Drawing queer love: Illness politics and practices of care in graphic AIDS narratives

I’m working on my paper for the Graphic Medicine Conference in Brighton. The theme of this year’s conference is “Que(e)rying Graphic Medicine.” To get in the spirit of the theme, check out the book title in this panel from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For from 1997. Over 20 years ago, Bechdel was already Que(e)rying Everything, so Graphic Medicine is a little late to the party!

Here’s a description of the larger project, though I probably will only have time to talk about Making ItDykes to Watch Out For, and Taking Turns at the conference.

One definition of queer, according to the OED, is “not in normal condition, out of sorts; giddy, faint, or ill.” Thus, among other things, queer is an ill feeling that undoes identity categories. If we consider queer not in terms of a particular sexual identity—that is, not as a form of being but as a mode of doing—then we can expand the affective and effective possibilities of the concept. What might it mean to do queer rather than be queer, and how might this doing create new forms of not only queer sexuality but also queer love? In this paper, I explore these questions in particular within the domain of the illness politics and practices of care that emerged out of the response to AIDS as represented in hybrid verbal and visual narratives from the 1980s to the present: Cindy Patton and Janis Kelly’s Making It: A Woman’s Guide to Sex in the Age of AIDS(1987); Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For(1983-2008), David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook’s comic 7 Miles a Second(2012); Jaime Cortez’s Sexile(2004); and MK Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371(2017). Patton and Kelly’s guide to safe sex incorporated comics drawn by Bechdel in the style and tone of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and Bechdel’s strip, which began its long-syndicated run in 1983, dealt with safer sex and AIDS activism on several occasions. 7 Miles a Second was also a collaboration and documents Wojnarowicz’s experiences of hustling, homelessness, art, and illness in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. Sexile is an HIV-prevention publication created for the AIDS Project Los Angeles and Gay Men’s Health Crisis and features the story of Adela Vásquez, a Cuban transgender person and AIDS activist who came to the US as part of the Marielito boatlift in 1980. Taking Turns draws on Czerwiec’s own experience as a nurse on an AIDS unit in Chicago, as well as her interviews with other practitioners and patients. I argue that these graphic AIDS narratives draw queer loveby depicting a multiplicity of practices of care, art, and politics.


Illness (in)action: Multiple Temporalities of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Looking forward to the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) Conference in Toronto this weekend (November 15-18, 2018).

I will present my paper “Illness (in)action: Multiple Temporalities of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” as part of a panel organized by Vincent Bruyere titled “Out of Mind/Out of Time/Out of Sync: Emergent Models of Agency in Disability Studies.” The other presenters are Sofia Varino and Rebecca Garden, so you know it’s going to be good! Our session is from 3:30-5:00 on Saturday, November 17 in the Casson Room in the Toronto Hilton.

Here’s the abstract for my paper:

In this paper, I explore the multiple temporalities of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) through an analysis of CFS experiences and events as documented in Jennifer Brea’s film Unrest(2017). I argue that the film shows illness and illness politics as operating biopychosocially across different temporalities. First, I discuss what I describe as the historical persistence of hysteria, a diagnostic category replaced by conversion disorder, but nonetheless haunting the phenomenological experience of illnesses, like CFS, without (yet) known biological causes. I also discuss how the film attempts to capture the experience of enduring embodiment, as extreme fatigue and sensitivity to light, sound, and surroundings makes CFS a condition of unrest—a disturbed and uneasy state that is at once physical, social, and political. Early in the film, as Brea films herself struggling to crawl across the floor to her bed, she anticipates a question that might be on the viewer’s mind: “Why would I film it?” Her answer—“Because I think someone should see this”—suggests both a politics of visibility and a politics of endurance, or the politics of making endurance visible. I argue that this film, along with other recent examples of illness and disability politics, challenges in important ways what activism and the figure of the activist look like. By connecting with people with CFS online, Brea not only documents their experiences with CFS but also seeks to politicize the many people with CFS who she describes as missing in action from society and the public sphere. With the film and hashtag #TimeForUnrest, she demonstrates illness (in)action as a kind of unrest cure.

