After the Plague of Discourse

By Ronnie ScottDecember 19, 2018

After the Plague of Discourse
DION KAGAN IS an academic, editor, and author of Australia’s longest-running queer column, which appears quarterly in literary magazine The Lifted Brow, as well as the host of the much-missed culture podcast The Rereaders. His first book is Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of “Post-Crisis” (I.B. Tauris), a careful and considered work that offers a way of understanding the changing relationship between gay men and HIV through queer analyses of media. In chapters that examine The Next Best Thing, Queer as Folk, Chemsex, the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, and others, Kagan draws out links between artifacts that feel like they’ve come from different worlds, so fast have moved the times and so quickly have changed our preferred representations of the positive body. The book makes a “bid to illustrate larger patterns in post-crisis culture” roughly, the era since the advent of antiretrovirals through investigating the meanings of popular texts.

I wanted to talk to Kagan about this ideal academic book, which takes brilliant thinking and articulates it through open, beautiful writing, and ask him to take stock of today’s media landscape so dominated by diverse queer media that consecrates the crisis years and reinscribes them through the present. We met in a quiet restaurant in the inner north of Melbourne right at opening hour on a warm afternoon.


RONNIE SCOTT: Your title Positive Images plays on both the sense of “positive” as seroconverted and “positive” as affirmative, pleasant and safe for mainstream consumption, a gay male character type you identify in TV and movies, especially from the 1990s. Can you talk about the ways in which the book complicates how we think about the “positive”?

DION KAGAN: I think the first thing to say about representations of [seroconverted] positive life is that they’re utterly scarce, and they’re almost as scarce now as they were when I started the project, which was eight years after antiretrovirals. The dominant images of HIV/AIDS in gay life [then] were still the ones from the crisis era, and those are the ones that stick in people’s minds because they were so dramatic.

But the “positive image” really was an image of low visibility, and when it appeared, it was in forced conformity to this affirmative, politically correct, sexually discreet, white, bourgeois idea of — usually — gay male life. This is to draw a massive generalization, to talk about images of HIV-positive people in the context of Western gay male English-speaking culture, to make all the qualifications.

This was probably partially the result of American drug companies using images of particular lifestyles and body types to sell antiretrovirals to HIV-positive people, an image we don’t have here in Australia, because we don’t have legal advertising for prescription medication. But even here, the idea of HIV positivity had been sutured to this healthy, hyper-gym-toned, iconic image of global gayness in the ’90s and at the turn of the millennium, what I call in the book “New Gayness.” This post-closet figure of male homosexuality, a deeply conservative first glimpse at gay maleness in popular culture, was in some ways a product of the AIDS crisis. I was fascinated by the idea that there was this figure of profound friendliness and cleanness and domesticity, essentially this very assimilable figure, with a kind of anti-figure always haunting it. A kind of diseased, AIDS-riddled, sick, dying, pathological, promiscuous underside — this shadow-figure, this dark figure from the past that haunted the affirmative, body-positive positive body.

That is the dialectic I tease out in the book: that there’re these two historical moments and these two images of gay male embodiment, and that the dominant image of gay maleness that emerged in the post-antiretrovirals, post-crisis era is haunted by and always fighting off or negotiating the legacy of that earlier image.

It’s so interesting, the idea that those figures belong together, and that one is visible as an imprint on the other; and you’re reading the relationship between those two things, the positive image and the attendant negative. Your book also traces a history of ideas that attach themselves to diseases, and so become the way we comprehend those diseases. How is the AIDS crisis different?

There’s a way in which I’m imposing a reductive metaphor, this psychological idea of repression, onto mass culture. But I think this is also a useful framework for teasing out the ways in which that intensified, hyperbolic moment of sex panic [during the crisis years] has had formative legacies for gay male culture that we are still working through, long after the crisis has ended. This idea of residues, and afterlives of crisis, can be mapped across the social and psychological and the cultural. In my book, I guess I’m just making the claim that popular culture is reflecting that legacy. The thing with AIDS/HIV is that it occasioned this dramatic, inventive, and in some ways exciting avalanche of stories. In Paula Treichler’s phrase it was an “epidemic of signification,” and Lee Edelman called it a “plague of discourse.” All diseases have their mythologies and historical contexts but until the age of mass media they developed in much more languid, slow ways, whereas AIDS was global, sudden, massive, a widely distributed, mysterious epidemic. So it lent itself to a proliferation of stories and metaphors.

