How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Series Q)

Paula A. Treichler

Published by Duke University Press Books, 1999
ISBN 10: 0822323184 / ISBN 13: 9780822323181
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Synopsis: Paula A. Treichler has become a singularly important voice among the significant theorists on the AIDS crisis. Dissecting the cultural politics surrounding representations of HIV and AIDS, her work has altered the field of cultural studies by establishing medicine as a legitimate focus for cultural analysis. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic is a comprehensive collection of Treichler’s related writings, including revised and updated essays from the 1980s and 1990s that present a sustained argument about the AIDS epidemic from a uniquely knowledgeable and interdisciplinary standpoint.
“AIDS is more than an epidemic disease,” Treichler writes, “it is an epidemic of meanings.” Exploring how such meanings originate, proliferate, and take hold, her essays investigate how certain interpretations of the epidemic dominate while others are obscured. They also suggest ways to understand and choose between overlapping or competing discourses. In her coverage of roughly fifteen years of the AIDS epidemic, Treichler addresses a range of key issues, from biomedical discourse and theories of pathogenesis to the mainstream media’s depictions of the crisis in both developed and developing countries. She also examines representations of women and AIDS, treatment issues, and the role of activism in shaping the politics of the epidemic. Linking the AIDS tragedy to a uniquely broad spectrum of contemporary theory and culture, this collection concludes with an essay on the continued importance of theoretical thought for untangling the sociocultural phenomena of AIDS—and for tackling the disease itself.
With an exhaustive bibliography of critical and theoretical writings on HIV and AIDS, this long-awaited volume will be essential to all those invested in studying the course of AIDS, its devastating medical effects, and its massive impact on contemporary culture. It should become a standard text in university courses dealing with AIDS in biomedicine, sociology, anthropology, gay and lesbian studies, women’s studies, and cultural and media studies.


Review: One of the most effective forms of resistance to AIDS, oddly enough, has been the academic essay anthology, beginning with Douglas Crimp's AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1988), the prototype of discursive intervention. Paula Treichler's How to Have Theory in an Epidemic derives its title from the epilogue Crimp wrote for his collection: "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic," which took its cue from a song by Michael Callen. Aside from physical and mental crisis, AIDS has produced what Treichler calls "an epidemic of signification." In the early years of the syndrome, that is, more words than drugs were flung, usually to contain certain people's supposedly pathological behavior than to fight the virus--but also to recapture metaphor and to press cultural studies in the service of resistance.

How to Have Theory in a sense revisits and chronicles that period. Treichler, a professor at the University of Illinois, revised material that originally appeared years earlier in journals and anthologies, in the meantime enlarging the scholarly apparatus (fully a third of the book comprises the notes, bibliography, and index, indispensable to the researcher) and providing more illustrations. The result is one of the most important books on AIDS. Treichler examines medical language, gender issues, television and magazines, and journalistic accounts of AIDS in the Third World. She skillfully analyzes the ways that medicine and the media have constructed certain kinds of diseased bodies upon which to project coercive fantasies of sex, drug use, and ethnicity. As Treichler notes, "The AIDS epidemic ... reminds us that the practices that we call science have evolved in part as a series of safeguards against the seductive power of culture, society, language, and individual consciousness to perceive and define reality in ways that are scientifically or aesthetically appealing, politically or personally palatable." Thus, even as she indicts science for its practical and semantic failures, she demonstrates that within science itself we shall overcome. --Robert Burns Neveldine

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Title: How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural ...
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Paperback
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