Imagining Justice Alchemically: Articulating a Rhetoricity of Rights and Vulnerabilities

I’m headed home to Atlanta for the NWSA conference where I will be presenting a paper called “Imagining Justice Alchemically: Articulating a Rhetoricity of Rights and Vulnerabilities” on Thursday, November 8 at 4 pm at the Hilton Atlanta, 3, 315 (LCD). My paper is part of a panel on Vulnerable Desires. Here is a teaser on what I’ll be talking about:

In their groundbreaking intersectional analysis of race and disability, Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear begin by offering a critique of law professor and critical legal and race theorist Patricia Williams’s essay “Spirit Murdering the Messenger.” Williams’s essay discusses the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs by police officers who were attempting to evict her from her home in the Bronx in 1984. Press coverage at the time described Bumpurs as “violent and uncontrollable” during the encounter, and the police officer who shot her claimed he feared for his life when confronted with a knife-wielding Bumpurs. In their critique of Williams’s analysis of the complex social factors that led to Bumpurs’s killing, Erevelles and Minear argue that, “Williams deploys disability merely as a descriptor.” They then make a more general claim about the problem of an “(unconscious) nonanalysis of disability as it intersects with race, class, and gender oppression” in work by many critical race feminists. I share Erevelles and Minear’s desire to include disability as an essential component of intersectional analysis, and I value and am motivated by their forceful critique of the problem of the “nonanalysis of disability” in much intersectional analysis. Yet, in this paper, I want to offer a different reading of Williams that engages with her work more explicitly for critical disability studies. Although Williams doesn’t use the term “disability” in her early work, I contend that her preoccupation with thinking vulnerability and rights together indicates an attempt to account for forms of disablement, including racism, in and across the spaces and performances of the law, academia, and medicine. I draw on both the content and formal and methodological innovation of Williams’s work on race and rights, as well as on the strategies and practices of critical legal and race studies more generally, in order to explore the conjunctures and disjunctures—or what I call a structural and structuring double bind—between a rhetoricity of rights and vulnerability.

On David Wojnarowicz, politics, and gestures

This is the final weekend for the exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art of the work of David Wojnarowicz, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” I can’t recommend the show enough, especially as a resource for apprehending the sexual, racial, and illness politics of the present. I am reblogging a post from the University of Minnesota Press blog that I wrote just before the exhibit opened, which draws on my snapshot of Wojnarowicz in my book Indirect Action. I have also written about 7 Miles a Second, a comic about Wojnarowicz’s life that was a collaboration between Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook on the Critical Posthumanism genealogy webpage.

On Wojnarowicz, politics, and gestures:

Next week, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will launch a major exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz, “History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” It notes that Wojnarowicz was “queer and HIV-positive” and an “impassioned advocate for people with AIDS,” who would die of AIDS in 1992 at age 37. Publicity for the exhibition also indicates concern that because of Wojnarowicz’s association with the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the 1980s, his work is “too frequently treated as a footnote” to this historical moment. I am excited about the retrospective at the Whitney, both as an opportunity to celebrate Wojnarowicz’s work as more than a footnote and as an opportunity to return to a particular moment in time that still reverberates in the present.

In my work, I am interested in the conjunction of illness-thought-activism in time. Or, put another way, I am concerned with illness and disability in action in particular times and places. My recent book Indirect Action explores this conjunction in the period just before and after the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States, challenging the frequently repeated origin story that locates AIDS activism in particular and health activism more generally as emerging with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. Attempting to demonstrate the conceptual and practical uses of indirection, I conceived of the overall form of the project diagrammatically as a spatial network of interlinked experiences and events of illness, with shorter chapters, which I call snapshots, as nodes in the network that condense and encapsulate the overall structure. The image that helped me conceive of this form was the cover of a xeroxed catalog for David Wojnarowicz’s show In the Shadow of Forward Motion at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City in 1989. Thinker/writer/activist Félix Guattari contributed a foreword of sorts to the catalog, and his name, along with Wojnarowicz’s, is on the cover of the catalog.

In 1989 Felix Guattari contributed a foreword to a xeroxed catalog for a show of David Wojnarowicz’s In The Shadow of Forward Motion at the P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City.

