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Another Kind of Love: A Performance of Prosthetic Politics
Debra Levine

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Kerry Swanson

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Another Kind of Love: A Performance of Prosthetic Politics
by Debra Levine

Abstract (English | Español)

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  image by: Lola Flash

There is a force within society that cannot be contained.  Call it Queer Theory.  Clearly no one could have predicted the visual representation of this theory.
- Ray Navarro, 1990    

What has happened is that there is no longer a supportive gay community with peer relations that support the necessity of keeping up safe-sex practices. Instead, many gay men meet other men for sex only on the Internet. When I speak with younger friends now, gay men who are having a lot of sex with people that they meet over the Internet or at clubs, I find that they almost never get tested, rarely talk about safe sex, rarely consciously think or talk about HIV at all. ...We have lost the strong sense of community around HIV discussion and activism that kept the issue front and center. For gay men, this is very dangerous
- Douglas Crimp, 2003


I presented the first version of this paper December 12, 2004 in Mexico City, at a conference sponsored by Enkidu Magazine entitled "AIDS and Culture."  The day I spoke, no more than twenty people attended any of the panels, including my fellow panelists.  The topics included shamanic performance, homoerotic photography and safe sex lectures at orgies.  As the day progressed, none of the panelists acknowledged the issue I found most shocking.  Most presenters (gay, male and under thirty) identified themselves as HIV-positive. How could this happen now, in a cohort of intellectually engaged cultural scholars who have access to HIV prevention information and healthcare options?  At the question-and-answer period after my panel, the "erotic" photographer, a man in his early forties, stood up, turned to the rest of the audience and exhorted them to attend to my narrative.  He reminded the audience that there had been a vibrant AIDS activist community in both the US and abroad, and declared that the knowledge produced by that community has already been forgotten.

What follows is a meditation on how affective relationships developed in the course of political praxis transmit and facilitate knowledge.  I write about Ray Navarro, a dazzling, outspoken, proudly queer twenty-five year old Chicano AIDS activist: an artist, video-maker, and writer whose final work embodies the ethos of care for oneself and others produced by this political community.  I interject this singular memory into the history of the AIDS crisis in order to disrupt the "smooth passage from past to future" (Nora 1994: 285) which has actively forgotten the unique practices of early AIDS activism.  I write not to resurrect the past but to recuperate a future.

The shift

In the early- to mid-1980's, the political focus of the gay community in New York City abruptly shifted from issues of sexual liberation to the confluence of events now known as the AIDS crisis.  This seismic event was marked by Larry Kramer's apocryphal 1987 rant at the gay and lesbian bookstore, A Different Light.  Michael Petrelis recounts Kramer asking "half the audience to stand up and he said, 'You're all going to be dead in six months, now what are we going to do about it?'"  (Petrelis 2003: emphasis added).  This moment has been memorialized as the birth of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

The political shift cannot be imagined as a regression or a renunciation of the liberated sexual practices that flourished after the Stonewall riots.  Erotic and sexual relationships, a critical component of how individuals defined their relationship to the gay community, were integrated into AIDS political practice "without apology or compromise" (Halprin 1995: 108). Even as ACT UP members died from HIV-related opportunistic infections in increasing numbers, the commitment to the preservation of this element of gay culture intensified.  Safer-sex methods were slowly incorporated as an ethics of AIDS activism both to prevent infection and to honor these bonds in the formation of a political community.  Early in the AIDS epidemic, the negotiation of safer sex between members of ACT UP was truly an attempt at a care of the self, what Foucault views as an "ethos of freedom" (Foucault 1984: 9). 

Responding to the impact of AIDS, activists re-contextualized gay sexuality to include the impact of HIV disease on members' bodies.  This necessitated the creation of a "different economy of bodies and pleasures" (Foucault 1990: 159).  Part of that economy was ordered through the concept of affinity and the practice of what I call a "prosthetic politics."    Prosthetic politics enabled members disabled with physical complications from HIV and AIDS to retain their own creative, sexual and political identities.  Rather than allowing PWAs (persons with AIDS) to relinquish an activist presence in the process of dying, affinity groups doubled as the site of both political action and active caregiving where the able bodied understood themselves as a prosthesis for the disabled body. After he was incapacitated, Ray Navarro engaged members of his affinity group as his agents to continue functioning politically and artistically.  Through us he inserted his altered body back into the realm of the body politic.


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