‘An Epidemic of Unknowing:
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‘An Epidemic of Unknowing: Historicisation and Forgetfulness in Contemporary HIV/AIDS Popular Discourse’. Professor Richard Canning English and Creative Writing, University of Northampton Tuesday 11 th February 2014, Keele University.

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Professor richard canning english and creative writing university of northampton

‘An Epidemic of Unknowing: Historicisation and Forgetfulness in Contemporary HIV/AIDS Popular Discourse’

Professor Richard Canning

English and Creative Writing, University of Northampton

Tuesday 11th February 2014, Keele University


Vital signs essential aids fiction new york carroll and graf 2008

Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2008)


National aids trust uk survey january 2013

National AIDS Trust (UK) Survey, January 2013

  • “Nearly half (46%) of the general public wrongly think you can get HIV from being bitten, spat at or coming into contact with a discarded needle... The public think HIV was a bigger problem in the 80s and 90s than in the present day, with 45% believing the highest number of gay men diagnosed in a single year was in the 80s or 90s; however it was actually 2011.”

  • Recently posted questions by members of the British public on the NAT website have included: “Can HIV survive well in water or would the infectiousness of the virus be reduced by the dilution of the water?”, “Can HIV be transmitted by sharing cigarettes?”, “What if the other person has a cut lip or cold sore?” and “Can HIV be passed on by fleas?”


Aids in new york the first five years

AIDS in New York: the First Five Years

An exhibition last year reported startlingly similar forms of health awareness and advice three decades ago, but then again, the viral agent was, of course, only suspected in 1983:

‘“I was told not to use the Laundromat,” reports one woman... “Who cuts your hair?”, another was asked by her doctor. In June 1983, the executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association urged members to adopt a 60-day moratorium on embalming AIDS victims.’

[Edward Rothstein, ‘Five Plague Years’, New York Times, 6 June 2013]).


Sapphire push 1996

Sapphire, Push (1996)

“I’m not happy to be HIV positive. I don’t understand why some kids git a good school and mother and father and some don’t. But Rita say forgit the WHY ME shit and git on to what’s next... One year? Five? Ten years? Maybe more if I take care of myself. Maybe a cure. Who knows, who is working on shit like that?”


Precious 2009 dir lee daniels

Precious (2009), dir. Lee Daniels


A home at the end of the world 2004 dir michael mayer

A Home at the End of the World (2004), dir. Michael Mayer


Armistead maupin michael tolliver lives 2007

Armistead Maupin, Michael Tolliver Lives (2007)

I’m still in the Valley of the Shadow – as Mama would put it – but at least it’s a bigger valley these days, and the scenery has improved considerably. In my best moments I’m filled with a curious peace, an almost passable impersonation of how it used to be. Then my T cells drop suddenly or I spout a violent rash on my back or shit my best corduroys while waiting in line at the DMV, and I’m once again reminded how tenuous it all is. My life, whatever its duration, is still a lurching, lopsided contraption held together by chewing gum and baling wire.

And here’s the kicker: the longer you survive the virus, the closer you get to dying the regular way… There are plenty of ironies in this, lessons to be learned about fate and the fickleness of death and getting on with life while the getting is good but you won’t read them here. I’ve had enough lessons from this disease.


Sarah schulman 2001

Sarah Schulman(2001)

“The world before protease inhibitors is clearly The Past, emotionally for me now… It has ceased to be a continuum.”

[‘Through the looking glass’, in Edmund White (ed.), Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS (Madison, WI: Univ. Wisconsin Press, 2001), p.14]


Alistair mccartney the end of the world book a novel 2008

Alistair McCartney, The End of the World Book: a Novel (2008)


Alistair mccartney the end of the world book a novel 20081

Alistair McCartney, The End of the World Book: a Novel (2008)

AIDS, PRE-

The so-called golden era of gay life is usually said to have occurred during the 1970s, that decade of unbridled sex, set to a soundtrack of disco music; the decade leading up to AIDS, or perhaps leading down to AIDS, like a long set of steps. It is an era we have designated in retrospect, and we must ask ourselves: were the men who were part of this era aware of all their gold?

The era is said to have ended with the first case of AIDS in 1981.

