Action=Vie (2020)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Broqua, Christophe. (2020). Action=Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 340pp.

Action=Vie is a comprehensive ethnographic analysis of AIDS activism in France. It focuses on responses to the HIV pandemic during the 1980s and 90s, through the lens of Act Up-Paris and their myriad contributions. More broadly, the book follows the emergence of gay community politics in the French context. Broqua helpfully traces the pathways of intellectual, cultural, and sociological ideas exchanged across the nexus of United States, United Kingdom, and French crises. The book is wonderfully accessible, comparable to the writing of media scholar Dion Kagan (see Positive Images, 2018), and will be of interest to both students of HIV histories, gay liberation politics and sociology of health activism in France, and general audiences.

The book is structured in chronological order but highlights key themes that hold together AIDS and gay politics in France. For instance, both Chapters 2 and 10 carefully detail how liberation politics were entangled in Parisian AIDS activism, which helped to draw out not only a unified image of ‘gays against HIV,’ but more broadly a cultural legacy of a unified homosexual front that emerged from tensions between French republicanism and communitarian debates. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the etiologies of AIDS and their relationship to gay liberation politics in France, crucially highlighting the development of gay community politics as a result of AIDS activism (a topic which Broqua deepens and contests by assessing the transformation in intellectual movements in Chapter 10). Broqua draws on interviews he collected in the 1990s and 2000s, during/after his time participating in Act Up-Paris, and thus reflects not simply as a researcher on the political dynamics of AIDS activism but usefully illuminates an insider view of the day-to-day tensions that re-created AIDS activism through personal and identity politics.

Action=Vie is exceptionally smart and meticulously researched. The book presents a refined lens to interrogate Act Up-Paris for Anglophone audiences. Alas, this is material we have not seen explored at length in English since David Caron’s AIDS in French Culture: Social Ills, Literary Cures (2001). It thus reasserts the importance of interrogating the international and global spread of AIDS activism(s) within media cultures, sociology, and health promotion histories. Broqua has provided a beautiful array of secondary texts (largely in French) that help to piece together the complex political histories of AIDS in France. He dutifully stitches these materials together for a truly captivating read. I hope more of Broqua’s work will appear in the Anglophone world very soon.

Reframing Bodies (2009)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Hallas, R. (2009). Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 319pp.

Reframing Bodies is an expansive study of queer AIDS media, examining trends in testimony and the AIDS film archive in the US and UK from the 1980s and 90s. Ranging from small-scale video activism to experimental art film, Hallas argues that AIDS film across genres has redefined forms of testimony through sound, movement and embodiment, and mise-en-scene. Most notably, the book establishes a precedent for the historical transition from gay cinephilia preceding the rise of consumerist film in the 1990s and the emergence of an archivist media ecology in the 2000s. The latter has (re)captured formative images of queer activism through new media practices – particularly through the use of online databases, streaming platforms, and large-scale Internet pirating practices that enable larger distribution both of narratives about AIDS testimony (and witnessing) and the political drive to change access/consumption practices of queer historical media.

Reframing Bodies, which was researched and published during the resurgence of AIDS activism narratives in the late 2000s and early 2010s – what cultural activist Ted Kerr and media scholar Dion Kagan call the “AIDS crisis revisitation movement” – presents a rigorous revisitation of the AIDS video archive that presents a baseline for rethinking the political potential and remaking of these works. It is appropriate not only for scholars interested in HIV/AIDS histories, with its intertextual readings of classic AIDS videos, but also for curious lay readers interested in gay and lesbian media practices, given the books accessible prose and willingness to welcome readers from many backgrounds into a diverse retelling of film histories across genres, narratives, and film styles.

AIDS TV (1995)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Juhasz, A. (1995). AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 316pp.

Alexandra Juhasz’s book AIDS TV explores the world of AIDS activist video in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The analysis is doubly academic reflection on film conventions, particularly those of “alternative” activist media production amongst women living with and/or impacted by AIDS crisis in New York. It is also about the affective and interpersonal experiences that occur during video production, AIDS support groups, and the formation of friendships, working relations, identities, subjectivities, and awareness of the world through the moving image.

