How to Have Theory in an Epidemic

Cultural Chronicles of AIDS

How to Have Theory in an Epidemic
Book Pages: 496 Illustrations: 83 b&w images Published: July 1999

Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Science and Technology Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

Paula A. Treichler has become a singularly important voice among the significant theorists on the AIDS crisis. Dissecting the cultural politics surrounding representations of HIV and AIDS, her work has altered the field of cultural studies by establishing medicine as a legitimate focus for cultural analysis. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic is a comprehensive collection of Treichler’s related writings, including revised and updated essays from the 1980s and 1990s that present a sustained argument about the AIDS epidemic from a uniquely knowledgeable and interdisciplinary standpoint.
“AIDS is more than an epidemic disease,” Treichler writes, “it is an epidemic of meanings.” Exploring how such meanings originate, proliferate, and take hold, her essays investigate how certain interpretations of the epidemic dominate while others are obscured. They also suggest ways to understand and choose between overlapping or competing discourses. In her coverage of roughly fifteen years of the AIDS epidemic, Treichler addresses a range of key issues, from biomedical discourse and theories of pathogenesis to the mainstream media’s depictions of the crisis in both developed and developing countries. She also examines representations of women and AIDS, treatment issues, and the role of activism in shaping the politics of the epidemic. Linking the AIDS tragedy to a uniquely broad spectrum of contemporary theory and culture, this collection concludes with an essay on the continued importance of theoretical thought for untangling the sociocultural phenomena of AIDS—and for tackling the disease itself.
With an exhaustive bibliography of critical and theoretical writings on HIV and AIDS, this long-awaited volume will be essential to all those invested in studying the course of AIDS, its devastating medical effects, and its massive impact on contemporary culture. It should become a standard text in university courses dealing with AIDS in biomedicine, sociology, anthropology, gay and lesbian studies, women’s studies, and cultural and media studies.


How to Have Theory in an Epidemic makes an immense contribution to cultural studies, queer studies, science, and other fields concerned with linguistic deconstruction. At the same time, Treichler’s attention to AIDS activism is outstanding. . . . Treichler reminds me that theory is not separate from practice. She does more than have theory in an epidemic. She shows how theory and practice inform each other in the midst of an epidemic.” — Jodi Kelber-Kaye , Sojourner: The Women’s Forum

How to Have Theory in an Epidemic is a history of histories. . . . Treichler’s accomplishment is without question extremely important and useful. The book and voluminous endnotes cache a vast amount of information and documentation, while the bibliography is a boon to anyone doing serious interdisciplinary work on AIDS. [This] is a major work that scholars and students are likely to consult for many years to come.” — Patrice Clark Koelsch , The Women's Review of Books

How to Have Theory in an Epidemic is one of the most thorough explorations of AIDS and its representations to be published in the last few years.” — Christopher Voigt , A&U: America's AIDS Magazine

“[How to Have Theory in an Epidemic’s] significance lies in the cultural lessons that we can learn from this epidemic and increased sensititivity to cultural issues that are ‘far more pervasive and central than we are accustomed to believing.’. . . To the extent that this author demonstrates that medicine is a legitimate and practical topic in cultural studies, the influence of this work will be long-standing.” — Lisa K. Waldner , Journal of the American Medical Association

“[A]n excellent introduction to postmodernism seen through the lens of AIDS, or an account of an epidemic that will challenge readers to think beyond their own constructs and those to which they are exposed in the media and scientific literature.” — James C. Thomas , Social Science & Medicine

“[A]n important new contribution to this young field. . . . [E]ven though it is not a work of historical scholarship, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic provides much of the insight into events that we might otherwise look for in cultural histories of the HIV epidemic published years from now. The author’s scholarship spans the media, from high art to comic strips. . . . This book is an important addition to the growing literature analyzing illness—and the HIV epidemic—from social and cultural perspectives, and it will be appreciated by many.” — Allen L. Gifford , New England Journal of Medicine

“[An] excellent example of how commitment can be combined with academic writing: they are to be recommended.” — Virginia Berridge , Social History of Medicine

“Creating a coherence among her diverse essays from the 1980s and 1990s, Treichler maintains in this single volume that the medicine and the medical establishment are a legitimate focus for critical and cultural analysis.” — Critical Studies in Media Communication

“Despite the dizzying plethora of sources, Treichler nonetheless manages two contradictory tasks: she both makes the reader aware of how Byzantine and complex AIDS is, while clarifying it in a manner that is frank, straightforward, sometimes humorous—and always mercifully bereft of the pretensions of theory speak.” — Catherine A. Warren , National Women’s Studies Association Journal

“Few people have been more dedicated or insightful analysis of the social and scientific reaction to the AIDS epidemic than Paula Treichler. . . . [T]his volume is a convenient compilation of Treichler’s work that is essential for cultural theorists and historians of the AIDS epidemic. It will prove valuable in courses on AIDS, thanks to the breadth of its arguments and Treichler’s approachable style. Finally, her work is an elegant example of how to do the cultural history of medicine and how to make it change our understanding of the present.” — Vernon Rosario , International Gay and Lesbian Review

