Illness-Thought-Activism: From HIV/AIDS to COVID-19

Gran Fury, SILENCE=DEATH, 1987, neon

I am reprising my seminar, Illness-Thought-Activism: From HIV/AIDS to COVID-19, this semester at Stony Brook as part of the first-year seminar program. This is a version of the course I taught in the Narrative Medicine MS program at Columbia in October. I think it’s kinda relevant.

Here’s the course syllabus and course description:

This course will explore the conjunction illness-thought-activism in time. In particular, we will focus our investigations on the medical, political, and aesthetic responses to the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics. We will use the historical example of the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the increasing politicization of the illness as a lens through which to examine the ongoing contemporary emergence of COVID-19. We will explore how these illnesses are treated in a variety of texts—medical, media, and activist documents, as well as literature, film, comics, and other forms of creative expression. In the most general terms, we are interested in being, doing, and becoming in relation to illness experiences and events, therapeutic thought and practices, and clinical and caring institutions and spaces. We will explore biopolitical issues, including the social determinants of health and structural violence that means some people are at greater risk for illness and premature death than others. Some of our organizing questions for the semester include: why and how is illness political?; what factors impact health?; what constitutes good care?; and how can we deliver better care? 

Cinema and Precarity: Treatment, Risk, Trauma

Looking forward to the NWSA Conference in Milwaukee. I’ll be presenting on a panel entitled Cinema and Precarity: Treatment, Risk, Trauma with Kristin Hole, Dijana Jelaca, and Victoria Hesford.

Here’s the panel description:

This panel brings together papers that explore multifold representational economies of screen precarity in a variety of political, cultural and historical settings. We address the Distortion/Dispossession theme of the conference in examining how controlling images of precarious lives (Butler 2004) are reiterated or countered in various films. From the AIDS crisis and recent engagement with treatment activism, to challenging notions of bodily sovereignty through film language, to female directors’ take on gender and trauma in the aftermath of a violent ethnic conflict, this panel engages in the question of what political and ethical challenges screen precarity circulates culturally. Does screen precarity, as a representational frame, inevitably fetishize bodies in physical and psychic pain, or does it also challenge political complacency (Butler 2009)? How does screen precarity, even when purportedly about past events, inevitably address present-day anxieties, and moreover, how does it stage a screen enactment of “fantasy echoes” (Scott 2001) across temporal and spatial boundaries? In examining how various forms of screen precarity might challenge standard approaches to political agency, the panel pays particular attention to the ways in which screen illness, disability and trauma circulate affective economies (Ahmed 2004) that might constitute an archive of feelings (Cvetkovich 2003) envisioned outside of the temporal and spatial frameworks of neoliberalism.

My paper, Screening Treatment Activism: The Precarious Temporo-Politics of Illness, analyzes the phrase and campaign “Drugs into Bodies” as expressing an ontology of the late capitalist present, a condensation of the complexities of the interaction of medicine, politics, and the multiple and conflicting demands of different temporalities: the emergency time of immediate action and the precarious time of reaching for new forms and phrases to articulate what is and is not yet coming into being, indirectly. I discuss two recent examples—How to Survive a Plague and Dallas Buyers Club—of screening treatment activism, in order to suggest both the ways treatment activism is depicted on screen, as well as what else these representations screen from our view.

Figure A.2

[The viewer is made to feel like a voyeur, as she watches at very close proximity the bare-chested man insert the drip into a line right above his left nipple. Screen capture from How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012)]