Reading Life and Death

Kevin Floyd

This brief essay is about practices of reading that converge with practices of knowledge — with epistemological imperatives that require readings of the social that stabilize meaning rather than proliferate it.1 But does this mean that this essay is about reductive reading? Marx reminds us that concrete social reality can never be exhausted by what he calls the concrete in thought: epistemological readings of the world are by definition abstract, incomplete, socially and historically embedded and conditioned.2 Indeed, in these terms, the charge of “reductionism” tends to lose all content, insofar as it implies that there is such a thing as a knowledge of the world that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously distill the reality it endeavors to grasp.

But this essay lingers on the implications of reduction, because reading’s convergence with knowledge will in the present case be, quite literally, a matter of life and death — and, specifically, a matter of the extinguishing of life, of what we might call life’s reduction to death. Elizabeth Povinelli proposes that specific forms of truth are immanent to specific forms of life. She considers, for example, the insistent production of truth by “so-called ultraconservative Christians,” in which all possible understandings of the world will necessarily include a conflict between good and evil, the body’s resurrection, and extramarital abominations of the flesh. This form of truth is a requirement for this form of life’s continuous being. But it also, and inseparably, demands what we might call a queer form of death.3 Or, more precisely, and to paraphrase Foucault, the fostering of the form of life Povinelli describes is inseparable from the disallowance of another form of life, a queer form of life, to the point of death.4 Here I want to consider a specific queer form of life under imminent threat of death. And I want to do this in terms that are at once biopolitical and dialectical. The form of truth production Povinelli elaborates can also be understood as an epistemological form of reading. A form of life, I contend, precisely insofar as it insists on its own continuation, requires a reading of the world that stabilizes the world’s legibility. In putting it this way, I try to make explicit what Povinelli leaves implicit, and indeed what the discourse of biopolitics too frequently leaves implicit, or fails to recognize altogether: that the very reading of life in biopolitical terms raises (or begs) the question of life’s own capacity to read, and indeed its reductionist capacity, its capacity to produce specific, necessarily abstract readings of the world which are also insistent forms of knowledge on which life itself can depend. The reading of life and death I perform here is also about the life-and-death stakes of reading.

Jeffrey Tucker reminds us that Samuel Delany’s novel The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals is “the first novel-length work of fiction on AIDS from a major publisher in the United States.”5 Indeed the sheer dearth of scholarship on this novel is perhaps all the more striking given Delany’s routine citation as an icon of queer thought. Appearing in 1984, it depicts that brief window of time between the appearance of the epidemic in New York and the official identification of the virus that catalyzes it — that brief window of time, in other words, before the situation to which names now refer was conceptually stabilized by names.

This ninth tale in Delany’s Nevèrÿon cycle, a highly fragmentary and experimental one even by Delany’s standards, blends two parallel narratives.6 One of these is contemporary, consisting largely of anecdotes apparently drawn from Delany’s journals and recounting his daily experience in the earliest days of the epidemic. Set largely in the environs of Times Square, the supporting characters include hustlers and homeless of Delany’s acquaintance. The other narrative is set in the ancient land Nevèrÿon and, like the other tales in the series, takes that “paraliterary” form known as sword-and-sorcery. The most immediate, obvious parallel, however, is widespread, disoriented shock in the face of a lethal, distinctly urban contagion with multiple transmission routes, including sexual ones.

This text that focuses, as the discourse surrounding Delany’s work so often insists, on socially “marginal” life, does not simply represent it, but reflexively performs from its standpoint a struggle to stabilize reading, to produce practical knowledge, to orient a radically disoriented subjectivity to a necropolitical and potentially illegible environment. This is an environment in which multiple readings of an emergent lethality vie with each other, in which epidemiological vocabularies as formal and official as they are tentative and stumbling compete with anxious rumor and speculation. Figures and concepts collide in an effort to read, as it were “from below,” the broader social situation of a specific, “promiscuous” urban network of immediately threatened life.

Late in the narrative, Delany recounts the evening he saw an announcement on the television news that researchers might finally have isolated the virus that causes AIDS.7 But before this late, climactic moment, experiencing the epidemic means experiencing “dis-ease before anything that might bear ‘disease’ as its proper designation.”8 A hustler friend named Joey asks Delany a question he can’t answer: “your body just stops healing, and even an infection from a little cut, or a cold, can kill you…?”9 Another acquaintance, a night-shift nurse in an emergency room, is struck by the contrast between what the newspapers represent as a relative infrequency of cases, and what she actually witnesses at work. And a friend named Ted reports his response to the words he finds scrawled in red paint on the wall of a public men’s room, “AIDS patients cruise here”:

[T]hat one…just made me crazy!…It could have been someone who knew something and was trying to warn people. Or it could have been somebody who just wanted to stop the cruising. Or it could have been somebody who didn’t get what he wanted there sexually and was just bitching. But any way you read it, I didn’t want to be there.10

Everyone tries to read the signs; everyone has anecdotal evidence. But evidence of what? It’s not at all clear what these anecdotes might ultimately signify.

