Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

From Spectacular to Speculative: The Shifting Rhetoric in Recent Gay AIDS Memoirs

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

From Spectacular to Speculative: The Shifting Rhetoric in Recent Gay AIDS Memoirs

Article excerpt

The palpable shift from pathology to prevention of AIDS throughout North American culture manifests a gradual alteration in public opinion in recent years. By distinguishing between "spectacular" and "speculative" forms of discourse, this essay traces a parallel rhetorical shift in exemplary forms of the gay AIDS memoir.

It is that errancy I seek / Within myself to turn and find / the world was really there.--Thomas E. Yingling, "Something," in AIDS and the National Body (1997).

"We've learned how not to talk about the epidemic as a plague. Now let's try to talk about it, for a while, without the language of terror, of panic, of death, of resurrection, of apocalyps." These bold and timely words were those of one of Canada's foremost gay-rights and AIDS activists, Michael Lynch (81). And they seemed almost perfectly to describe the spirit of the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver, where so much of the deliberation was focussed on the "preventative" side of the AIDS pandemic, rather than the "pathological" (see Rotello 30). Lynch, however, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, was not writing in 1996--he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991--but, prophetically enough, eight years previously, in a paper prepared for the Modern Language Association Convention in 1988.

I begin this essay on one important species of "life writing," the gay AIDS memoir, with that same year, and work through to the time of the Vancouver Conference, and beyond. Although the Vancouver meeting was international in scope, I restrict my commentary here to the gay AIDS memoir as a largely "North American" phenomenon--my exempla are all American-authored--inviting others to hypothesize about the gay memoir's generic shapes and rhetorical contours from the "European" point of view (the work of Derek Jarman and Christopher Coe may be suggestive here), or perhaps from a "multinational" perspective (in the cross-cultural contexts, for example, of Thom Gunn and Harold Brodkey, among others). I commence my North American analysis in and around 1988, not, however, because the AIDS memoir by that time had moved very much past the language of terror, panic, and death--"the tacky theologies of guilt and retribution" as American anthropologist Eric Michaels, dying that very same year, puts it in his own AIDS d iary (107). To the contrary, I think it's perhaps only in this decade that the AIDS memoir has lived up to Lynch's prophetic words, catching hold of what John Glum, writing in 1993, detected as "the second wave of a response to AIDS, that of fighting for a future for PWAS [Persons with AIDS] [...] [as] a counter to the anguished, passive responses [...] in which endurance [was] the only available strength" (219).

The discursive shift in the gay AIDS memoir, from a "spectacular" to a more "speculative" form of rhetoric, I contend, is a literary and artistic registration of this "second wave" response to AIDS. For some, however, the remove from "spectacular" to "speculative" may appear to be belied etymologically by the continuance of a certain mirroring rhetoric from one term to the other. "Speculation" about feminist discourses as an alternative to more "spectacular" forms of phallogocentric thought within the dominant philosophical traditions of the West appears especially fraught this way, as Luce Irigaray argues, when woman serves as "the foundation for specular duplication," particularly "in her role of mother [where] she will facilitate the repetition of the same, in contempt of her difference" (54). At the outset, then, I should signal that I use speculative in a deliberately open-ended way, unleashing the more loosely colloquial sense of the word in a measure resistant to epistemological protocols for encompas sing the world and making it entirely knowable as a reflection of rational investigation and (hu)manist penetration. Instead, speculative, as in the case of the treatment of AIDS itself, so I contend, becomes the marker of an unencompassable pathological phenomenon, the premier signifier of uncertain existential outcomes and unpredictable semantic possibilities. …

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