In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Introduction
  • Richard Block, Kathleen Chapman, and Mia Du Plessis

“Your nostalgia is killing me!”

Or so the words in a 1993 image by the Canadian artist Vincent Chevalier shout in nauseating chartreuse, emphatically outlined in black (Visual AIDS n.d.). Driving the point home, these words appear in an image of a bedroom seen in simplified perspective on one side of a wall that forms a V-shaped triangle. Their color is all the queasier for appearing against a bright orange, red, and blue wallpaper that turns out, on closer inspection, to repeat, as wallpaper pattern, General Idea’s AIDS logo produced in the 1980s as art protest in the AIDS crisis. On that wall, images from the activist art collective Gran Fury appear as posters. The opposing wall of this [End Page 1] bedroom has a black and white wallpaper of black squiggles on a white ground, made from the art of Keith Haring, a gay artist whose work was highly influential in disseminating awareness of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. A photograph of activists with a QUEER NATION banner appears. The meaning of this garish domestic space is evident, if unsettling—the activist art associated with coalitions and groups such as ACT UP and QUEER NATION has become wallpaper and wallpaper art, domesticated in a crudely rendered domestic interior—not out on the streets, as these images may have been intended to circulate.

In calling this issue “AIDS Remains,” we want to contest lethal nostalgia. We want to insist that the AIDS crisis persists. We want to insist that AIDS insists. That we are doing so in the context of the global coronavirus pandemic makes our insistence even more urgent. Not, to be sure, because we believe that there are “lessons” to be learned from the AIDS crisis, and because we are proffering the AIDS crisis as some occasion relegated to the past from which it is possible to gain perspective. On the contrary, we are still in the thick of things. Nostalgia kills. Pretensions of distance and dispassion are more than misguided—they are dangerous.

As an instance of the kind of lesson we should not learn, let’s consider an essay by Charles Rosenberg about the AIDS crisis from 1989. It’s telling that Rosenberg’s essay is entitled, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (Rosenberg 1989). To present the AIDS crisis as a well-made artifact, whether literary or historical, Rosenberg signals in his title that AIDS is merely AIDS, rather than the AIDS crisis. To grasp it, as he does, as a crisis would mean that “historical perspectives” are luxuries. Why dwell on an essay from 1989? It is because Rosenberg’s essay has been widely disseminated since March 2020 as a frame for “understanding” the coronavirus pandemic in another premature frame.1 Such dissemination presumes that the AIDS crisis is over, and that it can provide, as history, a frame for understanding an ongoing crisis in the present. Rosenberg’s essay turns to cultural production, specifically literature, for its frame; he uses Albert Camus’s novel about a fictional epidemic in the real Algerian city of Oran as his model. And this is how Rosenberg presents what we can gather from [End Page 2] a present (the AIDS crisis in 1989) projected into a past and filtered and shaped by a fiction:

as a social phenomenon, an epidemic has a dramaturgic form. Epidemics start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure. In another of its dramaturgic aspects, an epidemic takes on the quality of pageant—mobilizing communities to act out proprietary rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding. It is their public character and dramatic intensity—along with unity of place and time—that make epidemics as well suited to the concerns of moralists as to the research of scholars seeking an understanding of the relationship among ideology, social structure, and the construction of particular selves.


Indeed, as Rosenberg goes on to make explicit, such...