Archive for April, 2019

AIDS: A Political Plague

Vanity Fair: ‘When AIDS was Funny’- Scott Calonico

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays a crucial role in expanding the conversation on AIDS and political partisanship. This is not to argue that Angels in America can only be explained as a political commentary on AIDS because the play is far more than that. However, the production does force the readers to acknowledge the complexities of political partisanship, in light of our own definitions. What does it mean to be conservative? Conversely, how progressive must one be to be considered liberal? Kushner demonstrates the idea of the spectrum in his fantasia-esque masterpiece. More importantly, the play allows us to feel the level of political salience attached to issues like HIV/AIDS, particularly during the 1990s. Thus, the politics in this piece are not a mere opportunity for Kushner to add to the diversity of his characters, rather political affiliations illustrate how much politics can affect national and individual identity. This dynamic has become the status quo even in modern politics (particularly during the Trump Presidency). After looking at Angels in America, one can begin to draw contrasts between the political environment then and now. In doing so, it becomes evident that one leader, or one administration, can deeply affect an entire generation, and such effects are irreversible.

The idea of having a national identity that determines how a ‘silent majority’ is treated has never been clearer than in the Regan Administration. In an ironic documentary titled When AIDS was Funny, Scott Calonico reveals recordings from press meetings, in which Regan responds to the AIDS epidemic. Even with decent knowledge of partisan politics at the time, the response is truly “chilling” and worth comparing with today’s politics. Much of the rhetoric that Regan uses could be utilized by the Trump White House currently- that is the most shocking revelation. President Regan does not only appear to disregard the AIDS epidemic, but explicitly calls it the “gay plague”, and refers to it as a fantasy of the imagination. This response is ironic considering the way in which Angels in America is written. Although today AIDS is addressed publically, and medically, the rhetoric around it remains unchanged. This pushes us to ponder on how far we have actually come, not in a technical sense, but perhaps ideologically? One can only move forward, even when all the odds are actively being stacked against them, and that is one message Angels in America yields form its political instances.  

Social Critique and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America

A clip from Angels in America performed

Hi everyone!

For the next four classes, we will finally be discussing Kushner’s Angels in America, for which the augmenters’ posts about Wojnarowicz may come into our discussion.

In class, we’ve been talking a lot about contagion narratives and how they’re structured. More specifically, we’ve identified that, for example, the disease is never the main issue but rather is the backdrop as the narrative develops, grappling with various issues related to identity, politics, race, and more. And Angels in America is no exception. In a journal article titled “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America,” Daryl Ogden argues that

Kushner makes visible a Cold War political discourse that underlines the ideological similarities between the McCarthyite 1950s and the Reaganite 1980s, calling attention to the parallels between communism and homosexuality as American identities of otherness and disempowerment. (243)

So, in other words, as Kushner tackles issues of identity and politics, namely homosexuality and communism — and although Ogden does not explicitly state it — while the AIDS epidemic serves as a backdrop.

However, what is even more interesting is that some characters in the play conflate homosexuality and AIDS, much like Reaganite politics conflates the two, calling the epidemic the “gay plague.” But through this conflation, AIDS is not only a backdrop; rather, it is brought to the foreground as a key character in play — except even more pervasive, permeating the whole narrative. In this way, AIDS is both in the background and the foreground of the narrative. As a result, we nuance the role that the disease plays here. While it serves as a backdrop and creates an opportunity to bring up Reaganite politics and communism, it also allows for a more direct engagement with the perception of homosexuality and AIDS.

To question our assumptions about contagion narratives: to what extent do you think this narrative is different from others we’ve read? Is the disease as salient in other narratives such as Welcome to Our Hillbrow?

In Angels of America, some of the narration happens through dreams and imaginary conversations. The video embedded earlier depicts an interesting scene in the play where Prior is having an imaginary conversation with his ancestors on the theme of contagion. In what appears to be a nightmare, Prior is woken up by two men dressed in thirteenth and seventeenth century clothing, claiming to both be Prior Walter. They then go on to describe how their own pestilences (the plague) have led to their demise. They detail the curse “The spotty monster” that binds a couple of Walter family descendants to be carried off by the plague. This is done to try to explain why the current Prior is suffering a similar death, one by disease. This idea of mortality combined with inescapable fate makes us question the effect of one’s ancestors has on making up their own identity, and what affect that ultimately has on a person’s life. Thinking of narration in this play, the notion of dreams is a particularly interesting form of narration. In Scene 7, Harper and Prior share a dream. Although these two characters have never met before, in the previous scene, their partners meet each other for the first time. Scene 6, Joe and Louis meet in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Federal Court. The lives of Harper and Prior are connected through the lives of their partners, and their shared dream Prior informes Harper that her husband is homosexual. In the following excerpt, Harper questions imagination and her own dreams as she cannot believe that her dreams reflect reality that she is unaware of. Harper says,

“If I didn’t ever see you before and I don’t think I did, then I don’t think you should be in here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with, that didn’t enter from experience, from the real world. Imagination cannot create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and resembles them into visions … Am I making sense right now?” (Kushner 32–33)

In the Dream of Ding Village, Grandfather’s dreams reflected real-life events and information that he was not consciously aware of. How does narration through the medium of dreams function in each piece? Are there similarities between the two?

