Crisis, Trauma, and Testimony: The Work of Mourning in the "Age of AIDS"
Penelope Ironstone-Catterall

This interdisciplinary dissertation argues that thinking with the critical concepts of crisis, trauma, mourning, and testimony serves to trouble the epistemological, political, historical, and literary models that have been mobilized — in different ways and to different ends — to render the "AIDS crisis" intelligible. Through these concepts, my dissertation provides an intertextual critical reading of the theoretical discussion occasioned by AIDS, and navigates the tensions, paradoxes, and structuring contradictions of its discursive construction. Central to the argument I work through is the contention that AIDS challenges the rhetorical rights of reference — the discursive ordering of the times, spaces, and subjectivities of the pandemic — through which intelligibility is constructed and assumed. I also argue that isolating and undoing, two centrally important mechanisms of psychical defense which attempt to defend the ego from difficult knowledges, must be accounted for in the cultural, social, and political economies of AIDS. Offering an intervention in contemporary discussions of trauma and the works of mourning, I maintain that trauma must be understood to be the other side of the work of mourning, and that it is imperative to think with the critical tensions between acting out and working through in addresses to and from AIDS. I explore the implications of these contentions for AIDS activism, AIDS historiography and histories, and German, French, and English literary testimony to the pandemic.

In Chapter One I provide an initial working of the central concepts which appear throughout the dissertation. I begin by addressing he critical connections between rhetorics of crisis and critique, and show how these connections have been manifest in contemporary discussions of trauma. Mapping out the theoretical terrain of trauma, I conceptually couple it with mourning in order to illustrate how interpretations of injury under the rubric of trauma serve to normalize loss and unintelligibility while simultaneously pointing to the critical aporias that HIV and AIDS give us to think. By showing the critical connections between trauma and mourning, I argue that it is necessary to consider the ways in which the world- and sense-shattering becomes tied to world- and sense-making. I tie the work of mourning to the production of a narratable self and trauma to the collapse of the rhetorical rights of reference through which such a self might be narrated. Testimony may be located in these movements between trauma and mourning, between the unworked psychical contents of "experience" and the work of interpreting individual and collective histories of suffering.

Chapter Two considers political-activist interventions that take on the subject as a contested site of political engagement, and conjoins these to a discussion of trauma and the work of mourning in AIDS politicality. I sketch out the implications of this thinking on trauma and mourning for liberal-democratic ideas of subjectivity, identity, and community. In mapping out the tensions between the psychic and political economies of AIDS, I argue that thinking on trauma and mourning can supplement critiques of the ideational supports of liberal democracies. I argue most centrally that AIDS activism, in its need to account for trauma and mourning, has demanded a rethinking of the grounds of politicality while at the same time demanding a sustained thinking about the stakes of identities and communities as they are prevalently understood. Reading the work of Douglas Crimp, Alexander García Düttmann, and Lee Edelman through the critical lens provided by Wendy Brown's critique of the injury/identity complex, I argue that AIDS activism shows the limits and liabilities of identity politics and assumptions of community. At the same time, however, I argue that AIDS discourses challenge thinking on connections between injuries, identities, and politicality in significant ways. Unpacking the oppositional discourses AIDS has provoked, I argue that it is also necessary to pose the question of narcissism and the manner in which its psychical economies undergird assumptions of identity.