Reading that proliferates meaning also produces, in this case, a truly frightening social incoherence. Delany reminds us of Susan Sontag’s insistence that “diseases should not become social metaphors.”11 But he responds that, in this case, the stabilizations provided by metaphor are inevitable: “AIDS is the sparkplug in a social machine of which we are all…a part.”12 Extending the machine metaphor from the social totality to the corporeal body, he adds that the stark “malfunctioning” of the immune system is moreover a deadly opening of the body to its outside. AIDS, he reminds us, refers not to a disease, but to “a mysterious and microbically unagented failure to fight disease”: the body becomes dis-unified, ceases to be “whole.”13 It opens itself, we might say, to an outside that is both social and epistemological; it throws into question its own relation to, its distinction from, that outside. “This is the aspect of the ‘illness’ that is ravenous for metaphors to stifle its unsettled shift, its insistent uneasiness, its conceptual turbulence.”14

On one hand, then, Plagues and Carnivals captures a life-and-death demand for a de-proliferation of meaning, for resolution in the face of this “epidemic of signification,” for a nameable “microbic agent.” But paradoxically and crucially, it insists at the same time that destabilizing these figures and concepts is most important “in the long run” — refusing to reify the condition in terms of statistical “risk factors,” for instance — precisely in order to maintain at least the possibility that it can be grasped, however inadequately, within some broader set of social relations.15 The chaotic, immediately experienced incomprehension this text foregrounds, an illegibility which is also a multilegibility, imposes a different kind of orientation to the outside, opens up necessary questions about the broader social processes within which reading takes place. Any possibility of locating the condition’s larger parameters and determinations, we are told, emerges precisely from this absence of conceptual stillness. The text performs both an insistence on the gap between the name and its referent, and a palpable anxiety about this gap.

I want now to move briefly away from this novel in order to return to it. I want to explicate further the complex epistemological practice of reading it stages, but I also want to suggest the way in which the situation it reads remains our own — as Jean Comaroff suggests in an essay that internationalizes, we might say, a similar set of questions.16 Comaroff critiques what she identifies as certain tendencies that characterize the frequent reading of the southern African AIDS sufferer in biopolitical and/or necropolitical terms — as exemplifying “bare life,” for example, or as instantiating what Foucault would understand as those contemporary populations allowed to die. Comaroff proposes that such readings often fail to recognize the reading capacities of the sufferers themselves, capacities not unlike those staged by Delany’s novel. She stresses that “life itself” is not only the “medium” in which biopower is exercised, but also “the stuff of collective action and aspiration,” including a collective critique of “the monopoly over the essence of vitality,…patents and intellectual property rights,…the bald rhetoric that equates life and profit.”17 In the face of “life imbued with ordinary, future-oriented expectations,” she adds, the reading of these populations as bare life actually threatens to reinscribe what contemporary postcolonial or neocolonial regimes themselves already tend to do: reduce active, thinking, cognitive subjects to “naked biological being.”18

She further identifies a southern African AIDS “counterpolitics” that remains “convinced that there is a discernible logic to power relations, one that impacts directly on…immediate worlds.” And as she points out, “disambiguating those relations…is the primary work of such counterpolitics.… AIDS organizers have sought to build a coherent, critical social etiology,… to forge a narrative of agents and effects, of calculating statesmen and captains of global industry, who personify control over the means of life and death” — “albeit at the risk,” she adds, “of strategic reductionism.”19 “Disambiguating relations,” “forging narratives,” “strategic reductionism”: like Delany, Comaroff underscores both the political indispensability and the necessary limits of efforts to analyze and stabilize — to reductively read — the global power relations that operate in relation to the pandemic.

