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1 INTRODUCTION In the Interest of Time Unremembering About the time we started talking about the ideas in this book, we were getting ready to move for a year to Memphis, Tennessee. Looking up gay life there, we found the most popular gay club in Memphis was called Amnesia. Despite being heralded as “the Club for the new Millennium,” by the time we arrived in Memphis, Amnesia had closed.1 Something about the vast, empty building and the even vaster empty parking lot—gay space in the process of reverting to generic mid-American sprawl—seemed disturbingly apt. It’s hard to resist the allegory: offering flashy promise of a guaranteed future (a club for the next millennium), A/amnesia produced instead assimilation and loss in the place where a gay cultural life once thrived. It’s uncertain, of course, whether a nightclub named Recollection or a piano bar called Memories would have fared any better. What is certain , we argue in the following chapters, is that the sacrifice of spaces and rituals of memory to the lure of amnesia has weakened gay communities, both our connections to one another and our ability to imagine, collectively and creatively, alternative social presents and futures for ourselves. Memory is the diary that chronicles things that never happened or couldn’t possibly have happened. —oscar wilde 2 Introduction “The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.” This passage from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s theorization of virtue has been influentially deployed by Gary Younge in relation to racial identity.2 MacIntyre’s point that “the self has to find its moral identity in and through membership in communities” is equally applicable to the sexual subject positions described by terms like “gay” and “queer,” although the competition between those terms is itself an indication of the impetus toward forgetting that characterizes our recent history.3 This problem is not ours alone. Gore Vidal coined the phrase “the United States of Amnesia” to evoke a national propensity to forget episodes that do not accord with our self-image (Point to Point Navigation , 55), and historian Tony Judt has characterized the era from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the invasion of Iraq as a time when “we have become stridently insistent—in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities— that the past has nothing of interest to teach us” (Reappraisals, 2). In this context, “forgetting” has attracted its own theoretical champions, who argue, in Andreas Huyssen’s words, against “an omnipresent, even excessive public memory discourse and its mass marketing” (“Resistance to Memory,” 182). These analyses make clear how today even the language of memory becomes a force for amnesia as certain “right” memories, in Huyssen’s words, “are codified into national consensus and become clichés” (182).4 This deployment of officially sanctioned narratives that picture the past to justify the norms of the present was analyzed by Foucault, who described how in France such sanctioned memories of World War II “obstruct the flow” of “popular memory” (“Film and Popular Memory,” 91). Paradoxically, then, official memories—in the form of films, education, museum exhibitions, holidays, news reporting, and political speeches—constitute a potent form of forgetting even as they purport to traffic in memory. The assault on gay memory following AIDS took precisely this form, offering “cleaned-up” versions of the past as substitutes for more challenging memories of social struggle. What separates unremembering from such national amnesia, however, is the direct assault on particular memories and on the cultural act of remembering. Such attacks sought not to cohere an imagined national community but to undo the historical basis for communities that once seemed to offer radically new forms of social and sexual engagement. Introduction 3 Gay culture has been prey to a particularly intense version of unremembering since the onset in the early 1980s of the AIDS epidemic. We are not saying that AIDS itself did in gay culture, although the very real costs of the syndrome in both human and financial terms has been staggering. Rather, the AIDS crisis became an occasion for a powerful concentration of cultural forces that made (and continue to make) the syndrome an agent of amnesia, wiping out memories not only of everything that came before but of the remarkably vibrant and imaginative ways that gay communities responded to the catastrophe of illness and death and sought to memorialize our losses. As...


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