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The Nearness of Others

The Nearness of Others: Searching for Tact and Contact in the Age of HIV

David Caron
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 336
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    The Nearness of Others
    Book Description:

    "Funny how a gay man's hand resting heavily on your shoulder used to say let's fuck but now means let's not. Funny how ostensible nearness really betrays distance sometimes." -fromThe Nearness of OthersIn this radical, genre-bending narrative, David Caron tells the story of his 2006 HIV diagnosis and its aftermath. On one level,The Nearness of Othersis a personal account of his struggle as a gay, HIV-positive man with the constant issue of if, how, and when to disclose his status. But searching for various forms of contact eventually leads to a profound reassessment of tact as a way to live and a way to think, with our bodies and with the bodies of others.

    In a series of brief, compulsively readable sections that are by turns moving and witty, Caron recounts his wary yet curious exploration of an unfamiliar medical universe at once hostile and protective as he embarks on a new life of treatment without end. He describes what it is like to live with a disease that is no longer a death sentence but continues to terrify many people as if it were. In particular, living with HIV provides an unexpected opportunity to reflect on an age of terror and war, when fear and suspicion have become the order of the day. Most of all, Caron reminds us that disclosing HIV-positive status is still far from easy, least of all in one of the many states-such as his own-that have criminalized nondisclosure and/or exposure.

    Going well beyond Caron's personal experience,The Nearness of Othersexamines popular culture and politics as well as literary memoirs and film to ask deeper philosophical questions about our relationships with others. Ultimately, Caron eloquently demonstrates a form of disclosure, sharing, and contact that stands against the forces working to separate us.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4191-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xii])
  3. Diagnosis

    • I GOT SLIM
      (pp. 3-5)

      On Wednesday, May 24, 2006, at three O’clock in the afternoon and about two hours before I was supposed to fly to Montreal for a dissertation defense and a carefully orchestrated weekend of dirty fun, in a dreary medical examination room decorated (there’s got to be a better word really…) with images of body parts and admonitions to quit smoking before something really bad happened to me, I learned that I was HIV positive, and, just like that, my body, which for the past few years I had kept casually entertained with liquor, cigarettes, and strangers while giving little thought...

      (pp. 6-6)

      Adam Mars-Jones was wondering what the literature of AIDS should look like: “Perhaps only a customized form of the novel could adequately represent both the reality of the virus and its irrelevance, its irrelevance even to those whose lives it threatens. Imagine for instance a story interrupted by a footnote that grows to book length, the text never resuming.” Think of this book’s form more or less in the same way—a series of footnotes and no story resuming ever....

    • RB ON TB
      (pp. 7-7)

      Roland Barthes once wrote this caption above a photograph of himself taken after his recovery from tuberculosis: “Sudden mutation of the body (after leaving the sanatorium): changing (or appearing to change) from slender to plump. Ever since, perpetual struggle with this body to return it to its essential slenderness (part of the intellectual’s mythology: to become thin is the nave act of the will-to-intelligence).”

      As I developed a genuine intelligence of my body—I mean, when it became more intelligible to my mind—I regained some of the weight I’d lost in the aftermath of the diagnosis. Was my initial...

      (pp. 8-8)

      I had the terrible misfortune of testing positive for HIV on the eve of the epidemic’s silver jubilee. It was indeed in early summer 1981 that the first articles appeared, describing unusual clusters of rare diseases among gay men in New York and Los Angeles. A quarter of a century later, I found myself caught in the hoopla surrounding the anniversary. Every newspaper, TV news show, and Internet wire service, it seemed, was giving AIDS the royal treatment. The four-letter word kept jumping at me from all corners at once. AIDS! AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!!! And it felt as though it...

      (pp. 9-10)

      It is tempting to forget the morning rituals, when you inspected your body for lesions that might have appeared during the night and signal thatithad started.

      It is tempting to forget that when you asked, “Does this spot look purple to you?” you didn’t need to say anything else for everyone around you to know just what was on your mind, if not on your skin, and how fast your heart was racing as you uttered the words as casually as you could because sounding casual seemed to increase the chances of a reassuring response.

      It is tempting...

      (pp. 11-11)
      (pp. 12-13)

      For an academic to admit to being clinically depressed can be tricky, because to disclose that your mind isn’t functioning as it should is to disqualify yourself, to risk rendering irrelevant everything you do or say as a professional thinker. Depression, in fact, often feels like being raped by thoughts, monstrous, deformed thoughts. They force themselves on your mind and leave you shattered and ashamed. It’s simpler, at times, to give in to your attackers than to resist them, but you know that once they’re done, the respite will be short-lived, and they’re going to come for you again. Your...

      (pp. 14-14)

      If Buddhism is correct and all life amounts to suffering, depression can become endemic only in cultures that do not have at their core a philosophy that takes this simple truth not only into account but as a foundation. What in lands far, far away from my house makes life so livable is the serene knowledge that it is unlivable. Depression, I believe, results from the tension between that knowledge and a stubborn resistance to it....

      (pp. 15-15)

      Given a choice, I’d pick HIV over depression any day. You can live with HIV. Depression, however, feels like such a complete denial of life that it becomes a challenge to even put it into words. Imagine chronic back pain so agonizing, so crippling that when it hits, you can no longer perform some of the most basic gestures required to function in the world around you. Even in moments of respite, you sense the pain’s lurking presence, a constant companion, quiet at times but liable to strike without warning. Now imagine that pain not in your back but in...

      (pp. 16-16)

      I recognized early on that, in certain situations, it was better to keep the chaos in my mind safely hidden. In this I was helped by previous experiences of what you might call closetedness, or just discretion. Over the years, being gay, first, and now being HIV positive have given me the required skills with which to figure out when it is better to keep quiet and how to do it. With depression, things are a little different. When you are gay or poz, for example, discretion entails passing, whether explicitly or by omission, for someone or something you’re not;...

      (pp. 17-17)

      Depression kicked in when it occurred to me that not only was I HIV positive but I still had to do the laundry. Having entered the world of AIDS didn’t mean that I’d abandoned the world I inhabited before—the world in which someone’s got to do the dishes and light bulbs don’t just change themselves.

      There is something incongruous in the uneasy proximity of a world’s crisis and your personal life, of a momentous disruption and the unruffled continuation of the mundane, of what’s too big to grasp and what’s too small to ignore, of the call to heroism...

      (pp. 18-18)

      Call it mulling, call it ruminating, it is a strange way to think, and a mind in darkness often convinces itself that it sees with clarity. But even though your thoughts seem to be going around and around without aim or point, they are thoughts, they are going somewhere—only they’re not taking the straightest path to get there. Yet to think in circles and in excess, to ponder too much, too long, and too deeply—what French speakers callressasser—is often perceived to be the opposite of thought because it doesn’t go anywhere. Today, we largely see medicalization...

      (pp. 19-20)

      The amount of attention I lavished on my body in the days, weeks, and months that followed the diagnosis looks, in hindsight, completely unreasonable. There was nothing I could do other than take my medications and update my vaccinations. Looking better or giving my days a semblance of order by filling them up to the brim with activities of all kinds—gardening? what was I thinking?—would have no bearing on my actual health, and I knew it. Of course, focusing on my looks didn’t come out of nowhere. Since at least the nineteenth century, we have been trained to...

      (pp. 21-24)

      As this book moves along, it will become clearer that my actual forays into the chaos of unreason provide opportunities to rethink the Enlightenment’s concept of reason and the social order this concept has grounded. I am far from being the first scholar to do so, of course. My thinking owes much to Michel Foucault’s early work, for example, and has found inspiration more recently in that of the Foucault scholar Lynne Huffer. And I do not mean to imply that the Enlightenment has ever constituted a homogeneous philosophy, that it was never uncontested from within, or that it wasn’t...

