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AIDS and American Apocalypticism

The Cultural Semiotics of an Epidemic

Thomas L. Long

Publication Year: 2004

Since public discourse about AIDS began in 1981, it has characterized AIDS as an apocalyptic plague: a punishment for sin and a sign of the end of the world. Christian fundamentalists had already configured the gay male population most visibly affected by AIDS as apocalyptic signifiers or signs of the “end times.” Their discourse grew out of a centuries-old American apocalypticism that included images of crisis, destruction, and ultimate renewal. In this book, Thomas L. Long examines the ways in which gay and AIDS activists, artists, writers, scientists, and journalists appropriated this apocalyptic rhetoric in order to mobilize attention to the medical crisis, prevent the spread of the disease, and treat the HIV infected. Using the analytical tools of literary analysis, cultural studies, performance theory, and social semiotics, AIDS and American Apocalypticism examines many kinds of discourse, including fiction, drama, performance art, demonstration graphics and brochures, biomedical publications, and journalism and shows that, while initially useful, the effects of apocalyptic rhetoric in the long term are dangerous. Among the important figures in AIDS activism and the arts discussed are David Drake, Tim Miller, Sarah Schulman, and Tony Kushner, as well as the organizations ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in the Sociology of Culture (discontinued)

AIDS and American Apocalypticism: The Cultural Semiotics of an Epidemic

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book grew out of rage and grief, my own, of course, but also that ofothers. During the 1980s as a Roman Catholic priest, I struggled with theawful and initially limited knowledge of an epidemic, first called “GayRelated Immune Dysfunction” (GRID), later Acquired ImmunodeficiencySyndrome (AIDS). At the hospital bedside of sick and dying people, beside...

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1. Apocalyptus Interruptus: Christianity, Sodomy, and the End

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pp. 1-28

Walking out of the library of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the private Christian fundamentalist school founded in 1977 by televangelist and onetime Republican presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, students and visitors are confronted by a monumental stone and welded steel sculpture of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Cyd Chambers Players...

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2. Exile of the Queer Evangelist: (In memory of Michael)

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pp. 29-62

This film scene is iconic for American popular culture generally and for gay culture, hypericonic: Miss Dorothy Gale of Kansas, having fled the black-and-white provincialism of her home, seeks a place where she and her companion are understood and accepted. She awakens to Technicolor,looks around her, and in a classic example of rhetorical litotes says to her...

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3. Larry Kramer and the American Jeremiad: (In memory of Ray)

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pp. 63-105

When his essay, “1,112 and Counting,” first appeared in the March 14–27, 1983 issue of the New York Native, the city’s premier gay newspaper with a largely male audience, Larry Kramer was continuing a venerable American discursive tradition. Its opening sentences evoked doom: If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article ...

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4. AIDS Armageddon: (In memory of Jack, who always loved a man in uniform)

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pp. 107-140

In its inaugural December 1980 issue, the gay newspaper New York Native, which for most of the decade would provide initially some of the best and eventually some of the worst AIDS coverage in the country, headlined antigay violence in an article entitled “The West Street Massacre.” On November 19, 1980, a 39-year-old former Transit police officer named...

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5. Mal’kîm in America: (In memory of Tim)

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pp. 141-175

The Renaissance European imagination violently linked two peoples in such a way that the collision still echoes in American culture, evident in the two AIDS-themed works that are the focus of this chapter, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and Douglas Sadownick’s Sacred Lips of the Bronx. Although in our modern...

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Afterword: (In)conclusion (In memory of Roger)

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pp. 177-199

In July 1981 while attending a month-long summer institute at the University of San Diego, California, I spent a four-day weekend in a cityI had never visited, San Francisco. Alone for the weekend, I walked its streets as an energetic tourist intending to compress as many gay sites and tourist sights as possible into the brief visit. Very quickly I found myself...


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pp. 201-237


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pp. 239-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780791484678
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791461679
Print-ISBN-10: 079146167X

Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: SUNY series in the Sociology of Culture (discontinued)