HIV/AIDS Issue in South Africa

This video shows the story of a man in a town near Johannesburg that due to the HIV/AIDS outbreak there, has become a serial rapist in order to “cleanse” himself of the disease and spread it around the community. He does this so he would not have to “die alone” and gains power in being able to control who and who doesn’t have the disease, and is essentially dictating their quality of life.

In Welcome To Our Hillbrow , the community does not have a great understanding of the reason the AIDS outbreak is prominent in their city. They regard it as the consequence of the promiscuity of some people; the women in particular. Moreover, some theories point to the consumption of green monkey meat to be the blame, and particularly point that blame to West Africans that migrate to South Africa to be the bearers of the ailment as this is a custom of theirs. Like this video, there is no real understanding of the dangers and proactive behaviour to stop the ailment from spreading.

Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, Hillbrow

Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) helps us tie together some threads or strands that have run through several readings in this course. Specifically, it addresses issues such as the relationship between communication and communicable disease (a topic running all the way back to Sampson’s Virality), the weight of history and tradition, the effects of circulation or migration on personal and communal identity, and the very question of individual agency in the face of an epidemic disorder that stresses, above all, our connections to others.

I was tempted to assign — and maybe will in the future — one of the few pieces of criticism on Mpe’s novel that engages with these issues in ways that speak to the rest of our course. It’s this piece by Emily S. Davis, who teaches at the University of Delaware and writes about globalization, human rights, social justice, and (of all things) romance genres. But for now I’ll give you a couple crucial quotes that also serve, usefully, as an example of how you start to build an argument about a text based on the evidence generated through close reading or explication. In this case, she makes an argument that the novel posits contagion as a form of connection or even belonging: “Contagion, as Refilwe realizes, is the condition of modern life, whether in Tiragalong or London. We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home.”

From there she seeks to reinforce this argument by offering an interpretation of the repeated “Welcome to our…” passages:

 The structure of the novel reinforces this expansive sense of belonging as shared infection. The refrain of “Welcome to our Hillbrow” (Mpe 2000, 2) in the first chapter expands in scale over the course of the text to include “Welcome to our England” (97), “Welcome to our All” (104), “Welcome to the World of our Humanity” (113), and finally “Welcome to our Heaven” (124). Refilwe is welcomed into Heaven at the end of the book by a cast of other characters, all of whom have died and are being memorialized by the unnamed omniscient narrator. The conception of heaven laid out by this narrator is fundamentally narrative: “Heaven is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives” (124). Mpe’s cosmopolitan text suggests that the task of the aesthetic is to memorialize the complex interconnections among people, even those connections people might wish to hide or ignore. Toward this end, the novel dramatizes the competing narratives about the current South African issues of AIDS and immigration. According to the xenophobic rural/nationalist narrative, both the AIDS crisis and immigration involve foreign elements that must be excised through witchcraft. But the narrator demonstrates repeatedly that there is more to these stories than meets the eye: the bone throwers cynically exploit their knowledge of local feuds and relationships for profit, while the villagers erroneously believe that there is a cure for social ills. In contrast, the narrator’s cosmopolitan narrative invokes an interconnectedness for which there is no cure. No god intervenes to restore a parochial moral order; moreover, we are all guilty (or potentially guilty) of the same crimes and linked by our shared bodily passions and our shared vulnerability to suffering.

(Davis 106-107)

I’d love to hear your responses to this reading of contagion and whether you think it applies to texts we’ve read other than Hillbrow. And what are the implications of framing contagion in this way? Davis offers this answer: “As a human rights text, Welcome to Our Hillbrow embraces contaminations of all kinds, presenting physical rights (freedom from disease, access to medical care, etc.) as inextricable from social rights (freedom of speech, freedom from xenophobia, freedom to love), the local as inextricable from the foreign, and the bodily as inextricable from the narrative” (108).

My own comments in class should indicate that I’m sympathetic to this position, but I certainly welcome counterarguments or conflicting takes. I see the position Davis stakes out as compatible, as I’ve noted in discussion, with Appiah’s approach to cosmopolitanism and “contamination,” which I’ve written about in a very early post on this site. That post grew out of a discussion of Angels in America, so perhaps this conversation will spill into our discussion of that work as we turn to it next.