The cover image on the catalog, a detail from Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series, is a copy of an x-ray photograph of a sexual encounter as if viewed through a microscope or pinhole. What we see is difficult to discern, and we must peer closely at the image to see there are two men in the scene; as microscoped, x-rayed, and then photocopied fragment, sex is not simply impersonalized but depersonalized. The sex is both there for all to see and difficult to discern. Our own voyeuristic desire is captured in the pinhole’s structuring call to look. The image vibrates eerily on a black background while the text boxes—“David Wojnarowicz,” “In the Shadow of Forward Motion,” and “Notes by Felix Guattari”—float in white rectangular blocks above and below the image. The catalog materially and conceptually links the names, words, and ideas of Guattari and Wojnarowicz, even though the two men never met.

A name not on the cover of the catalog is that of the photographer, Marion Scemama, who collaborated with Wojnarowicz and was a friend of Guattari’s; it was Scemama who brought the two men together at the very end of the first decade of AIDS, in 1989, three years before both of their deaths, only weeks apart, in 1992. In an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of Semiotext(e), a cultural theorist and archiver of French theory in the United States, Scemama describes how Guattari’s involvement in the catalog came about and the pleasure Wojnarowicz felt in having his work linked with Guattari’s. Because Guattari couldn’t come to New York to meet Wojnarowicz or see his work in person, Guattari’s “David Wojnarowicz” is, Scemama believes, a “little superficial” but nonetheless important as “a gesture.” “Gesture” is a key word and concept in Wojnarowicz’s work and features frequently in his diaries. Wojnarowicz’s concept of the gesture emerges not only from his practices of art and writing but also from his practices of sex. For Wojnarowicz the gesture is a link between word and image, writing and painting, sex and intimacy. For example, in a diary entry in September 1981, Wojnarowicz describes picking up a guy in a park in the East Village and going for coffee with him. As they make “slow spare conversation,” Wojnarowicz explains, “I knew I wanted to lie down with him but nothing was mentioned. I wondered how it would be approached, if at all. What words, what gestures.” Or as Agamben puts it in his “Notes on Gesture,” “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” The snapshots in my project are meant to function like gestures: they are intertexts and interimages that make a means visible—here, linking sex, illness, art, and politics before and after AIDS.

In his superficial gesture, Guattari argues that Wojnarowicz reinvents the “inspiration of the great 60s movements” in order to “transcend the style of passivity and abandon of the entropic slope of fate which characterizes this present period.” A superficial gesture, then, links Wojnarowicz back to the social movements of the 1960s, and forward or, perhaps we should say, in the shadow of a forward motion to “a singular message that allows us to perceive an enunciation in process,” as Guattari puts it. The enunciation in process catalogs macroevents, like the worldwide devastation of AIDS, the detritus of capitalism, and the expropriation and exploitation of land once inhabited by Native Americans. In his writing and visual art, Wojnarowicz demonstrates the metamorphosis of all things—rusted-out factories, defunct machines, and insect shells are placed side by side as images of “what history means reached through the compression of time.”

My own superficial and small gesture redraws a line between Guattari and Scemama and Wojnarowicz. The redrawing of the line is not meant simply as a reminder that politics is about the personal, in the sense that through personal relationships we make politics, although of course personal relationships are an important aspect of the practice of all politics. Rather, what I want to think about are those figures who act as relays between people, places, ideas, and entire movements: Scemama between Guattari and Wojnarowicz but also Guattari and Wojnarowicz between the radical psychiatric politics of the 1960s and 1970s and forms of AIDS activism in the 1980s. Like Wojnarowicz, I am interested in “what history means reached through the compression of time,” a snapshot or a xeroxed catalog linking two names, word and image, sex and love, art and politics. Doing politics is about all kinds of further gestures: personal and impersonal, large and small, profound and superficial.

Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence

I’m looking forward to the Comics and Medicine 2018 conference in Vermont in August. This is one of my favorite conferences and I try to attend every year. I love the cross-disciplinary, cross-practice (health, art, conceptual) aspect of the conference. This year I’m presenting a paper called “Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence.” Here’s my abstract:

Stories of sexual harassment and assault are currently reverberating through US cultural and political life, and #metoo has become shorthand for the hard work of testifying to experiences of violence and trauma and the difficult working through of feelings of pain and anger. We have also seen in recent years the publication of several graphic narratives that deal with sexual violence and its aftermath. In this presentation, I will explore some examples of what I call graphic trauma, a process of drawing as a form of working through the experience and event of sexual violence. In a conversation between comics critic Hillary Chute and comics artist Scott McCloud, Chute uses the phrase “the secret labor of comics” to emphasize the hidden work involved in what McCloud describes as the choices comics creators have to make in terms of “what moments to include in a story and what moments to leave out.”[1]

