PRINT January 1986


AIDS. The buried allegory.

Our fear of AIDS mimics the most ancient fears of cholera, bubonic plague, yellow fever. Plague panic feels justified, and simplifies our morality. Judgments arrive with the speed of terrified reflex—judgments about oneself, about others, about the future. That’s how the image of a plague permits us, encourages us, to react. Hope turns to medicine, not as a branch of science but as a latter-day source of miracles. Every lab worker becomes a potential San Gennaro, the saint who rescued Naples from the p]ague of 1656.

The plague metaphor offers yet another sign that medieval, even pre-historical ways of thinking persist in modern life. There’s something modern, even democratic about the image of AIDS as a plague: it posits everyone as equal]y vulnerable. But there’s another metaphor at work, one less egalitarian, more pre- or possibly postmodern, more primordially and allegorically religious in its overtones: AIDS-as-leprosy, an image that labels the victims of a disease as the proper targets of an unquestionable justice. This image doesn’t focus on how many have been or will be afflicted by AIDS. It focuses on what kind of people get it. The media do what they can to reinforce this focus, with updates of statistical breakdowns.

After giving the latest breakdown, anchorpeople join with the Pentagon in speculating about such things as the danger of infection under battlefield conditions. Even now, journalism finds safety and comfort in the fact that most AIDS patients are male homosexuals, Haitians, or Africans (including, now, white remnants of colonial regimes), or drug users with secondhand needles: outsiders because of their sexuality, their race or geographical distance, or their addictions.

A news program shows horror and solicitude for, say, a married hemophiliac who got AIDS from a Midwestern blood bank and gave it to his wife and chi]d. The solicitous slant of this coverage makes it clear that people in middle-class families, ordinary people, aren’t supposed to get AIDS. The disease belongs elsewhere. Detect that slant and you begin to see beneath the image of plague to that other, more powerful image: AIDS victim as leper, entitled only to the cruelest of sanctions.

AIDS-as-leprosy reflects the feeling that sexual, racial, and drug-addicted outsiders are already leprous presences long before AIDS ever seeks them out. When it does, the leper is open]y marked, at last, as unclean: moral judgment takes a form verifiable in a lab. It’s one thing to hear ravers ta]k like that from fundamentalist pulpits. It’s another to realize that all talk of AIDS-as-plague should be heard as coded condemnation of people who, with the exception of white hemophiliacs, deserve what they get.

Hidden by AIDS panic and the plague metaphor, the image of AIDS-as-leprosy works quietly to form a consensus in favor of drastic solutions: quarantine for AIDS victims, and exclusionary, redlining policies against all those marginal zones of the culture where mainstream pride and prejudice do not prevail. A new image, AIDS-as-leprosy, revives an old one: “Bohemia,” a region that must be avoided, maybe eradicated, a zone so dangerous it threatens to discredit the bohemia of hot designers, actors, and artists being concocted as a mode] of ’80s “life style” in the pages of People and Vanity Fair. Watch out for those Greenwich Village restaurants, folks.

The metaphor of AIDS-as-leprosy originates in a reused syringe or in a gay bathhouse. AIDS victims, the ones the media suggests are supposed to get the disease, are people who have cultivated the wrong addictions, people whose willful insistence on difference reminds the mainstream that the right sort of person is only a person addicted to the right sort of junk.

Mainstream citizens also live on a certain image fix—an addiction to signs of “true romance,” rightness, innocence, propriety and to symbols of status and success. Some addictions are acceptable. Certain outsiders exaggerate aspects of the acceptable image fixes, others reject them. Either way they’re outlawed, because they reveal the addictive machinery of contemporary life. According to society, these alien presences deserve to be shunned and ]eft to die. Like lepers. A measure of the cruelty of AIDS-as-leprosy: the metaphor applies most powerfully to victims whose social language and skin color ensures outsider status. Even if they tried, they couldn’t get hooked on mainstream image fixes, yet they’re condemned to total invisibility because they don’t.

This goes beyond questions of preferences or substances, legal or not. Realize that we define ourselves by our addictions to images, and you sense just how unacceptable an outsider’s preferences can be. The victims of AIDS remind us that all self-imagery is fragile; that reminder is not welcome. The image of AIDS-as-leprosy effectively suppresses it. Mainstream culture sees the disease as a punishment inflicted on those whose differences invite—in fact, demand—cruel justice. Punish gays, drug abusers, and certain racial minorities for the images they present, and one punishes the very idea of singularity.

Each of us cultivates an addiction to an image of his or her unique self. It’s a necessity of modern life. Condemning those who remind us of the difficuty, of the struggle to maintain that image won’t change it or make it any easier. The mainstream tries to hide its own addictions, with an odd result: the media, the population at large, is now addicted to images of AIDS, images that help straight cuture disguise its resemblance to those it excudes because of their’ differences.

Carter Ratcliff’s most recent hook is Robert Longo (Rizzoli). He writes on the topic of modern life for Artforum.