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by Douglas Crimp
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Nancy Nyquist Potter, Ph.D. on Aug 19th 2003

Melancholia and Moralism

Last month, I attended an AIDS benefit concert by the Sinikithemba HIV-positive Choir of South Africa. Its theme was "Give Us Hope" and resoundingly proclaimed faith in god. The choir was exultant, filled with the joy of the Christian gospel and presenting the message that people who are HIV-positive can live lives of dignity and hope, celebration and gratitude. The music rivaled any revivalist meeting. Had I not read Douglas Crimp's rich and provocative book Melancholia and Moralism, I might have left the concert caught up in that upbeat narrative myself. Instead, I was disconcerted (so to speak) and glad of it.

Crimp's book is a collection of his addresses and essays over the past fifteen years, which time span includes the identification of the AIDS virus, the escalation of homophobia and sex hysteria, and through the rise of rightist gay politics in mainstream America. When Crimp criticizes gay writer Larry Kramer whose writing, Crimp says, shows Kramer to have "no sense of [the gay movement's] history, its complexities, its theory and practice" (p. 57), he reminds readers that historical context and an appreciation for the ambiguities and messiness of activist politics--especially in the face of ubiquitous and pernicious onslaughts by homophobes within and outside the movement--is absolutely vital to being genuinely responsible queers and supporters. This book is intellectually and politically challenging, especially for readers who are not versed in gay politics. For that very reason, I urge people to read it: there is no better place to start educating oneself on the cooptation of gay politics by conservatives than through the writings of Douglas Crimp. For clinicians who want to learn more about gay and lesbian patients who present with depression, this book offers a political and social context for situating the meanings of being gay in the long and continuing era of AIDS.

There are several interwoven themes that emerge in the course of the essays. One theme concerns art and its relation to political theory and practice. Crimp models throughout his writing the meaning of the claim that political action is contingent upon a given context but that "this contingency of political investment is the necessary condition of all art" (p. 25). Part of what's wrong with much art that has developed since the beginning of the AIDS crisis is artists' traditional assumption about a mythical "universal subject." Crimp shows that deploying notions of the universal subject inevitably signify homophobia through the denial of queer sexualities and politics. The universal is "us," pitted against "them"--who, in AIDS art is typified by the imagined rampantly sexual and sexuallly irresponsible gay man who is blamed for spreading AIDS. The universal, objective, ostensibly apolitical "view from nowhere" in art or elsewhere, Crimp suggests, is downright dangerous during an epidemic of staggering proportions. Even attempts to elicit sympathy for the "AIDS victim" is an appeal to our common humanity in ways that normalize heterosexuality and monogamy and demonize the promiscuous sex lives that supposedly brought on all this loss and mourning in the first place. Crimp urges a "critical, theoretical, activist alternative to the personal, elegiac expressions that appeared to dominate the art-world in response to AIDS" (p. 40).

Art and AIDS both are cultural artifacts, and the sooner we grasp this point, the more quickly we can make headway in fighting AIDS. AS Crimp says, "AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it. We Know AIDS only in and through those practices" (p. 28). Much of what we see, Crimp argues, is shaped by cultural (and artistic) conventions that "rigidly dictate what can and will be said about AIDS" (p. 54); if we want to understand the enormity of this cultural and medical crisis, or if we want direction on what might be fruitful terms of engagement, we first must grasp two sorts of things: the complexity of the issues at hand, and the complexity of representations. The latter is, itself, an enormous task because our ways of conceptualizing and representing gays and lesbians, queers, AIDS, HIV, ACT UP!, diverse sexual activity, and monogamy are contaminated and shaped by homophobia and hetero-normativity.

Crimp offers tremendously helpful analyses and deconstruction of texts by gay writers, revealing to readers the ways that homophobia and narrative norms co-structure each other to entrench familiar dichotomies such as the Promiscuous, Selfish Homosexual in contrast to the Good Monogamous Gay who is really just like straights--as long as sexual practices aren't mentioned. In "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," for instance, he shows how the narrative style of omniscient point of view sets up the arch-villain (promiscuous and irresponsible), whose special purpose is to secure the character of his opposite, the Good Monogamous Gay. Simplistic, false, and destructive dichotomies such as good gay/bad gay, promiscuous/monogamous, practicer of safe sex/irresponsible, and identity/conduct permeate conservative gay writing and politics, as Crimp documents. Crimp shows how and why each of these dichotomies is harmful to the gay movement and is moralizing of an awful sort.

The moralizing that Crimp dissects is primarily that of proclamations of the moral good of monogamy and safe sex. These values (propounded by conservative gay writers) are virtually always pitted against diatribes about sexual promiscuity that reek of rampant homophobia. But in addition, moralizing that casts gay sex as so dangerous as to need to be contained, policed, and normalized misses a crucial point about gay sex: that gay men and lesbians have forged their own cultures, sexual and otherwise, and moralizing threatens these cultures to their core. "Alongside the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility." And sexual possibility, Crimp reminds readers, is not abhorrent or dangerous per se. Sexual possibility is what makes possible the development of many and diverse ways of being sexual and erotically excited, and gay men and lesbians know this from experience. "We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures" (p. 64). The current trend toward moralizing is not only falsely reductive--it is a cause of immense mourning.

Mourning is crucial to AIDS activism, Crimp argues, although in "Portraits of People with AIDS" he criticizes artists' fixation on images of death and dying that, although purporting to "put a face on AIDS," ends up rendering invisible the personality and life of each person portrayed. So what is the place of mourning? Crimp queries. He argues, mostly in "Melancholia and Militancy" but in other essays as well, that a deep melancholy has enveloped many people in the gay movement, and the typical antidote to melancholy has been thought to be activism. But mourning, rage, despair, anxiety, fear, and confusion must be allowed to exist side by side with activism in order for mourning not to become pathological. In "The Spectacle of Mourning," he interrogates the public's interest in the Names Project quilt. He asks, what template of "gay person" does the straight viewer imagine when he or she ponders the quilt and the mourning ritual. "Does the quilt sanitize or sentimentalize gay life? Does it render invisible what makes people hate us? Does it make their continuing disavowal possible?" (p. 201). The public (straight people and many gays and lesbians too) need "innocent AIDS victims" to mourn, as Crimp shows in example after example. The phobic image of anal penetration precedes any representation of gay men, because images have a psychic component that haunts how the public perceives gay men. "What we do sexually is the root cause of the hatred directed at us and, moreover, that many arguments for tolerance of gay men and lesbians attempt to obfuscate that sexuality" (p. 277; emphasis in original). For the public to mourn the death of the millions and to care about the millions more that will die, most need to imagine something other than gay men doing the nasty. Crimp puts the matter very clearly: "In everything I have written about AIDS, which has concentrated mostly on gay men, I have insisted on the determining fact of homophobia, which I believe is still the single most powerful determinant of everything everyone has suffered during this epidemic" (p. 199).

These essays show the developing thinking of a writer who is self-reflective and continuously in dialogue with other writers and artists; although often sharply critical, he remains passionately engaged with some rather infuriatingly offensive gay writers. As Crimp says in the Introduction, "one result of having these essays all together in strict chronological order will show that I took these early criticisms seriously and tried to make my arguments more nuanced" (p. 25). Nuanced they are, and so rich in content that I can only refer you to the author's writing fully to appreciate the richness in political theory and activism contained therein.


2003 Nancy Nyquist Potter



Nancy Nyquist Potter, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, Kentucky