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A Q&A with Daniel Harris done by Visual AIDS

"The Kitschification of AIDS" was one of the most controversial chapters in Harris' book, "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture," containing his disturbing analysis of the AIDS Quilt.

In some senses, "the kitschification of AIDS" could be replaced with "commodification"; how does the media representation of people with AIDS become part of the "marketing package"?

In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, I talk a lot about the marketing of what I call the "AIDS product." My thesis is this: in the early stages of the epidemic, the Reagan and Bush administrations refused to allocate the money necessary to cover basic costs of research and treatment, with the result that movie stars, and not government officials, became the epidemic's statesmen, its panhandlers, the ones who were forced to seek alternative sources of funding out in the open market, in charity balls, rock concerts, and fashion benefits. Because of insufficient federal funds, activists were forced to turn the disease into a commodity and sell it to the public like any snack food, compensating for the lack of government support with private support, with charitable contributions, which they extorted from the public by arousing pity for the victims, by packaging the epidemic in sentimental clichés that reduced potential donors to a state of maximum susceptibility. The more money that was needed for the disease, the kitschier it became. Had the Republican administrations of the 1980s been more responsible, the epidemic would not have spawned nearly as many sentimental images which activists designed expressly to overcome consumer resistance and prime the pumps of private contributions. So I see kitsch in crudely economic terms, as a practical response to federal irresponsibility, which provoked a massive PR blitz as tacky as any advertising campaign for a new shampoo or a dish detergent.

In your recent book, you express some cynicism about cultural initiatives like the Names Quilt. These initiatives, much like the Red Ribbon Project, are often the only way in which liberal and middle-class people have involvement with AIDS -- do they succeed in educating people about HIV/AIDS and/or lobbying for increased funding? Do you think they serve a valid function?

As much as I deplore AIDS kitsch for its sentimentality and its insulting infantilization of the epidemic's victims, I think it has been unquestionably effective. It has raised enormous amounts of money and if it has done this at the expense of good taste, well, then, too bad. On the other hand, please don't think that just because it has been effective, I'm going to reserve judgment and hold off on submitting it to the sort of rigorous analysis it deserves. Nothing is untouchable in my view, and when a society says that something like the Quilt is beyond reproach because it is all for such a good cause, this inviolability brings out the pitiless skeptic in me and makes me want to understand how the Quilt really works and why we use colonial imagery as the basis for a commemorative monument designed to mourn a group of pariahs who don't immediately bring to mind images of quaint old grannies in bifocals and bonnets stitching up a storm. If you think about it, the Quilt is a mysterious non sequitur within the context of gay culture and I found myself asking why we chose it.

My first objection to the Quilt is simply this: placing the epidemic within the context of this mythically pure colonial history is part of the way we sanitize the victims of AIDS, enshrining them within this cluttered museum of tacky folklore so resonant with wholesome patriotic feelings and nostalgia for a simpler agrarian America. This whole process of purification implies that AIDS victims are indeed truly guilty of something, namely, for having sex, and need to be sanitized, need to be cleansed in a warm bath of colonialist kitsch. Few of your readers, I hope, are going to buy this. In short, there is a very thin line between the Quilt and guilt.

Secondly, I object to the Quilt because I see it as one of the ways we have marketed the disease for public consumption. In order to sell a "product," namely AIDS, to the American public in the absence of federal funding, activists used one of the key techniques of consumerism, the evocation of the pastoral realm of the homemade. In a decadent industrial culture like our own, one of manufacturers' key marketing techniques is to conjure up a time before the mass production of goods, before assembly lines, a time when industrious craftsmen made everything by hand, cobbling together their colorful handicrafts by the sweat of their brow. The Quilt reeks to me of spurious nostalgia for this never-never land of agrarian simplicity, the same nostalgia you see on peanut butter jars emblazoned with "old-fashioned" and white bread wrappers with "homemade." Consumerist nostalgia does not seem appropriate to me in mourning the deaths of grown-ups. You may ask me, "well, aren't you judging people's grief?" and I have to say, yes, I am. I can only say that I personally don't want consumerism and all of that "homemade" and "old-fashioned" crap at my graveside.

