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  • Deleuze, Sense and the Event of AIDS
  • C. Colwell

. . . and the moral of that is — “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

—the Duchess.1

AIDS, like cancer, syphilis, cholera, leprosy and bubonic plague before it, has woven the threads of our biological, social and moral existence together into a complex disease entity that is much more than the physical interaction between its cause(s) and the human organism. It presents those already marginalized individuals and communities most affected by it (so far) with personal and political challenges that threaten their social and their physical existence. And it presents the scientific and medical community with a challenge and puzzle that equals, if not surpasses, those that have preceded it. But it is a mistake to separate these two arenas (social/political and scientific) as they inscribe on one another their codes of sense and meaning in a hyper-dialectic of transcription and reverse transcription. It is, as such, a mistake to take the biological objects offered to us by science (specifically the HIV virus) as referents free from infection by meanings ideally supposed to be excluded from its domain. What I will attempt in the following is to mobilize Gilles Deleuze’s notion of sense, as he presents it in The Logic of Sense,2 as a strategy for understanding the direction that the meaning of AIDS has taken and as a means of multiplying other directions that it might take.

As a preliminary sketch of the strategy that I will draw out of Deleuze I want to distinguish between three levels, strata or series that his discussion of sense will deal with: thoughts, things, and sense/events. Thoughts, insofar as they have meaning (are meaningful, make sense), are a function of language, i.e., the form and matter of their expression is that of language. But meaning is about or of things.3 As Michel Foucault notes in The Birth of the Clinic, the problem lies in the relation between words and things.4The Logic of Sense is directed at that gap between words and things in an attempt to understand what it is that bridges the gap, what inhabits the interval. Briefly, Deleuze uses the term “states of affairs” to refer to things and begins his analysis of words with propositions. Between the two he locates a realm of “sense” and “event” (which he equates as two sides of a plane without thickness). It seems to me that it is to the sense/event that we must direct our attention if we are to address the multi-faceted (social, political, economic and scientific) phenomenon of AIDS.

The first section of this essay is an explication of Deleuze’s notions of sense and event as a propadeutic to addressing the specific sense/event of AIDS. Deleuze’s approach is particularly useful here as it provides a conceptual strategy that accounts for the complex interactions between those arenas of meaning that are traditionally (and mistakenly) held separate while avoiding the mirror image errors of positivism and linguistic idealism to which much of post-Kantian philosophy of language is prone. In the second section I turn to the sense/event of AIDS, addressing in particular the social, political, economic and scientific dominance of the HIV model. I conclude by suggesting the ways in which this strategy allows us to pervert and transform the current hegemonic model of AIDS in all its facets. Let me stress at this point that I am using Deleuze’s work as a strategy here instead of as a conceptual model. As will become clear towards the end of this essay I am less concerned with developing a “better” conceptual model of AIDS than I am with perverting the dominant model(s).

I. Sense/Event

Although, as Jean-Jacques Lecercle notes,5 Deleuze largely bypasses those thinkers who have treated the question of sense in the last century, it is worth briefly addressing Gottlob Frege’s analysis of sense. In his seminal paper “On Sense and Reference (Meaning)”6 Frege distinguishes between the “mode of presentation” of a sign (sense) and that which the sign designates (reference). His purpose here...

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