This is (Not) the Old Days: Infection, Interconnection, and the Question of Difference in AIDS Activism

According to the novel Snow Crash, homogenization is like a virus. Sameness in the novel is inherently dangerous, it makes you vulnerable, and geographic sameness wipes out change, freezing time – once “everything looks the same in America, there are no transitions” (105). In Friction, too, difference is valorized, with Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing arguing for “overlapping, linking difference as a model of the most culturally productive kinds of collaboration” (246). In the first model, difference acts as a barrier against illness, and in the second, difference allows for the production of friction, making movement possible. Yet in Snow Crash, people are still ultimately susceptible to work of a virus that will “go past all your defenses and sink right into your brainstem” (395), opening you up to be controlled by the commands of others. If this happens, the only way to counter it is to follow the infection in order to destroy it, breaking all connection and erasing the link. Of course, the virus of Snow Crash is fictional, but HIV, which also opens one’s system to opportunistic infections that can hijack your mind and body, is not. And while infection is a destructive force when it comes to HIV and AIDS, AIDS activism has in some ways followed the path of Snow Crash in using infection and its search for sameness as a strategy for combating the epidemic, while resisting the urge to sever the connection completely. Arjun Appadurai notes that “the central feature of global culture today is the politics of the mutual effort of sameness and difference to cannibalize one another and thus proclaim their successful hijacking of the…triumphantly universal and the resiliently particular” (17). Various theorists seek to find some negotiation of these terms, but AIDS activists may be ahead of them in practice. Even as AIDS activism has always required calling upon the past to make a stand in the present, and calling upon the elsewhere to act locally, it consistently frustrates attempts to draw clear boundaries between these categories, letting them infect each other. Ultimately, AIDS activism travels and spreads by breaking down the barriers that protect some and oppress others, using the dangers of contamination to mobilize action along already existing paths of interconnection.

Even in its earliest incarnation, AIDS activism used the past to argue for justice in the face of the new epidemic. One of the first major activist groups working against AIDS was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP, formed in 1987. Instead of relating AIDS to various diseases throughout history, one of ACT-UP’s first actions drew on imagery of the holocaust and marked AIDS as a form of murder, instead of a natural occurrence. Maxine Wolfe remembers the ACT-UP float at the Gay Pride March “was a concentration camp with wire all around and people inside” which had people selling t-shirts saying “SILENCE=DEATH” (3). ACT-UP members Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston write that the ACT-UP emblem, with these words and a pink triangle facing up, “depends on foreknowledge of the use of the pink triangle as the marker of gay men in Nazi concentration camps” (14). The appropriation of the image in this context was an act of marking a community within the nation while seeking to mobilize the nation as such. Anna Tsing references this sort of action in Friction when she notes that “sometimes the point for activists is to borrow allegories unmoored from their home contexts and not yet bent to the niceties of local negotiation; these are allegories that can be tapped for unpopular and minority causes” (228). Faced with a new disease that seemed to effect only a minority of people, ACT-UP used an old image to make a point about national responsibility – the Nazis had killed gay people as part of a national plan, and ACT-UP suggested that the deaths of gay people from AIDS featured similarly in American politics, urging the nation to step forward and act to counteract this representation. This tactic was a “way to call up and criticize the nation simultaneously, a gesture at the heart of utopian critique” (Tsing, 226). ACT-UP spoke from the position of oppressed groups within the nation, and their protesting gave the lie to the idea that the nation was a “deep horizontal comradeship,” in Benedict Anderson’s words (7), pushing the nation from within its borders by bringing in imagery from another time and place.

But ACT-UP did more than call up and critique the nation, it effectively threatened it. They suggested that anything was fair game to draw from, and they could appear anywhere. Maxine Wolfe recalls, “we would pretend to be most anything if we could to get in somewhere. There was this whole idea that you would do what you had to do to get in…you wouldn’t be on the outside looking in” (5). In order to spread their message, ACT-UP infiltrated various groups and stated their case. Because they did not speak nam-shubs, the activists do not automatically win those they speak to over to their cause, but they do disrupt their narrative, contaminating those who do not wish to hear them with their speech. By using these past images, ACT-UP tactics highlighted not only the way allegories can be tapped, but the way they can infect spaces far from their origins, the way governments are susceptible to infection through any portion of their population. Tsing argues that “there must be mobilization – movement of the heart – for travel to remake the world. Mobilization refigures identities even as it draws from foreign connections and comparisons” (214). ACT-UP mobilized, but in doing so it not only refigured identities, for example from passive victims of disease to oppressed people fighting for justice, but also destabilized identity categories themselves by placing the foreign and the despised inside the spaces that sought to displace it.

