AIDS and the National Body: Essays by Thomas E. Yingling

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1997 Hard cover New ed. Good. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 208 p. Series Q.

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Thomas Yingling was a rising star in American studies, a leading figure in gay and lesbian studies, and a prominent theorist of AIDS and cultural politics when he died in 1992. AIDS and the National Body is a brilliant excursion into the mind and heart of Yingling, author of the critically acclaimed book, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text. Robyn Wiegman, a friend and colleague of Yingling’s, has collected in this book a selection of his critical and creative work. These previously published and unpublished essays, nonacademic prose, poetry, and letters are a powerful testimonial to the intellectual legacy left by Yingling.
Contemplating the contradictions of individual identity from within a human body adapting to and living within a collective national culture, Yingling delves into such issues as canon formation, poetic theory, and the rhetoric of the body in American popular culture. In addition to Wiegman’s illuminating introduction, the conversation is joined by four other scholars—Michael Awkward, Robert L. Caserio, Stephen Melville, and David Román—whose critical and personal responses to Yingling’s writing weigh in throughout the volume. What emerges is a collection that embodies the particular difficulties of living with AIDS, of outliving someone who has died of AIDS, and of losing prematurely an important thinker.
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“Shortly before his death, Yingling had emerged as one of the central theorists of AIDS cultural politics. The loss of his ongoing public contribution is quite evident in these writings. But the publication of his personal writings allows us also to accept this loss as a personal one, and to reflect with him on the changing priorities he experiences as he realizes he is being overwhelmed by the very object of his critical reflection. The essays by his friends and colleagues provide a model for sustaining—by critically engaging—perspectives that we are losing to early deaths. This is how we will survive—mourn and organize and critically reflect on the political and cultural disaster of the AIDS epidemic, even as it continues to take away, among the many fallen comrades, some of the best thinkers of our time.”—Cindy Patton, Emory University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822319771
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/1997
  • Series: Series Q
  • Pages: 194
  • Lexile: 1610L (what's this?)

Meet the Author

Thomas E. Yingling was Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University until his death from AIDS-related causes in 1992. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text.

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AIDS and the National Body

By Thomas E. Yingling, Robyn Wiegman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Thomas E. Yingling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1977-1


The Oncology of Ontology

On first reading a certain work by Derrida, I mistook the word "ontology" for "oncology." That is the thing of AIDS, it is the signifier through which we understand the cancer of being, the oncology of ontology—not only in its threat to our being, its announcement that we are moving toward nonbeing, indeed are already inscribed with it, in it. But also that it is itself deeply not-identical, never quite the same, appearing under different guises, none of which is a disguise, following circuitous routes into visibility and action. It is the disease that announces the end of identity.

... Since its naming, AIDS has been presented to us as both physically and figurally overwhelming, as virtually irresistible in its meanings. And most of that figuration has centered on linking AIDS either directly or metaphorically to desire—either through homosexuality or drug use, both of which stand in synecdochically for a longer list of policed activities. That those two activities in particular could come to signify AIDS is itself a sleight of hand we might investigate, and most of our thinking about AIDS in psychoanalytic terms has turned on how desire is immobilized (and therefore mobilized) in discourses about it: we can read the political unconscious of Jesse Helms (his literal unconscious being too excrescent to repay any attention); we can read American anxieties about nonmonogamous, heterosexual sexual activity; we can analyze the Other of American televisual domains (the African American, the Latin, the homeless, the sick in general: how can you be a consumer when you are yourself consumed with illness?).

But more than the politics of desire is at stake in thinking about AIDS: in fact, it may well be that AIDShas said more about identity in our culture than it could ever say about desire. More specifically, we might ask—through Lacan and others—about the mirror stage and the relation of the "I" to its body, for we encounter in living with AIDS the production of non-subjects, people for whom the mirroring illusions of discourse are broken: the host body in this case continually reminds its subject—with every glance in the mirror—of the distance between the "I" and its lesions, and of the fact that the lesions may not be subsumed into any transcendence; thus, one of the important discursive moves from the beginning has been the insistence on the designation "person with AIDS." The struggle in living with AIDS is to produce a discourse adequate to an experience that is not deterritorialization (the term Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use to describe the flow of desiring-production beyond the categories inscribed in the subject) but reterritorialization (their term for the new "form" or convention desire produces; its making): a new identity, a new codification and damming of the flow of desire is offered in the body of the person with AIDS, but that subject has in fact been emptied of desire.