These ideas aren’t mine; they’re from one of the richest archives in sexuality studies, which I call “AIDS cultural criticism,” this body of work that emerged in the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s, and in many ways was one of the birthplaces of queer theory. This work was responding to representations of the epidemic and it was an absolute flourishing of incredible intellectual analysis. The crisis gave rise to new and radical ideas and it kind of exposed things about bodies and sex that maybe hadn’t been fully fleshed out in the world of ideas and theory.

I was motivated to try to find a way to keep engaging those ideas during a much quieter period, in this period where HIV had gone underground; it was in the background to cultural life. It certainly wasn’t in the purview of popular images and mainstream discussion anymore. And when it was, it was in these peculiar places, some of which became the case studies in the book — until right at the end, when it started to come back more prominently.

You note that before antiretrovirals “the literature and cinema of AIDS tended to invoke a finite or apocalyptic sense of time,” but soon we started getting aestheticized reflections on the crisis, including the 2006 BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, based on the 2004 Alan Hollinghurst novel, which shows the early years of AIDS in Thatcher’s Britain. This adaptation moves the crisis into a “heritage setting,” where “time is supposedly frozen.” How has the most recent wave of historical fictions been translating the AIDS crisis?

It was fascinating to me that the history of sex radicalism, of radical social movements, and of a moment which I saw as tied to the upsetting and deconstruction of sexual identity categories was reappearing in this moment of intensely conservative queer politics. The marriage equality moment, also in America it’s coterminous with the gay military moment, which we don’t really have in Australia. [These political movements have] coincided with the remembering of this earlier time of intense un-citizenship. This intense disenfranchisement. This moment of being outside.

I was interested in this new sort of romantic idealization and aestheticization of the history of AIDS, and in the case of The Line of Beauty, I found it interesting that Alan Hollinghurst, in the novel, had written a critique of Thatcherite homophobia, among other things, which was then adapted into this very romantic period drama. And that starts to look subtle compared to what comes after, in the next 10 years, which is AIDS retrovisions like The Normal Heart and Holding the Man and Dallas Buyers Club that are heavily invested in aestheticizing and idealizing their culture and time but then also have this epidemic to deal with.

I really love the moment when you talk about the potential of remembering to provoke change in the present. “The ‘archive of feelings’, ‘counter-memories’ and ‘retroactivisms’ of AIDS retrovisions may also function as incitements to hope, utopian dreaming,” you write,

and a radical commitment to communitarian, coalitional, punk, anti-hegemonic ideas and practices that disrupt the status quo or help to make life bearable in the neoliberal present. If unremembering the AIDS crisis makes it possible to live in a world [where] political, social, media and bureaucratic structures supported and continue to support the abandonment of certain bodies, then remembering and seeking to understand the history of those structures may function as a powerful and galvanising form of resistance and critique.

Isn’t that a nice idea? I would have these conversations with Dennis Altman [gay liberation and HIV/AIDS activist and author of Homosexual] where I would say, oh, but the reason we’re interested in AIDS again is because it was this time of radicalism and we’ve lost that now, our movement has become bourgeois and assimilationist and the best we can strive for is this anachronistic, retrograde, patriarchal institution [of marriage]. And he would say, I think your idea of it is very romantic, and the AIDS crisis moment even in the thick of activist circles wasn’t as radical as you think. It wasn’t as communitarian as you think. But to me that’s not the point. The point is that reproducing the history in that way, consuming it in that way, and imagining it to have been that way is a queer political and emotional activity of basically imagining a different world from the one that we live in. It helps to imagine that we might continue to transform sexual politics and gender politics in ways that aren’t settling for the status quo and that aren’t just shoring up the privilege of the same white cisgender people, or the same wealthy people who want to get married.

Representation can be understood as an outward gesture, a way of exhibiting communities for the outside world, but you’re saying the representations matter more inside those communities, allowing people to imagine different ways of going forward?

I don’t think that’s necessarily the dominant use of those histories. And a lot of people would say that narrating and historicizing the AIDS crisis is a way of putting it behind us, really clearly demarcating it as the past. And that’s also true. But I do think the claiming of that history by a new generation that didn’t experience it directly is potentially significant. It’s probably a historical first that there is this critical mass of young [queer] people in the world who are seeing what they can call “their” history, popularly manifested, and a key part of that history is the AIDS crisis.

Gay men at the end of the 20th century have endlessly revisited things like the Wilde trials or Stonewall. But the AIDS crisis lends itself to the broader GLBTQIA+ moment, because it was coalitional. It’s a disease that affected everyone, and in a sense it was the birth of the idea of queer community that we have now.