Crimp and Rolston’s book AIDS Demo Graphics emphasizes the viral nature of the images and tactics themselves. They write, “We have no patent on the politics or the designs…We want others to keep using our graphics and making their own. Part of our point is that nobody owns these images. They belong to a movement that is constantly growing – in numbers, in militancy, in political awareness” (13). AIDS itself could be described in similar language, as growing in numbers and virulence. ACT UP thus used certain tropes of infection – the spreading and proliferating graphics – to advocate the need for government action. The unique position of AIDS activism was that it grew via infection – as more people were infected with AIDS, more people became active in the movement against it. Perhaps because of this, ACT-UP relied not only on friction but also on following the tactics of the virus itself to make political connections between those with the power to change things and those living with AIDS.

These models of infection push back on Tsing’s model of friction – “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4). The rubber of the tire might rub off on the road during movement, but it probably won’t change the way the road works, will only superficially become a part of the road, will only touch its surface. But both viruses and activism in many ways seek to enter and alter that which they rub up against, forming new connections by taking root, mutating to new conditions, and changing the host that keeps them alive. In Tsing, the closest thing to infection is development and devastation of the forests, which come into their host space and destroy it from within, drawing on the materials of that space (like a body) until those resources are gone. She writes that frontier-making “conjures a self-conscious translocalism, committed to the obliteration of local places” (68). Only devastation cuts deep, while coalition lights its fires by merely scraping skin. Destroying the local is a central theme in Snow Crash, too, where the practice is directly linked to viral infection through a description of the franchise system: “The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in another” (191). This principle may be what those creating the frontier are after, but Tsing argues that “Activist packages travel when they are unmoored from the contexts of culture and politics from which they emerged and reattached as allegories within the culture and politics of those with the institutional strength to spread the word” (234). In other words, activism travels through translation and transformation – working “across difference” instead of remaining the same. But ACT-UP’s actions suggest that unmoored activist packages are not only transformed by their new context, but also transform that context, opening it up and shifting its foundations.

Where ACT UP’s use of holocaust imagery and infiltration techniques muddied the waters of difference by presenting the threat of infection as an activist model, more recent activism by the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa draws on older ACT-UP techniques and the rhetoric of anti-apartheid struggles to allow for global comparison of lifestyles and to reverse fears of global homogenization in service of equal opportunity. While the virus in Snow Crash causes all it infects to understand a common language of Babel and be equally susceptible to nam-shubs, much AIDS activism today is predicated on the understanding that those infected with HIV are not all equally vulnerable to the effects of the virus. A Salon article about U.S. AIDS activist Amy Kapczynski reports that she was “viscerally jolted into an awareness of the gulf that separates the reality of AIDS in the industrialized world from that in impoverished countries” during a conference on AIDS in South Africa (2). In Snow Crash, Da5id brags, “I’ve got so much antiviral medicine in my system that nothing can get through” (72), before being infected with Snow Crash and effectively knocked senseless. Yet in today’s world, people may be equally vulnerable to acquiring HIV based on their behavior1, but they have very different levels of access to life-prolonging medications. These very real differences are catalysts for change – the Treatment Action Campaign lobbies for access to HIV and AIDS medications based on the argument that people with AIDS in Western nations have access to these drugs, making their platform based on the inequality of difference.

TAC’s uses tactics that arise out of the anti-apartheid movement to specifically speak to South Africa while retaining underlying questions of contamination inherent in the ACT-UP campaign. Because TAC’s activism happens “on two fronts” (Time 2)2, one pointed towards Northern governments and companies and one towards the South African government, they must develop tactics that are relevant to South African history for the latter. Where ACT-UP had used holocaust imagery to imagine AIDS as a national cause due to its political and literal potential to infect, TAC has taken a stand by highlighting social inequality and difference as being at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, aligning the movement with anti-apartheid history. Once again, this activism breaks down categories of difference to show the interconnected nature of AIDS. Zackie Achmat, a South African gay rights, anti-apartheid, and AIDS activist placed his life on the line along with those who had less access to medication by refusing to take antiretrovirals while South Africa did not provide them through the public health care system (Time 2-3). In doing so he drew on South Africa’s history of apartheid to argue for access to medication for all. This tactic was not particularly accessible to ACT-UP activists twenty years ago, and suggests that AIDS activism has “become indigenized” (Appadurai, 5). But Achmat’s stance mirrors the ACT-UP tactic of stressing the relationship between national health and responsibility to oppressed and minority groups within the nation. He combines the history of AIDS activism with the nonviolent protests of leaders like Ghandi, whose hunger strike is a traveling package that can be adapted and translated to this scene in Achmat’s refusal of medication. As Tsing writes, “Packages travel when they are translated in such a way as to form a significant intervention in a local scene” (237). Yet this reckoning covers up the way that the “local scene” can be made up of various groups. Achmat’s action is effective because it calls up and critiques the nation while also infecting the nation with new identities it has denied. He must break down realities of difference to argue for a national cause, symbolically enacting “deep horizontal comradeship” in order to emphasize that it is lacking.

