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May. 20 | 2014 Gabriel Prize
Nominations for 2014 Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in American Studies due
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Levine, Debra. "Demonstrating ACT UP: The Ethics, Politics and Performances of Affinity," Performance Studies, New York University, May 2012.
Demonstrating ACT UP: The Ethics, Politics, and Performances of Affinity, argues that the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP/New York) imaginatively revised the idea of affinity—a decentralized, antiauthoritarian, and elective mode of attachment—and demonstrated that deep emotional bonds can be catalyzed by political performance. As a public demonstration of support, affinity provided a queer framework for recognizing and respecting the heterogeneity of ACT UP’s members. Activists used the techniques of affinity to assist one another during acts of civil disobedience, and later to collectively care for activists with AIDS. In so doing, activists circumvented the medical and social stigmatization of the ill during the timeframe of this dissertation, from 1987 to 1996.
The introduction begins with a Foucauldian genealogy of affinity as metaphor, theoretical domain, and political strategy. I map affinity as a theory of attraction from the eighteenth century to the present, and its movement from the sciences to the literary to the political. In all cases, affinity was predicated upon a priori attraction of likeness or ideology. I argue that ACT UP’s intervention—one that belies the commonly held belief that ACT UP was primarily a gay, white, male, and middle-class organization—was the way it adapted affinity as enacted and mobile practices of collectivity. Because it was repeatedly and publicly performed, affinity created deeply felt bonds between very differently identified raced, classed, gendered, sexed, and abled participants.
The four successive chapters draw upon cultural artifacts of AIDS activism and theories of queer and disability studies, feminist scholarship, archival and oral history studies, and performance studies to explore four of the realms in which affinity operates: the personal, political, philosophical, and technical/digital humanities. In chapter 1, affinity is personal. I discuss the photographic triptych Equipped (1990) created by Chicano artist/activist Ray Navarro with the assistance of photographer Zoe Leonard just before Ray’s death. In chapter 2, affinity is political. I recount the public funerals produced by the ACT UP affinity group The Marys and how they enabled dead activists to remain politically engaged. In chapter 3, affinity is philosophical. I recall the AIDS activist cultural collective Gran Fury’s poster project The Four Questions in order to discuss the terms of the contract activists make with one another. When it fails, I show how an act of forgiveness that Hannah Arendt suggests is the necessary and radical action for breaking the terms of the contract and allowing activists to act anew. In chapter 4, affinity is technical. I engage Jacques Derrida’s assertion that the technical structure of the archive determines the form and use of the content it stores. I ask how the ACT UP Oral History Project’s interview form and its digital architecture enact affinities between virtual subjects and embodied users. I also discuss the possibilities offered by the digital humanities to link rich media archives and scholarship in order to convey a richer and more affective understanding of performance as a technology that links past acts to present and future users.
I conclude by observing the circulation of affinity between the past of the organization and the feelings that still transpire among its surviving members. I ask, employing two performances by artist Julie Tolentino, how affinity can be engaged as a choreographic negotiation of distance and closeness, empathy and sympathy, among those who were most active in the political battle to obtain dignified healthcare and social services from the institutions charged to provide that care. The experience of that time, as ACT UP member Vito Russo said in his famous 1988 speech, “Why We Fight,” was like a war in which only we activists could “hear the screams of people who are dying and their cries for help. No one else seems to be noticing.” My dissertation asks how twenty-five years later all of us who survived that period can reconcile that experience, and how we might create new techniques, practices, and technologies that can adequately communicate how affinity allowed us to enact an ethics of collective care.