      (pp. 25-25)

      I’m doing the dishes. There’s this really sharp knife. I don’t know, perhaps I’ve had a bit too much to drink with dinner, perhaps I’m just too eager to show the friends who, as ever, have given me such loving and unquestioning hospitality that I’m trying to help out. Blood everywhere. All over the sink, the faucet, the dirty dishes—everywhere. I freak out, of course, but they seem to be OK with the whole gruesome incident. “Fuck, I’m so stupid,” I say. “It’s the knife that’s stupid. I’ve always hated that knife,” Nico replies. Blame the knife. The elegance...

      (pp. 26-26)

      By and large, people were very nice to me when I was dead, but not everyone was so tactful.

      One friend said to me: “So itistrue, then. The more you sleep around the more likely you are to get it.”

      “Has this made you contemplate your own mortality?” asked a guy who obviously had issues I was wise to keep at bay. (“No, it hasn’t,” I should have replied, “but I’m beginning to contemplate yours right now.”)

      And there’s the one who obviously had heard from someone else and, leaning over me, wrapped his arm around my shoulders,...

      (pp. 27-28)

      I once complained about this last point to a friend. He’s HIV negative, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I hastened to add, “Well, this may sound unreasonable of me, but I guess it’s what you could call poz logic.” “No,” he retorted in the next breath,“it’s not a logic, it’s a point of view.” Fair enough. The conversation took place in French, and I had used the phrase “une logique de séropo”—a poz person’s logic—which didn’t anchor what I called logic to an objective reality but to the subjectivity of someone drifting, rudderless, across...

      (pp. 29-29)

      asks Hanif Kureishi inMy Ear at His Heart, a book in which he dives into, and exposes, his family’s archives, weaves his own text with those of others—chief among them his father’s unpublished autobiographical novels—and wonders what right he has to do such things in the name of an exciting literary experimentation whose outcome remains by definition uncertain.

      Questions, as such, are seldom indiscreet. No matter how personal they are, they do nothing more than come close to the edge. It is answers that may cross over to the other side and wreak havoc. We should be...

      (pp. 30-30)

      “Where’s the towel you gave me the other day?”

      “I threw it in the wash.”

      “But I hardly used it at all. It wasn’t dirty.”

      “C’mon, it had blood on it, remember?”

      His expression changed all of a sudden. He lowered his beautiful dark eyes almost imperceptibly, as if trying to avert what he thought would be my judging gaze.

      “That was insensitive, wasn’t it? I’m sorry.”

      It wasn’t insensitive. It was, if not quite reasonable, at least understandable.

      He was HIV negative.

      He was a kind and touching lover.

      And we kept our towels clean....

      (pp. 31-32)

      Hoping to reassure myself, early on, I told the nurse at the hospital that in the long run I’d rather be HIV positive than have diabetes. I tried very hard not to wonder too much what her perturbed expression actually meant, but it has left me with an uncomfortable, lingering doubt ever since. Other people, too, tried their best to sound reassuring, although it wasn’t clear who it was they were trying to reassure sometimes, me or themselves. I’m guessing both. Let me be clear: the irritation I felt toward my friends now and then was the result of my...

      (pp. 33-33)

      If the AIDS crisis were over, people wouldn’t still be dying of the disease in such high numbers.

      If the AIDS crisis were over, people who have been on various combination therapies for years wouldn’t be, as is increasingly the case, in such poor physical condition.

      If the AIDS crisis were over, people with HIV wouldn’t be in jail for failing to disclose their serostatus.

      If the AIDS crisis were over, an HIV-positive status wouldn’t be so problematic to disclose.

      If the AIDS crisis were over, pozphobia wouldn’t be so prevalent, so casual, so unconscious even.

      If the AIDS crisis...

      (pp. 34-37)

      I talk and talk about it, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m not really saying anything. I can tell people that I am HIV positive. I can do it in person, on the phone, through e–mail, anonymously or not. I can notify sexual partners and share the news with friends and sometimes they’re the same people. I can tell how I think it happened and with whom, although I can never be sure. I can explain how I came to learn that I was HIV positive, why I got tested, how the results came, my doctor’s...

      (pp. 38-38)

      Is my HIV-positive body the same body I always had, only with HIV in it? Early on, I did feel invaded, inhabited, but no longer. Now the experience is more akin to a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Do I have a different body, then—a body with HIV that is somehow not the same as a body without HIV? Or perhaps HIV is a supplement to my body, in the Derridean sense of the term, that is, an addition that also signals some foundational absence? This all depends on whether one considers the different stages of one’s life to form a succession...

      (pp. 39-39)

      No one ever did anger quite like Barbara Stanwyck. Whether young or old, she could reduce you to a quivering mess with her stare alone. And when she talked, she could make anyone who crossed her regret the day they were born. In one of her last appearances, inThe Thorn Birds, she hurled this at poor Richard Chamberlain, who didn’t want to fuck her for the stupid reason that he was a priest and made the even stupider mistake of reminding her of her age: “Let me tell you something, Cardinal de Bricassart, about old age and about that...

      (pp. 40-40)

      That I have turned to dead stars for solace and inspiration shouldn’t come as a surprise, for, like the heavenly bodies after which they were named, they continue to shine down on us long after they have ceased to exist. I invoke camp, an outmoded, collective way of rereading obsolete forms, in order to reclaim, through the very act of mourning it, a gay sense of community that no longer seems so operational three decades into the epidemic. To put it more bluntly, it makes sense to turn to discarded cultural models of gayness at a time when gay culture...

      (pp. 41-41)

      A friend to whom I’d shown an early draft of this book’s first few pages believed that there ought to be something therapeutic in writing about all this. There isn’t. Not that there couldn’t be, I guess, but that’s not what I’m after, that’s all. I seek no relief, long for no well-being. This is not a comforting work of self-disclosure. It isn’t about inner life but, rather, about outer surfaces. It is about skin given to other people’s touch, however kind or unkind the touch turns out to be. (Can one—should one—ever control the afterlife of a...

      (pp. 42-42)

      “For reasons that are well known to them.” With the awesome swiftness of a falling ax, Joan Crawford famously cut her first two adopted children, Christina and Christopher, out of her will. What an interesting turn of phrase! How, I wonder, can something be simultaneously known and left unspoken? How does oneknowthat one has been cast out? By what operation does the burden of knowledge—and itisa burden—fall on the shoulders of the excluded rather than on those of the very people who supposedly have “reasons” to exclude? Does it mean that knowledge and reason...

      (pp. 43-43)

      “I will ask and ask until they give it to me.”

      “Hospital is hell.”

      “You have to demand respect right away, it’s exhausting.”

      “Allow me, Madam—or is it Miss?—to let you know that I think you behaved very badly with me the other night, be it humanly, ethically, and professionally.”

      “To turn psychological torture (the situation in which I’m in, for example) into an object of study, if not a work of art, makes torture a little more bearable.”

      “This morning I refused a pillowcase made of paper.”

      “You will have to wait for me to sink much...

      (pp. 44-46)

      I was angry. It had taken me far too long to get the first appointment at the infectious diseases clinic. (Actually, HIV patients go to the internal medicine department, where, I was told beforehand, no one in the waiting area would know why I was there. “Internal medicine” is a bit like the black plastic wrapper in which Poz magazine comes in the mail. Anyway, after a while we all learn to recognize each other, and, as with homosexuality, a passing glance is all the confirmation we need.) My regular doctor had already told me that my blood had been...