Vigilantism in Johannesburg and Welcome to our Hillbrow

In 2008, Louis Theroux traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to make a documentary about the private security situation there. As the government is unable to provide adequate security to its inhabitants, private groups emerge to reinforce the order, however, by means of crime and violence. In a short clip called “Brutal Interrogation”, Louis Theroux met a group of vigilantes who punished an accused criminal using a method called “sjambok,” in which they whip the victim with a long and heavy stick. One of the vigilantes claimed that the violence is “good for the community” because the criminal would not dare to do it again.

Is violent execution in Welcome to our Hillbrow a counterpart to the vigilantism shown in Theroux’s documentary? The Tiragalong people punish those that are accused of causing unexpected deaths, perhaps also to eliminate threats and protect their community from harm: “cleanse the village.” (43) However, it is interesting that although the punishments are not an official entity’s decision, it is a collective decision, as a story is constructed by a person, and then it is passed on, transforms, and the villagers collectively decide to kill the accused person. No single person is to blame for one’s death, just as the interconnected web between the main characters in the story. And although the villagers’ aim might be to reinforce order in the community, their actions are more driven by prejudice and gossip rather than concern for the common good.

Tough, resistant and collaborative

Similar to cholera, tuberculosis has been existence. There’s a world health day (March 24) for tuberculosis to keep raising awareness of the disease. There is a cure for cholera and there should be one for tuberculosis, since they have both existed for the longest time. Well, right and wrong. Right because TB can because there is a cure for TB and wrong because Multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) is difficult and expensive. People from middle to low-income backgrounds cannot afford MDR-TB drugs. A lot has been done to prevent and manage cholera (as seen in Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map) and prevent massive outbreaks but TB has been a lot more tougher because the bacteria is tough resistant and collaborative. It is tough and can reside in an individual for many years, without detection. Could pass as normal cough, making it easy to infect others. The bacteria collaborates with HIV/AIDS, and the combo becomes lethal for the host. Infact, according to WHO, tuberculosis is currently on the list of the top 10 causes of death in the world.

It would be worth studying the history of tuberculosis and how it has remained strong for several decades, unlike other diseases (plague, cholera) that have been studied in class. Kathryn Lougheed’s book captures the story of tuberculosis from the past to the present. Kathryn is a microbiologist turned writer and it is a chance to see from the lens of someone who has interacted with the bacteria. Bonus: Kathryn is a female writer and one of the few in the course of studying contagion.

Convener’s Post – Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Hillbrow- Johannesburg
‘Hillbrow – Johannesburg’ – watercolour by Grand Maghandlela

Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow depicts life in the downtrodden communities of post-apartheid South Africa.  In his book, he presents the stories of lives cut short by the ravages of sex, disease, and crime that appear to echo his own experiences in these neighbourhoods.  Despite the prevalence of death, however, Mpe seems to argue that the most destructive contagion of all is the spread of judgement.

The novel revolves around the importance and weight of “inner-city status”, which then ties into topics of gossip, contraction of AIDS, and their relation to contagion theory. Your inner-city status is largely dependent on what the public knows about you: your actions, your doings, and your relation to other people. We see the transition of Refentse’s reputation throughout the novel, from being an educated and respected individual in the city’s eyes, to being seen as a traitor to his family after his suicide. Contracting AIDS also brings about bad news to a person’s reputation in Hillbrow. Since it is difficult to hide from the public eye that a person has contracted AIDS, it amplifies the gossip and attention that goes around about that person, and suddenly you don’t hear the end of the many different stories being spread around, even after death. This is evident through Refilwe’s final moments in Tiragalong after coming back from Oxford, having found out she’s had HIV for a decade then. Public judgments are even worse for those who are seen or heard to be associated with people from other countries, thus including xenophobic discrimination in the public’s repertoire of gossip. The question to ask here is how does the impact of inner-city status, the movement of gossip, and the contraction of AIDS, relate to our knowledge of contagion theory?

Gossip spreads through misinformation, and stories are told with no concern for facts. Often, stories push the plot forward by the characters being told inaccurate gossip or not being told at all. Such as with Refentse’s suicide, the story that gets created around the reasons he had for dying, and the repercussions in everybody’s lives after his death. Narratives and storytelling serve as a central point in the development of the novel. The narrator remains focused on Refentse (addressing him as ‘you’) throughout most of the novel up to the last two chapters: “Refilwe on the Move” and “The Returnee,” where the focus and the ‘you’ changes to Refilwe. What is the importance of this shift in the narrator? What do we make of the fact that Refentse is dead before the novel starts?

An important detail to highlight about Refentse is the fact that he writes a story about a woman who also writes a story, and both their stories focus on the same: a “story of Hillbrow and xenophobia and AIDS and the nightmares of rural lives.” This duplicity invites to see not only the mirroring between Refentse and the protagonist of his story, but also between Refentse’s story and Phaswane Mpe’s own novel. How does one make sense of this mirroring in relation to the novel?