While TAC acts in a different cultural context from ACT-UP, and at a different moment in the life of the epidemic, its members indict many of the same culprits as having blood on their hands. Appadurai claims that the “central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization” (5). This central problem is used by TAC to put the burden of change on Northern companies and governments by positing them as responsible for global flows which determine the course of the virus. Amy Kapczynski writes of the relationship between early ACT UP and TAC that “many of the activist tropes/ images remained similar and crossed borders (die ins, coffins, throwing blood on things), but many also changed as they moved – in South Africa, for example, singing and dancing played a really big role in AIDS activist protests, influenced by apartheid era songs and protest strategies.” The significance of this summary is that while Kapczynski notes that these activities have “remained similar and crossed borders,” they are in fact tactics from the past, relics that are no longer particularly applicable in the place they began3. Even as this highlights the differences between the two countries, it creates a narrative where U.S. culture infects South African tactics and ties this cultural link to the effects of the disease. Strategies that travel are those most directly related to the disease itself – those that bring death and the symbolic idea of infection into public spaces.

Putting the virus and its effects front and center by using formerly American actions ties the AIDS epidemic to the flows of American culture. A character in Snow Crash cackles that “Evil was a synonym for disease…evil is a virus!” (127). What allows these aspects to carry over twenty years and an ocean is not so much their local suitability or particularity but precisely that they speak to American culpability for the virus. Appadurai argues that global forces have served to “show Americans that the past is usually another country” (4). In this case, though, it is South African activists attempting to make this point in order to induce the American government and corporations to action. Such haunting is discussed by Tsing as hidden forces that nonetheless appear when knowledge travels across the globe and is translated into a new context. She writes, “Both global knowledge and knowledge that travels across the globe are improved by dialogue across difference. Hauntings sometimes open the way to such dialogue: What visions have we been formed by, yet forgotten?” (81). However, TAC’s drawing of connections between U.S. cultural practices and the South African AIDS crisis seeks to foreground these visions, not forget them. They insist not on dialogue across difference, but on a practice that invades the notion of difference, cutting through difference to reveal a path, a connection that can be activated. TAC is haunted by the actions of the U.S., but it also returns that haunting. Separated by an ocean from the companies they seek to influence, threats of infection are not necessarily effective in the same way they might be coming from within the borders of the state. Instead, TAC draws on the ACT-UP trope of murder to haunt drug companies, to argue for a deep causal link between their suffering and American actions. They argue that evil is a virus, and that it is human evil, not nature, that causes the crisis. In doing so, they move the past from being in another country for Americans to make it haunt the present, re-infecting American spaces with mutated American actions.

Even as TAC seeks to haunt the U.S. with their own culpability in the AIDS crisis elsewhere, U.S. activists have begun to use a model of interconnection that focuses not on crossing different identities or agendas to mobilize, but on the ways in which people are already infected with different places, and follows those contaminations to find paths of connection. Certain effective forms of today’s U.S. AIDS activism follow Bruce Robbins’ assertion that “opportunities for turning distant economic interdependence into conscious political cooperation have never been so promising” (10). Alliances are not formed particularly or necessarily along identity lines but instead focus on global interconnection. Tsing argues that “Scholars have difficulty in imagining how to trace traveling forms of politics” and that prevailing models “territorialize or universalize, respectively, each erasing travel” (216). Yet politics do not always pick up and travel unmoored, instead, the actual paths they travel can be roads for activist action that falls for neither pitfall. In Friction, “as the story moved from place to place, its allegorical possibilities grew” (234), but AIDS activism recognizes that it no longer moves from place to place, instead, it develops in pathways, sends messages, acts in one place in response to and looking for a response from somewhere else, moving through channels of interconnection.