Juhasz’s book can now be considered “classic” insofar as it is more than 25 years old. As such, it serves as an essential text for understanding the visual histories of HIV/AIDS, women’s experiences of the crisis in the United States, as well as feminist film theory in the 1990s. It might best be situated as a queer feminist theory of film, though it is regularly overlooked in queer theoretical lists. Indeed, AIDS TV might be thought of as a quintessential queer AIDS history which presents a baseline for understanding AIDS activism, queer community and coalition building, and the processes of memory and memorialisation (the latter of which are commonly drawn out from Douglas Crimp’s work, which is, of course, carefully cited and included in Juhasz’s book).

AIDS TV is a remarkable book. Readers interested in activist histories, film theory, queer cultural history, and video production will find it compelling. Equally, those looking for sustained engagement with ethnographic film practices and the tensions between theory and praxis will find this work challenging and deeply rewarding.

Epidemics and Society (2020)

Book Review

Snowden, F. (2020). Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press. 582pp.

Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society is a comprehensive examination of major epidemics in global history. The book does not provide a sweeping analysis of all epidemics, given lack of space and time, and acknowledges in the introduction the need to focus on specific changes in epidemiology, public and global health, political structures, and social welfare that have contributed to the development of and response to epidemics in human societies. Snowden focuses on plague, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and ebola to paint a vast portrait of the development of epidemics. The book excels at describing key historical frames, particularly how medical knowledge has evolved as a result of pandemic crisis. The paperback issue contains a preface about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and forewarns that much can be learned from reflecting on past epidemics.

Readers will enjoy the book in sections – for fear of intellectual fatigue, given the tome’s breadth. Nevertheless, Epidemics and Society aspires to make the content accessible for the general public and thus maintains an accessible register that provides greater nuance to an otherwise daunting subject. The book is richly research (as part of years of teaching materials for coursework at Yale University), which will serve both the lay reader and the scholar well in their endeavours to understand ongoing epidemics in society. A highly recommended text for those new to the field of infectious disease or interested in learning more about the social history of health and illness.

The Rules of Contagion (2020)

Book Review

Kucharski, A. (2020). The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop. London: Profile Books.

Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion is perhaps nicely and equally poorly timed in its release, amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic. The text offers insight into contemporary sources of contagion, first, using simple and accessible language to demonstrate the utility and effectiveness of epidemiological approaches to disease pandemics, including ebola, HIV, and influenza. In the latter half of the book, Kucharski attempts to tie disease pathology into economic, behavioural, psychological and technological analyses, extrapolating epidemiological knowledge into formative societal structures and historical events (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis). Most notable about this latter half is the author’s delineation of social media contagion, carefully balancing both the benefits and dangers of online contagion – “going viral” on social media vs. computer viruses. Largely, the book broaches a huge range of epistemological assertions, placing it firmly in the domain of popular science. The book loses steam around chapter three, despite an attempt to create a wide-ranging theory of contagion. As other reviewers have aptly noted, the final two chapters read more like a confirmation and reiteration of contagion – sort of doctoral “case studies” following rigorous and tightly-woven theory. Readers invested in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic will be especially drawn to chapters 1-2. Enthusiasts of pandemics, medical historians, epidemiologists and other pop-science readers might find the book as a whole interesting as a ruminative, though small, addition to academic scholarship on global networks, virality, social media and the Internet.

Gay, Straight & the Reason Why (2010)

Book Review

LeVay, S. (2010). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 264 pp.

Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why (2010) explores the psychobiology of sexual orientation. It examines and reflects upon a century worth of research about sexual desire, attraction, physiology and genetics. The book reads largely as a meta-analysis of the field, but LeVay maintains that in order to understand discussions about the “gay gene,” we need to look at how discourses about biology and sexuality have shaped our understanding of both human desire as well as the sciences that study those desires. LeVay is a notable neuroscientist whose research about gay and lesbian genetic variation has helped to develop theses about the evolutionary significance of homosexuality. The book is, at times, frustrating because it acknowledges the relative lack of replicable research to support claims about the biological nature of homosexuality (and largely absents bisexuality within its discussion of human sexuality). Thus, the book serves as a reminder that much of the research is still speculative and theoretical. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting look into contemporary developments in neuroscience, social science and psychology, all seeking to understand the exchanges that occur between the social values of sexuality and some of their biological underpinnings.