Such an effort serves also as a defense against a rather different, more immediately necropolitical kind of reductionism. In the parallel, sword-and-sorcery narrative we find in Plagues and Carnivals, other kinds of reactions to the epidemic also turn on life-and-death practices of reading. On crowded urban streets, a voice rises above the din: “Get away! I don’t want your lousy diseases! I don’t want one of you gettin’ anywhere near me.”20 A small group of the not-yet-infected decides to confront the contagion by gathering in secret to participate in a ritual appeal to what the text identifies as the god of “edges, borders, and boundaries.”21 One of the participants in this ritual notes that he “cannot shake off this sense of contamination.”22 To paraphrase Leo Bersani’s still-indispensable analysis of the early AIDS epidemic, those who are killed are read as killers: one form of life reads another form of life as a form of death.23 To read those who are killed as killers is indeed to insist on death as one of the conditions of one’s own continued existence.

But I would go further and propose that such a reading would also have to be characterized as utopian, counterintuitive as that may initially sound. I take my cue from two influential, strikingly convergent readings of Ursula Le Guin. In his well-known essay on Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” The Dispossessed, Delany suggests that homosexuality is among the constitutive exclusions of the world it depicts.24 Similarly, Fredric Jameson’s essay “World Reduction in Le Guin” — presumably the basis of the rich, suggestive Le Guin/Delany dialectic of utopian closure he would later elaborate in Archaeologies of the Future — reads the landscape depicted in The Left Hand of Darkness in terms of an exclusion of the frenzy of sensory experience frequently associated with urban environments, environments like the one we encounter in Plagues and Carnivals. Le Guin’s novel enacts “a fantasy realization of some virtually total disengagement of the body from its surrounding environment or eco-system,” and a disengagement especially from the psychic upheavals of what he calls a “permanently scandalous” sexual desire — a disengagement, an excision which is also a kind of relief, the condition for the very utopian form of life the novel depicts. Le Guin’s work generally, Jameson maintains, presents us with a utopianism not of wealth but of scarcity, in which one is “liberated” especially from the disturbing sexual opportunities and complications opened up by urban capitalism. Le Guin’s utopian commitment is to the country, to the village, “to agriculture and small face-to-face groups.”25

Plagues and Carnivals, meanwhile, is one of the early texts to register the way in which AIDS is read as a “metaphor for the license, corruption, and decay that is the general urban condition.”26 And indeed, the extinguishment of a queer form of life begins in this novel to seem inseparable from the extinguishment of the urban as such: a genocidal insistence that is also the insistence of a form of life on its own continuation. Plagues and Carnivals, in other words, stages not one epistemological reading of the world, but two. And this second reading entails the form of reduction or elimination I would call, following Delany’s and Jameson’s convergent readings of Le Guin, utopian. It wants to extinguish an erotic saturation it insists is also a plague. It wants to eliminate an urban infrastructure it insists is also a sexually lethal infrastructure. Unlike, say, Delany’s Trouble on Triton (which is explicitly and famously a response to The Dispossessed), Plagues and Carnivals offers not a “heterotopian” alternative to this particular kind of utopian closure, this fantasy of world reduction, but a critical staging of it.

I have suggested that Delany’s novel grapples with questions that remain our own. So I will begin to move toward a conclusion by drawing attention to Jameson’s more recent claim that the village ethos Le Guin’s work exemplifies has become obsolete: village existence, he maintains, has by this point in capital’s history “simply [been] destroyed, leaving rubble and ruin behind it.”27 But isn’t a desexualizing world reduction precisely what is enacted by the contemporary transformation of the city into the village — which is to say, into the mere suburbs? Perhaps the village is indeed destroyed; or perhaps it threatens to subsume its metropolitan opposite. A key example of the latter certainly remains, even now, the family-friendly, real-estate-friendly, finance-friendly cleansing of Times Square roughly a decade after Delany’s novel first appeared, a spectacular instance of world reduction that Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue has helped us understand.28

So a utopian form of life that necessitates a form of death, and from which Plagues and Carnivals recoils, proceeds apace: the village’s moralizing, desexualizing dimensions are from this vantage quite comfortably aligned with the contemporary operations of capital. But the suggestion I have just made that contemporary finance is at once bio- and necro-political (recall Comaroff’s reference to “calculating statesmen and captains of global industry”) raises the question of another practice of destabilizing reading, of multilegibility: the dialectic. The contemporary socialization of “risk,” for example, is clearly a matter of life and death. Randy Martin contrasts populations “at risk,” populations involuntarily subjected to risk, with those good neoliberal subjects, those entrepreneurial citizens who are “capable of embracing risk” — “managers” (not “masters,” he points out) “of their own lives.” If risk has clearly become a key contemporary source of global profit — profit from ever-multiplying exacerbations of risk, and profit from ever-multiplying ways of hedging it — then these forms of risk are ultimately, in one way or another, “borne by bodies.”29 So the risks “borne” by the body of the southern African AIDS sufferer, for example, would include the national scale of debt repayment that eats away at funds for HIV/AIDS treatment as well as health care generally. Indeed Martin proposes that the form of bio-necro-political governance that has most brutally extended the logic of older, colonial governance is precisely that form of governance we call debt.