      (pp. 47-47)

      “There arises, at the moment when the doctor exerts an intense suffering upon the patient, a curious feeling of love and respect that I believe to be mutual. There is something sacred to suffering. The doctor who made the patient suffer and the patient who suffered become friends of sorts, accomplices perhaps—but there’s always modesty.”...

      (pp. 48-48)

      The excruciating and tantalizing succession of stages—my primary care physician; then the nurse and social worker at the hospital; finally the AIDS doctor opening the door—evokes, to me, the narrative layering that precedes and sets up a star entrance, when, say, Lana Turner first appears all dressed in white, pausing at the door frame, as a pure image, inThe Postman Always Rings Twice: a lethal and irresistible object of desire. The star.

      I’m sorry, but shouldn’t I get top billing here?

      (I gotta get me a turban.)

      The truth, though, is that Lana standing at the threshold...

      (pp. 49-49)

      Planning is everything. On my first visit to the AIDS clinic at the hospital, and right after I was told it would be extremely unlikely that I would ever die because of HIV, I was also urged to write my last will and testament, give a trusted person power of attorney over my affairs, register a living will, and so on. To expedite matters, I was handed a pile of forms and documents to attend to right away. They sat on my kitchen table for many weeks until, one day, they had entirely vanished under a pile of bills, recipes...

      (pp. 50-51)

      The sticky residue of a night’s dreams often clings to mornings and days. This phenomenon—strange, vivid dreams—is one of the best known and most curious side effects of the meds I’m on and must take at bedtime, and it can be so persistent that I have found it easier and more beneficial to my peace of mind to accept, once and for all, that the boundary between sleep and waking life has, if not entirely ceased to exist, at least become an object of serious dispute, and one that shows no sign of being settled anytime soon by...

      (pp. 52-52)

      I died very well when I was a boy. Beautifully, in fact. Whether I was a Roman slave or an exiled oriental prince, a pirate or a Sioux—whichever allowed me to be half naked or wear feathers—my exits tended to be more drawn out and tantalizing than Ava Gardner’s entrance inThe Barefoot Contessa. I can never decide between a star entrance and a star exit which one is the more significant. If the first is always a form of unveiling, isn’t the second the real moment of truth? And the truth is, I was not the sort...

  4. Others

      (pp. 55-55)

      I cannot date with any certainty the moment I became aware that I had entered another world. This new world exists in proximity to the old world, yours, where life continues to unfold as if nothing had happened. Mine isn’t a subterranean world, however, nor is it in any way invisible if one cares to look. Rather, old and new world exist in a neighborly relationship of nearness, discordance, and discomfort. Within arm’s reach or a stone’s throw—the metaphor isn’t mine to pick....

      (pp. 56-56)

      It is easy to forget, given the torrent of stupid certainties and the idiotic fervor, unabated to this day, that have followed them, that the events of September 11, 2001, were very surprising. Her voice a mere mumble, the neighbor asked me for a cigarette as we were both standing on the sidewalk that sunny Tuesday morning, so clear and luminous—a reverse omen of the murkiness that was soon to envelop us like a treacherous fog. She didn’t have any cigarettes herself, and I assumed that she must have quit but that if ever a situation demanded a smoke,...

      (pp. 57-58)

      So we waited. We waited for all the other planes still in the air to land and be accounted for. We waited for the second tower to fall. We waited for the president to come out of hiding and say something. We waited to know what the hell happened and whether a war had started. We waited for the moment when we wouldn’t have to be waiting anymore.

      We waited for Fourteenth Street to reopen so that traffic could flow again, so that grocery stores and, most importantly, bars could replenish their stocks. By Tompkins Square Park, the joint with...

      (pp. 59-62)

      In her testimonial writings, Charlotte Delbo, a French Resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor, repeatedly uses a specific rhetorical strategy that several critics, including myself, have commented on. Hoping to establish a relation of proximity with her readers in order to be able to transmitsomethingof what she went through, Delbo must also try to frustrate our wish to know what we cannot possibly know, to deflect our desire for something like deep, subjective intimacy with someone whose experience will always remain partly beyond our grasp. The literary scholar Patricia Yeager, for one, has written beautifully about the need to...

      (pp. 63-66)

      We were walking in a group, laughing loudly about something or other, when, without warning, a fire station sneaked up on us near Washington Square Park. The flowers, notes, and portraits of the dead firefighters stunned us all at once into a heavy silence. The conversation picked up again after we’d left the station behind us, but the laughter sounded more forced somehow, until it died down altogether.

      The way New York City reacted to 9/11, how the city mourned its dead, was distinctly urban. Unlike the suburbs, where life is largely centered on the family home, and villages, where...

      (pp. 67-67)

      The feeling of slight discomfort that often greets a stranger’s beckoning stems from a breach of boundaries, perhaps even of propriety. “Why are you calling me? I don’t know you.” But when a complete stranger beckons you, he or she ceases to be a complete stranger and becomes, if not exactly an acquaintance, at least an incomplete stranger. “You don’t know me completely but you know the surface of me just as I know the surface of you.”

      It isn’t hard to see why Romantics would have recoiled in horror at this. This sort of encounter turning into a contact...

      (pp. 68-68)

      “The memory of friends is everywhere. It pervades the city. Buildings, skylines, corners, have holes in them—gaps; missing persons. And if the present is a cemetery, the future is a minefield.”

      These words were written about New York and appeared in Andrew Holleran’s book of collected essaysGround Zeropublished in 1988. I extracted this from the piece of the same name, and, like the rest of the book, its about AIDS. I don’t read it now as eerily prophetic or anything. It could have been written about other collective traumas, such as the Holocaust or the Balkan wars...

      (pp. 69-69)

      Several years after September 11, 2001, some recordings of phone calls made to 911 by people trapped in the towers above the points of impact were made public. A woman told the operator, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” As I began to ask a friend of mine who was with me in New York that day if he had heard the tapes, he interrupted me with a brisk arm gesture and a mumble that meant yes, he’d heard them too but that he wasn’t going to talk about it. I knew then that he had also been thrown back...

      (pp. 70-71)

      There was Hervé, who said, “Ever since Mom left . . .” (“Depuis que Maman est partie . . .”). And there was this guy, a friend of Hervé’s whom I had never met before, or since. He had recently arrived in Paris from Bordeaux. Gay life there had changed beyond recognition, he explained, and it was time for him to leave. He added, “And there were many passings” (“Et puis il y a eu beaucoup de décès”). Décès was such a strange word, I thought, so bland and legalistic, so disengaged (as if apolitical), so dispassionate (as if painless)...

      (pp. 72-73)

      Is it because young Arab men caught America so nakedly unprepared, like an emperor with no clothes, its vulnerability exposed for the whole world to see and gawk at, that our leaders and a sizable portion of the people felt the need, in turn, to bare and humiliate Arab bodies? Is it as payback for its humiliating defeat in Algeria that the French Republic thinks it has the right to rip headscarves from the faces of Muslim girls who attend its public schools? Has reason always been barbaric and thus (etymologically) foreign to itself?

      And has it always been so...

    • S-21
      (pp. 74-75)

      S-21 is the name at once innocuous and chilling in its efficient administrative brevity given to what used to be Phnom Penh’s Tuol Svay Prey High School. The S stands for “Security prison.” There, between 1975 and 1978, under the Khmer Rouge regime, more than seventeen thousand Cambodians were imprisoned and tortured, and those who didn’t die were hauled on trucks for a short ride to be murdered just outside the city in a place we now call the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Bullets being in short supply, victims were often done in with the blow of a shovel...