What do you mean by "the kitschification of AIDS"? Where did this phrase come from?

A couple of years ago at Christmas time, I was walking in San Francisco's Castro district with a friend of mine who has AIDS, the artist Sammy Cucher (of Aziz+Cucher fame), and we passed a greeting card boutique that had a Christmas tree in its window festooned with garlands of red ribbons and glass ornaments stenciled with the words "miracles can happen." My friend has maintained throughout his illness a blessedly wry sense of humor about the state of his health and he turned to me and said dismissively, "this is just AIDS kitsch." There was something so treacly and religious about this display, replete as it was with associations of Christian miracles and Norman Rockwell families singing carols on cold winter's evenings, drinking mulled cider around the open hearth singing carols and gazing lovingly at the Baby Jesus in his creche. Across the street, we passed another boutique window displaying "Silence = Death" t-shirts and red ribbon broaches made out of rhinestones and then, as we walked on a little further, we came to Under One Roof, the nonprofit gift store for AIDS charities next to the headquarters of the Quilt, where we saw Cuddle Wit teddy bears wearing still more red ribbons and yet another rack of t-shirts, this time stenciled with the words "We're cookin' up love for People With AIDS." The Shop for AIDS Relief, as it is also known, even stocks a line of AIDS-specific sympathy cards sporting inconsolable naked men sobbing on tombstone angels while inside the text reads "I wonder at times why some are chosen to leave so soon. Then I remember who has left, and I know. God must have wanted them home because he missed them."

By the end of this macabre walking tour through what started to seem like the epidemic's strip mall, I was so repelled by the intimate alliance between commerce and death that I had decided to write an essay about how AIDS has been exploited by entrepreneurs and why the disease is so prone to sentimentalization, to this orgy of bad taste. You have to understand that I was walking with this very intelligent man who is not in anyway pitiable and woebegone but hilarious and campy and smart, and these infantilized images of helpless AIDS victims reduced to sniffling poster children begging for our charitable embraces seemed so insulting to him personally, so undignified. The whole thing reminded me a little of Jessica Mitford's book The American Way of Death, in which she crucifies price-gouging undertakers and how they exploit the emotional vulnerability of their bereaved family members in order to sell them all kinds of unnecessary mortuary luxuries that end up costing a fortune. As someone raised on Mitford, I saw the mountains of funereal trinkets around me as further evidence of the deplorable commercialism of the American Way of Death.

This said, I'll have to admit that when the essay was finally written my friend, its muse, disagreed strongly with much of it, especially my controversial characterization of the Quilt as a propaganda device that employs Colonialist nostalgia in order to sanitize the disease. As revenge, he jokingly said he was going to add a codicil to his will requiring me to participate in the quilting bee to make his panel. He knows how much this would annoy me since I can't stand any group activities, especially the public sob-ins that are so popular these days. I'll have to say that his macabre sense of humor about the epidemic stands in my mind in healthy contrast to the maudlin images of PWAs (hate that expression!) purveyed by the media and the AIDS kitschifiers.

Why do you hate the expression "PWA"?

I hate it because I can't stand the sort of Candy-Striper optimism that lies behind it. I also detest its implicit rejection of the expression it has supplanted, "AIDS victim." Throughout the epidemic, we have tried to "empower" the victims of the disease in the usual ineffectual ways in which people empower the powerless when they really can't do anything at all to help them: by tinkering with terminology and by promulgating images of indomitable superheroes triumphing over their disease and "living with AIDS" rather than dying from it. What is wrong with the word "victim"? People infected with HIV are the casualties of a biological accident; they did not "choose" their disease, nor can they simply tell it to "be gone!" as many of the crack-pot holistic healers would have some of their cult members believe, sending the virus packing simply by writing it a polite letter of dismissal in which they tell it on no uncertain terms that it has "outstayed its welcome." "Person With AIDS" is just a bit of linguistic costume jewelry, a verbal red ribbon, a cheap euphemism to hide the fact that something has happened to us that we can't control. I don't see anything pejorative about being a totally powerless victim of a virus.

