Academic journal article Intertexts

Auto/thanatography, Subjectivity, and Sociomedical Discourse in David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Academic journal article Intertexts

Auto/thanatography, Subjectivity, and Sociomedical Discourse in David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Article excerpt

I think for people to get a sense of mortality is something akin to examining the structure of society. that seems to be the most frightening thing people can do--examine the structure of society. (David Wojnarowicz, "The Compression of Time" 51).

In this article, I explore the implications of sociomedical discourse in reference to collective social identity of gay men, specifically in David Wojnarowicz's autothanatography, or memoir of dying, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991). Autothanatography as a genre has focused on writing (graph) one's own (autos) dying and death (Thanatos) and has largely neglected collective experience as a path of analysis and discussion. This essay has two interrelated aims. The first is to propose a complicating of the subject in autothanatography in order to include instances in which individual identity is bound to collective identity by way of an especially pronounced association in the text, such as it is in Close to the Knives. In other words, I aim to facilitate an expansion of single-subject autothanatographical discourse to include reference to those collective bodies appearing in the text both individually and in the form of community. It is to these bodies that Wojnarowicz feels his own body, and thus his own corporeal death, inextricably linked.

The second aim is to demonstrate the implications of overriding sociomedical interpolation in autothanatography. In short, the sociomedical model of HIV/AIDS is one that asserts the infective nature of the gay male body. This assertion provides both a lens through which to view and a mirror that reflects communal, medical, and political concerns of the gay male and his expression of experiential subjectivity engaged within collective identity. In particular, Wojnarowicz's text is concerned with the space in which social and medical knowledge merge to suggest that the homosexual male "body" (with the plural implied in the collective singular), and its social behaviors, is inherently and irreversibly a site of risk and contagion and thus a site that needs to be simultaneously contained and dismissed. Further, I argue that despite Wojnarowicz's persistent argument against the sociomedicalized objectification of the gay male body, his text relies on rhetoric that asserts the underpinning of the homosexual body as dangerous and infective.

1. Blurring Boundaries, Blending Lives: The Autos of Autothanatography

Wojnarowicz's monograph is an especially difficult book to engage as autobiography. Eric Waggoner agrees, noting that this difficulty arises "largely because of the resolutely visceral nature of its writing and the 'pastiched' construction of its narrative" (172). The difficulty that Waggoner notes in reading Close to the Knives as autobiography is located, it seems, in what Waggoner implies is the necessary framing of autobiographical writing as writing of the self-as-primary-performer in a text that follows a distinct and identifiable narrative trajectory. Close to the Knives is a nonfiction collection in which are included previously published and non-published essays and sketches, brief recollections of childhood, discussions of Wojnarowicz's living in New York, political rants, ruminations on his own and others' dying bodies, conversations about suicide, and thoughts on the HIV/AIDS crisis as it affects both Wojnarowicz and others. The postmodern collection of fragmented social and political commentary and at times stream-of-consciousness writing about not only Wojnarowicz's own person but also about others' bodies in Close to the Knives may appear out of reach, or at least a stretch, as neatly categorizeable autobiographical discourse. And yet, these aspects are precisely what make interpreting this text as autothanatography so applicable. What is central to the text in all of its parts is the recurring formation and disintegration of Wojnarowicz's body-self and the (members of his) community in which he locates affiliation and searches for voice as pieces of one and the same physical (and frequently sexual) composition. …

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