My research project focuses on autobiographical illness narratives of HIV/AIDS. I adopt a queer theoretical perspective and will look at narratives produced in the US at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s.
Contemporary research in the field of illness narratives frequently conceptualizes the experience of life-threatening illness as a traumatizing disruption of life and the narration of illness is perceived as an attempt at regaining 'normality' and returning to one's former life, or even a life better than the one 'before'. My project, however, is interested in the question whether illness experience narrated from the perspective of a queer life might be motivated in a different way and potentially create other stories. Illness in a queer context seems to induce an exceptional situation, one that can generate narratives of defying identity, or one that provokes more radical reflection on the sudden reduction to a particular identity. The latter is exemplified by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who writes, "One of the first things I felt when facing the diagnosis of breast cancer was, 'Shit, now I guess I really must be a woman'". Sedgwick's allusion to a previously fluid and dynamic conceptualization of identity cut short by her diagnosis may also be read as a way of unmasking processes of interpellation which take on a particular function in the context of the individual's inevitable subjectivation within a medical system.
If illness can be conceptualized as a fundamentally destabilizing force, then it may be assumed, that this will present itself differently in those queer texts that already question stable identities.
Crucial for my project are debates about identity and identity politics in the 1990s because they reflect an activist experience as much as they represent forms of theorizing within social movements. Since gay communities were particularly affected by HIV/AIDS, Gayle Rubin writes, that "[j]ust when homosexuals have had some success in throwing off the taint of mental disease, gay people find themselves metaphorically wedded to an image of lethal physical deterioration". Against the historical backdrop of a connection of homosexuality with illness and a revival of stigmatization in the context of HIV/AIDS, conceptualizations such as 'normality' or 'participation' needed to be re-evaluated. In contrast to claims of recognition as part of the ethnic model, queer politics set out to question the mainstream, to reconsider normalcy and to reject participation at the expense of difference. A primary aim of the AIDS activist movement was not only the provision of basic medical and social care/services, but also the need to defy the connection of homosexuality and illness and to work against stigmatization. Activism to achieve these goals involved an altered sense of power relations, a critical reflection on political and social alliances, and a new politics of representation.
My project is thus framed by a focus on the meaning of illness and bodies and their narrative discursivation within emancipatory social movements. Just as the emergence of literary and filmic representations of 'female' illnesses such as breast cancer cannot be discussed without consideration of the women's movement, the same holds true for narrations of HIV/AIDS. An analysis of HIV/AIDS narratives needs to recognize their situatedness within the AIDS and queer activist movement on the one hand, but should likewise be attentive to the legacy of politicized gay literature (produced before AIDS) on the other. The feminist women's movement and feminist theory were fundamentally involved in analyzing power relations within the medical establishment. Within that movement illness narratives frequently comprised a more comprehensive critique of societal and medical institutions. Similarly, AIDS narratives are reflections and expressions of an active gay subculture, which developed - and changed with the AIDS activist movement. The abundance of autobiographical AIDS narratives produced since the 1990s, are to be understood not only as (new) forms of narrativization of illness, but also as reflections on and theorizing of illness experience and identity.