On the other hand, I do see something dangerous about those who persist in believing that AIDS victims are the ones with the ultimate power over their disease because this produces a climate in which we can blame the victim, which is, after all, what Right Wing extremists want to do. Moreover, if you are constantly told, as the diabolical Louise Hay tells her followers in an effort to "empower" them, that AIDS is the result of an internal division within their psyches and that you "choose" to become infected, those who suffer from the disease could potentially feel very guilty and unhappy about inflicting this terrible scourge on themselves. So I think psychologically and politically we are a lot better off as victims than as empowered PWAs.

I'm distrustful of the mindless optimism of the self-help and human potential movements with their happy-go-lucky, "can-do" attitudes and their efforts to interpret everything as a function of the human will. There are simply some things we can't control in our lives and this flies in the face of the fundamental ethos of a society saturated in pop psychology, namely, that we alone are in charge of destines and that our bodies are mere physical extensions of the will, having no independent biological reality as pure inert objects subject to the same rules that govern the rest of the inanimate universe. We have lost our sense of fatalism as a culture and this has surely made it a lot harder for us to deal with the epidemic. Had we not been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the superficially genial precepts of self-help and human potential, we would have been much more prepared to accept the reality of our powerlessness and wouldn't have struggled so hard to deny that we were victims.

I assume that you're not minimizing the positive benefits of political empowerment (such as access to healthcare, control over medical treatments, etc), but isn't there a danger that your views will be taken as defeatism and thereby an acceptance of the lack of AIDS funding.

Yes, there is some danger that my views could result in political ineffectuality but I certainly hope that they won't. When I speak of fatalism, I am talking primarily about the individual's relationship to his own illness, to his own fate on a psychological level, on how he is resigning himself to the possibility of death. I have simply seen too much false optimism, watched too many people die having never managed to make peace with their illness, all because they have been fed so many uplifting bromides that assure them they are going to make it simply by thinking truckloads of inspirational thoughts. Consider for a moment the sort of frustration sick people are liable to experience when the warm-and-fuzzies that self-help opportunists sell them (often at great cost) turn out to be worthless panaceas. The sort of fatalism I would like to encourage in people is a philosophical and psychological fatalism. At the same time, I hope that people will maintain an activist's stance politically, at least those who have the physical strength to be out there on the front lines. But you are right and I think I have to admit that you have caught me in a contradiction: there definitely is a danger that resigning oneself to one's illness could result in political impotence. Let us not forget, however, that many AIDS activists are either not yet sick or are not infected at all so there are many others to carry the torch at this point besides bedridden people in the advanced stages of the disease. Some people simply shouldn't be forced to man the barricades but should be getting on with the business of dying. I have always been very troubled by Dylan Thomas's line "don't go gently into that good night." Marching angrily into that good night, shaking one's fist and protesting every step of the way, seems to me, frankly, a fate worse than death.

I'm interested in the relationship between your views on "AIDS victims" and the kitschification AIDS, as the image of the AIDS victim is so crucial to the fundraising efforts you discuss earlier. How is the acceptance of being an AIDS victim that you propose better (or different) than the media representation of the pitiful pathetic AIDS victim?

The state of resignation and acceptance isn't necessarily weak and pitiable but can actually be powerful and self- possessed. Stoicism, which is essentially what I'm advocating, is in my view a philosophical attitude that connotes strength and self-control, not maudlin self-pity, not feebleness, not debility. The body may go to hell but the mind remains intact so the type of resignation I am talking about is the internal resignation of the individual, which involves an energetic assertion of the will and not whiny passivity. There is an enormous difference between the infantilized PWA as seen in the iconography of AIDS kitsch, clutching his teddy bear and looking woebegone and pitiable, and the self-assured stoic whose battle with his illness can't be neatly represented in treacly images of cuddly poster children like the sad-eyed Ryan White warming his "tiny blue fingers," as People magazine put it, over the coils of his mother's stove. A hard-nosed stoic doesn't make a very effective or marketable poster child. To sell this disease to the American public, we needed the big glycerine tear sliding down the fat, rosy cheek. Do you know anyone who wants to cuddle someone as tough and uninvitingly insular as a stoic?


Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com