Friday, April 4, 2008

Mourning, Melancholia, and Violence

Douglas Crimp, in his essay “Mourning and Militancy” tells us, according to Freud “mourning is the reaction not only to the death of a loved person, but also ‘to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal. . . .” Crimp asks if we can include “the ideal of perverse sexual pleasure itself rather than one stemming from sublimation? Along side the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms, bookstores, movie houses, and baths; the trucks, the pier, the ramble, the dunes, Sex was everywhere for us, and everything we wanted to venture: Golden showers and water sports, cocksucking and rimming, fucking and fist fucking. Now our untamed impulses are either proscribed once again or shielded from us by latex." A younger member of my AIDS in America class suggested that he didn’t think this was the case any longer, Crimp’s essay having been written in 1989. He related how among his friends activities such as these were still the norm and there was much partner swapping and sexual partying. I enquired if safe(r) sex practices were used? When they were engaged in rimming, were they using a barrier? He replied that they all knew they should be, but no one does. We are living in the pseudo post-AIDS era.

An acquaintance of mine is riding in the AIDS Lifecyle. He has recently been hired as the director of production for a porn company which specializes in bareback and swallow videos. This company also has casting booths at San Francisco Pride and other gay events around the country. Their online application asks such questions as HIV status, hepatitis status, do you have any current health problems or STDs?, are you taking any prescription medication?, and are you comfortable engaging in sex acts with partners who may have a different HIV status than yourself? I have not spoken with this person or this company, so I do not know if the way one answers these questions would be reason for disqualification. Nor do I want to be sex negative. I realize that everyone should be able to make a free choice about how they will live their lives and the actions and risks they are willing to take. But I also realize how influential the media is on informing the choices we do make. I must ask if their is not some correlation between companies which make videos like these, which seek models at community gay events such as Pride and my friends revelation about his crowds sexual practices? And isn’t there something just a little incongruous about riding in the AIDS Lifecylce and working for a company that encourages unsafe sex practices (yes, they have a personals section on their web page)? I really want to know? Where and how do we as a community accept responsibility for ourselves each and other? How do we balance that with the need to maintain our sexual autonomy? I really want to know.

Crimp goes on to suggest that for many gay men, what they are suffering is not mourning but rather melancholia; if safe sex to some men is seen as an act of defiance, to those who remember pre-AIDS sex it is more akin to resignation. Crimp tells us “In Freud’s analysis, melancholia differs from mourning in a single feature: ‘a fall in self-esteem’ [ . . . . ] it is a ‘dissatisfaction with the self on moral grounds.’” Examples of which he gives include Randy Shilts and the work of two Harvard trained social scientists, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen’s "After the Ball," which urges gay men to “clean up our act” meaning purging our community of “fringe gay groups.” This is a pattern which seems to be repeating and replicating over and over within the gay community. We package and market ourselves in the hopes of gaining acceptance and equality at the cost of our freedom and individualism.

Mourning is something our culture doesn’t know how to deal with. Death, it just doesn’t sell. We don’t want to face it, best to ignore it. How else to explain this feeling that my boyfriend and I have noticed among our circle of friends of a persistent state of melancholia? It extends, it seems, beyond the perimeters of any one community to include all thinking and moral people. When anyone asks if he is depressed my boyfriend is quick to respond “How could I not be? I would have to not be paying attention.” If we as a people find ourselves in a persistent state of melancholia which manifests as a new moralism, an urge to “clean up our act,” to deny the truths of our past freedoms and identities; could we find ourselves mourning this one more loss, this loss of our self esteem?

Which brings me to Crimps last point in his essay, which is the death drive. Crimp tells us that Jacqueline Rose argues that “it is only through the concept of the death drive that we can understand the relationship between psychic and social life, as we seek to determine ‘where to locate the violence’ [ . . . ] By making all violence external, pushing it to the outside and objectifying it in ‘enemy’ institutions and individuals, we deny its psychic articulation, deny that we are effected, as well as affected, by it." Which brings me back to my earlier questions concerning media messages about barebacking and unsafe sex. We know what the answers are. We know AIDS still kills. The cocktails do not work for everyone. They do have horrible long term consequences. We must find a way to acknowledge our complicity in the violence.

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