AIDS and its metaphors

Kearns ignite
When a new epidemic emerged in 1981. People struggled to make sense both of its novelty and of its implications. One of the ways that people tried to make sense of AIDS was to see it through the lens of standard epidemiological models of contagious disease. In this respect AIDS was seen as something that spread from an infected population into one that was at risk. It was all too easy to understand this geography of spread as something which could be interrupted either by isolating the sick or by preventing the well from associating with the unwell. AIDS was early, and wrongly, associated only with gay men or people of colour, originating or still living in Africa. Homophobic and racist understandings of the threat posed to the so-called mainstream society by gay men and people of colour were reinforced by these contagionist readings of AIDS.

In this brief IGNITE presentation I try to explain how these spatial metaphors work and and also how people tried to develop alternative spatial metaphors that would sustain more inclusive and effective policies for caring for the sick and the vulnerable. I begin with the racism of standard global epidemiologial models before sketching some of the arguments that Susan Sontag levelled at the metaphors of the official AIDS stories. I then look at the work of artists who tried to think differently about AIDS vulnerability describing some of the cultural activism of ACTUP and also of artists such as Tony Kushner, Diamanda Galas, and David Wojnarowicz. I finish with the wonderful metaphor of the AIDS quilt and explain how it manages to convey both the scale of the epidemic and the individual value of each life lost. You can watch the brief presentation below:

Gerry Kearns

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