Mpe describes a complex society that is accustomed to extreme everyday trials.  While the beauty of sexual expression is seen through blossoming loves between Bones of the Heart, Mpe also warns of the severe consequences and excessive social disapproval of this sexual liberation.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic also serves as a backdrop for the book, with this disease and those afflicted by it being framed as ill-understood yet healthily scorned by their communities. Furthermore, the prevalence of senseless violence, alarming drug use, and appalling sexual exploitation threaten peace in prosperity for the people of Hillbrow.  How does Mpe use the deaths of his characters to draw attention to these evils affecting his community? What other techniques does he use to comment on the role of xenophobia, hearsay, and status in his society?


Black Mirror- Nosedive

The state of the privileged community in Ding Village is very comparable to “Black Mirror”. While the entire show is centered around the future of humanity in its advanced technological state, the episode Nosedive is almost a perfect parallel to the events that take place in Ding Village. The premise of the episode is that each individual is ranked in social class based on the opinions of the people around them. People are categorized from 1 to 5 stars while each number comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The higher the number, the more accepted by society that they are. Similarly, in the paragraph that describes the homes of the people who have donated blood to the community, the house that has donated the most blood has a plaque with 5 stars on it in front of their house.  These stars represent how accepted they are by their government. In both cases, these physical forms of recognition come with a sense of comfort and many benefits. While the people in the episode get to live in more expensive houses, drive more luxurious cars and travel anywhere they’d like to. The people in the book get to live in a beautiful neighborhood with household appliances and furnishings. The correspondence between the episode and the book reveal how easily we can be manipulated into participating in something, despite its benefits or disadvantages to us. This depiction of an alternate reality, as well as a historical event stand as a reflection of our current state. We most likely are going through the same experience right now without being aware of it. 

Ghost cities

I was struck, while reading a 2016 interview with Zhao Liang, the director of the documentary Together, by the following description of China’s contemporary “ghost cities”:

There are hundreds of ghost cities like that in China. They are nearly everywhere: in “tier 1” cities [metropolises], in “tier 2” cities [provincial capitals], and “tier 3” cities [cities of smaller dimensions and secondary economic importance]. There is a ghost city in my hometown as well. The ghost city is caused by the blind development, by the unplanned expansion. It is a consequence of the economic model with Chinese characteristics, which is not following the economic laws, namely the regulation of price driven by the supply-demand system. As a matter of fact, the ghost city is the result of one of the many economic bubbles artificially created by the Chinese political system. In China, the price of property is manipulated to allow investors to make huge profits. The possibility of speculation nurtures a fever of real-estate investments, hence the flow of “hot money” in the sector over the past few years. Local governments actively encourage property developers to construct more and more new cities by offering them preferential policies. This way, the government can boast its land-developing achievements and Gross Domestic Product figures, and more plots of land and buildings can be sold under these circumstances. However, the bubble doesn’t last in the long run. These days, making money in real estate has become very hard in China because of oversupply. Hence, all the failed mortgage repayments by the investors, the bad debts, the banks acquiring property, the ghost cities.

One way to read the dream passages in Yan’s Dream of Ding Village, then, may be as a prophecy of or commentary on precisely this phenomenon. The caskets themselves become more than just emblems of hyperdevelopment: they become ghost cities, residences for our spectral narrator an others like him. The final irony in Yan’s novel is that not even the ghosts want to live there. “All I knew was that my home was Ding Village,” the narrator says as his family prepares to rebury him in a new-and-improved casket, covered with scenes not just of Chinese metropolises but Paris, New York, and London as well. “I didn’t care how fancy my casket was, or if the gold paint on it was real, or if it was worth as much as all the land in the village” (320).

His cries, as they carry him away in his new casket (“Save me, Grandpa, save me…”), fall “like raindrops on to the parched and blighted earth” (321). Could this be the beginning of the rainstorm that finally transforms the plain in the novel’s final paragraphs?

Filming Ding Village/Henan AIDS crisis

From Yan Li, who took this course in the spring of 2015:

As promised, here is the link to the full movie based on Dream of Ding Village. This movie is directed by Gu Changwei, one of the most famous “fifth generation directors” in China, and performed by many famous Chinese actors, such as Zhang Ziyi. You may be familiar with her early film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Love for Life was released on 10 May 2011 in China. Though this movie is a little different from the novel and focuses more on Lingling and Ding Liang’s love story, it faithfully illustrates the rural background and the tragic flavor of the storyline. Hope that you will further understand the setting of the novel by watching this film.

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai, which notes that the film had government sponsorship even though the novel on which it’s based had been banned.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this 2016 interview with director Zhao Liang, in which he notes that Together is the only film of his not currently banned in China.) The documentary is no longer on YouTube as far as I can tell but you’ll find it in several parts here.