Review of The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance

Review of The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 3, Spring 2021

Author(s): Ryan Mitchell

Ryan Mitchell is an assistant professor of English at Lafayette College, where he teaches courses in rhetorical theory, the rhetoric of health and medicine, and conflict within and among (counter)public spheres. His research interrogates the medical imaginaries that arise during moments of medical crisis, upheaval, and uncertainty with special attention paid to the animating rhetorical force of intimate proximities. His current book project is a rhetorical history of the earliest years of the AIDS crisis and accounts for the discursive, embodied, and spatialized dimensions of everyday risk assessment. His work on this subject has been published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Argumentation & Advocacy.

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Chavez, Karma R. The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance. University of Washington Press, 2021. 246pp.

Cover art of book being reviewed

As I sat down to record my reflections on Karma Chávez’s new book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, news broke that the Biden administration had directed the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (HSS) to hold unaccompanied migrant children at the detention camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Originally built to shelter oil field workers, the Carrizo Springs facility will now serve as a COVID-19 quarantine station for more than 700 unchaperoned teenagers, many of whom are fleeing conflict and climate catastrophe in Central America (Foster-Frau). The proposed ten-day quarantine period has been met with opprobrium by migrants’ rights advocates, immigration lawyers, and human rights activists who argue the policy breaks US law, which states that minors can only be held at the border for 72 hours before being transported to another facility or reunited with family (Amnesty International). While government officials maintain that this coerced, unlawful quarantine is a temporary pandemic containment measure, rumors abound that the HHS is looking to reopen another notorious child detention camp, this time in Homestead, Florida, which was unceremoniously shuttered in 2019 due to unsanitary living conditions, rampant abuse allegations, and corruption (Foster-Frau).

Borders. Containment. Disease. Quarantine. These are the recurrent themes in news reports of the country’s shameful treatment of migrants. They are also all central foci of Chávez’s immediately urgent and immensely creative monograph. Continuing her career-defining interest in the rhetorical dynamics and transformative political potential of transnational, queer coalition building, The Borders of AIDS is a rhetorical history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that centers the experiences of groups typically obscured by mainstream and queer histories of the AIDS crisis: migrants, Black sex workers, and HIV-positive Haitians. Spanning the first 12 years of the crisis in the United States (roughly 1981 – 1993), Chávez contributes important additions to the AIDS archive by shifting focus from the work accomplished by mostly white, mostly middle class, cosmopolitan AIDS activist groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Instead, Chávez draws from queer of color, migrant, and feminist traditions to recover an alternative history of AIDS, one that is attuned to how the epidemic affected (and continues to affect) those on the borders of civic and national belonging.

Despite being written largely before the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, The Borders of AIDS provides a prescient conceptual framework for understanding how the real or imagined threat of contagious disease inheres diffuse (trans)national struggles over the nature of belonging, citizenship, and the stability of the nation state’s ideological and material boundaries. Wisely, when Chávez does reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic in her book’s prologue, she avoids and, indeed, even urges against the impulse to make easy, reductive comparisons between the AIDS crisis and our immediate moment. “There are some important ways that AIDS can help us understand COVID-19 that do not require analogies,” she maintains, favoring a more measured, contemplative approach that looks for ways that the AIDS epidemic helps us “understand the deep logic of white supremacist, anti-Black, settler colonial nation-states like the United States” (vii). And, in fact, as her book demonstrates so well, when we refrain from engaging in over-motivated comparison, we are able to notice how contagion simultaneously powers and articulates the dynamic, exclusionary violence undergirding the hegemonic machinations of democratic citizenship itself.

