by nel yang
In The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, Karma Chávez continues the project she began in Queer Migration Politics (2013), drawing out accounts of coalitional resistance, their complexities and possible futures. Borders decenters the story of AIDS in the United States, approaching it from its boundaries and peripheries. Chávez takes up these edges by examining quarantine, an object rhetorically fraught and catalyzed by what Chávez calls “alienizing logic.” As an interdisciplinary text, Borders of AIDS challenges queer studies’ sometimes fixed attention towards local bodies, and migrant studies’ emphasis on institutions and population. As a text accounting for AIDS and migrant activism together, Borders of AIDS proves invaluable for our pandemic present not as a reiteration of US institutions of power, but as precedent and inspiration for contemporary resistance.
In her prologue, Chávez describes the surrealism of finishing such a project amid a global pandemic. The surreal juxtaposition between Covid and AIDS is palpable in Borders of AIDS, mirrored by its organization in two parts. The first part is a rhetorical history of quarantine in the United States. Historicizing quarantine in this conceptual way, Chávez allows Covid to enter the frame, complicating the reader’s orientation to the present. The second part is contrastingly lucid and historically specific. Here, Chávez accounts for AIDS activism and resistance in a way only she can. As a rhetorical critic who has centered fieldwork in her career (McKinnon et al. 2016), Chávez is able to rescue felt-presence from the archive to historicize coalition work (in AIDS activism and Haitian organizing) in all its tense hopes and surprising accidents.
That being said, for me, it is the opening and closing chapters of Borders that are most exciting. In these essays, Chávez positions her objects of rhetorical analysis as modes of addressing the national project of “these united states.” Rhetorical histories become pointed tools of critique. Deploying “alienizing logic”, Chávez reveals the rhetorical hinges and porous senses that hold the alien(ating) nation together. It is as if to say that the figurative Columbia, the female personification of the United States, does not know where her skin ends and begins. It is in these discussions of body; the national body; the figurative body; the sick body, that I join Chávez in conversation:
So, where is the body in all this (Chávez 2018)? Across AIDS discourse, a sense of the body is intensely present sometimes, incorrigibly sick and debilitated, and also vibrant, loud, living, and sexy (48). Other times the sick body seems absent from Chávez’s text, as if AIDS existed strictly in the realm of discourse or rhetoric. Historically, discussions of HIV/AIDS has always emphasized this visuality of sick bodies (the appearance of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the photo of David Kirby on his deathbed). Borders of AIDS naturally reads as a counter against this canonical trend. For Chávez, it is “border,” not “sickness,” that makes bodies visible. AIDS and borders are mutually constituted through their jurisdictions in stamps and small papers (112) that signal bodies, sick or not, moving across the world.
So the border is in the body, and bodies do the border’s work, repelling, ambiguating, distinguishing. And few objects know this as well as AIDS, which has always been a war waged in the body as much as on the body (Alammedine 1998). Lines are drawn and redrawn, inside bodies and out. Bodies that stay well can do this and not that (Martin 1994). Bodies not well can go here, not there. Quarantine becomes the war.
Analogies of war are always problematic, not literal but never wholly figurative either. Wars like those on drugs, or cancer, or AIDS have always been attacks on both sickness and sick bodies, as much as biomedical heroism champions otherwise. Chávez’s argues that sickness cannot be abstracted from the bodies that it inhabits, and alienizing logic proliferates in a misunderstanding that it can, creates a fertile gap. To assume that attacks on sickness are on sickness alone is to discount the ways bodies are already marked by borders, race, and disease. All addresses moving forward result in further alienation.
Unlike war, public health knows that disease observes no moral stratifications. The underlying assumption is that everyone is having sex, and they do so unstoppably. No one is innocent, and so no one is bad. Where this goes a little haywire is when the public becomes the text and field through which disease is mitigated. Lines are drawn in social space, parks are closed, streets are “sanitized”, theatres, bath houses, bars, all closed (Delany 1994; 1999), so much so that it is hard not to wonder, “Is sex possible with/in/at borders?” At times, it seems like sex is cleared from Borders of AIDS to make its argument about borders, to make borders clearer, where sex impossible. I wonder if that is a story we tell ourselves to mitigate the overwhelming sense that borders are everywhere public, like districts, and cities, and counties, and states, and yet, so is sex (Berlant and Warner 1998).
And what if Haiti were a woman (Ulysse 2013)? Suppose Columbia has an alienating skin made up of anxious diatribes and instincts, would Haiti, by having borders, have the same? And what about the migrant body? What logics and experiences might it communicate? Chávez suggests “coalitional logics.” Though her accounts of Haitian migrants are brief, relative to book’s overarching project, her attention is not without impact. Following, and critiquing, the media produced around the experiences of Haitian migrants who were HIV-positive, Chávez demonstrates one of the core tenets of her work as scholar: that the alienation of bodies, both figurative and actual, must be resisted by accounting for and describing the experiences of those very bodies, which remain ongoingly emergent in the work of migration, and the work of the American project undone.
nel yang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Their research engages the areas of ordinary finance, models of subjectivity (self, user, analyst), the semiotics of desire, and experimental ethnography. Current projects include investigations of digitally mediated transaction (of which findom is one), subjectivity-models in the field of user research (UX), and Taiwanese claw machines (娃娃機). Other media they work with include free verse, lyric ethnography, 35mm (color), and digital performatives (tweets).