, was itself under assault. As Crimp puts it, “much of what had been most vital in my life–most adventurous, experimental, and exhilarating; most intimate, sustaining, and gratifying; most self-defining and self-extending–began slowly but surely to disappear. A world, a way of life, faded, then vanished.” Gay sex, not just the act itself but the social networks and knowledges it had created, was now under a shadow of revulsion, suspicion, guilt and fear. That these sentiments emanated as much from within the gay community as from without was perhaps the central paradox of gay male life in the late twentieth century. Under these circumstances, it would have been an exercise in self-abjection to attempt a return to normalcy–not that some didn’t try, which brings us to the second theme of Crimp’s anthology: moralism.

When Crimp speaks of moralism he is not referring to the right-wing varieties but rather to “the moralism adopted by the very people initially most devastated by AIDS in the United States: gay men.” Rather than continuing to combat the homophobia that structured the dominant response to AIDS, many gay men came to identify with the repudiation of gay male sexuality, believing, for example, that it was the pathological promiscuity of gay male culture that caused the epidemic, rather than political mendacity and medical malfeasance. For Crimp, this self-incrimination is not only depoliticizing but becomes moralizing when it is projected onto others while disavowed in oneself. It contravenes one of the ethical mandates that called HIV-negative people to the AIDS movement in the first place: that if you were at all sexually active, it was only by a stroke of luck that you were fighting for the lives of others, and not also for your own.

For Crimp, moralism represents a turn away from ethics, if by ethics one means not a set of proscriptions known in advance but rather a space of deliberation, freedom and responsibility. Ethics, as Michel de Certeau said, “defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates the space where we have something to do.” Many took up the ethical challenges AIDS presented, developing, for example, the practices of safe sex not out of fear or repression but, as Crimp documents in his crucial essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” out of a genuine love for sex, its animating spirit and its psychosocial possibilities. But as the AIDS epidemic wore on, Crimp witnessed a “turn away from AIDS and a turn towards conservative gay politics,” and his argument, that this moralism stems from melancholia, explains much.

Freud’s melancholiac suffers from a “fall in self-esteem.” He expresses a “dissatisfaction with the self on moral grounds” and “represents his ego…as worthless, incapable of any effort, and morally despicable.” Moreover, the melancholiac “does not realize that any change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism back over the past and declares that he was never any better.” As Crimp sees it, this psychic process became inscribed in the social narrative told by and about gay men, one that goes something like this:

Prior to AIDS, gay men were frivolous pleasure-seekers who shirked the responsibility that comes with normal adulthood…. Gay men only wanted to fuck (and take drugs and stay out all night and dance)…. Then came AIDS. AIDS made gay men grow up. They had to find meaning in life beyond the pleasure of the moment. They had to face the fact that fucking has consequences. They had to deal with real life, which means growing old and dying. So they became responsible. And then everyone else accepted gay men. It turns out that the only reason gay men were shunned was that they were frivolous pleasure-seekers who shirked responsibility. Thank God for AIDS. AIDS saved gay men.

This prevailing narrative, superficially redemptive but deeply self-abasing, has found perhaps its most self-righteous outlet in Andrew Sullivan, whose books Virtually Normal and Love Undetectable present AIDS as an opportunistic moment, not for the continued survival and extension of gay culture but for its wholesale repudiation, its dissolution into the “silent” majority of normal America. Crimp introduces Melancholia and Moralism with a new essay that critiques Sullivan’s belief that the “powerfully universalizing experience” of death changed the “psychological structure of homophobia,” replacing the “strong fear of homosexual difference” with an “awareness of homosexual humanity.” Having recounted just how cruel straight America was to gay men with AIDS, we need not dwell on Sullivan’s assertions, except to say that the AIDS deaths Sullivan believes were such humanizing and universalizing experiences were brutally dehumanizing and marginalizing for the people to whom it mattered most.

But as Crimp amply demonstrates, such rhetoric appears throughout the history of AIDS, and not always in such clearly neoconservative formulations as Sullivan’s. It is the organizing principle of San Francisco Chronicle journalist and liberal media darling Randy Shilts’s book And the Band Played On, which, as Crimp argues, mobilizes an already existing “phobic fantasy” of the “sexually voracious, murderously irresponsible homosexual” in the story of “Patient Zero,” Gaetan Dugas, the airline steward who allegedly single-handedly “brought AIDS to North America.” It can be found in Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen’s programmatic tome After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, which presents gays as valueless, “single-minded, selfish sexual predators” and “pathological liars” who need to “clean up [their] act” and present America with “positive images.” It figures prominently in Larry Kramer’s harangues against gay men for having a “death wish,” for bringing AIDS “upon ourselves by a way of living that welcomed it.” And it finds its latest incarnation in the writings of Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile, who, as Crimp discusses in his closing essay, “Sex and Sensibility,” advance the notion that gay promiscuity is either socially or ecologically self-destructive, thus legitimizing a sex panic against public sexual culture in New York City that was part of Rudy Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign.

To say, however, that melancholic moralism represents “internalized homophobia” is to miss the point. If only homophobia were in fact merely internal. Individual instances of moralism may be unseemly, but when moralism becomes public policy and official script, the consequences, as Crimp demonstrates, are “disastrous.” Crimp’s concern all along is that moralism transfers the political responsibility for AIDS from policy-makers to the people most affected by it. To say that gay men deserved AIDS, that by nature or culture they somehow welcomed it, is to provide an absolution to all those who refused to do anything about AIDS, who denied its existence, declined to fund clinical drug trials, failed to implement needle exchange and struck any mention of homosexuality from safe-sex curriculums. Likewise, to repudiate the sexual ethos of gay liberation is to fail to recognize that, far from “spreading AIDS,” gay liberation’s sexual culture created the social networks and ethical basis from which the fight against AIDS proceeded. As Crimp argues,

Gay men’s behavior throughout the AIDS epidemic has been profoundly self-protective. In our struggle to protect our lives, many of us have also fought to preserve the publicly accessible sexual culture that has nurtured us, provided a sense of community, solidarity, and well being–given us, in fact, the courage and will to save ourselves. Where did we learn about safe sex? From the government? In school? Of course not. We learned about safe sex in our own community, from each other, in bars, bathhouses, and sex clubs.