However, when I gaze into my disco-mirror ball, I see that we have been looking the wrong way. The golden era actually begins in 1981, and then, not confined to the space of a decade, stretches backward like a long gold streak, far away from us, far away from disco, all the way back to antiquity. [p.6]


Brokeback mountain 2005 a single man 2009

Brokeback Mountain (2005)A Single Man (2009)


I love you phillip morris 2009

I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009)


The dying gaul 2005 directed by craig lucas

The Dying Gaul (2005), directed by Craig Lucas


The dying gaul 2005 directed by craig lucas1

The Dying Gaul (2005), directed by Craig Lucas

JEFFREY: You want to reach as many people as possible with the universal human... truth about these two characters. One of whom is a Person With Aids...

Now: Don’t. Say. Anything. Until – Okay:

Hold all my calls. Most. Americans. Hate. Gay people. They hear it’s about gay people, they won’t go.

ROBERT: What about Philadelphia?

JEFFREY: Philadelphia is a movie about a man who hates gay people, period. And it’s been done. To get people into the movie theatre, they have to think it’s going to be fun, or sensational, or some kind of – make them feel fantastic about themselves. No one. Goes to the movies. To have a bad time. Or to learn anything... No one. Is going to see. The Dying Gaul...


The dying gaul 2005 directed by craig lucas2

The Dying Gaul (2005), directed by Craig Lucas

... Now if we make Maurice a woman with AIDS, and let’s face it, heterosexuals are getting AIDS in disastrous numbers - ... we’ll give you one million dollars for your script. With which you can go out and write four hundred new screenplays about gay men with AIDS, without, whatever is the most important to you.

[Craig Lucas, ‘The Dying Gaul’, in his The Dying Gaul and Other Screenplays (New York: Alyson, 2008), pp.19-20]


3 needles 2005 directed by thom fitzgerald

3 Needles (2005), directed by Thom Fitzgerald


Will grace 1998 2006 directed by james burrows

Will & Grace (1998-2006), directed by James Burrows


Will grace 1998 2006 directed by james burrows1

Will & Grace (1998-2006), directed by James Burrows

“We talked about it from the beginning,” says Poust. “But this was the first time there was going to be a gay male lead on TV. We wanted him to be healthy and happy.” While the characters often talked about safe sex, they only mentioned HIV once, when Grace went in for a test. The virus itself never made an entrance. “In real life, they would have been around HIV for 20 years, but we decided that Will and Grace should live in a fantasy world,” says Poust.

[Lucile Scott, ‘A Will & Grace-full Exit?’, Poz magazine, no.123 (May 2006)]


We were here 2011 directed by david weissman

We Were Here (2011), directed by David Weissman


How to survive a plague 2012 directed by david france

How to Survive a Plague (2012), directed by David France


United in anger a history of act up 2012 directed by jim hubbard

United in Anger: a History of ACT-UP (2012), directed by Jim Hubbard


Fire in the blood 2012 directed by dylan mohan gray

Fire in the Blood (2012), directed by Dylan Mohan Gray


The dallas buyers club 2013 directed by jean marc vallee

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


The dallas buyers club 2013 directed by jean marc vallee1

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


The dallas buyers club 2013 directed by jean marc vallee2

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


The dallas buyers club 2013 directed by jean marc vallee3

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


The dallas buyers club 2013 14 directed by jean marc vallee

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013/14), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

  • Jared Leto remembers how he forgot to remember when exactly he first remembered about a housemate he lived with in Los Angeles, who was dying of AIDS...

  • http://uk.eonline.com/news/456877/jared-leto-opens-up-about-roommate-who-died-from-aids-i-was-there-during-his-final-days


The dallas buyers club 2013 14 directed by jean marc vallee1

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013/14), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

  • Jennifer Garner discusses how she researched her role as a doctor investigating HIV/AIDS:

  • Jennifer Garner: To play this doctor I went back and read the medical journals from the 80′s about AIDS and HIV. It’s a whole different language but after hours of reading I was able to put the puzzle pieces together. But from all the research that I did I never heard of buyers clubs... My character is an amalgam of several people and they did not tell me that so I spent a long time trying to find her. So I finally called them and told them I was so embarrassed I couldn’t find Eve Saks. Then they told me they forgot to tell me that she’s made up.