      (pp. 76-76)

      Our modern, Western sense of self is a matter of abstraction. The universal Man has been severed from the materiality and contingencies of his body in order to make room for a new form of citizenship. Torture, however (and this is also true of rape or racism or pathologization), seeks to reassert the fundamental exteriority of others by defining them as and with their bodies, that is to say, as pre-or nonself entities. To reactivate an archaic form of punishment is intended to expel its victims from the realm of modern selfhood by transferring this archaism to them. As paradoxical...

      (pp. 77-77)

      Disgust often gives a person a sense of impenetrable wholeness, hence its central role in the fear of HIV and AIDS. Years ago, something horrible happened to me at the emergency room of the University of Michigan hospital. Although what brought me there was no big deal, I realized that day that my skin wasn’t as thick as I thought it was. The barely perceptible curl of a doctor’s lip as she read my chart was all it took to break it. It was as if a bottomless abyss had suddenly opened, and everything—everything—had vanished into it in...

      (pp. 78-79)

      One of the most startling things to emerge from the debates on torture during the Bush era (other than the realization that torture was an object of debate) was that information obtained under so-called enhanced interrogation techniques is known to be unreliable, since prisoners will simply say anything to make their suffering stop. Of course, Montaigne argued that very point in the sixteenth century. Closer to us, Elaine Scarry showed that “the fact that something is askedas ifthe content of the answer matters does not mean that it matters.” So why torture? If information extracted from prisoners in...

      (pp. 80-86)

      For an American academic—and I am one—to study the controversies that have taken place in France over Muslim headscarves before and after 9/11 feels a bit like landing on a distant and mysterious planet or falling down the rabbit hole into a world where everything seems to have been turned upside down and stopped making any kind of sense. I must confess my admiration for scholars such as the feminist historian Joan Scott, the anthropologist John Bowen, and others, who have so eloquently refuted every single argument ever put forth by proponents of the ban on religious symbols...

      (pp. 87-89)

      For non-Muslims, the very act of coming across people they can immediately identify as Muslim, right there on the streets or in some public administration, without expecting it, bursts with affect, often of the confusing kind. In other situations, perhaps other times, similar feelings of confusion have greeted encounters with people of color or gay men holding hands or Jews wearing a yellow star or the frail, wasting bodies the media once taught us to recognize as those of people dying of AIDS. So what do these anxious encounters with Muslimness tell us about encounters in general? (The French word...

      (pp. 90-90)

      New York and its vanished landmarks have once again crept into my memory. Perhaps because of 9/11 or perhaps because of the idea of strange encounters, I’m thinking of the old, filthy Times Square as I discovered it in the summer of 1985, with its junkies and crazies and whores. “Want some company, honey?” asked the woman who came so close that her invitation sounded like a whisper in my ear over the cacophony of the city. Back then, you couldn’t experience an evening on Broadway, a fun and glitzy night on the town, without at least a glimpse of...

      (pp. 91-91)

      The notion of civility, like its near synonym urbanity, implies that a certain level of sophistication is to be found in cities. (A French equivalent of “civil” and “urbane” would bepolicé, a word with similar implications, this time from a Greek rather than Latin root.) If cities are defined partly by diversity and circulation, life together may be attained there thanks only to the careful management of differences and more or less tacit rules of etiquette. The alleged incivility of young French people “of immigrant origin” (issus de l’immigrationsays the capacious phrase of choice) may then be understood...

      (pp. 92-93)

      Soon it wasn’t just French schools anymore. If the management of some (privately owned) supermarket chain decides to sell halal products or, in neighborhoods with a large Muslim clientele, not to carry pork or alcohol at all, accusations of “Islamization” or “Talibanization” start flying and the blogosphere goes wild. There were outcries when some Muslim women asked for women-only hours at public swimming pools. Surely people had made such requests before, and even though I don’t know for sure what happened locally, I suspect that the countrywide controversy erupted only after the headscarf had become a nationalaffaire. And there...

      (pp. 94-96)

      The fact that my own body so often feels problematic to me now makes me look elsewhere for comparisons. It would be absurd to claim that everyone is a racist or a homophobe or freaked out by those who are HIV positive. Many people simply don’t care or do not in any way see difference as worthy of judgment and social exclusion. But some people do, and, at my worst, so do I.

      Asking himself why there is no tradition of the nude in Chinese art, Francois Jullien makes the following observation. In Western art the function of the human...

      (pp. 97-99)

      There exist many famous photos of historical trauma and human suffering. We all know the one with the small Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto, walking with his hands up, as a German soldier points a rifle at him. We have seen Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl running naked down a dirt road, her body burned by napalm. And the Vietcong fighter grimacing a second before a South Vietnamese officer shoots him in the head in Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photo. Much nearer today is the picture of a hooded Iraqi man in Abu Ghraib prison, standing...

      (pp. 100-100)

      He had a strange habit. He had many strange habits, in fact, and he was seeing shrinks and taking meds for that. One habit consisted of showering before coming to bed but, somehow, never drying himself completely, so that he would sit on his heels for a while, naked and wet on top of the bed, until he felt he was dry enough to get his body under the covers. How odd people are sometimes. If he couldn’t stand to go to bed wet, why did he come to bed wet? Why didn’t he simply use his towel a bit...

      (pp. 101-106)

      In 1995 the Olympic star diver Greg Louganis went on television with a book to sell and a story to tell. That evening, he didn’t just reveal that he was gay, which many people, few of whom were actual rocket scientists, had suspected long before he appeared at the 1994 Gay Games, but that he had AIDS. The news wasn’t very spectacular in itself. In the world of sports alone, Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson, although both heterosexual, had preceded Louganis with their own disclosures, and the impact had been arguably greater in that, for a brief period at least,...

  5. Disclosure

      (pp. 109-109)

      Like so many others, I first reacted to my diagnosis with shame, which had the advantage of allowing me to experience a wholly novel situation thanks to an affective framework already well-known to me. As the queer scholar Leo Bersani has noted, “A potential sexual shame is inherent in being HIV-positive. For the overwhelming majority of HIV-positive gay men, to acknowledge being infected amounts to a sexual confession: I have been fucked.” Even now, I can argue with myself until I’m blue in the face that I didn’t do anything wrong and that I have nothing to be ashamed of...

      (pp. 110-110)

      That time in the ER I recounted earlier (a short paragraph that took me days to write), that day when I found myself facing another person’s absolute, irreversible contempt for me, illustrates what a dehumanizing force shame can be. Being anobjectof disgust made me feel like less than a human being, but seeing myself with someone else’s eyes allowed me to double up into more than one. To be a human being means to be no less but also no more than one, and shame’s dehumanizing power consists in upsetting such a delicate balance from two sides at...

      (pp. 111-113)

      When you’re HIV positive you also know what it feels like to be HIV negative. You remember it. This HIV-negative, healthy body that was once yours is still somehow with you or near you but no longer you, not really. In fact, not unlike a younger age, it appears sometimes as if it were incarnated by others. Rosalyn Diprose reminds us of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between remembering and forgetting, the former being a kind of figuration that allows us to distinguish the past from the present, the latter a way for the past to be concurrent with the present but...

      (pp. 114-114)

      To disclose something is a way of relating, both in the sense of telling a story and of establishing a relation with someone else. Either way, it is a mode of being with others and therefore has to do with contact, be it accepted or denied. Whether one longs for such contact or recoils from the mere idea of it, disclosures involve surfaces. We seem to bring out to the surface what had been hiding below it. When it is an illness that one discloses, or anything understood to be physical in nature, such as an ethnicity or a disability...

