Archive for April, 2019

More on Wojnarowicz

Although Teresa also decided to write about Wojnarowicz, I had originally intended to talk about this photo of his.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994. Source:

David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Buffalo)” is one of the artist’s best-known works and perhaps one of the most haunting artistic responses to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The work depicts a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths. The artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there. The work is in reality, a photograph of a diorama from a museum in Washington, DC depicting an early Native American hunting technique. Through appropriation of this graphic image, the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness, making the work extremely powerful and provocative. Made in the wake of the artist’s HIV-positive diagnosis, Wojnarowicz’s image draws a parallel between the AIDS crisis and the mass slaughter of buffalo in America in the nineteenth century, reminding viewers of the neglect and marginalization that characterized the politics of HIV/AIDS at the time. 

Description of photo. Source:

This image is ‘ghostly’ in two ways. Firstly, the image itself depicts buffaloes jumping off a cliff, in black and white — all of which creates an ominous mood. As the description rightfully says, “the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness.” Secondly, the fact that “[t]he artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there” further adds to the mood evoked since neither the source event for the image nor the context is properly explained. This ‘ghostliness’ also exists in Dream of Ding Village, since the narrator is the dead child.

It is interesting that both artists — in largely different contexts and probably uninfluenced by one another — decide to evoke a sense of ghostliness when depicting AIDS in their art, although quite different art forms. Besides the obvious reason that ghosts have a negative connotation, much like a disease does, AIDS in specific may remain dormant for a long time before emerging, as we see in Dream of Ding Village. This could be a possible explanation for the association of AIDS with ghosts — that the virus can remain invisible for long periods of time before appearing unexpectedly.

But then this begs the question: what do we win or lose by commenting on a certain phenomenon using a certain art form? Dream of Ding Village, as a novel, allows for various voices to be represented and creates venues for justification and explanation — What is AIDS? How does it play out in a certain village in China? And why so? What is the reason it was contracted? Is there anyone to blame? — all these questions are answered, explicitly or not, in the novel. Meanwhile, “Untitled (Buffaloes),” without any context, is quite jarring in itself, perhaps more so than a 300+ page novel. However, we tend to lose context, the point, and the answer to many questions that the photograph raises. And what does that imply for the goal the art aims to achieve? And is it the same goal?

The Show Must Go On…

‘I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying this rage inside like a blood-filled egg … and there’s a thin line between the inside and outside, a thin line between thought and action, and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone.’ (Wojnarowicz, qtd. in Moffit).

David Wojnarowicz was an American artist and AIDS activist in the 1980s, who himself contracted AIDS and died at the age of 37. He is the author of the two paintings posted below. Through his paintings, Wojnarowicz tried to advocate for patients with AIDS who were ostracized and stripped from their rights. His work is relevant when discussing the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s US, which some referred to as the “gay plague,” believing that AIDS was only prevalent in the homosexual community and was a result of immorality and promiscuity. What was often not recognized, apart from the fact that HIV spread in the heterosexual community, was the fact that it can also be passed on through blood from a mother to a child, and from a blood transfusion.  

In the context of China, The Dream of Ding Village gives us a very different perception of another AIDS epidemic, where the main cause of HIV spread was contributed to the use of unsterilized needles in blood donation. We can see similarities between the AIDS crises, as the infected were ostracized and unsupported by the government and both epidemics share a path to the development of public policy. This raises the question what parallels between the American and Chinese AIDS crises? Does Dream of Ding Village shed light on the ADIS crisis in the US?


Death, Derrida, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Apologies for the late augmenters post.
During our class on Katheine Anne Porter’s story, we extensively discussed the conversation around death, particularly in Miranda’s looking forward to death as an escape, but she also clearly flees from death.
I think reflecting on this now is very interesting, especially in relation with the interview we watched for Dream of Ding Village , where Yan Lianke discusses how books portray people as fearless of death (in the context of war) but in reality everyone is actually scared of dying. In a way we see Miranda as a character representing that split in how people want to act, but in reality cannot act in that way.

Also, in the conveners’ post for the book, they brought up death and religion of trying to maybe study how much of her views on death are dependent on her christian faith. This reminded me of Jacques Derrida’s book The Gift of Death which very interestingly studies “questions first introduced in his book “Given Time” about the limits of the rational and responsible that one reaches in granting or accepting death, whether by sacrifice, murder, execution, or suicide.” (Book depository)

I would not consider this book a light or fun read, but it’s interesting if you want to think of death in new ways.

Moral Issues in Dream of Ding Village

Yan Lianke was interviewed by Laura Dombernowski in connection to the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark in August 2015

From 10:35 to 14:06, Yan talks about the composition background, the theme of love and his understandings of Dream of Ding Village

The Dream of Ding Village is based on the government encouraged blood-selling tragedies in Yan’s hometown, Henan, China in the early 2000s. Through the medium of the grandson’s ghost narrative and the dreams of Grandpa, Yan narrates the demise of the AIDS-stricken Ding village while raising a series of moral questions in a detached and surreal tone.