You talk about the HIV narratives that we build over and over, such as serodiscord dramas in Queer as Folk, or stories of people with secret pasts, or stories about dying. What are the narrative opportunities for HIV as a livable illness?

Well, this is why we’re seeing narratives from history, because they are much more dramatic and fascinating and the stakes are life and death. There’s a lot of complaining about the dearth of representation of living with HIV today, and legitimately so. But, this is the reason things went quiet after antiretrovirals. It wasn’t an exciting story anymore for popular culture, because the death went away to places that were, as Dennis Altman beautifully put it in 2006, at the margins of our attention. It went to corners of Western English-speaking societies where people couldn’t access or afford drugs, and it went to the developing world. And so the possibilities for telling HIV stories today …  do you mean like the gay male context?

Whether it’s gay men or not, I mean a narrative of post-crisis. You also cite David Herkt, who writes that after 1996 “HIV/AIDS gradually became a setting, not an emphasis.”

This is an interesting question about storytelling, and events, and narratives. So obviously, you have the story of serodiscord in gay male relationships that you mentioned — that’s one story — and that’s probably an anachronism now in many ways, because of newer technologies [like PrEP and undetectable viral load] that have developed and which have changed our ways of understanding being HIV-positive. So I think our storytelling about HIV is transforming all the time, and what remains a form of continuity is this idea of difference, and how our culture understands difference. Even small and subtle forms of difference; so if you think about serodiscord for example, it’s like, how different is one man who’s fucking another man who has a virus? There are much more pronounced differences between them than the fact that one’s positive and one’s negative. But for a time, our culture had to invent these quite melodramatic metaphors to understand and represent that difference, and that’s what you see in Queer as Folk. My analysis of that was to say “positive men are from Mars and negative men are from Venus.” That was an interesting moment in popular culture where Queer as Folk — and other images of gay life including certain genres of porn — were reaching for the metaphor of the gender binary to make sense of the difference between positive and negative serostatus. In the book, I call that “seromelodrama.” This new narrative format of prestige queer TV is finding a way to tell the story of post-crisis, infusing it with conflict and dramatic obstacles, and drawing on much older stories to do so.

And I think now we would probably reach for different metaphors. One that has existed from the beginning is ideas about adventurousness versus sexual primness. Because HIV has always been connected to promiscuity, which again has a tenuous relationship to reality, there is still a way in which we, in the gay community, connect HIV-positivity to ideas about adventurousness, polyamory, open relationships, promiscuity. Again, it’s a metaphor, and a form of storytelling.

So our HIV stories are stories about other things as well?

About our world, about our life experience, about our relationship to sex and bodies. If you want to track HIV storytelling as an index of ideas about queer community, we are certainly in a new moment, because the ’80s were about white gay men dying, on TV and in the movies, in either horrifying and punitive ways, or sentimental sympathetic ways; then the ’90s and early ’00s were about these safe, comedic Rupert Everett types and no one having sex, and then you’ve got these pathological killer bisexual women and lesbians.

And now in the post–Queer Eye, post–Queer as Folk, post–L Word age, we have a much more diverse cast of queer people in popular culture, and if you think about AIDS coming back into the narrative, it acknowledges the fact that the contemporary queer community as we understand it was really birthed at that moment. I would attribute this to critiques of mainstream queer representation from trans people and from queers of color. We are thinking about our history and reenvisaging the queer community, certainly in popular culture, as one that was diverse and coalitional, and that wasn’t just about the struggle of white educated gay men and lesbians. That’s always been there to some extent in our storytelling, but it’s much more prominent.

The question about narrative is a really tough one because if I was answering “what would my book say,” it would say that there is no narrativization of HIV without the legacy of crisis, and what I have always found is that any storytelling we want to do about HIV now, however much we want to tell the real story of what living with HIV is like, or invent new ways of thinking and talking about it, we are always grappling with a very powerful set of images that have kind of impressed themselves. The original positive images were a media event with consequences that we’re still grappling with.


Ronnie Scott is a lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT University, where he teaches nonfiction, research, and graphic narrative.

LARB Contributor

Ronnie Scott is a lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT University, where he teaches nonfiction, research and graphic narrative. In 2007, he founded The Lifted Brow, an independent literary magazine that he published for its first five years. He is a contributor to many local and international newspapers, journals, and magazines, and his first novel, The Adversary, will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in 2020.


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