AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse
An early version of this essay was presented in New York in December 1986 at the
annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. For publication history, see
Treichler 11988b).
have left the 1988 text substantially unchanged in the present
Discussing the validity of their interpretation of everyday life in a science labora-
tory, Latour and Woolgar claim, similarly, that the "value and status of any text
(construction, fact, claim, story, this account) depend on more than its supposedly
'inherent' qualities .... [T]he degree of accuracy lor fiction) of an account depends on
what is subsequently made of the story, not on the story itself" I[I979J 1986, 284).
2. The term
derived from the linguistic work of Ferdinand de Saussure
1986), calls attention
the way in which a language (or any other "signify-
ing system") organizes rather than labels experience lor the world). Linking sig-
nifiers (phonetic segments or, more loosely, words) and signifieds (concepts, mean-
ings) in ways that come to seem "natural" to us, language creates the illusion of
"transparency," as though we could look through it to "facts" and "realities" that are
unproblematic_ Many scientists and physicians, even those sensitive to the com-
plexities of AIDS, believe that "the facts" (or "science" or "reason") will resolve
contradiction and supplant speculation; they express impatience with social inter-
pretations that they perceive as superfluous or incorrect. Even Leibowitch writes
that, with the discovery of the virus, AIDS loses its "metaphysical resonances" and
becomes "now no more than one infectious disease among many" (1985, xiv). The
position of this essay is that signification processes are not the handmaidens of "the
facts"; rather, "the facts" themselves arise out of the signifying practices of bio-
medical discourse.
3. These conceptualizations of AIDS come chiefly from printed sources Ijournals, news
stories, letters to the editor, tracts) published in the first five years of the epidemic.
Many are common and discussed in the course of this essay; the more idiosyncratic
readings of AIDS le.g., as a force destroying the Boy Scouts) are cited to suggest the
dramatic symbol-inducing power of this illness as well as the continuing lack of
social consensus about its meaning. Sources for the more idiosyncratic views are
as follows: (2) Senator Jesse Helms; (6) Gallo's introduction to Leibowitch (1985,
xvi-xvii); (8) gay rights activist on Channels television broadcast, Cincinnati, IS
October 1985 Icompare the French joke that the French acronym for AIDS, SIDA,
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