The novel opens with the sudden realizations of Grandpa, who pinpointed the origin of AIDS to the blood-selling campaign he acquiesced in ten years ago. Pressured to meet development metrics, the local officials aggressively allured the skeptical villagers with monetary benefits, yet failed to inform them the danger of excessive blood sales or unhygienic practices. Consequently, as limited official blood stations in rotation and inadequate regulations of black market gave rise to the explosive growth of private blood collectors, under-informed villagers became the prey of ruthless blood sellers, who prioritized commercial gains at the expense of citizens’ health. The novel thus brings our attention to the devastating implications of a public policy that lacks of a proper set of supporting regulations. It also prompts us with the question of how should a government balance between overall capitalist progress and individual human well-beings. Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some “unintended” regional sufferings?

On the community level, moral issues centered around the paradoxical theme of justice. In an attempt to revenge on Hui, who exploited them by extracting blood unhygienically and selling coffins they were entitled to, villagers poisoned Hui’s innocent, defenseless child to death. Without the slightest regrets, the villagers believed the sufferings Hui inflicted upon them justified for such acts and that it was only fair for Hui to suffer like them. This similar mindset resurfaced again when the community destroyed their living environment under the excuse of justice. Upon the approval of the new leaders, Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, who were trying to reinforce their popularity, the villagers looted all the property from their communal shelter, the school, and stripped bare of all the trees in the Ding village in a revelry. Again, they were unapologetic, believing that these acts were “righteous” compensations for their coffins taken away by Hui. Are they becoming better off defending their rights to coffins or are they digging their own graves by tearing down their own shelter and environment? Here, Yan also brings into question the role of a leader in crisis.  Should leaders conform to popular opinions to maintain popularity, like Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin? Or should they prioritize the overall sustenance of their people even if such acts would incur discontent, as in the case of Grandpa and former village head Li Sanren?

Moral questions are also manifested in the degeneration of core relationships between individuals. Hui continued with blood selling, despite the consequential death of his son and Grandpa’s threats to sever relationship with him. Married couples turned their back to their diseased partners, as in the case of Tingting and Xiaoming, while the sick sought to vengefully infect their partners. And to help Genbao get married and be a real man (Yan, 160), the whole village was willing to lie to a girl from another village, while judgement was passed on to Grandpa, the only person who found such act troublesome. One may then ask, did the crisis lead to such degenerations or did it only bring out the dark sides of people?

In summary, the Dream of Ding Village is a sad story ridden with moral issues spread across the government, the community and the individual levels.

Vues d’Oran (1961) – Views of Oran, Algeria

The setting of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague is 1940’s Oran, a coastal colonial settlement in French-Algeria.

The video above offers an extensive view into the city where this novel plays out. Although these scenes reflect a time-period over a decade after the intended setting of the book, these images will still enhance our understanding of the make-up of this city and our imagination of the passage of Camus’s characters along these streets. Take note of the congested beaches, the commerce-lined coastlines, and the government buildings and reflect on their mention in the novel.

One element that stands out even in the opening seconds of this video is the intermingling of French settlers with the local Arab population. This distinction is one that seems to be lacking in Camus’s depiction of Oran. We may question his decision to omit mention of these individuals upon whose native land he was encroaching, and to imagine his own relationship with these people.

St. James Infirmary Blues

I’m re-upping this from an older augmenter’s post of mine and fixing some links: Here are two of many versions of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a song mentioned on pp. 154 & 161 of Camus’s The Plague (the Vintage edition we’re reading). The former, 1928, could have been the recording our characters heard. The latter, 1959, was released after “194-,” so technically it didn’t exist yet. If you want to hear even more versions, check out what’s available at the amazing

My question for you: Why this song? Why a gramophone record? Why have it pumping over a loudspeaker? (And how would you compare this to the use of popular music in Pale Horse, Pale Rider?)

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so bare.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
But she’ll never find a sweet man like me.

More here.

Why Read The Plague Today?

Disclaimer: Article contains spoilers of the narrative of the book.

The Plague by Camus is a novel published in 1947, set in the 1940’s, about a plague epidemic that arises in Oran, French Algeria… so how does that apply to us living in 2019, where living sanitary and health conditions are far more advanced compared to the state it was in 1947? An article in The Guardian by Ed Vulliamy touches upon the many different reasons why the story of Camus’s is actually beneficial to read in our time and even in future times. Vulliamy describes Camus’s novel as best in describing and depicting man’s confrontation of death, especially in such a context that we, as the readers of the 21st century, cannot comprehend. Camus allows us to question what exactly the plague signifies now, in our time and day. Additionally, Vulliamy brings up an interesting perspective where The Plague can tell the story of a different kind of plague: “that of destructive, hyper-materalist, turbo-capitalism.” Camus very well describes the town and townspeople before the plague had started to spread, as well as when the plague started to manifest itself into the lives of the citizens who inhabited the unfortunate space: how people started to drink more because they thought it could cure them of the state of their town, how more and more people started attending the Sunday church sessions in order to feel some sense of relief against the growing despair. Perhaps it is that Camus’s novel serves as a way for us contemporaries of today to visualize what happens during an epidemic and what productive ways we can do to go about it, if the occasion ever arises.

