Prologue
By the end of the 1980s, the
AIDS
epidemic had been invested with an
abundance of meanings and metaphors. Scientists, physicians, and public
health authorities argued repeatedly that
AIDS
represented "an epidemic
of infectious disease and nothing more." This uncompromisingly medical
argument, developed over the course of the twentieth century as medicine
and public health wrenched themselves free of moral understandings of
disease, has had value and power for the
AIDS
epidemic that must not
be minimized. Continually eluding such containment efforts, however,
the
AIDS
epidemic has produced a parallel epidemic of meanings, defi-
nitions, and attributions. This semantic epidemic, which
I
have come
to call an epidemic of signification, has not diminished in the I990S; it
is the major subject of this book. In this prologue,
I
briefly sketch my
argument and map for the reader the ground that
I
revisit in individual
chapters.
The
AID S
epidemic is cultural and linguistic as well as biological and
biomedical. To understand the epidemic's history, address its future, and
learn its lessons, we must take this assertion seriously. Moreover, it is the
careful examination of language and culture that enables us, as members
of intersecting social constellations, to think carefully about ideas in
the midst of a crisis: to use our intelligence and critical faculties to con-
sider theoretical problems, develop policy, and articulate long-term social
needs even as we acknowledge the urgency of the
AIDS
crisis and try to
satisfy its relentless demand for immediate action. This book documents
cultural and linguistic dimensions of the
AID
s epidemic and examines the
tension between theory and practice as it recurs in diverse arenas. More
broadly, How
to
Have Theory in an Epidemic is about the cultural evolu-
tion of the
AIDS
epidemic. Its subtitle, Cultural Chronicles of AIDS, sig-
nals its focus on the ways we have come to understand the
AID
s epidemic,
its interaction with culture and language, the intellectual debates and
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