Sick (Seminar in the City Report)

This fall, CLAGS’s Seminar in the
City, Sick – A Seminar on the Relationship
between Society, Sexuality, and Disease, was
designed and led by Ananya Mukherjea,
CLAGS board member and Assistant
Professor of Women’s Studies and
Sociology at the College of Staten Island,
CUNY. Mukherjea’s extensive HIV/
AIDS activism, her research in both New
York City and Calcutta, and her more
recent work on the tracking and management
of avian fl u, was complemented by
an array of insights from the scholars,
activists, epidemiologists, and public
health workers who attended the seminar.
Meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual &
Transgender Community Center, participants
engaged in lively discussions
of readings and images, produced group
text analyses, and considered the state
of present-day radical politics. Twentyfi
ve years after the HIV/AIDS epidemic
became a major catalyst for the development
of a radical queer politics, seminar
participants looked back at the social
constructions of both disease and desire
in that era, constructions that continue to
play a role in framing the current HIV/
AIDS pandemic.
In the fi rst of the three monthly
seminar meetings, participants tackled
thorny questions of where and how we
get our knowledge about HIV/AIDS
now, and how epidemiology and statistics
still infl uence perceptions of risk beyond
the LGBT community and into global
discourses (and bodies) of pathology.
From the distorted interpretations of
media reports on George Bush’s commitment
to the eradication of AIDS to
the categorization of newly pathologized
bodies in the form of racialized gay men
on the “down low,” our popular sources
for such knowledge are sorely lacking,
and worse, they create new knowledges
steeped in morality. As I write, the front
page of The New York Times reports that
the National Institutes of Health have
found that “circumcision reduces the
risk of AIDS” in African trials and that
it would be “unethical not to offer it to
uncircumcised men in the trials,” with
“experts” hailing the fi ndings as “a new
way to fi ght the spread of AIDS” (Mc-
Neil, Jr., December 13, 2006). Here we
see the beginning stages of the creation
of a newly pathologized body—the uncircumcised
African male.
There is an accessible history
to this “medicalization of moral perspectives”
if one knows where to look. In
our second meeting, Mukherjea led us
through a genealogy of the creation of
American medical knowledge through
the use of texts and images. In the early
twentieth century, the U.S. medicalization
of racialized and gendered bodies
with consumption led to quarantine of
healthy carriers. In the 1930s, the U.S.
medicalization of gendered masturbation
and hysteria led to the creation of
circumcision and the vibrator. From the
late twentieth century to the present, the
medicalization of panic in the U.S. led to
the creation of an entire pharmaceutical
industry focused on managing it. This
history is long and varied, but all points
emanate from the same conviction, based
in fear, that some bodies are inherently
dangerous and need to be regulated.
Despite the prescient writings
of early HIV/AIDS scholars and activists,
such as Steven Epstein, Simon Watney,
and Leo Bersani, whose words of warning
practically scream off the pages when
read in the present, their fears have been
realized and the AIDS epidemic has spiraled
across the globe. Yet, as Mukherjea
pointed out in our fi nal meeting, it
seems as if many people have stopped
panicking—why? In another reading for
the seminar, cultural scholar Jackie Orr
uses the term “psychopower” to refer to
“technologies of power and techniques of
knowledge developed by a normalizing
society to regulate the psychological life,
health, and disorders of individuals and
entire populations” (See Panic Diaries: A
Genealogy of Panic Disorder, 2006:11). It
is a sad irony to think that a global state
of non-panic (as in HIV/AIDS) can be every bit as oppressive and disciplining as
a global state of panic (as in the “War on
Terror”).
The most important insight to be
taken away from this seminar may well
have been that science is cultural, and
that cultural perceptions can both incite
action and justify passivity. The deconstruction
and sharing of cultural knowledge
is essential to the task of getting
people, especially people not in fear of
though perhaps at risk of HIV/AIDS, to
start paying attention again. Armed with
this understanding, we must continue to
pursue new opportunities for radical politics
in what may appear unlikely spaces
of community and desire.

Lynn Horridge is a doctoral candidate in
anthropology at the The Graduate Center, CUNY.
She is currently doing research on lesbian kinship
and the adoption of children from
Guatemala.