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  • Response to Allison Fraiberg's Essay, 'Of AIDS, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions'
  • David Porush
David Porush responds to Allison Fraiberg’s essay, “Of AIDS, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions,” Postmodern Culturev.1 n. 3(May, 1991):

Allison Fraiberg uses the discourses of AIDS to read large oppositions and tendencies at work in our culture. As such, AIDS is one more battlefield between right thinking and wrong thinking. Here wrong thinking is promoted by a reactionary, self-serving, moralizing majority that prescribes a cure for AIDS in “traditional” values to the exclusion of others an that denies the extent to which all our bloods and responsibilities commingle in the vast, luscious, and newly-dangerous circuitry of sexuality. The Bad Guys in her reading of her culture are clearly defined: they are listed and quoted at the beginning of her essay and resurface in various guises—people who promote the nuclear family, white middle class males, ad propagandists who ironically forget how to use sex to sell the public on the use of condoms.

At times, Fraiberg manages to free herself from her orgy of jargon and deconstructionist agitprop to achieve real eloquence, especially when she calls for a redefinition of sexuality—also the most fun parts of the essay. Almost all of the conclusions which she reaches in her argument are both inarguable and quite tame: we must all engage in safe sex, but do so with the awareness that sex puts us in the circuit, that we take responsibilities for our own bodies, that AIDS should not be a tool for scapegoating and de- humanizing groups of people. Rather, AIDS ought to impel us to redefine the body, the self, and our sexuality (along with our discourses sexuality) as participants in a looping feedback with the interpenetrating systems of otherness which really create our culture (or really culture our creativity).

The essay, however, has a tendency to discard or demolish practices and ideals that would satisfy even a new cyborg mentality simply because they have been tainted by association with conventional, conservative ideology. In this, there is a confusion or conflation between reactionary rhetoric (out of homophobia and racism, the moral majority use their prescriptions to define the other as alien, diseased) and technically safe practices (monogamy, safe sex, abstinence from IV drug use, the nuclear family)—in short, discretionary activities. The clearest example comes when Fraiberg writes,

[16] . . . monogamy means little if one partner is HIV+ and the couple, thinking they have fulfilled the moral requirement in the symbolic contract that disqualifies them from contraction, practices unsafe sex.

While we would not argue with the premise (that there’s something nasty about the prescription of exclusive monogamy for everyone in the culture) nor with the amusing analysis elsewhere in this essay (that the more you ask folks to say no to their pleasure they more likely they are to embrace it impulsively), we might argue with the conclusion. After all, monogamy means quite a lot, especiallyif one partner has AIDS. It promotes responsibility to and awareness of everyone else in the circuit, and indeed fulfills Fraiberg’s own call to greater cyborg awareness.

The second problem here actually arises from the essay’s greatest strength: Fraiberg’s excellent application of deconstruction methods to the term “discrete” and “discretion.” The effect of her analysis is to construct a marvelous pun (there is high magic to low puns): she converts the word discretefrom its first meaning (distinct, separate, severed, discontinuous) into its other meaning, as in discreet(exercising judgment, discernment, etc.). To enhance the beauty of this play, and in typically deconstructive fashion, phrases like to exercise discretionFraiberg notes, ought to mean the opposite of the first kind of discrete: the “discreet” individual now knows that AIDS uncovers the very extent to which we are not discrete but are participants in the circuit. All well and good so far.

The problem is that Fraiberg herself has trouble explaining exactly what all this means and resolving the contradictions to which it leads:

[21] The traditional, tenuous limits of the body dissolved into fused networks, into open circuits of interconnectedness, produce an ontological recognition that, from this perspective, urges the...

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