And what, then, of those responsible, obedient subjects who embrace risk? If remaking the naked city into the family-friendly village sits nicely with that utopian wager we call real estate speculation, we can also say that the insistent elimination of practices of urban promiscuity is smoothly extended into the present by the now all-but-intractable, suburban common sense that affirms that the only thing good gay subjects, responsible “managers” of their own lives, could ever want is marriage: to behave like adults at long last, to leave behind certain immature, lethal practices that famously characterized gay urban life in the Seventies. And if gay marriage is many things, one of those things is real estate speculation: the utopia of a perfectly moral form of life on the condition that it also be a safe, secure, “gated” form of life, that it pray to the gods of “edges, borders, and boundaries,” that it maintain an adequate appreciation of its conditions, including gentrification and security guards.

But the multilegibility opened up by the dialectic tends to remain in motion, stereotypes notwithstanding. As soon as we can read both life and death in terms of a shared logic of financial risk, for example, disorienting inversions begin to appear:

Only when the process that begins with the metamorphosis of labor-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through and objectified each of their impulses as formally commensurable variations of the exchange relationship, is it possible for life to reproduce itself under the prevailing relations of production. Its consummate organization demands the coordination of people that are dead. The will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live: self-preservation annuls all life in subjectivity.30

The good gay subject of marriage aspires to self-preservation, operating according to a temporal logic no less committed than Goldman Sachs to the future appreciation of the assets that define it. This subject secures its distance from a horizon of life it would reduce to “bare life,” life scattered as if by centrifugal force, locked out, locked up, and yes, if necessary, disallowed to the point of death. But destabilizing readings, those readings that open up the possibility of what I have called a different orientation to the outside, may well be, as Delany insists, more important “in the long run.” Should we read these entrepreneurial gay subjects, these “formally commensurable variations of the exchange relationship,” as instances of a form of life that externalizes death? If the subject of self-preservation can instantiate something called life, then what Comaroff calls “the bald rhetoric that equates life and profit” is also a reading of the world characteristic of that form of life. Though one has to be careful about suggesting that a thinker like Adorno puts an insufficiently fine point on it, to call this form of life “damaged” doesn’t quite capture what his reading of life and death comes much closer to capturing. Life that is itself already capital? Life that is itself, somehow, also dead labor? Dead labor catachrestically vitalized via “accumulated claims, legal titles, to future production”: call it fictitious life.31

  1. A longer, differently framed version of this essay appears in Literary Materialisms, eds. Emilio Sauri and Mathias Nilges (New York: Palgrave, 2013).
  2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1993) 100-102.
  3. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “On Suicide, and Other Forms of Social Extinguishment,” Theory Aside, eds. Jason Potts and Daniel Stout (Durham: Duke UP, 2014) 87.
  4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990) 138.
  5. Jeffrey Allan Tucker, A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2004) 233.
  6. Originally published by Bantam; currently available as “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Five,” Samuel R. Delany, Flight from Nevèrÿon (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994).
  7. Delany, “Plagues” 345-46.
  8. “Plagues” 185.
  9. “Plagues” 187.
  10. “Plagues” 267.
  11. “Plagues” 184.
  12. “Plagues” 187.
  13. “Plagues” 186; italics in original.
  14. ibid.
  15. “Plagues” 187.
  16. Jean Comaroff, “Beyond Bare Life: AIDS, (Bio)Politics, and the Neoliberal Order,” Public Culture 19:1 (2007): 197-215.
  17. Comaroff, “Beyond” 211, 213-14.
  18. “Beyond” 215.
  19. “Beyond” 211.
  20. “Plagues” 251.
  21. “Plagues” 332.
  22. “Plagues” 266.
  23. Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2010) 17.
  24. Samuel R. Delany, “To Read The Dispossessed,” The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2009) 105-65.
  25. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005) 269, 274, 159.
  26. “Plagues” 188.
  27. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 200) 578.
  28. Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York UP, 1999).
  29. Randy Martin, “From the Race War to the War on Terror,” Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, eds. Patricia Clough and Craig Willse (Durham: Duke UP, 2011) 258.
  30. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974) 229.
  31. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, trans. David Fernbach (New York: Penguin, 1991) 599.