Monday, June 1, 2009

All I Know Is Tonight (or: Some cursory reflections on the meaning of HIV in today's gay community)

The German asked me, "So nothing, then, is private for you?" after I read him an excerpt from Camus' "The Rebel" about the "dandy"--that figure I fear so many pomo-homos exemplify, a position I fear I succumb to with startling frequency. In my more generous moments, when I allow myself reprieve from an otherwise ruthlessly self-examining skepticism, I can see the need, perhaps the necessity even, for writing what "cannot be said" less in terms of Foucault's analysis of power's incitement to confess and more in the context of deploying the scene of writing as a stage where what otherwise cannot be acknowledged can appear, even if momentarily, and never purely autonomously. In this vein, a topic that "cannot appear" in polite conversation would be that of barebacking and HIV. 

I recently learned that a friend I've had for almost a year is HIV positive, and this revelation prompted me to reflect on my own sexual practices and my attitude regarding the socio-sexual mores of our community. Last summer my father sent me a copy of Bersani's Intimacies for an essay titled, "Shame on You" which is about barebacking. I find Bersani to be often times hysterical, hyperbolic, and simply wrong-headed in his thinking about this particular sexual practice. Bersani sees the barebacking bottom as "promised nothing more, and has received nothing more, than the privilege of being a living tomb" and therefore cannot understand--for lack of imagination, perhaps--the fecund possibilities played out in the incredibly personal intimacies of bareback sex.

The German tells me the gay community of Chicago is 33% (or so) HIV positive (though white males boast the lowest number of infection, while Latino and Black men sport the highest), which means, on a purely statistical level of probabilities I've slept with someone who has the bug. This is always a possibility. One wears a condom, but never when giving a blow job. And one never asks after one's status. (There is nothing more absurd that assuming an honest answer to such a question in the moments leading up to penetration. Rather, one spares both parties the trouble of that stupefying dance and accepts into the scene, into one's body, the risk.) In the case of barebacking, therein lies the possibility of a personal intimacy: the silence surrounding one's status deprives either party of cynical detachment or knowing domination. One simply accepts the risk, and the vulnerability that it transmits, like a string of precum connecting two very fragile bodies in a sublime pact of silence interrupted only by ejaculations of pleasure.

For Bersani this is an unrepentant manifestation of the death-drive, of jouissance gone amok. (Though, it is jouissance in its purest: jouissance is only ever a pursuit of the death-drive.) I disagree with him on this score. If, in fact, barebacking amounted to "bug-chasing"--which, outside the confines of pornography and certain subcultures I'm unfamiliar with--then perhaps Bersani would be justified in perpetuating his now boring argument from "Is the Rectum a Grave?" But barebacking is not reducible to bug-chasing. Rather, contra Lacan, it is a manifestation of eros, not thanatos, for the barebacker does not wish to contract HIV, but rather to assert his fecundity in the face of the threat of death. That is, rather than "undo" the subjective position of the ego, it is affirmed. (And are we really going to persist in maintaining that HIV is a "kiss of death" as Bersani insists we must? When will the veils of stigma, or shame, that shroud HIV--rendering it a taboo subject par excellence--be parted such that we can say, HIV does not kill people any more?--a thoroughly "privileged" statement to make, no doubt, but also one that reflects the reality most gay men live: insured, medicated, supported.) That is, what once was true for the gay community of the 80's no longer applies: silence does not equal death. (Speaking of the injunction to confess the "vices" of one's sexuality!) 

Enough for now... I'm gonna go for a walk...

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