Academic journal article Shofar

The Aporia of AIDS And/as Holocaust

Academic journal article Shofar

The Aporia of AIDS And/as Holocaust

Article excerpt

I. The Genealogy of AIDS and/as Holocaust

In the mid-1980s the advocacy group Gay Men's Health Crisis reached an impasse regarding the role it was to perform for people suffering from AIDS. Torn between seeing its mission in the pursuit of the limited resources and treatments available or in a more overtly activist role of agitation for broader political, social, and economic attention, GMHC split when co-founder Larry Kramer left the group to form AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP's inaugural motto would emphasize the group's insistence on challenging normative modes of perception, to force people to take notice of and act upon the growing crisis. ACT UP T-shirts and handbills, with their slogan "Silence=Death" erablazoned over a pink triangle, saturated the gay communities which were suffering the most, and the most publicly, from the disease.(2) The symbolic resonance of the motto -- particularly the pink triangle, which is, historically speaking, the lesser-known poor relation of the yellow Mogen David that marked European Jews for incarceration and extermination -- was especially significant to Kramer, who had been linking the cultural conditions which had allowed various extermination projects to flourish in 1930s Europe and those which were facilitating the spread of AIDS in the United States in the 1980s. In this paper, I focus on the ways in which traces of the Nazi holocaust inform not only Kramer's and ACT UP's analyses of the numerous facets of the epidemic, but also the ways in which experiences of AIDS and the Holocaust continue to resonate with each other in the oeuvre of novelist and AIDS activist Sarah Schulman.(3)

The AIDS-Holocaust connection places Kramer and Schulman on dangerous ground. Too often, indiscriminate comparisons of contemporary events with the Nazi holocaust are made in order to claim for postwar victims a level of suffering and historical significance equal to, or even greater than, that of Jews who were persecuted during the Third Reich. As Deborah Lipstadt argues in Denying the Holocaust,(4) such forays into historical relativism (a broad term, under which "deconstructionism" fares especially poorly [p. 29],) serve as harbingers of Holocaust denial. Perhaps even more effectively than outright denial, relativism exploits the "fragility of memory, truth, reason, and history" (p. 216), and, ultimately, "threatens to `kill' those who already died at the hands of the Nazis for a second time by destroying the world's memory of them" (p. xvii). Moreover, R. Amy Elman speaks specifically to citations of the pink triangle in both Stonewall-era gay liberation movements and more recently in ACT UP's AIDS consciousness materials. Both liberatory and critical uses, she writes,"demonstrate [an]...impoverishment of political understanding. Not only is appropriating the pink triangle a problem, but so too are references to AIDS as a Holocaust."(5) Reflecting Lipstadt's defense of the inviolable uniqueness of the Nazi persecution of Jews, Elman's notions of lesbian identity and political concerns are fundamentally Separate from those of gay men and queer people; the idealism of such "hereto-alliances" (p. 42), she concludes, diminishes the integrity of lesbian political achievement. Certain strengths of their work notwithstanding,(6) both Lipstadt and Elman see only the occlusion or enervation of historical reality in linking the Nazi holocaust with later events, and both reject the possibility that such links -- and indeed, even their apparent perversity -- might be motivated by a critical understanding of the narratives documenting the experiences of multiple disasters.

Challenging such historical paradigms, Jason Tougaw argues that recent philosophical treatments of trauma are instrumental in developing strategies for reading the emergent genre of AIDS narratives. The testimonial narrative of the Nazi holocaust, especially, ruptures the limits of historical discourses by developing "conventions all its own to organize and explain what defies social conventions, what twentieth-century `enlightened,' Humanist subjects. …

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