Risibility politics: Camp humor in HIV/AIDS zines

Daniel Brouwer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Scopus citations


Writing in Artforum in 1987, Edmund White addressed the status of humor as an aesthetic mode in the context of the AIDS epidemic. "If art is to confront AIDS more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humor, and end in anger, " he asserted. "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."1 Using White's sober proscription as a foil, activist David Feinberg countered with an embrace of the possibilities of humor for those who, like him, are AIDS-diagnosed. "Humor is a survival tactic, a defense mechanism, a way of lessening the horror"; it is a means for asserting control over disease and a distancing mechanism.2 Artists and activists alike have frequently embodied Feinberg's ludic stance toward humor, infl ecting their works with irony, camp, and gallows humor. In one emblematic event in 1997, audience members at a comedy club in New York City selected via applause acclamation "The Funniest HIV-Positive Person in New York" at a competition and fund-raiser sponsored by POZ Magazine.3 Humor's general persistence in the AIDS epidemic suggests the important task of exploring the reasons why and the specifi c ways in which humor has functioned as a mode through which people infected with or affected by HIV make sense of the virus and the syndrome. In this chapter, I explore deployments of humor about HIV/AIDS by gay men with HIV/AIDS. In multiple media-novels, theater, movies, stand-up comedy routines, even AIDS! The Musical!-gay men with HIV/AIDS use humor to perform multiple functions. From among these media, I focus on humor in two zines (truncated from "magazines") in the United States- Infected Faggot Perspectives (IFP) and Diseased Pariah News (DPN). Print based, "underground" publications spanning ten years of the epidemic (1990- 1999), these zines serve as sites of gay men's cultural production. Elsewhere, Thomas Long has adumbrated the transgressive strategies of these zines and fruitfully described the relations between the zines' production values and their political commitments.4 Elsewhere, I have explicated the specifi c ways in which these zines constitute counterpublics, focusing on the corporeal modes of the erotic and the grotesque. Neither of those investigations, however, has fully explored humor, specifi cally, camp humor, as a modality of (counter)publicity. 5 Such a study of risibility politics in the face of HIV/AIDS is warranted by both the need to understand actual communication practices in conditions of signifi cant crisis and the persistent scholarly call to recognize the value of plural modes of constituting public culture. In this chapter, I fi rst explore camp humor's ambivalent career, focusing on its potential to mediate important relations between symbolic and material politics. Next, I offer a sketch of the role of humor in constituting the zines as a particular kind of place. Attending to glamour as an exemplary theme of camp humor, I then offer a reading of both "AIDS Barbie, " a fi gure whose fall from glamour is dramatized in a disturbing mock advertisement, and personal narratives from zine writers who describe their own struggles to maintain glamour in the face of AIDS. Along the way, I advance three main positions: First, neither inherently subversive nor inherently ineffectual, humor's critical potential is best studied in historical specifi city, paying particular attention to the conditions of its emergence, circulation, and reception. Second, camp humor about AIDS produced by infected gay men in the pages of IFP and DPN should be read as acts of counterpublicity that articulate and circulate oppositional meanings of infection. Third, camp humor in the zines addresses material politics on two signifi cant and overlapping levels-the materiality of the body and its relation to discourse, and the economic conditions that structure everyday life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPublic Modalities
Subtitle of host publicationRhetoric, Culture, Media, and The Shape of Public Life
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9780817355852
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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