A key aspect of the comics form, then, is the necessity of what Chute describes as the work of condensation and distillation. Thus, I want to explore the possibility of graphic narratives as a medium well-suited for rendering trauma, and in particular the trauma of sexual violence as exemplified in Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! These works show how young women often first experience sex and sexuality as traumatic, because at the moment they are becoming sexual, their sexuality is taken away from them by a violent experience. Drawing for Una and Barry becomes a means by which they demonstrate resilience, the hard work of accessing what one can’t remember and what one can’t forget at the same time.

[1]Hillary Chute, Interview with Scott McCloud, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29.

My graphic semester

I integrate graphic narratives into most of my classes as one way to open up formal and methodological questions. For example, in my Documenting Mental Illness class, I had students read Ellen Forney’s graphic narrative about manic-depression, Marbles, as well as Una’s graphic narrative about sexual assault and trauma, Becoming Unbecoming. And in Cultures of Disability, students unpacked and read Chris Ware’s Building Stories. In all my classes, I encourage students to consider the form in which knowledge is presented and the methods used to gather and present evidence to back up an argument or tell a compelling story. I want students to think through the multiple ways that knowledge is produced, and I remind them that they too are knowledge producers. Because of their hybrid verbal and visual form, comics and graphic narratives thematize representation as a way of seeing, an active process rather than a reflection of reality, as John Berger described so well in another verbal/visual amalgamation, the television program and book Ways of Seeing.

[Image attribution and description. 1. on left: a still from Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis of Marji striking a Bruce Lee pose. 2. on right: A panel from Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (p. 31). The drawing is a close-up of a pair of human eyes looking directly at the viewer. The caption describes the fact that because of the “distance separating our eyes…there is a difference between the view each produces.”]

This semester I am not just incorporating comics and graphic narratives into my classes, I am taking the form itself, and its related concepts, practices, histories, and methods as an object of study. I will do this in two classes—one a freshman seminar on Comics and Medicine for students in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook and the other an upper-level topics seminar in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The freshman seminar will be a more focused study on the sub-genre/field near and dear to my heart, graphic medicine. The upper-level topics class, called Graphic Cultures, will be a more comprehensive approach that highlights how the hybrid form offers a way into practices of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality, which are so central to gender and sexuality studies.

Check out the syllabuses for these classes (and, yes, I did use comic sans font for both!).

Graphic Cultures syllabus sp18

Comics and Medicine syllabus sp18

Comics & Medicine freshman seminar

I’m teaching a freshman seminar on Comics & Medicine in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook University this spring.

I’ve been working on the syllabus and here’s the almost-final draft:

Comics and Medicine syllabus

This is the description of the course from the syllabus:

In recent years, comics and graphic narratives have become a popular and innovative form for telling auto/biographical stories in a medium that artfully combines words and images. Our course will focus on one exciting sub-field of the form known as graphic medicine, which explores the conjuncture between comics and clinical medicine. We will discuss how comics and graphic narratives have become important resources for communicating a range of ethical and clinical issues related to the experience of illness, and how this hybrid verbal/visual form helps medical practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers creatively reimagine the boundaries of “health,” “illness,” “life,” and “death.” We will investigate the ways that graphic medicine/illness narratives can be read as symptomatic texts of our time in at least two respects: as texts that literally describe symptoms (and struggle with finding a form to describe the affective and physical experience of symptoms), and as texts that describe illness as an event that goes beyond any particular individual’s experience and account of it, reflecting wider cultural categories, including race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The image on the left is from David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s 7 Miles a Second and the image on the right is from MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Both are portraits of the artists: in one, Czerwiec stands before and is dwarfed by one of the huge Keith Haring murals at Rush University where Czerwiec studied nursing; in the other, Romberger and van Cook portray Wojnarowicz at work spray-painting a canvas. Above the artist and his canvas, an image of Wojnarowicz’s lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, looks down. After I initially mis-characterized this image as a Wojnarowicz self-portrait, Romberger kindly wrote to inform me that he and van Cook created it “informed by specifics that I knew well as his friend: the layout of his apartment and that he had that particular photo of Peter on the wall, that he is working on that particular hopeful painting he did of a cosmic scientist, and doing it wearing a protective mask, necessary for a person with AIDS working with aerosol paint and which also comments ironically on the text about him breathing the air his dead friends cannot.” The caption at the top is from Wojnarowicz’s writing and begins, “I’m acutely aware of myself alive and witnessing.”