Chávez convincingly argues that the segregating, exclusionary, and necropolitical forces that emerged during the early AIDS epidemic were manifestations of a larger organizing principle, which she names “alienizing logic.” For Chávez, an alienizing logic “refers to a structure of thinking that insists that some are necessarily members of a community and some are recognized as not belonging even if they physically reside there” (5). Readers will likely find ample areas of overlap between Chávez’s notion of alienizing logic and existing radical democratic critiques of liberal democracy. However, whereas that scholarship often limits itself to the properly political realm, Chávez’s alienizing logic is more dexterous and portable. Alienizing logic contours both the political and the quotidian. In fact, the utility of her term comes precisely from its mobility, or, to use her phrasing, its “blurriness” (5). Alienizing logics don’t fortify firm, concrete, unchanging borders between those enveloped within the ambit of legally legitimized citizenship and those positioned outside of it. Instead, alienizing logics structure flexible exclusions that are concerned more with one’s imagined fit within the white supremacist, anti-Black, heterosexual, cis nation state. Alienizing logic can be attached to any minoritized and queer(ed) subject, though this attachment manifests and is experienced differently. Throughout her book, Chávez takes pains to distinguish between those who are alienized as the result of non-conferred legal status and those who, despite possessing legal legitimacy, are nonetheless rendered “alienized citizens” (9). Theorizing and tracing the implications of alienizing logic are Chávez’s most important additions to feminist and cultural rhetoric’s critical repertoire. A sensitivity to the scalar operations of alienizing logic compels a cultivated sensitivity to how the shifting privileges conferred by the nation state both reinforce and destabilize traditional societal divisions. Indeed, it is in the space between reinforcement and destabilization that unexpected coalitions can be forged as groups work toward greater solidarity with those positioned across diverse continua of oppression.

The Borders of AIDS charts the various ways that immigration and citizenship status come to “matter as additional sites of power and oppression that impact people’s experiences with HIV/AIDS and the ways that HIV/AIDS becomes an opportunity to enact alienizing logic” (p. 11). The book develops over the course of five chapters, which are broken into two sections. The first section, “Alienizing Logic and Structure” outlines how official and mainstream discourses coalesced to render both the quarantining and banning of people living with HIV/AIDS as a natural, commonsense response to the problem of AIDS. Section two, “Resisting Alienizing Logics,” tells the story of the surprising and sometimes turbulent coalitions built by queer and otherwise marginalized activists as they struggled against alienizing HIV/AIDS quarantine policies. Together, these two sections weave poignant, richly contextualized case studies to recover a necessary history of how America’s pernicious, exclusionary citizenship practices get activated in moments of biomedical crisis.

Chávez uses the first chapter to establish her book’s historical and conceptual foundations, presenting readers with an expansive rhetorical history of quarantinism in the United States. Rather than accounting for the epidemiological legitimacy of quarantine as a disease mitigation strategy, Chávez is more concerned with unpacking the term’s “symbolic baggage.” “Quarantine,” Chávez argues, “raises specters of plagues, leper colonies, yellow warning flags nailed to the doors of the infected, and deadly epidemics” (23). Putting into conversation more than two hundred years of official and popular texts about the mitigation of infectious disease, Chávez demonstrates that the impulse to quarantine runs parallel to more defuse geopolitical anxieties about the promiscuous (trans)national movement of people, practices, goods, and intimacies. As Chávez points out, the alienizing impulse of quarantine is inherent in its definition. Unlike its close associate, isolation, which denotes the cornering off of people actively displaying signs of sickness, quarantine technically refers to the preemptive segregation of those who might have been exposed to a contagious disease (21). While seemingly slight, this semantic difference has important implications for the book’s critical orientation: calls for quarantine operate along familiar lines of social exclusion, where a group’s proximity to pathologized social conditions such as Blackness, poverty, foreignness, and sexual difference, functions diagnostically to warrant coerced confinement or, worse, expulsion from the nation state itself. Chávez suggests that the widespread use of the word quarantine to describe both the isolation of the sick and the containment of the possibly ill attests to the persistent strength of alienizing logics as well as contagion’s capacity to subject differently marginalized groups to continued biopolitical discipline and surveillance under the auspices of public health (22).

