[-empyre-] Thoughts on Creativity/Innovation in a Time of Crisis

Chris Tokuhama jrybadork at gmail.com
Fri Jun 1 15:12:27 EST 2012

Apologies for the late response but I wanted to throw my two cents in
before the discussion closed. As Anne has mentioned, I am one of the
students working on a project with the AIDS Quilt this summer and have
been tasked with the challenged of thinking about the role of
innovation in a time of crisis. Below are some of my thoughts based on
the material we have been reading and how this intersects with the
discussion of the AIDS Quilt as a piece of technology that also
functions as art and public memorial.

My immediate response to the question posed by Anne was to consider
Michael Rothberg’s work, Traumatic Realism, and his close reading of
the oft-quoted Adorno phrase “To write poetry after Auchwitz is
barbaric.” In his book, Rothberg uses a close reading of Adorno to
argue for the iconic place that the site (and the quote) holds in
cultural memory and also begins to address the apparent tensions
between art and culture in the wake of catastrophe. Specifically,
Rothberg points to the ways in which an event like the Holocaust or
Auschwitz is necessarily embedded in both a socio-cultural context and

Developing this theme, and closer to the focus of our summer project,
Kyra Pearson positions the Quilt within two coexistent—and at times
competing—time streams in “How to Have History in an Epidemic”. Here,
one manner of conceptualizing the temporal nature of the quilt focuses
on situating the present within the past, thus structuring the past as
intimately knowable. To illustrate this, Pearson describes the way in
which the quilt and AIDS are placed within a public health context in
Western societies that includes specific outbreaks of
sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis and communicable
diseases like cholera, but also generally within a context of
epidemiology. We might consider, for example, how the AIDS quilt can
function to memorialize the disease but also, in a way, serves as a
form of data visualization (albeit biased and incomplete) that
stretches all the way back to the earliest practices of modern

In contrast, the other mode of viewing stems from an understanding
that the past is ever-elusive and unknowable, and as a result places
more emphasis on forward-looking practices that connect the present to
the future. Taking this view, we understand the quilt not simply as a
memorial to lives lost but a living reminder of the work left to do.
Undoubtedly influenced by our understanding of, or reaction to,
catastrophe we recognize the ethereal nature of history—in this case
symbolized by the gradual disintegration of the quilt’s panels—and
must come to terms with the notion that our view of history is not
only always degrading but fundamentally incomplete, for there are
stories whose hosts will die before they are ever told. Similar to the
practice of the collection of Holocaust testimony, we are confronted
with the chilling realization that although there are stories about
AIDS that are not yet told, there are also stories that will never be

In a way, then, we can understand Pearson’s position of the quilt as a
question of dueling narratives: the story of the disease versus the
story of individuals who are affected. (Here I would note that these
individuals are not just people who died or who would otherwise be
incorporated into the quilt as a panel but also friends, family
members, and members of communities that have been shaped or altered
by the disease. Additionally, a return to Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive
of Feelings:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures might be
instructive as it also speaks to the ongoing negotiation of individual
and metanarratives in the shadow of trauma or catastrophe.) Here we
see that narrative possesses a type of double edge for it lends power
to a movement or an idea (e.g., the quilt as a symbol or the visceral
reaction to the word “AIDS”) but, because of that power, can also
obscure the lesser narratives that serve to construct the
metanarrative (e.g., conceptualizing AIDS as a white gay man’s disease
instantly erases people of color, heterosexuals, and women from the
picture). Viewed in one way, the story of AIDS is never about Centers
for Disease Control reports or epidemics as much as it is, and always
will be, fundamentally about people.

Here we should pause to note that this cautionary stance toward
narrative applies to both historiography as a practice, which
constructs a story (albeit a contextualized and often thoroughly
researched one), and the fact that historiography is inherently
situated within ideology, which is itself a form of narrative.
Building off of Scott Bravmann’s assertion that LGBTQ work challenges
the paradigm of traditional historiography and archival work that is
heteronormative in nature, the chapter raises unique questions about
the nature of the AIDS quilt in relation to collective/cultural
memory, artifacts, and archives. Although Pearson mentions the way in
which display is politicized in the quilt (both in the choice to
show/not show the quilt and in the politics of representation inherent
in the quilt’s makeup), the creation and maintenance of the an archive
such as the quilt is, in and of itself, a political act when we
consider that the creators/curators must choose what material to
include/exclude and that what does not appear in an archive is
sometimes just as important (or more so!) than what is.

Chris Tokuhama
Annenberg Fellow | Media, Culture and Community
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

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