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The Last Man, Edited by Steven E. Jones

AIDS as plague


As Susan Sontag points out, any plague is usually figured as a force coming from outside, as a dangerous foreign invader (in both immigration and military terms), as a contamination by the polluting Other. It is often, even when supposedly secularized, treated as a mysterious judgment on society. Though the "succession of cholera epidemics in the nineteenth century shows a steady waning of religious interpretations of the disease," these are eventually replaced by or come to coexist alongside other explanations.

Although, by the time of the epidemic of 1866, cholera was commonly understood not simply as a divine punishment but as a consquence of remediable defects of sanitation, it was still regarded as the scourge of the sinful. (p. 143)

In America and Europe, AIDS has been treated first as an "African" and then as a "homosexual" disease (less often a drug addict's punishment for addiction), but we have seen wide vacillation in the media and official political rhetoric about the perceived threat to "the general population" (meaning middle-class, white, heterosexual). Besides simple chauvinism, "First World political paranoia," defensive denial and endemic homophobia, this is, Sontag asserts, the result of a more general dynamic, in which "Authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear, a sense of the imminence of takeover by aliens--and real diseases are useful material" (pp. 149-50).

A classic "plague" (in the cultural-historical sense), AIDS "seems the very model of all the catastrophes privileged populations feel await them" (p. 172). This very real epidemic has tapped into our worst imaginings and collective fantasies: "AIDS is one of the dystopian harbingers of the global village, that future which is already here and always before is, which no one knows how to refuse" (p. 181).


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Published @ RC

October 1997

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