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  • Mourning Becomes ElectricThe Disappearing Act of AIDS
  • Richard Block (bio)

Mourning AIDS is both impossible and necessaryimpossible because, as we will see, the world that would allow for the work of mourning to end remains impossible to trust; necessary because without bringing such work to an end, one necessarily succumbs to melancholia or abjection. The predicament has played out rather boisterously from the first unraveling of the quilt or the NAMES Project in 1987 to the demonstrations that surrounded a retrospective of David Wojnarowicz’s work in 2018 (Cascone 2018). Mourning, for those who insist that the time for such has not arrived, signals a shift from political activism to bourgeois sentimentality as well as an abandonment of the suffering masses who are not yet ready to be mourned. Given the successful management of the disease in many communities or even nations, the battle that first emerged with the NAMES Project no longer needs be joined. But as Larry Kramer argues in [End Page 55] the epilogue to the 2011 edition of The Normal Heart, the war is hardly won. AIDS remains.

Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia, India, Southeast Asia, and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged . . . .

Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen, there were (1981–83) 431.

(Kramer 2011, 94–95)1

If the urgency of Kramer’s pleas seems exaggerated or merely a result of one person’s monomania, that is only because the emergence of a gay bourgeois class, married with children in a homestead secured by a picket fence, disguises the conditions that have allowed for such admission to proper society and, more important, perpetuates the myth that AIDS is over. In fact, as I will argue, such societal privilege comes only with a forgetting of AIDS and its threat to the body politic.

In what follows, I examine examples of mourning for those who died of AIDS first in the 1980s and then in subsequent decades. To be sure, this is neither comprehensive nor even representative. What I hope to show with these case studies is how mourning as it is understood in Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia” is neither possible nor even desirable. Rather, a different trajectory grounded in a countertemporality is required, a messianic dimension that also serves to re-invigorate thinking about a politics that does not serve the sexual geopolitics of the West and its quest to assert moral superiority.

At the same time, following this alternate trajectory will provide a lens through which to contribute to an understanding of the impossible. That is, the experience of those who died from the disease (not unlike the Muselmänner of the Nazi concentration camps), those whose final state of emaciation in hospital beds recalled the hollowed faces of Nazi victims in their final states, is something no one survives to bear witness to. The essential experience of the disease—essential for no other reason than until [End Page 56] the introduction of the AIDS cocktail few survived—is not accessible to any sort of discourse. Hope, understood according to the messianic dimensions I will propose here, offers an alternative to witness testimony. As something reserved only for the hopeless, hope resurrects those voices in the promise of a coming community.

My hypothesis could easily be recast as follows: the delusion that AIDS is under control and poses no threat to middle-class America allows for the newfound inclusiveness enjoyed by the gay community in the last two decades. In fact, many popular accounts of gay history neglect to even mention the devastation to our communities.2 AIDS narratives just don’t fit with the pretty picture of domestic bliss that captivated those who followed a generation wiped out by the disease. If gay men, before baby making or baby picking became a popular ritual, had no future, the communities...