  • http://latino-review.com/2013/10/interview-talking-dallas-buyers-club-jennifer-garner-jared-leto/


The dallas buyers club 2013 14 directed by jean marc vallee2

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013/14), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

  • Jennifer Garner on the boys’ weight loss:

  • “Well Matthew, I saw him lose weight in pictures before I ever got the job. Then I went down to do a camera test in New Orleans and I saw him and chatted with him and it was totally normal. Then I went into another room and just sighed and collected myself because it gave me the shakes to see him so ill. The amount of weight he lost from then over the next five weeks was just alarming. Whatever you seen on screen, it was so much worse in person. As gaunt as he was in the movie that’s how he was all the time. He just put plumpers in his jeans and in his cheeks when he was trying to look more healthy and tanned himself. He was that thin the whole time and we would feel better when he was wearing his plumpers but we knew they were fake. Jared on the other hand got the job and just stopped eating and Jared you couldn’t look at him because you just wanted to get chicken broth in that boy, I just wanted to feed him. They never made a big deal about it, they both felt it wasn’t the biggest part of this job. As much credibility the weight loss gives their performances, their performances transcend the weight loss. I hated making this movie and I never say that but only because I was disturbed watching these boys do this to their body and I just wanted it to be over.”

  • http://latino-review.com/2013/10/interview-talking-dallas-buyers-club-jennifer-garner-jared-leto/


The dallas buyers club 2013 14 directed by jean marc vallee3

The Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013/14), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

  • 'I waxed my entire body!' Jared Leto admits  just how hard he worked for his Golden Globe in revealing acceptance speech – Linda Massarella, Daily Mail, 13th January 2014

  • “‘I’d like this opportunity to clear up a few things,’ the 42-year-old said while accepting his prestigious award. ‘I did not ever use any prosthetics in this film. That tiny little Brazilian bubble butt was all mine.’

  • The Beverly Hilton ballroom broke out into laughter as Leto – who wore his rock star long locks pulled into a messy bun for the formal appearance – talked of his physical transformation for the role of Rayon...

  • Leto wasn't the only one to lose weight for the Dallas Buyers Club, a true story about a bunch of misfits with AIDS who had to break US laws in order to secretly buy life-saving anti-viral medication. Matthew McConaughey, who won Best Actor in a Drama for his starring role in the same film, also dropped 40 pounds to play an AIDS patient. 

  • Leto ended his speech on a serious note, however...”

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2538418/Jared-Leto-reveals-body-hair-eyebrows-waxed-winning-transgender-role-Dallas-Buyers-Club.html#ixzz2qNtw5FZa

  • http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2538418/Jared-Leto-reveals-body-hair-eyebrows-waxed-winning-transgender-role-Dallas-Buyers-Club.html


Behind the candelabra 2013 directed by steven soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra (2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh


Behind the candelabra 2013 directed by steven soderbergh1

Behind the Candelabra (2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh

“... the actor, now winning plaudits in the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, explained the background to a condition that was thought to be nearly fatal when diagnosed three years ago. Asked whether he now regretted his years of smoking and drinking, usually thought to be the cause of the disease, Douglas replied: ‘No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.’ Douglas... continued: "I did worry if the stress caused by my son's incarceration didn't help trigger it. But yeah, it's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it...”

[‘Michael Douglas on Liberace, Cannes, cancer and cunnilingus’, The Guardian, Saturday 1st June 2013]


Professor richard canning english and creative writing university of northampton

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987)

It was around this time [June 1982] that rumors began on Castro Street about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent. He would have sex with you, turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions.

“I've got gay cancer," he'd say. "I'm going to die and so are you."


Edmund white esthetics and loss 1987 reprinted in the burning library london chatto windus 1994

Edmund White, ‘Esthetics and Loss’ (1987), reprinted in The Burning Library (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994)

In this notorious and often critiqued essay, White turned on the use of humour in portrayals of HIV/AIDS IN sweeping terms:

“If art is to confront AIDS more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humor, and end in anger.

Avoid humor because humor seems grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion. Humor puts the public (indifferent when not uneasy) on cozy terms with what is an unspeakable scandal: death. Humor domesticates terror, lays to rest misgivings that should be intensified...


Edmund white esthetics and loss 1987 reprinted in the burning library london chatto windus 19941

Edmund White, ‘Esthetics and Loss’ (1987), reprinted in The Burning Library (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994)

... Humor suggests that AIDS is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp, whereas in truth AIDS is not one more item in a sequence, but a rupture in meaning itself. Humor, like melodrama, is an assertion of bourgeois values; it falsely suggests that AIDS is all in the family.”


Richard canning@northampton ac uk

[email protected]


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