The Monogamy Gap (2012)

Book Review, SRE

Anderson, E. (2012). The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 231 pp.

The Monogamy Gap (2012) is a sociological, academic text that explores the realities of monogamy, cheating among male-identified people, and cultures of sex and sexual intimacy. Anderson provides a broad range of approaches, across sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology and biology, which makes this study accessible not only for sexologists and sociologists of sexuality, but also scholars interested in theories of social desire, the psychology of sex, and cultural theories of sexuality and polyamory. His theory of dyadic dissonance (referring to the cognitive dissonance that occurs within monogamist cultures) is generally accessible beyond academic circles and provides a helpful foundation for budding research and personal development in non-monogamies and open relationships. I highly recommend this text for the lay reader interested in learning more about the realities of monogamy and the cultures of hegemony that oversee social scripts of human sexual desire and intimacy.

How to Have Feminist Sex (2019)

Book Review, SRE

Perry, F. (2019). How to Have Feminist Sex: A Fairly Graphic Guide. London: Particular Books. 144 pp.

Flo Perry’s How to Have Feminist Sex (2019) is a graphic novel cum sex-ed book which explores the ins and outs of sexual health, intimacy and desire for an increasingly feminist sexual society. Funny and in your face, Perry navigates issues of consent, monogamy, relationships, period sex, body image(s) and biological traits, to name a few, in a succinct and timely narrative about how to have safe, fun and sexy fun. Perry’s book is a great companion text to other sex-ed books like Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut (1997), Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn (2010), and Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap (2011). It is recommended for teens and adults, and is a good illustrative tool for parents, teachers or researchers exploring sexual health education, pleasure and intimacy, and human reproduction.

Queer Books – In Review (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Following academic tradition, I’m posting a list of some of my favourite queer books read in 2019. Not all books were written in 2019. These books have – in some fashion – characters or themes across the LGBTQ+ spectrum(s).

For other books in my 2019 in-review, please visit my Goodreads reading challenge page.

Nurses on the Inside (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Matzer, E., and Hughes, V. (2019). Nurses on the Inside: Stories of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in NYC. Cincinnati: Tree District Books. 242 pp.

Nurses on the Inside (2019) is a multi-testimonial account of the AIDS crisis in New York City, USA. Haunting and prosaic, the book provides anecdotes of nurse-patient interactions, with a penchant for clear, technical language that helps to make sense of 1980s and 90s medical discourse(s). Matzer and Hughes, two seasoned nurses in some of NYC’s most trafficked AIDS clinics, demonstrate an unusual sense of emotional clarity and empathy. They impart a nostalgic, but commemorative, focus on the lives of their patients, attending to the most characteristic and rich elements of their interactions with those who died from AIDS-related complications. More than a graphic narrative about the immense loss of AIDS crisis, the authors illuminate the importance and impact of individuals (including patients, doctors, and other nurses) as they careen in and out of their professional and social lifeworlds. Perhaps most interesting about this collection is the ways in which the authors recall their involvement in patient lives. For example, in the final chapters, the authors return to the empty spaces of hospital wards, calling upon the dead to remember the at-times excruciating, but generally provoking, experiences of human resilience and determination.

Nurses on the Inside is an excellent portal into the histories of HIV/AIDS in the United States, particularly because it remains attentive to the time(s) and place(s) of affective, medical, scientific, social and cultural advances, which we now understand as seminal moments during the AIDS crisis. Nurses, doctors, and students of history, sociology, and medicine, will find this book appealing. Additionally, scholars interested in the discursive layers of HIV/AIDS histories will find this book useful for understanding how AIDS crisis is narrated using memory, testimonies, and technical expertise.