Chapter two, “AIDS and the Rhetoric of Quarantine,” queries how it was that the quarantining of those newly diagnosed with AIDS became a popular, though never truly realized, AIDS mitigation strategy, despite early scientific agreement that AIDS was not transmitted through casual contact. Chávez argues that the force of AIDS quarantine rhetorics resulted not as much from a desire to prevent the spread of AIDS but rather from the impulse to discipline recalcitrant socio-sexual behavior. That the criminalization of AIDS resulted from sex negativity has long been a staple of gay and queer accounts of the AIDS crisis. Chávez veers from these familiar critiques, however, by studying how powerful political actors used the epidemic to exaggerate the threat posed by Black HIV-positive sex workers. As a mode of disciplinary visibility, quarantine relies on perpetual surveillance and monitoring. The felt intensity of quarantine is amplified when it targets those already deemed deviant. Chávez explains that “Black women’s lives are frequently subject to surveillance, scrutiny, and confinement” (53). The possibility of an AIDS quarantine, therefore, puts the vulnerable, already over-surveilled Black sex worker at risk in two ways: first, it would shine light on labor practices that rely on opacity; second, and relatedly, it would further isolate Black sex workers from larger AIDS activist networks, making coalition building difficult. Through deftly handled, pathos laden accounts, Chávez challenges her readers to notice how quarantine rhetorics perpetuate Black social death. Crucially, however, she does this without rendering HIV-positive Black sex workers inert and non-agentive (49). By centering the complexity, vibrancy, and humanity of HIV-positive Black sex workers, Chávez constructs a work of recovery in the truest sense, providing rhetorical scholars with a clarifying rubric for how to work against the pervasive anti-Blackness found within domestic alienizing logics.

While the alienzing logic surrounding HIV/AIDS was not strong enough to warrant the quarantining of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as a domestic public health policy, it did shape immigration law. In chapter three, “National Common Sense and the Ban of HIV-Positive Migrants,” Chávez again demonstrates the malleability of alienizing logic, this time as it structured the debates surrounding the eventual codification of a blanket exclusion of HIV-positive migrants from pursuing legal recognition or entering the United States. Despite widespread disagreement about whether or not a ban would sufficiently lower staggering national HIV/AIDS rates, Chávez shows how seemingly incommensurate positions were bridged with appeals to what she terms “national common sense.” Chávez’s national common sense announces an inherently nativist impulse within the social imaginary that “encourages judgements that ‘everyone’ knows are good for the nation,” namely “the protection of national borders and the protection of the proper citizenry” (76, emphasis in original). Of course, this “everyone” indexes only those who are granted legitimate recognition within the nation state. Chávez demonstrates that bipartisan appeals to a national common sense alibied the canard that AIDS was a foreign disease that penetrated the membranes of the national body and thus “reinforced deeply conservative views about the importance of national borders and the limits of belonging to a national community” (76).

In chapter four, “Boycotts and Protests of the International AIDS Conference,” Chávez pivots from explicating the various ways that alienazing logic structured the US’s domestic and foreign policy, drawing attention instead to the unexpected, transnational coalitions that formed in resistance to the decision to host the 1990 and 1992 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in the United States. Both international AIDS activists and leading AIDS researchers threatened to boycott the IAC in protest of the US’s ban on HIV-positive migrants. Chávez persuasively argues that these collective efforts attest to the rhetorical value of boycotts as an agitational protest tactic that uses “moral and political pressure,” not just economic incentives, to affect change (108). Beyond recuperating the boycott as a legitimate strategy for forging coalitions across difference, the chapter also productively intervenes in unnuanced mainstream histories that pit AIDS activists against members of the medical establishment. Chavez’s reading of the IAC boycotts shows how activists ushered both IAC’s organizers and AIDS experts into a rhetorical protest space, one that used “the threat of possible death through withdrawal of participation” to send a “powerful message” to politicians about the urgent need to overturn the immigration ban (129).