      (pp. 115-116)

      The power of disclosure to prevent contact sometimes works by demanding that a disclosure be made and, at the same time, postponing it forever. Not unlike unveiling, disclosure is a mandate that cannot be fulfilled without undoing the power of those whoseprojectit is to demand disclosure and transparency. Like any project, this one would cease to exist once completed.

      The pervasive sense that some people have of Barack Obama’s irreducible otherness, the deeply felt conviction that, somehow, he’s just not like us, is easy enough to account for. The reason that so many Americans feel that way about...

    • CHAT (I)
      (pp. 117-117)

      I must have said something, because he sensed it. “poz?” he asked. I typed back “yup,” wondering whether this was the right context for a virtual Gary Cooper impression. “i’m not but it’s no big deal,” he replied. “like i said i lived in sf for years so hiv isn’t new or scary to me. comes with the territory.” I can only assume that HIV must have in fact been old and boring, because I never heard back from him and never made it to his territory....

    • CHAT (II)
      (pp. 118-118)

      Him: “it doesn’t mean we can’t chat”

      Me: “it doesn’t mean we can’t fuck”

      Him: “lol true”

      The chat ended soon after that.

      The fucking never started.


      (pp. 119-126)

      It is surely not a surprise if laws so often mandate that one’s HIV status be disclosed before engaging in certain sexual practices, for there is something in the very act of disclosing that, in the absence of concerted attempts to the contrary, makes it nearly impossible not to see the object of the disclosure in negative terms. This is the logic of the confession, with which our notions of disclosure tend to be entangled and that actually performs the sin or the crime into existence. When confessing, rather than sharing, his or her pathological status, a person with HIV...

      (pp. 127-128)

      Barebacking is a topic that I feel both compelled and reluctant to discuss in these pages. Compelled because so much HIV scholarship has now turned to it that it would be a mistake to dodge the issue altogether in a book such as this one; reluctant simply because I have little to say about it in the end, my opinions on the matter being as fluid, so to speak, as the practice itself. Some queer scholars, most notably David Halperin, seek to wrest the discussion of barebacking from the grip of psychology and its pathologization of gay lives. Others, such...

      (pp. 129-130)

      I once presented and discussed some of what precedes and some of what follows to a group of graduate students in Chicago, whose work dealt with gender and sexuality topics. Of all the instances of HIV disclosure mentioned in the text they had read ahead of time, the ones they were almost exclusively interested in were, predictably, those that occurred in sexual contexts. I say “predictably” now, but at the time it took me by surprise.

      A few weeks before my visit, they had invited another gay scholar who had told them that ethics and sex had nothing to do...

      (pp. 131-131)

      A fairly young guy hit me up once, and after our e-mail conversations confirmed our mutual interest, I told him. As he had recently settled in the area, he said he was definitely interested in making friends but that sex was now out of the question. I must have been feeling particularly touchy that day, because I sent him to hell. So he turned the tables on me, telling me that he was the one now being rejected but that, despite that, he was not upset with me. Lovely. HIV-negative people often find it so obvious to refuse to sleep...

      (pp. 132-132)

      The exclusion of the infected must be forceful and resolute. It must appear to be based on objective knowledge and not irrational fear, because it needs to veil the fact that, by definition, the uninfected is vulnerable—to infection. In fact, every rejection will be a reminder of that defining vulnerability and, therefore, the more you reject people with HIV the more unsafe you’ll feel. (And the more unsafe you feel, the more often and forcefully you’ll reject. That’s both the point and the operating mode of the police.) This sort of rejection endows itself with all the trappings of...

      (pp. 133-134)

      To disclose that one is HIV positive, especially within the logic of confession, sheds retrospective light onto what now seems to have been a narrative all along; in fact, several narratives. This is true of every kind of disclosure, of course, but I’ll limit myself to the one we’re all here for. There is the narrative of the illness, from infection to suffering to death maybe, or perhaps endless deferral in the serialized stories of what is called chronic disease. People often want to know how you became infected, how exactly it all started, and sometimes they even ask. They want...

      (pp. 135-136)

      Today, in Western countries, where effective treatments are easily available to most who need them, to disclose one’s HIV-positive status is not as easy a proposition as some may think. If “HIV is no longer a death sentence,” as the ubiquitous phrase goes, what exactly am I disclosing when I say “I’m HIV positive”? How am I disclosing it, that is, what accompanying statements are necessary? What contexts, what situations, what timing, what interlocutors come into play and affect the disclosure? In fact, why am I disclosing it at all? Why would I risk turning myself into an object of...

      (pp. 137-140)

      If HIV and AIDS have a history, so, logically, does their disclosure. The hypothesis may sound absurd, but if AIDS had remained completely and consistently undisclosed it would not have a history. This suggests that we cannot separate the history of AIDS from that of its disclosure and that the latter is not simply a marginal detail in the epidemic. The HIV/AIDS coming out is a genre inscribed in a chain of other, preexisting genres—the confession, the news announcement, the legal disclosure, and naturally, the gay and lesbian coming out with which, for obvious social reasons, it shares more...

      (pp. 141-142)

      Soon after starting this book and under the pretext of research, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in ages: I devoured memoirs, poetry, and works of fiction written about AIDS in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s—the darkest years of the epidemic in the West. Some of them I had read before, at the time, but the whole thing had gotten too draining emotionally, and I’d burned out on these books. Now, I couldn’t put them down. Paul Monette, David Feinberg, Amy Hoffman, John Weir, Sarah Schulman, David Leavitt, Jamaica Kincaid, Rebecca Brown, Gary Indiana ....

      (pp. 143-143)

      One of the things I miss the most about early AIDS activism is anger. Today, anger has become one of the most maligned emotions, singled out of proper sociability thanks to the usual alliance of stigmatization and pathologization. In a classic case of double bind, the “angry person” finds himself or herself accused of excess and lack at the same time, of expressing too much too loudly and, also, of failing to deal maturely with the so-called real issues that outbursts of rage always seem to mask. Anger is rude, inappropriate, inelegant, and tactless. In other words, we think of...

      (pp. 144-147)

      Sociological studies of HIV disclosure in the United States reveal how difficult this act remains for many people living with the virus. And how complex a process. The authors of one such study were surprised to hear a New York man working “in an AIDS service agency” admit that, in sexual contexts, “I tell the truth only half the time.” And they add, “Other men and women as well, in discussing the experience of being infected with HIV, repeatedly said that one of the hardest decisions they faced was whether to reveal the truth, to lie, or to speak in...

      (pp. 148-149)

      Why should I miss the identity categories performed into existence by the act of coming out? Surely not just out of campy fascination with obsolete forms and genres. Early AIDS theorists had read their Foucault. We know Foucault’s critique of confession. We also know of Rancière’s definition of the police as what produces and enforces radical distinctions for the purpose of creating inequality and social control. And we are quite aware that the genres on which the HIV disclosure piggybacks have often been used historically to police people and assign them fixed places within and without a disciplined social order....

      (pp. 150-156)

      The disclosure, as I made it to close friends immediately after my diagnosis, did more than transmit a basic piece of information. It also implied: You are my friends, I am your friend, we matter to each other, and I need your support right now. It hardly felt like a disclosure at all, really; this sort of friendship doesn’t police. The statement, at the time, didn’t need to be completed by much else, and the fact that it often wasn’t (what else could I say at that point? I was stupefied) conveyed a certain sense of urgency located outside the...

      (pp. 157-157)

      My friend Michael is fond of letters. He likes to write them and to receive them, which never ceases to impress his mailman in Mexico City. It was only fitting that in this case I would want to tell Michael in writing that I had tested positive for HIV. Because of the campiness of the whole enterprise, which I found ideal for HIV disclosure to a fellow homo, I also wrote it as I imagined George Sanders would have, or Eve Arden—in a detached, world-weary style. I mentioned my last visit to New York for Rufus’s show at Carnegie...