The Plague, Society, and Kaiju Films

Although The Plague is a narrative centred around an epidemic, there are many things that make it different from what we have read so far: modernity. While previous texts focused on the breaking of interpersonal relationships and seclusion from the world, The Plague brings forth the governmental and logistical point of view by adding bureaucracy. The novel shows meetings and discussions with the Prefect, as well as having characters refer to the Prefect’s decisions as a leading force of quarantine and delay. There are not a lot of medical descriptions of the plague in the book, though there is a lot of time dedicated to talking about life in an infected city and the logistical problems and nonsensical restrictions taken by the government.

The description of society and the epidemic in The Plague reminded me of kaiju films, a mostly Japanese genre of cinema characterized by the presence of large monsters —kaiju— and their interference in human life. A prime example of this genre is Toho’s Godzilla (Gojira in the original). I believe there are similarities to be found between the epidemic narrative and the kaiju genre, since both talk about the survival of large groups of people when threatened by a force of nature outside human control. Reading through the bureaucratic parts of The Plague, however, I was particularly reminded of Shin Godzilla (sometimes called Godzilla Resurgence), Toho’s 2016 rebooting of Godzilla.

Shin Godzilla is a strange example of a kaiju movie. Godzilla has limited screen time and there is no individual main character tracked in the movie. Quite the opposite: the movie tracks government officials as they struggle with the bureaucracy of an event so unexpected it breaks protocol. Most of the key scenes in the movie consist of meetings, reunions, and people talking through the best solutions to a problem.

Moments like these in The Plague highlight a pushback to action: nothing can be done unless there is a general consensus that something must be done; and this delay in reaching a consensus takes time that could be used to prevent the spread of disease (or the destruction of a kaiju).

Biblical Reference in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov: Depicted from right to left are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death

I find the title of the book quite interesting and after some quick research discovered its Biblical reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse from Revelation 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” The ashen, yellowish green color is commonly associated with cadaver and bones, vividly depicting the concept of death. In the Bible, the Four Horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. This destined ordeal resonates with the looming, imminent death that hangs over protagonists Miranda and Adam throughout Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It might also suggest a fatalist post war views of Porter, having lived through two hardships, the World War I and the deadly 1918 influenza.

Philosophical matters, fear and confidence in Camus’s The Plague

A video on Camus’ philosophies, especially Absurdism

In true existentialist fashion, the themes of mortality, fear and the passage of time are most overtly expressed in Albert Camus’s, The Plague. The novel confronts the reader with the notion of the Absurd and finding meaning in an inherently meaningless world. The Plague argues that the fear ingrained in the citizens of Oran isn’t much so derived from the sheer number of deaths, but instead, because the idea of death becomes tangible rather than something abstract. it doesn’t raise the question of how we should spend time? or what we should do with our time? but, rather tells us that there is meaning to be found as long as we are aware of our time is spent. For instance, Tarrou’s curious habit of taking the time in the day to sit out on his terrace and spit at cats passing by. The narrator acknowledges that the act is incredibly tedious and, frankly, a waste of time by anyone’s standards. However, it is an excellent reflection of how Camus navigated his philosophies. In The Plague, Tarrou’s actions are not seen as a waste of time because he is completely aware of how much of a waste of time it is. Camus did not believe in the trivial idea of finding a sole true purpose or meaning in life, in order to escape or have a moral meaning in death. If one were to imagine that Tarrou was completely happy in his choices to waste his time when in reality, he has found enough meaning in his tedious hobby to not be a waste of time and actually personally satisfy him. His satisfaction is all that should matter.

Moreover, it is also important to consider the role of fear in the novel. Halfway into the chapter (36), the book diverts from the narration and goes into a short reflection about how people respond to pestilences with “conflicting fears and confidence.” (37) At this point in the chapter, the reflection sums up the picture of what happened before with the situation of dead rats and foreshadows what comes after when the plague starts. There is a pattern in these two scenarios where people have a sense of what will happen but try to deny it and let it escalate beyond control. This brings a new idea into our discussion about how people respond to outbreaks. We usually see how people protect themselves against diseases (quarantines, fortune-telling, etc.). However, here in this part of the chapter, Camus explains how the way we respond to pestilences, and wars, turns us into victims. The conflict between fears and confidence is best exemplified by the authorities in this chapter. It was their denial of the plague and the reluctance to alarm people earlier that let the plague go out of control. In addition, the bureaucracy behind their decisions, such as the doctors waiting for the Prefect to issue orders or the committee arguing about how to phrase the epidemic, also aggravates the situation.

In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat? What are the effects of the plague on the idea of mortality? How do religion and fate tie in with it? To what extent is mankind’s pride culpable in its downfall?