And finally, to say that AIDS made gay men better, truer people is to suggest that all those AIDS deaths were somehow necessary, acceptable. It was in adamant opposition to this sentiment that AIDS activists mobilized to form ACT UP. For those who lived through what Vito Russo called “a war that’s happening only for those people in the trenches,” for those who attended “two funerals a week” and spent “their waking hours going from one hospital to another, watching the people they love die slowly of neglect and bigotry,” AIDS was absolutely unacceptable. It was an emergency, a crisis. As Crimp points out, because ACT UP’s militancy germinated from this sense of crisis, AIDS activism developed a certain antagonism to any attempt to make the disease and its deaths palatable, bearable.

So when the art world marked December 1 as “A Day Without Art” to commemorate AIDS deaths within their community (educating, raising money and providing space for AIDS-related art along the way), Crimp appreciates the gesture, but has to ask: What, just one day? “If art institutions were to recognize what I called a vastly expanded view of culture in relation to crisis, it seems obvious that they would consider 364 more days a year during which they might act as if they knew a crisis existed.” In 1991, when Magic Johnson announced he had acquired HIV (through heterosexual intercourse, he emphatically maintained), mass media, the sports world and the political establishment hastened to accommodate him. The do-nothing-on-AIDS President George (H.W.) Bush appointed Johnson to the National Commission on AIDS, confessing only then that he “hadn’t done enough about AIDS.” Crimp acknowledges the potentially progressive political consequences of Magic’s disclosure, but asks: Why him? Why now? As Crimp argues, it is another, tacit form of homophobia the gay community must endure “every time we see Magic accomplish something we’ve worked for so tirelessly for years, to no avail.”

The ambivalence of mourning and its relation to activism, then, might be said to constitute the final, overarching theme of Melancholia and Moralism, one that Crimp most eloquently captures in his short essay on the NAMES Project AIDS quilt. On the one hand, the quilt provided a “private mourning ritual” for the loved ones who stitched together each intimate panel, as well as a “collective mourning ritual” for those who visited the quilt and shared the experience with others. On the other hand, the vast expanse of the quilt, laid out for mass consumption on the Washington Mall and televised around the world, functioned as a “spectacle of mourning, [a] vast public-relations effort to humanize and dignify our losses for those who have not shared them.” Crimp wonders here if this second function of the quilt provides a “catharsis, an easing of conscience, for those who have cared and done so little about this great tragedy?”

For AIDS activists, then, to mourn meant to dilute death’s meaning, to share it with those who ought rather to be held responsible. To mourn meant to capitulate, to accept death, when “in an epidemic that didn’t have to happen…every death is unacceptable.” And yet, as Crimp points out, “death itself can never finally not be accepted. We have to accept death to continue to live.” And here you get to the secret heart of Melancholia and Moralism, the wisdom that sets Crimp apart. For all its fiercely and finely argued points, Melancholia and Moralism is a deeply sympathetic book. Crimp’s insistence that we continue to confront AIDS is tempered by an understanding of why we might want to look away, and a keen awareness that for some the acceptance of AIDS and its losses is just business as usual, and for others it represents a relief from despair, a rest, at whatever price, from struggle.

Throughout the heyday of ACT UP, the activist antagonism to mourning was paired all along with a more hopeful vision, that one day the AIDS crisis would be over. And in a sense, in the West, it is. AIDS, as Crimp writes, has become “‘normalized’ as just one item on a long list of supposedly intractable social problems.” Like poverty, crime or homelessness, AIDS is now a permanent, managed disaster. AIDS activism itself has become professionalized, dispersed into social service agencies, human rights groups, medical industry conferences and a long list of charitable organizations. AIDS issues have been divided among various constituencies, split most notably between those in the Global South and those in the Western world; and for the latter, death itself has become less palpable, more abstract, a number that happens over there. The psychic transference of melancholia to moralism that Crimp so acutely diagnosed within gay male culture has replaced the conjunction of death and homosexuality with an altogether different “image repertoire,” that of the resolutely healthy (gay) male body, ready to get married or to join the military, ready to die, not for sex but for his country.

Under these bewildering circumstances, Crimp’s insistence that we continue to think intelligently and ethically about AIDS is well taken. But it leaves gay men of my generation, those of us in our 20s, in something of a quandary: How? For us, who scarcely remember a time before AIDS, the danger is that there appears to be no danger at all. Our lives, our sex lives and our lives as gay people, seem to me to be marked by either a blithe sense of security or a distant and uncertain fear. We did not experience the culture of gay liberation, nor did we lose it. We did not invent safe sex; we were taught it as doctrine, in high school sex-ed classes by teachers who broached the topic with clinical disinterest. We are fortunate enough to live in a time and place in which AIDS is not immediately marked by death. But if the terms and conditions of the AIDS epidemic are different, then the political negligence that characterized the early response to the epidemic is still very much alive; indeed, its reach is global. And so as we think about what must be done today and how and for whom, Melancholia and Moralism makes two offerings: First, a history lesson, not a cautionary tale or an elegy but a record of activism and engagement; and second, a provocation–for those of us who know and paid the price, or for those of us, like myself, who benefit in so many innumerable ways from those who did, “How do we make what we know knowable to legions?”

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