    • SO AM I
      (pp. 158-160)

      I’ll move on now to a more complex example of disclosure—that of the first time I knowingly said “it” to someone who was also HIV positive. For I’m not the first person to be HIV positive. I’m finagling with my argument a little here, since I didn’t say “I’m HIV positive” that time, but rather, “So am I.” My interlocutor and I were involved in a discussion about our adventures and misadventures in online cruising. At one point, he said, “I’ve tried putting ‘HIV+’ in my profile, but it didn’t exactly help me get laid.” You’ll recognize the anti-announcement...

      (pp. 161-161)

      My first very public instance of disclosure was at an academic conference. It wasn’t around drinks, mind you, but as part of my presentation and in front of a sizable, if very friendly, audience. That evening, a bunch of us were smoking outside the hotel when one of the boys mentioned in passing something about “taking my meds,” just like that, in the middle of a story to which the detail had no meaningful narrative connection whatsoever. In relation to the story’s events, the act of taking the meds occurred in proximity to the plot but had no bearing on...

      (pp. 162-163)

      OK, I’ll give you one last story, one in which things went very wrong.

      As is the case with every rock concert these days, you would get to see the Raconteurs at the Fillmore in Detroit only after waiting in gender-specific lines, at the end of which you were asked to show the contents of your pockets and agree to be patted down. I didn’t mind one bit. It hadn’t crossed my mind, however, that the small pillbox attached to my key ring could attract so much attention. Surely, there must be better places to hide drugs than a pillbox....

      (pp. 164-170)

      Modes of HIV transmission are so caught up in a web of cultural taboos and fantasies that sticking to objective facts, we are told, offers the best way to manage our fears, protect ourselves, and organize our social and sexual relations. I would like to focus on this now: not, however, to illustrate how we envision our relations with others on the basis of known facts but to argue, first, that how we choose to relate to others provides us with a framework for shaping the facts of HIV infection, and second, that the complex dynamics of disclosure play a...

      (pp. 171-180)

      What makes Annie Ernaux’s testimonial narrativeHappeningso eloquent in its engagement of the complex inside—outside dynamics of disclosure is that it involves an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion, specifically a clandestine abortion taking place at a time when the procedure was illegal, stigmatized, and often dangerous. As Ernaux reconstructs not just a past “event” (the book’s original French title isL’événement) but the cultural, or shared, conditions of its occurrence, the issues raised by her disclosure, issues at once personal and political, find themselves inscribed onto the narrator’s body by the very culture in which the story unfolds....

      (pp. 181-186)

      I have no particular interest in coining critical neologisms, but the discussion of the two types of disclosure—confession and sharing—may be summed up more efficiently if I do.

      Disclosing does not emancipate people anymore than unveiling does, and it does not produce equality. Take the well-known conundrum of open homosexuality. Yes, coming out is a necessary, liberating gesture, but one of its effects is to draw visible boundaries around the “object” of homosexuality and thus facilitate its policing. Paradoxical as it may sound, to disclose homosexuality is to enclose it as a discrete object that may be more...

      (pp. 187-188)

      Some relationships have no future, but this doesn’t mean that they have to end. Maybe all they need to do to survive is exist in a never-ending present. I grew to love his contagious slowness. Even though it was for him the result and the source of painful anguish, I saw it as a perpetual deferral, a yet-to- come that never comes. Isn’t a person’s “shortcomings” always where contact occurs? Isn’t it lack that leaves room for you, that beckons you and invites you to come nearer?

      But I threw in the towel in the end. It was sad of...

  6. Taste

      (pp. 191-192)

      The stories in most of the old AIDS books that I read while writing this one take place in cities—the usual suspects: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, but also London and, to a lesser extent, Paris—and they tend to present a specific experience of the epidemic that was, back then, organically connected to urban social dynamics. The city, in other words, doesn’t provide a mere background to the stories; it is as much a part of them as the disease itself. This can mean many things, and it does. It tells us much, for example, about a...

      (pp. 193-196)

      The concurrent and mutually reinforcing appearance of modern sciences, the Reformation, and the gradual empowerment of the merchant class led Western culture to give birth to a new kind of Man. By “Man” I do not mean “male” but, rather, the new, universal self that was to become the centerpiece of Enlightenment philosophy grounded in secular reason. But as we know full well, the body of Man was far from abstract and universal, its corporeality stubborn and resilient. Drawing on Renaissance ideals of bourgeois balance and moderation, it was indeed male—as well as Western, Christian, and, with the eventual...

      (pp. 197-199)

      The triumph of reason in modern Western culture has thus relied, among other complex operations, on the becoming metaphoric of the sensory. In the eighteenth century, the metaphorization of taste from the gustatory to the aesthetic and of tact from the musical to the social was one of the rhetorical tricks that allowed the Enlightenment to produce the universal Man by abstracting his body. Intangible (etymologically, inaccessible to touch), perched high above the vicissitudes of the particular and the social, and therefore better apt to serve as a figurative vessel for a new kind of transcendence, the abstractable body, as...

      (pp. 200-208)

      The modern dichotomization of subject and object—that is, the denial that they are effects of discourse—results from the metaphorical turn I just described and is a logical outcome of the mind–body dualism. If I may, though, I’ll venture this: the collective enjoyment of bodies, our own bodies as well the bodies of others, and the social relations that stem from such an enjoyment constitute the lived and sometimes highly pleasurable experience of the untenability of strict Cartesian thought. My purpose, then, is to try to make life a little less still and nature a little less dead....

      (pp. 209-215)

      The old cruisy theaters remain ingrained in the memories of those who have written books or made films about them as unique places brought about by social oppression but where, if only for an instant, it was possible to suspend that oppression and revel in pure desire, perhaps even love. Despite the complex mingling of memory and oblivion at play here, it would be easy to object that if these places and the ephemeral contacts they housed are so memorable, then they testify to the tenacity of the social structures that enable memory in the first place. The desire to...

      (pp. 216-217)

      Another way in which these three movies figure alternatives to modern, exclusionary modes of viewership is by diffusing their focus onto the entire theaters. Modern viewership, inherited from the Renaissance, claims to result from the perspective of the individual viewer when, in reality, it produces the liberal concept of the autonomous individual as if it had always been there—a naturalness effect, in a way. In our three movies, however, the aesthetic experience is inscribed within specific sets of material conditions, means of production, and social relations. The title of the earlier section, “Reentering the Movie Theater,” sought to be...

      (pp. 218-219)

      Several gay friends with whom I talked about seeing a stage performance ofToscatold me some version of the same story, and I have the strong suspicion that it has made the rounds for a while. It goes something like this: in the famous final scene, Tosca jumps to her death from the prison castle’s walls, and, naturally, there isn’t a dry gay eye in the house. In this given performance—in some cases, the friend heard it from a friend, in another the friend was actually there—a trampoline was strategically placed behind the wall to cushion the...

      (pp. 220-224)

      All three examples devote considerable screen time to squalor and poverty, to lobbies and restrooms, to cashiers and janitors and projectionists, providing a sort of peripheral vision that doesn’t redundantly emphasize the characters’ social marginality so much as inscribe their (sex) lives in the thick of social existence. Spaces, people, and actions keep intersecting in mutually defining fashion, undoing the limits that seek to keep them apart conceptually. But the characters use the various spaces that constitute the movie theaters in funny ways. InSerbis, the grand staircase serves as a red carpet for a transsexual cheered on by hustlers,...