Chapter Three addresses the connections between the works of mourning and the works of historiography. I argue, following Michel de Certeau, that historiography, the writing of history, is tied to the work of mourning. The grid of intelligibility that historiography places over the "historical" forecloses the insistence of historicity — its losses, absences, and gaps — through the retrospective production of a narrative mastery in which what has been lost is acknowledged and named, and its affects refused. In historiography, the contradictory gestures of summoning loss and refusing affect must be understood as works of mourning that attempt to create a manageable relation to loss in the production of "narratives of consolation." Not unlike classical or analytical detective fictions, I argue, historiography in general and AIDS historiography in particular serves the work of decathexis, and in so doing allows the reader to work through her own relation to loss. Functioning through ratiocination and abduction — the production and validation or invalidation of hypotheses — the new terrain in historiography known as the "contemporary history of AIDS" shows how the discontinuities of AIDS, the ideas supporting the interpretation that AIDS marks an historical rupture, have been supplanted by narrative continuities in which the "lessons of history" mitigate the anxieties of historical crises. Through a close reading of several AIDS histories, I argue that the quest for origins in AIDS historiography reflects attempts in biomedicine to manage ontological and epistemological uncertainty. I suggest that the drive to locate the origins of AIDS reflects the desire to normalize the pandemic by means of securing its identity in time and space. AIDS historiography reflects a process of normalization in which the unruliness of AIDS — its disruption of stable and sedimented "norms" of life — is managed by being made into something more amenable to thinking, and hence to the continuities of narration.

In Chapter Four I turn my attention to AIDS autobiography and testimony. I situate my discussion of AIDS testimony in the context of contemporary discussions of autobiography, testimony and autothanatography in order to think about how writing is implicated in the political projects of negotiating the difficult significances of AIDS. Through a comparative analysis of AIDS literatures in French, English, and German around questions of trauma and mourning and the connections between writing and activism, I argue that literature, and testimony in particular, must be considered a form of political address. Although primarily understood as a work of self on self, autobiography as testimony takes on the work of addressing another who will become its signatory. Both intensifying and mitigating the tensions between identity and alterity, testimony functions as a speech act in which representations of experience are brought to bear on the interpretation of historical events. However, this movement of interpreting the wounds of trauma in the text does not occur in isolation but requires readers who will be addressed, sometimes in troubling ways, by the information conveyed by it. Considered a form of political address, AIDS testimony suggests that the genre(s) of autobiography has been interpreted and revised to generate addresses to and from the troubling historicities and traumas AIDS gives over to thought.

In conclusion, I turn my attention to questions of pedagogy and ethicality, and in particular to question of how it may be possible to learn from trauma and loss rather than simply about it. By emphasizing the recursive relationship thinking has to loss, I critically assess three different strategies of addressing and being addressed by loss: strategies of identification and disidentification, strategies of implicating oneself in the difficult knowledges of loss and of locating in it new editions of old conflicts, and strategies of indirection in which AIDS becomes something that is be addressed intertextually. These three strategies suggest different approaches to the problems of addressing and being addressed by difficult knowledges at the same time as they gesture to the necessity of critically responding to the terrors of alterity and our disavowals and refusals of it. It is in attempting to retain or speak to alterity, in working to critically respond to it without such disavowals and refusals, that the work of reading and writing are implicated in the work of generating an ability to respond — a response-ability — to and for loss which does not attempt to situate loss in an absolute outside where its significances can be isolated and so foreclosed from thought, or an inside where what has been lost might be assumed to be effectively contained in the self.

Throughout this work, my concern is to sketch out the basis for a ethics of reading and writing that reflects on the limits, responsibilities, and implications of thought when responding to difficult knowledges. Insofar as AIDS challenges assumptions of intelligibility and knowledge, I assert that any thinking that can take into account the difficult knowledges of AIDS must be understood in its recursive relationship to the subjects and objects it sets apart and interprets. I call this recursive relationship of thinking to itself and to what it cannot contain "afterthought." The concept of afterthought suggests a role for thinking in addressing and responding to the delays and relays of trauma and mourning. The work of afterthought is also central to an ethic of alterity in which the self works on itself in order to develop a critical responsiveness to what it is not. The critical aporias of AIDS require consideration of both the necessity and the impossibility of the work of mourning. They also have many consequences for political subjectivity and the historiography and autobiography that serve to support it. The central tensions I explore — the tensions between trauma and the structures of defense that mitigate its affects, between loss and the mechanisms deployed to make it intelligible, between the production of knowledges and what is incommensurable to or in them — turn on the crisis of the subject and its ontological and epistemological consequences.