These are two of the texts we will explore in Comics & Medicine. There is so much to say, as these two images of a page and panel suggest.


Monster en abyme: sympathy and ill feeling in graphic Frankenstein narratives

Later this month, I’ll be participating in the symposium “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The event takes place October 27-29 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is organized by Susan Lederer (UW-Madison) and Lester Friedman (Hobart and William Smith Colleges).

My paper is turning into a monster with many component parts: mirrors, mise en abyme, graphic narratives, diagrams, sympathy, and ill feeling. Here are some images and my abstract.

At the very center of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the moment when the monster first views himself in a transparent pool. This moment is in the middle of the monster’s tale which is itself nested in the middle of Dr. Frankenstein’s tale nested in the middle of Robert Walton’s letters to his sister. In a remarkably condensed footnote in his important psychoanalytic reading of Frankenstein, Peter Brooks notes that, “A diagram of the narrative structure would look like this: {[()]}.” Brooks’s diagram also looks to me like a graphic depiction of a mirror, and mirrors and mirroring are central to the complex processes of subjectification that Frankenstein enacts in both its form and content. Mirrors are also a key visual trope in graphic narratives; they are a prominent prop for staging the identity question “Who’s There?,” as Lynda Barry asks in an evocative drawing of Maybonne staring into a mirror in just one example of what I call “drawing en abyme.” My presentation will look at the operation of the mise en abyme in comics and graphic narratives of Frankenstein. In particular, I am interested in how verbal and visual depictions of doubling operate as passageways—relational vestibules or transitional spaces—between interior and exterior, subject and object, self and non-self, and between sympathy or fellow feeling and its opposite, queer or ill feeling.

Illness-thought-activism: A conversation

Check out my conversation with Jesse Miller in Full Stop about my analysis of the conjunction illness-thought-activism in my book Indirect Action and in relation to the present moment. Here’s an excerpt. The full interview can be found here.

Jesse Miller: Since Trump was elected healthcare issues have been very visibly part of the political agenda. I’m thinking about things like the threats to funding and access to Planned Parenthood and attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And there have also been a range of responses to what you might call this “emergency time.” Things like calling senators, the women’s marches, the direct actions of disability activists associated with groups such as ADAPT. So thinking about your work as a history of the present, I’m wondering: in your research into the history of health activism what did you discover that you think is useful for understanding or responding to this moment?

Lisa Diedrich: I definitely want people to read my book in relation to what’s going on right now because I’m not sure if everybody understands that illness and how we do illness is political. And the idea that the personal is political relates very much to illness politics. I think of illness politics as similar to and connected to and intersecting with sexual politics and racial politics and class politics. Disability activists are some of the people doing this work the best right now. Because they really understand that disability is central to almost everything that we do as a society. So essential to questions about healthcare but also central to questions about policing and prisons and war and education. It’s connected to almost anything. If you look at an issue through a disability lens it gives you a really important perspective.

I just actually wrote something for a more general audience about illness politics and looking specifically at ADAPT and their work, and one of the things that I note is that I’ve seen some stuff on twitter that compares the direct actions of ADAPT to ACT UP. And so there’s a sense that ADAPT has been influenced by ACT UP. But of course ADAPT preceded ACT UP by at least 10 years. So this is precisely the kind of thing that I’m interested in, that we forget this longer history of ADAPT and of disability politics connecting back to an important movement that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s, the independent living movement. This basically was a movement for self-determination of disabled people. Gregg Bordowitz talks about how ACT UP was very interested in and influenced by these movements of self-determination. So there’s this link that would see direct connections between ADAPT and ACT UP. But with ADAPT actually being the precursor. And the fact that that’s not how we tell this story is again interesting because there’s a forgetting of the longer history of this kind of activism.