      (pp. 225-232)

      A scene inLa chatte à deux têtesdepicts a raid, and a rather routine one, I might add, judging by the police’s obvious lack of enthusiasm and the patrons’ matter-of- fact reaction to it. Three cops enter the theater with flashlights and—not a big surprise if you’ve ever heard stories about the French police—start checking the papers of men of color, looking for undocumented immigrants, theclandestins. Sure enough, they arrest a few North Africans. They also chase people from the restrooms and wake up a presumably homeless man with “This isn’t a hotel!” As they leave,...

  7. Tact

      (pp. 235-238)

      With its endless corridors and steep flights of stairs the Paris metro has little mercy on the weak. My father was in his early eighties then, and he was becoming very frail, as he had been for a while. It was clear that our urban strolls were taking an increasing toll on him and would soon be a thing of the past. That day, at the same time as my father and I were making our way up from a station at an excruciatingly slow pace, his left hand on the banister, my left hand under his right arm, a...

      (pp. 239-241)

      To liken oneself to a very old person was once a common trope in AIDS writing. Hervé Guibert often described the feeling that his illness had erased the gap between him and his nonagenarian great-aunt, while Gilles Barbedette, another French writer who died of the disease, titled one of his booksMémoires d’un jeune homme devenu vieux, the memoirs of a young man who became an old man. But in light of what I’ve just said, it is a passage in another book that came to my mind, Oscar Moore’s collection of his newspaper columns,PWA: Looking AIDS in the...

      (pp. 242-243)

      Aaron Shurin’s slim volumeUnbound: A Book of AIDS, published in 1997, is a collection of short pieces, written in different genres over several very bad years. In a passage from 1988, Shurin, a gay man who lives in San Francisco and, in contrast to so many of his friends and acquaintances, is HIV negative, brings together several of the strands I too am trying to weave in these pages, but unlike me, I fear, does it with the graceful economy of the poet.

      Disclosure, he posits, pervades so many exchanges among gay friends at the time as to make...

      (pp. 244-244)

      It is worth noting that the English “tact” is often used where French speakers would use “délicatesse.” I noticed this often in translated texts, for example. But what are the differences and similarities between the two? “Tact” is also a French word. Delicacy implies fragility and precariousness, much as in the English phrase “a delicate balance,” something that threatens to come undone at the slightest touch. As for the expression “a delicate situation,” it gives the sense of something socially complex that needs to be handled with care. Whether it refers to fragility or complexity, delicacy does share unmistakable attributes...

      (pp. 245-245)

      “How can you of all people be writing a book about tact?” a friend once laughed. “You’re the most tactless person I know!” I chose to ignore the fact that the remark wasn’t exactly tactful either and retorted instead that, by definition, one doesn’t research something one already knows. The truth, though, is that tactlessness may provide a way to throw a wrench in the system, to lay bare the hypocrisy of it all and unveil the mechanics of exclusion. Like a well-placed profanity, it can also be loads of fun. But to be tactless just right is probably as...

      (pp. 246-251)

      To feel as sincerely as I have that my personal experience of testing positive for HIV and living with the virus couldn’t be separated from the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed doesn’t mean that it was easy for me to put these feelings in writing in the hope that someone would read them and see pertinent connections. Have I crossed a line I shouldn’t have when I likened some of what I’ve been through to torture? Are some parts of this book, in other words, tactless and in poor taste? These are legitimate concerns, and now that...

      (pp. 252-255)

      There is a wonderful moment in Francois Truffaut’s filmStolen Kisses(Baisers volés). In the course of the story, a young Antoine Doinel falls under the charm of Fabienne Tabard, a fabulous older woman played by the no less fabulous Delphine Seyrig. Fabienne is not only phenomenally desirable, she also happens to be married to Antoine’s employer, a racist, sexist, paranoid prick. The Tabards are rich too, while Antoine, a working-class kid, tries to make ends meet, one menial job after the other. One day Antoine is invited for lunch at the Tabards’ elegant bourgeois apartment. After the meal and...

      (pp. 256-256)

      Tact always teeters on the brink of its undoing. An excess of it can be just as devastating as the lack of it. There I was, alone in the gym’s shower room, showering, when a line of people, men of course, all of them fully dressed, began to walk right by me on their way to the pool in what I gathered was some sort of business tour of the facilities. Two? Five? Ten? How many more of them were there? Now, I’m really not bashful about being naked in a locker room, but this endless parade, reminiscent of two...

      (pp. 257-258)

      For all its power to articulate social relations and maintain power structures, tact often appears tainted by its gendered association with the delicate. Does tactful persons’ reliance on intuition and immediate, that is, nonanalytic, apprehension of human relations mark them as feminine somehow? And to pose the question bluntly and narrow it a bit, is there something queer about tactful men? Jung, Freud’s student and rival, seemed to think so. In his essay on the mother-complex (where else), he notes:

      Thus a man with a mother-complex may have a finely differentiated Eros instead of, or in addition to, homosexuality. (Something...

      (pp. 259-265)

      “Tact,” Benjamin Disraeli is said to have said, “is the intelligence of the heart.” In our modern era, tact, not unlike grace and taste (another one of its etymological kin), is often defined as a natural elegance of the mind, unteachable and elusive. You either possess it or you don’t. The teacher in Fabienne’s story does not teach what tact is and never actually defines it. Instead, he or she uses a fable and relies on one trope to define another. Fabienne does the same thing in her own story, so does Truffaut in the movie, and so do I...

      (pp. 266-270)

      In general, one needs to exercise tact when one’s interlocutor is, in one way or another, vulnerable, when that person has failed at something and is feeling touchy about it. To feel embarrassed or ashamed is a way to acknowledge our failure and to have it confirmed by others around us. As the sociologist Erving Goffman notes, “To appear flustered, in our society at least, is considered evidence of weakness, inferiority, low status, moral guilt, defeat, and other unenviable attributes.” A person in need of tactful treatment is, in a sense, broken—not intact. His or her integrity as an...

      (pp. 271-273)

      Were the Nazis tactful? The question is a little disconcerting, perhaps even disturbing, but so is the novel that made me think of it, Jonathan Littell’sKindly Ones[Les bienveillantes], a long and absorbing book about the Holocaust as told from the perspective of its Nazi narrator. I am not trying to find out whether Nazis were capable of exercising tact—or showing a lack of it—in normal social situations, that is, in those situations similar to the ones where we too might be called on to exercise tact; I couldn’t care less and I don’t see why they...

      (pp. 274-277)

      Whereas tactlessness means saying the wrong thing, one is tactful when saying the right thing means saying the wrong thing on purpose and saying it right. Sometimes, though, it means saying nothing at all, and silence too may be a form of social policing. If the phrase “It isn’t done” signals politeness, what defines tact is more like “It isn’t said.” In both cases, though, the passive voice leaves the agent conveniently unspoken, giving the impression that proper behaviors are in fact justified by some sort of unquestionable transcendent authority rather than by social conventions. But the link between tact...

      (pp. 278-279)

      For something defined by what it doesn’t say, it is amazing how many forms tact may actually take: euphemisms and understatements, parables and fabulation, silences, even deflecting speech by speaking to a third party rather than directly to the intended recipient of the tactful gesture; tact’s obliqueness, circumventing or sidestepping its object, is what makes it difficult to define and imitate. But I am focusing here on the sort described inStolen Kisses. Within Fabienne’s fable, tact is itself a mode of failure—a willing failure of language (“Pardon me, sir” for “Pardon me, madam”) that rewrites Antoine’s unwilled lapse...