Chapter five, “AIDS Activist Media and the ‘Haitian Connection,’” continues Chavez’s investigation of transnational coalition building by studying how queer alternative media (re)presented the plight of HIV-positive Haitians. The chapter works toward two ends – one historical, the other conceptual. First, Chávez makes a much-needed contribution to the early AIDS archive by recovering the implications of the so-called “Haitian Connection,” which is a euphemism for the popular, acutely racist idea that AIDS somehow originated in Haiti. By reading together initial media reports on AIDS in Haiti and the eventual indefinite quarantining of HIV-positive Haitian refugee seekers at Guantánamo Bay, Chávez shows that Haitians were targets for both constitutive elements of alienizing logic: quarantine and ban (133). Second, the chapter functions as a case study in alternative media’s capacity to fashion transnational solidarity among differently marginalized groups (134). Without diminishing the tremendous consequences of queer media’s pervasive whiteness, Chávez considers how queer outlets like the New York Native and ACT UP’s DIVA TV challenged the alienization of HIV-positive migrants. She argues that queer media reflected the geopolitical and cultural complexity of AIDS in Haiti in a way that was absent from scant mainstream coverage. More specifically, Chávez zeros in on the ways that members of the queer media sought to build solidarity with HIV-Positive Haitians by articulating the racist, contradictory as well as militarized and criminalized treatment of Haitians (150). Chávez thus makes a compelling case for the historical importance of alternative media, especially as it makes visible the conditions of subalternity that are obscured in the official, public memory of the AIDS crisis (156).

The potency of Chávez’s alienizing logic is in full display in her book’s conclusion, “Against the Alienizing Nation.” If the preceding chapters evidence the term’s heuristic value by showing readers how the threat of contagious disease affected the multiply marginalized, then this final chapter pushes us to imagine ways of organizing against alienization. An exemplar of critical rhetorical analysis that could be taught on its own, the chapter probes the expansiveness of alienizing logic, showing that “alienizing potential” is at the heart of the United States’ political imaginary, where the only “inalienable right” bestowed to the nation’s chosen sons is the “right to alienize” (164).

Chávez writes that one of her hopes was that “by thinking through alienizing processes, we will begin to grasp the ‘alien’ as a coalitional position that incorporates seemingly disparate groups within its purview” (159). The “alien” refuses tidy distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, citizen and foreigner. The “alien” reveals the material and ideological violence perpetrated by white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal nationalism while holding itself accountable to the unequal distribution of that violence. It shows us that emerging out of the dire consequences of alienizing logic are the mutually inflected forces of agitational resistance and coalitional networks of (trans)national care. Ultimately, while I agree that the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are not analogous, when viewed from the coalitional stance of the “alien,” they both have the potential to remind us of something important: if contagious disease belies the impossibility of the nation state’s boundaries, then the networks of solidarity, aid, and fellow feeling that also grow out of biomedical crises are themselves boundless.

As a white gay man, I have grown accustomed to emplotting myself within a static AIDS narrative. This narrative begins in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first identified signs of advanced immune collapse in men who looked like me, acted like me, and had sex like me. It ends around 1996 with the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the so-called AIDS cocktail. Along the way, these same men who looked, acted, and had sex like me protested, marched, lived, fucked, loved, and died by the tens of thousands to demand government action and public attention. While the indomitable influence of these efforts cannot be denied, this crude narrative itself circulates an alienizing logic that suggests AIDS and AIDS activism somehow belongs to white gay men. Recently, Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani have urged for a pluralized understanding of the AIDS crisis, contending “[t]he Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is not merely a crisis in epidemiological terms; rather it is an uneven and varying spatialization and temporalization of crises” (1, emphasis added). Through her development of alienizing logic, Chávez offers rhetorical critics a way to pluralize and track the turbulent distribution of not just the crises surrounding HIV/AIDS but also the crises that structure the conditions of life and struggle under contemporary liberal democratic regimes.

Works Cited

    • “Carrizo Springs Detention Facility Cannot Become Status Quo for Children.” Amnesty International USA, -return to text
    • Foster-Frau, Silvia. “First Migrant Facility for Children Opens under Biden.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Feb. 2021, -return to text