on seeing AIDS

Elizabeth Grosz writes on the ways in which social demarcations, norms and rules are projected onto the body. In her view, the “body becomes a text, a system of signs to be deciphered, read, and read into . . . Bodies speak, without necessarily talking, because they become coded with and as signs. They speak social codes. They become intertextuated, narrativised; simultaneously, social codes, laws, norms, and ideals become incarnated” (Grosz, 1995:34-35). These incarnations are (partly) prescribed through the visual mode; we ‘see’ distinctions and characteristics ‘onto’ the bodies of others.

Now, 1990s South Africa was, to put it lightly, a peculiar time. In terms of the national narrative, but also in terms of the way the HIV/AIDS crisis was framed as oppositional to heteronormative middleclass and pastoral white culture. (‘Only certain people get infected’; ‘only certain acts lead to infection’ were popular mantras.) These bodies were often simultaneously viewed as abject and also “needed” for their constitutive relation. (See Derek Hook, 2004, 2006.) There is of course also interesting parallels to be drawn to Apartheid’s fetish of visual differences between races; As if somehow, one could mystically discern the character or nature or essence of a person or a group or a race from their visual appearance.

If HIV was (in the 1990s) still seen as invisible; then AIDS was difference (and mortality) jarringly made visible on the body.

I remember, the first time I saw a body (in print) of what derogatively and flippantly was called “an AIDS victim” was in the early 1990s in, of all places, Die Huisgenoot. This might perhaps have been one of the first times such a body was represented in popular media in South Africa. In the photo, a thin man was lying on a hospital bed, tended to by strangers.

My father took me and my siblings aside, showed us the article and the photo. We, realising intuitively that we were called here to be taught (shown, rather) something indiscernible of life, haltingly asked questions. Making us look at the photo a second time, he explained that such a condition was easy to avoid. It was, he said, simply the result of loving too many people.

I would’ve been about seven at the time, and he was an Afrikaner and a Boer from the Eastern Free State – which, if I’m being kind, may explain his euphemistic replacement of ‘sex’ with ‘love’, as well as his misinformed – misguided – belief that infection causally follows promiscuity. Regardless of my perceived kindness in how I’m characterising my father – a man who, over the 30 years since that image, I’ve come to know better but have understood less –  that image (image, imagine, imago!) might just stay with me for the rest of my life, an instinctual and base memory of a loving father imprinting on his children the horrific bodily effect of – in his way of seeing the world – loving too much.

How can love lead to such abject decimation? How can an excess of love leave you, to paraphrase Johann de Lange, hortelend en stotterend vir asem?

The simple answer is, of course, that it doesn’t.

My siblings and I went on to grow up into somewhat obstreperous adults. As every teenage boy – and later young man – does, I defied the instructions of my father and loved widely. Here, halfway between 30 and 40, I’m still loving widely. But, sometimes, we just can’t get away from that one image.

As today’s young ones might say, you just can’t unsee it.

Abjection, this sense of visualised otherness, can be understood in terms of the (visual) economy/politics of exclusion and inclusion. Although it feels like a visceral reaction (again, Hook), it also activates social discourse(s) of inclusion/exclusion – visually encoded on the bodies of those deemed visually other. That Die Huisgenoot photo, and my father’s devoted ineptitude when confronted with it, intertwined visuality and difference. Something which has been difficult, for me, to unbundle through language. I don’t know what had the bigger effect on me, me seeing that picture or his use of explanation of it.

The consolidation of social boundaries through abjection is linked by Hook (2006) to motifs of what he terms ‘traumatised corporeality’ – with abjection as a “mode of reactivity that has been routed through the dreads, aversions and nausea of the body” (2006:3). Visually (and viscerally) excluding the other becomes a way of defending against the perceived corporeal boundary threat.

Ironically, within the act of exclusion lies the subversive potential to recognise our similarities, not only our differences. Herbst (1999:115-116) states that, although abjection works by excluding that which is different, “[y]ou can exclude it, but you cannot erase it . . . . . . This means that prohibited things, abject things, have a certain revolutionary power, whether real or imagined, and as such they challenge the ordering formation”. Townsend also aptly writes that “[w]e need to understand [mortality, bodily discomfort and illness] as a fundamental condition of being, and of culture, by which we may have some relationship to others, no matter how alien (2008:3).

The 1990s of this anecdote was a time of intense self-generated fear among the white farming communities of the Eastern Free State, where I grew up. My father’s view on the Die Huisgenoot photo does not stand in isolation; everything, and more pointedly, everyone who was different was seen as a threat. The 1980s saw the States of Emergency, but the 1990s was also tumultuous, as the time when white communities, such as mine, had to start facing what they had constructed.

In a sense, for me there would forever be a conceptual overlap, an affective overlap between awareness of the dangers of heterosexism and the dangers of racism – I’m not necessarily equating these two as equally grievous, but instead saying that they overlap in my schema, my schematic understanding of the world.

Wemar Strydom, April 2019