It is thus that Kafka's work—in which our reading shuttles among fields we might call the body of desiring-production, its denial, and the legislation of identity—becomes allegorical to living with AIDS and finally more telling in its allegory than referential texts like Longtime Companion or Parting Glances. Texts of body loss (see here as well The Fly and The Elephant Man) are allegorical for AIDS not only because they place in motion alienation from a body that no longer seems to house a subject, but also because they foreground the impossibility of speaking the condition of loss being written into (and onto) the body. So it is not desire that is in question, but identity: the whole problem of a disappearing body, of a body quite literally shitting itself away. That is AIDS.


Wittgenstein's Tumor: AIDS and the National Body

Toward the end of "Modernity—An incomplete project," the essay he delivered on the occasion of receiving the Adorno Prize from the city of Frankfurt in 1980, Jürgen Habermas reminds us of the differing function and meaning the same object may solicit in different social contexts. He suggests that while an aesthetic object may call forth one reading from the expert or critic, there is too little homogeneity in modern culture to guarantee that its entry into the life experience of that culture will be congruent with the critic's reading:

as soon as such an experience [an aesthetic experience] is used to illuminate a life-historical situation and is related to life problems, it enters into a language game which is no longer that of the aesthetic critic. The aesthetic experience then not only renews the interpretation of our needs in whose light we perceive the world. It permeates as well our cognitive significations and our normative expectations and changes the manner in which all these moments refer to one another. (13)

Citing the dual demand within bourgeois culture that one be both a critical respondent to art and a consumer subject to the pleasure of fashion, Habermas rejects the aesthetic experience as a means toward meaningful social change, as a site for the completion of modernity's project of pursuing a rational human culture. We might borrow this Habermasian notion as a way to work into the question of what has gone wrong in American culture's lukewarm response to AIDS, where the "experts" (and critics) have found themselves unable to effect meaningful social change despite their expertise, their warnings, and their seemingly endless labor. In fact, Habermas's essay presents a number of interesting prospects in this regard: his use of Weber is a perfect place to begin to think about how the AIDS epidemic has been inscribed in dominant culture in a way that preserves the seeming autonomy of such fields as the scientific, the moral, and the aesthetic (that autonomy being, according to Weber, one of the legacies of modern industrial capitalism), so that one is invited to assume (as George Bush and other government leaders seem to) that research continues at its own pace (how can you hurry truth?), that the lay public cares deeply and can surfeit its fear and assuage its failure through aesthetic texts like Longtime Companion (1990), and that the moral issues of AIDS still turn on questions of condom distribution in schools and less on care and treatment of PWAs—or, more significantly, that moral issues are destined to remain indeterminate in a diverse culture such as America. One need not be a believer in Habermas's dream of a perfectly reintegrated, postcapitalist culture in order to begin to trace how a successful campaign of response to AIDS needs to move across the false autonomy of these realms.

But this may also be the expert's position, largely lost on the culture as it expresses AIDS in its dominant modes; in other words, while writers like Simon Watney or Cindy Patton might be able convincingly to demonstrate a detrimental link between the false neutrality of science and the political realities of living with AIDS, that will probably have very little impact on those school board members who are reaching a decision about AIDS education in some small town in upstate New York. This is one of the reasons for some skepticism in the HIV community about the way in which the media have taken up figures like Magic Johnson and Kimberley Bergalis: relatively sophisticated readings of AIDS as signifier or as social fact have received none of the attention recently lavished on these two despite their seeming lack of knowledge about the epidemic. Unfortunately, one must say that their entry into AIDS discourses has always bordered on the specular (this perhaps against their own best intentions), making AIDS "real" by circulating images that refer not to the complex interdiscursive challenges of the disease but to other, familiar images: in the Johnson case these images are of sport, in Bergalis it is the popular image of the weak, debilitated AIDS victim, of the suffering terminal patient. If writers like Baudrillard are correct, and the media operate at the level of a hyper-reality, circulating images and information without reference to the production of meaning, then sports entertainment is one of the supreme modes of that circulation in our culture: the question of meaning is never even staged (as it may be, for instance, in other areas of the news); we are simply invited to bask in the play of images that refer only to images in a system underwritten by their seductive appeal. We might note as well that sport functions interestingly to secure a sense of national identity: in the nineteenth century, production and commerce defined the relation between regions in America. Now, in an era of multinational corporate structures, it is more likely that Buffalo is linked to Washington, D.C. only through the Super Bowl (we see the older model parodied in odd little practices like the wager of a bushel of lobsters and a bushel of oranges between governors of states whose "teams" will compete on the athletic field). What happens when AIDS invades that system? It is literally unthinkable in the terms usually at play there; thus, Magic has to be removed from the system.