One group utilizing such a politics is the Student Global AIDS Coalition (SGAC). SGAC is “a US-based network of student and youth organizations committed to the global fight against AIDS” (SGAC website). This group thus locates themselves within a particular nation, but turns its attentions outwards. In reply to groups like TAC, SGAC follows routes of infection and make activism a kind of contamination – they pursue actions that are locally or nationally implemented, which then have global effects because of the paths local and national forces have taken. Many SGAC actions target the U.S. Congress or U.S. drug companies. Unlike ACT UP and TAC, they most often do not advocate directly on their own behalf. This sort of activism is similar to the collaborations which Tsing says “bring misunderstanding into the core of alliance” (247). Yet productive misunderstanding is not the motor of this advocacy, connection through difference is. As Robbins writes, “We are connected to all sorts of places, causally if not always consciously, including many we have never traveled to” (3). These connections do not seek to erase difference or deny its existence. Instead, they seek to target the paths through which cultures have infected each other and use those paths to generate new journeys that may constantly circle back, highlighting travel instead of hiding it.

To draw a metaphor from Snow Crash, these tactics can be seen as following the harpoon line, recognizing that one is also harpooned and thus must move in concert and connection. One fight that SGAC has taken up, but did not initiate, is agitating universities and pharmaceutical industries to loosen restrictions on their patents for AIDS related drugs in poorer countries. In the Salon article on Amy Kapczynski, an activist involved in such a campaign against the University of Minnesota states, “Students here are feeling like there’s a local connection” (5). Unlike ACT-UP, these students are not threatening that infection could occur anywhere. Instead, they are tracing vectors of influence and infection and noting the interconnection of their lives with others. Robbins argues that “Politics must be forced to include the variable power of sympathetic imagination to define collectives of belonging and responsibility in the absence of that long history of face-to-face interaction” (9). For contemporary AIDS activists in the U.S., defining such collectives comes from an understanding of interconnection, nourished by a history of activism that emphasizes infection – the infection of old stories into new movements, the infection of viruses and the cultural practices that both fight and exacerbate them. Unlike friction, these interventions are not limited to one location, although they are activated locally. They do not have to travel unmoored or surrounded, and connections once made are never gone, never one way, but can always be reactivated, reversed.

In Snow Crash, the protection of Babel can only arrive by way of infection. Yet AIDS activists globally know that Babel is never complete. While they run up against each other and produce friction, their differences are never so total as to be complete barriers to contamination, or interconnection. One opponent of the student movements in the Salon article argues, “This is simply First World selfishness being manifested, using the Third World as a backdrop” (6). The critic here feels the pressure of infection, but loses sight of the mutual nature of connection. What the comment picks up on is the potential for AIDS activism in the U.S. that is directed elsewhere to mutate, turn around, and return back whence it came. What it misses is that each activism is haunted by others and continually intersecting other causes, contaminating other patterns. So called “first world” actions are certainly connected to “first world lives,” as are so called “third world” actions. Yet they also impact and change each other, not just creating sparks in their meeting but incubating tactics, stories, repercussions, letting them mutate, and sending them back (and/or elsewhere) to further infect and develop, always shifting the message, the sender, and the recipient, and destabilizing the very positions they hold.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedit. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalismrev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture2(2), 1990.

Crimp, Douglas and Adam Rolston. AIDS Demo Graphics, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990.

Kapczynski, Amy. “Re: Question from Professor Chun’s Student.” Email to Anne Jonas. 11 Dec. 2007.

Karon, Tony. “South African AIDS Activist Zackie Achmat.” Time 19 Apr. 2001. Accessed 11 Dec. 2007. <,8599,106995,00.html&gt;

Lindsey, Daryl. “Amy and Goliath.” Salon 1 May 2001. Accessed 11 Dec. 2007.<;

Robbins, Bruce. “Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism.” Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1998.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash, New York: Bantam Dell, 1992.

Student Global AIDS Campaign. “Mission Statement.” Accessed 10 Dec. 2007. <;

Treatment Action Campaign. “About the Treatment Action Campaign.” Accessed 13 Dec. 2007.<;

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Wolfe, Maxine. Interviewed by Laranie Sommella. “This is about People Dying: The Tactics of Early ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers in New York City.” Accessed 11 Dec. 2007.<; Excerpted from Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance. ed. Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter. Seattle: Bay Press, 1997.

1 A recent poster campaign at Brown for World AIDS Day sought to drive home the idea that any sexually active person is at risk for HIV infection, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation.

2 TAC’s work certainly also consists of at least one other front, a “treatment literacy campaign” directed at the South African people (TAC website), but this educational program is outside the scope of the current paper.

3 I do not mean to suggest that Amy Kapczynski is unaware of differences in timing or their impact, I only think her quote is useful in revealing the tensions between past and present, here and there, and sameness and difference.

This paper was written for a Brown University course, “Imagined Networks, Glocal Connections,” in 2007.