“Overall this volume is a convenient compilation of Treichler’s work that is essential for cultural theorists and historians of the AIDS epidemic. It will prove valuable in courses on AIDS thanks to the breadth of its arguments and Treichler’s approachable style. Finally, her work is an elegant example of how to do the cultural history of medicine and how to make it change our understanding of the present.” — Vernon Rosario II , Committee on Lesbian and Gay History Newsletter

“This book is a welcome addition to any syllabus related to medicine; science; the sociology of knowledge; the media; social movements; and gender, race, class, and ethnicity. While each chapter is coherent and could stand alone, readers best experience the magnitude and power through reading the entire contents. Indeed, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and literary and media critics, as well as epidemiologists and clinicians are fortunate to have such a blessing as Treichler’s extensive research and interpretation of AIDS/HIV.” — Lisa Jean Moore , American Journal of Sociology

“This is an outstanding chronicle that keeps your attention as you read each of the fascinating chapters. . . . [H]ighly recommended.” — AIDS Book Review Journal

“Treichler’s primary arguments are that the AIDS epidemic is cultural and linguistic as well as biological and biomedical. . . . [A] series of case studies that document the epidemic, read its texts with some attention to contemporary theory, and explore what theory does or does not do in this epidemic.” — Choice

"How to Have Theory in an Epidemic makes available in one volume many of [Treichler’s] important essays from the last fifteen years and is invaluable for understanding the collision of discourse. . . . [It] provide[s] crucial insights into what happens when medical discourses on AIDS come into contact with other institutional discourses and other local meanings. . . . [C]hallenging and necessary."

— Cris Mayo , GLQ

"How to Have Theory in an Epidemic nudges its readers out of any nascent forgetting or complacence regarding AIDS. Panic may have subsided, but ignorance about the disease has not. While protease inhibitors and combination therapies may have altered yet again its social meanings, by remembering the deadly procrastination and political maneuverings concerning AIDS during the 1980s, in particular, we are challenged to commit ourselves to a cultural studies project that intervenes smartly and expediently in real world struggles over political policies and the quality, even duration, of life itself." — Donald E. Hall, Cultural Studies

"[An] ambitious book. . . . The strengths of this book are many. . . . How to Have Theory in an Epidemic provides an illuminating, detailed, and nuanced history of the representations of HIV/AIDS over the past two decades, and, for researchers and teachers alike, it will serve as a crucial handbook and bibliography to the literature on this topic. Further, for those interested in thinking through, in more general terms, how medical and scientific knowledge overlaps with contemporary commonsense understandings of illness, health, medicine, and dying, Treichler’s analysis of the meanings of the AIDS epidemic provides a provocative primer to further studies."

— Sara Brophy , Literature and Medicine

"Treichler’s study covers an enormous amount of material. . . . How to Have Theory in an Epidemic makes it plain that the ‘cultural evolution’ of AIDS has not yet managed to move beyond a depressingly familiar terrain of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and colonialism." — Sheila McManus , Signs

“Looking backward and ahead, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic is nothing short of a handbook of the meanings of AIDS: as human experience, as political reality, as public service action, and, not least of all, as moral engagement with one of the great challenges to meaning-making and unmaking in everyday life.” — Dr. Arthur Kleinman, Harvard University

“Paula Treichler’s essays are certainly among the most significant written on the subject of AIDS. They are, in fact, a model of what the field of cultural studies at its best can contribute to our thinking about urgent social and political issues. This is an essential book, one that will strongly affect the way people approach the subject of AIDS in the future.” — Douglas Crimp, author of AIDS: Demo Graphics


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paula A. Treichler is a professor at the University of Illinois, where she holds positions in the College of Medicine, the Institute of Communications Research, and the Women’s Studies Program. Her writings on AIDS have appeared in such journals as Science, ArtForum, October, Transition, and Camera Obscura. She is the coauthor of Language, Gender, and Professional Writing and A Feminist Dictionary and the coeditor of For Alma Mater,Cultural Studies , and The Visible Woman.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

A Note on the Text xiii

Prologue 1

AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification 11

The Burdens of History: Gender and Representation in AIDS Discourse,
1981–1988 42

AIDS and HIV Infection in the Third World: A First World Chronicle 99

Seduced and Terrorized: AIDS in the Media 127

AIDS, HIV, and the Cultural Construction of Reality 149

AIDS Narratives on Television: Whose Story? 176

AIDS, Africa, and Cultural Theory 205

Beyond Cosmo: AIDS, Identity, and Inscriptions of Gender 235

How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: The Evolution of AIDS, Treatment, and Activism 278

Epilogue 315

Notes 331

Bibliography 387

Index 453
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2318-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2286-3
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