The media have used both Bergalis and Johnson largely to evoke emotional response. Thus, while Bergalis's case appeared to open debate about the ethics or morality of certain medical practices—and therefore to offer a potential bridge to the false autonomy of science and ethics as they have been constructed around this disease—we really need rather to read her position in a nationally circulated and nationally inspired narrative of fear and pity that leveled any impact her illness and death might have had on public health debates and made of her crusade mostly an enactment of pathos. Expert only in suffering innocence (truly the AIDS victim), Bergalis signified for America one of the tragic dimensions of the epidemic, but the spectacle she provided would remain trapped in the realm of the aesthetic. The Magic Johnson case is slightly different. By working with the experts rather than against them, as Bergalis did, Johnson allows himself to be presented as someone with the potential to have a significant impact on the legitimation of AIDS and HIV as a speakable concern, especially among the African American, teen, and heterosexual populations. And there is heartening evidence that he may remain the occasion for some rational debate about safe sex and/or abstinence as appropriate preventives of transmission (although after his appointment to the president's AIDS commission, he evidently added the advice of abstinence to his routine statements about HIV). But while the figure at its center is heroic rather than pathetic, here too we are confronted mostly with an aesthetic text designed to elicit feeling from an audience: one of our champions will perhaps be cut down in his prime; it is Lou Gehrig, Ajax, or Achilles.

Perhaps the most telling effect in both these instances is the role irony plays in their construction. In both instances we are treated to a spectacle of the unexpected. The Bergalis story is drenched in irony: not only is she a young woman, and women, of course, are not at risk from AIDS, but more importantly, her case became so newsworthy because a simple medical procedure (routine dental care) evidently was the origin of her infection. Her appearance before a Congressional committee was likewise represented as ironic in the sense that her own death was imminent and yet she sought to protect others from such incidental infection—perhaps measures could be taken to save lives in the future, but those measures would be too late to save Kimberley Bergalis. And the final irony, the issue that threatened to bring down the entire edifice of HIV rights, was the "failure" of the CDC—that watchdog agency of public health—to support her position. The Johnson case also reads as deeply ironic: athletic heroes simply are not at risk from AIDS, and the discourse around their accomplishments is completely incompatible with representations of AIDS. Johnson has also been adamant in his refusal to admit any homosexuality as a possible source for his infection, making him a truly exceptional figure for HIV infection. Another drug-user, another homosexual, another sex-worker: their contraction of HIV is not newsworthy—there is simply nothing to tell the public about people with AIDS until it appears in some venue thought immune to it (as People magazine put it in covering the Johnson story, "Most of us are not homosexuals; most of us are not intravenous drug users" [Alexander and Benet 59]—as if most of us were professional athletes!). Most significantly, Johnson had always signified for American culture a Huck Finnlike likeability: his boyish grin, the seemingly bottomless reservoir of a good-humored nature (and this alongside an obvious competitiveness). So "nice" was he that Johnson had, in fact, helped to resurrect professional basketball among white audiences in the seventies and eighties when polls had shown the dominance of African American players to have alienated large segments of white America. So the irony here is that Johnson, the perpetual adolescent in an adult body, the player who had no ill will toward his rivals yet usually prevailed over them, the Negro who could be trusted—Johnson was a "nice" person, and AIDS happened only to people who weren't "nice" and had courted disaster or failure in their personal lives.

