When talking about the second play of Angles in America, I could not help but think why would Perestroika be a title for this piece.
To begin with, this video gives a brief history of how perestroika came about what were the consequences of such a policy. Perestroika was a policy which aimed to bring economic reforms to the Soviet Union, allowing it to compete with other capitalist countries, such as the United States. This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern block and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Perestroika is a Russian word that literally means “reconstructing” and this notion of reconstructing is prevalent in Angels of America. The characters in the play are reconstructing, for example, Joe takes off his temple garment that symbolizes his religious devotion and Prior becomes a prophet. In our class discussion and the convener’s post, we spent some time talking about progress and this notion of reconstructing also speaks to the idea of progress and what does it actually mean to progress. Is progress analogous with advancement?
Arguably, one of the biggest, yet the unintended effect of Perestroika was the downfall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of the countries behind the iron curtain. Since the effect of Perestroika was rather unintended, so what does this suggest about progress? Is progress an unintended side effect?
‘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?
I would like us to think about the narrative form of the Ghost Map in three different mediums: the novel itself, the TED talk posted by our conveners and the youtube video summary.
In his novel, Johnson employes a unique storytelling technique using a “bird’s eye view” and zooms in and out when analyzing the cholera epidemic. Johnson does not view the disease as an independent force, but rather as a circumstance-induced force that does not only contaminate the single body, but also the body politic as a whole. This “bird’s eye view” was also employed by John Snow, who had a holistic view of the city and its function and did not study cholera in isolation. Unlike the believers of the miasma theory that was mainly evidenced by a pungent smell, Snow used a complex methodological approach and successfully managed to identify the source of the cholera outbreak. While Johnson acknowledges humans, in particular, Snow and Whitehead, he also prioritizes bacteria, whose collective agency is superior to that of humans.
However, the TED talk embarks on a more storytelling form than the novel itself. The TED talk at first seems like a stand-up comedy, as Johnson starts his talk with a few jokes. In his TED talk, Johnson introduces his audience to cholera by telling the story of “patient zero,” which is a common narrative device in contagion movies and stories. While the TED talk does not go into the specific details about the microbe, Johnson touches upon the body politic and he also argues that we should trust locals like Snow and Whitehead amid a crisis.
Finally, the video summary creates suspense and embarks on a storytelling frame, even more so than the TED talk. The video summary focuses on the “patient zero” and Snow’s cholera map and does not touch upon on the other protagonists of the novel (Whitehead, the bacteria, and the city).
As we go from the novel to the Ted talk to the video summary, it seems that we are losing the “bird’s eye view” as there is an increasing focus on the human characters of the story. This raises the question of how does the narrative framework shape our understanding of an epidemic outbreak?