      (pp. 280-280)

      The fear of contact is both a fear of death and a fear of life. To be touched is to acquire more than a sense of one’s corporeal limits; it gives a sense of one’s finitude and end—the stuff of life. To be touched is to begin a process of undoing close to putrefaction. Indeed, the Spanish wordtocadois synonymous with “blemished” and “spoiled.” Goffman, as we know, used this last word to describe what happens to identity as a result of stigma. But there is more. “Touched” may mean crazy as well, and this second meaning is...

      (pp. 281-282)

      Sometimes, strange things happen when you open a door or you forget to close it. A gentleman caller may inadvertently catch a glimpse of a naked woman, for example. For Blanche DuBois and her young husband the consequences were just terrible. “There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate-looking—still—that thing was there.” Poor Blanche couldn’t figure out what that “thing” was, “and all I knew was that I’d failed him in some mysterious way and wasn’t able to give the help...

      (pp. 283-284)

      The small, wooded section of New York’s Central Park known as the Rambles is a notorious cruising spot and has been so for a very long time. This is where Andrew Holleran first met O. on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the 1970s. In 1985, O. has AIDS, and the city has become a very different place. Andrew is back in town and calls on O. How, Andrew wonders, can he properly express his friendship for O.?

      I wondered as we sat talking if I should, or could, tell O. how much I admired and liked him—but to do...

      (pp. 285-290)

      The yellow star may very well be the most violent form of disclosure ever designed. When, in the early years of the AIDS crisis, the right-wing author William F. Buckley (first) proposed that HIV-positive gay men be forced by law to have their serostatus tattooed on their buttocks, the parallel with Nazi anti-Semitism wasn’t lost on activists. It should come as no surprise, then, that once again I look a few decades back for ways to make do and for pointers on how to move from distress and anger to more subtle ways of engaging the world around me.


      (pp. 291-296)

      Here’s another example, from Hervé Guibert’s AIDS memoir,The Compassion Protocol(Le protocole compassionnel). One day, the narrator enters a neighborhood café where he has been a regular customer for ten years, often having a cup of coffee at the counter, even though the waiters have always seemed hostile to him, presumably out of homophobia. Hervé, ill and extremely frail, trips on the doorstep and falls to his knees, unable to muster enough strength to get back up on his feet. The other customers are staring at him: he has committed a literal faux pas and feels like a burn...

      (pp. 297-298)

      The character of Charlus, like Proust, who himself owes a lot to Balzac and Flaubert before him, can sometimes turn an unforgiving eye to the faults and lapses of other human beings—or literary creations. One day, for reasons having to do with his own unacknowledged shortcomings—desire, possessiveness, jealousy, and the like—Charlus becomes infuriated by the poor manners of his lover Morel’s fiancée and, in the end, by Morel’s own lack of class. This is all in bad faith, naturally, since class difference is at the root of Charlus’s desire for the young violinist. And this may explain...

      (pp. 299-299)

      In classical Western thought, touch is often presented as the most basic of all senses, the fertile humus, the original indifferentiation from which the others may grow and separate themselves from the rest. Touch stands as the opposite of sight that way. If the former remains firmly on the ground, the latter flies way, way up there alongside the stars. Touch is of the body, sight of the soul.

      As I unearth tact’s older meaning of touch—the meaning it had before sight became the dominant sense, the one above all others—I do not advocate a return to some...

      (pp. 300-302)

      Between June 1990 and March 1991, at the request of a television producer, Hervé Guibert filmed his daily life with a camcorder. The outcome was a film titledModesty or Immodesty(La pudeur ou l’impudeur), one that, despite its author’s best efforts, was broadcast only after his death. The film is at once moving and disturbing in many ways, as the title intimates. What are we to make of the blunt spectacle of a young man dying of AIDS? Was Guibert an exhibitionist, as so many of his detractors and quite a few of his fans have contended? The film...

      (pp. 303-304)

      I know, I know, youv’e probably had your fill of such tasteless matters, but it’ll only take a minute, I promise.

      A scene in John Rechy’sNumbersevokes the link between the old, musical meaning ofTaktand the possibility of contact in the present opened up thanks to the return of the past. It gives the impression that the quest for contact had led to the rediscovery of ancient meanings, unearthed alive, active, productive into the present. Former hustler Johnny—you’ve met him before—makes his way into the theater following a somewhat disjointed, yet discernible, rhythm: “He knows...

      (pp. 305-305)

      When Guibert describes various physical interactions between patient and health care professionals, both in his film and in his books, he touches on the question of pleasure. I say “touches” because intimacy remains mostly intimated here. Tactile interactions provide Hervé with a degree of relief and well-being, and the erotic intimation brings an opportunity to critique the dominant notions of intimacy. Indeed, the concept of intimacy has long been used to produce the modern self as deep, enclosed, privatized, and, as such, the object of “intimate knowledge”—a form of policing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the medical...

      (pp. 306-308)

      A quick Internet search of “tact” once yielded a curious list of other terms attached to it. I noticed that qualities thought to be directly contiguous with tact roughly fell into two categories. Some referred to deep, somewhat intangible qualities, such as wisdom, forethought, or charisma, that pertain to the tactful person’s inner ability to evaluate the situation he or she is facing. The others had more to do with the outer actions or words that are to follow that initial understanding. These words were resourcefulness, ingenuity, imagination, or creativity. Granted, many entries that came up in my search were...

      (pp. 309-309)

      Describing a certain Taoist ritual in which the immortals go through a symbolic death and burial to avoid upsetting the world of the merely living, Barthes concludes: “Admirable concern for others, pure tact: to take on the appearance of being dead so as not to shock, hurt, disconcert those who die.”This is what he calls “consideration” in both senses of the word....

      (pp. 310-312)

      Hervé is on the bus one day, and he notices that the young woman sitting opposite him seems particularly agitated, unnerved by his presence. The telltale sign is that she carefully avoids looking at him, “as if she were asking herself about whether she really had the right to undertake the step she was about to make, about whether it would be interpreted as tact [délicatesse] or rudeness, she was trying to find suitable words, picking them carefully, polishing their expression, even if circumstances should prevent her from ever uttering them.” Hervé gets up in preparation for getting off the...

  8. Contact

      (pp. 315-315)

      On Wednesday, May 24, 2006, at three o’clock in the afternoon, my life unexpectedly became a huge and shocking mess. Since then, it has gradually transformed into a small, slow-burning chaos. “You should write about this,” my friend Testuya suggested the day I told him. I laughed. “What’s there to write? I’m HIV positive. It sucks. Then what?” Thinking about a chronic disease, I now feel I have written a text that is itself ill, like a mad book about confusion, and I’m tired. I imagined that with my life in shambles I’d fit at last into a chaotic world...

      (pp. 316-318)

      Osama bin Laden is still dead and I’m still HIV positive. Lucky me. As I’m completing the first draft of my manuscript, I’m looking back on five years. I, America, and many people around the world are heading toward the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and of the invasion of Afghanistan.

      A couple of weeks ago I was back in my doctor’s office. Although the nurse didn’t take me to the same exact room as five years earlier and the purpose of my visit was far more benign, it was the same doctor. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I...

  9. NAMES
    (pp. 319-322)

    In many ways unplanned (I unexpectedly found myself forced to envisage a new life when I wasn’t done messing up the old one yet), this book makes do with what’s at hand, what’s near and free for the taking. So yes, I talk about myself a lot, it’s true, and I understand that some academics find this distasteful in our line of work, but how else, I wonder, may one reflect meaningfully on tact if not at the risk of tactlessness? Furthermore, mine is a self like all selves, really, caught in external forces that shape it in relation to...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 323-334)
    (pp. 335-342)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 343-343)