What allows irony to work, of course, is a traditional notion that texts are stable and expectations clear if reversible; irony sets a limit to the instability of reading by staging closure as a choice between alternatives, each of which is complete. Irony thus provides an epistemological security rather than a radical textual opening. Rather than lead to questions about the grounds of reading, the seeming undecidability of irony becomes the key to a new stability. Thus, in the name of telling us something aboutAIDS, the media allows us to read AIDS—the most destabilizing social question of the last decade—through a set of stable discourses. Thus, in the Bergalis case—despite differing interpretations on the issue of whether medical personnel ought to tell clients of an HIV infection—it is assumed that there must be some right answer to the questions raised, that each side of the debate is reading the same text, and that such readings—and the text of AIDS itself as it is presented—spring not from an interested position but from a certifiable relation to truth. The multiplicity of those discourses does not, in fact, destabilize our reading practices or our relation to the disease; it simply says there are multiple perspectives, that each of them is clear, and that each presents some legitimate claim on our attention. The undecidability of irony on the emotional level becomes in this case an aesthetic strategy that mirrors the unresolvable nature of AIDS as a social ill.

But this shouldn't really surprise us. If it is not presented as a scientific issue or as a debate over some aspect of morality, AIDS is presented most often through the conventions of the human interest story, and most human interest stories—when they touch on "the controversial"—are constructed to ensure an emotional response as the only certain response to an irresolvable social problem that calls forth numerous other un certain responses. So what do I want? Would I rather there be no coverage of Magic Johnson? Certainly not. AIDS activism has lobbied for years for more public discourse about the disease, and now we seem to receive that; and government is spending—according to George Bush—more on AIDS research than on any other medical problem; so what do we want?

AIDS discourse for the first decade of the epidemic was consumed by the problem of meaning: what did AIDS mean as a social, historical event, and what did it mean to be a person with AIDS? Virtually all of the activity around the illness was bent on one goal (after, of course, the goal of education and prevention of infection): to secure a subjectivity for the person with AIDS that was not simply an erasure of his or her previous subjectivity, that did not simply read the illness as the end of meaning. Thus, we felt (I think) as though our task—and this we represented to ourselves in fairly heroic terms—was to wrest from dominant culture the wholly negative if not annihilative representation of HIV infection and AIDS, and to construct in its stead a discourse of empowerment, meaning, and possibility. And because of the historical conditions of the appearance of AIDS in the West, this was linked to a discursive explosion around the question of homosexuality: to effectively intervene in ignorant responses to AIDS, the institutional homophobia (particularly of America and Britain) had to be addressed and exposed (the best of this work remains Simon Watney's Policing Desire). That task has met with relative success, but we are still confronted on every side by a culture that has failed to integrate HIV and AIDS into its life experience (and I should say here that when I use a term like "experience" I mean that to signify a complex semiotic and dialectical process, not simply an unmediated knowledge of self or other). I want to suggest that we need a third phase response to AIDS: if phase one was pre-AZT and consisted mostly of emergency triage, phase two was post-AZT and consisted mostly of working with (or protesting against) researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and government agencies. Phase three needs to continue the pressure of phase two while expanding its frame of reference to address other cultural questions. We see how this has happened already with the birth of groups like Queer Nation, but I want to make this explicit: it is not enough to struggle to change the meaning of AIDS; we must begin to change that culture in which AIDS takes its meaning. This is where gay and lesbian academic work still can make a difference—because the culture in which AIDS takes its meaning (in America, at least) has read it as equivalent to homosexuality and has misread that with a criminal strength. More importantly, only gay and lesbian studies is positioned to continue the strong critique of that wholesale institutionalized homophobia that has largely determined the parameters of our thinking about sexuality.


Excerpted from AIDS and the National Body by Thomas E. Yingling, Robyn Wiegman. Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Thomas E. Yingling. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Cover Page,
2. Title Page,
3. Copyright Page,
4. Introduction,
5. Dear—,
6. Reading with Uncertain Terms,
7. Knowledge Effects,
8. The Stuttering I,
9. Bibliography,
10. Index,
11. Contributors,

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