Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Toxic Bodies? ACT UP’s Disruption of the Heteronormative Landscape of the Nation" by Beth Berila

Berila begins by initiating a discussion regarding the relative “purity” or “toxicity” of bodies and the ways in which certain bodies are constructed as “impure.” She creates a link between environmental justice activism (and the rhetoric surrounding it) and this dichotomous pure/impure frame of reference. Berila argues that the hegemonic “American way of life” is defined and upheld by high volumes of consumption and waste. This waste is inevitably funneled into poor communities and communities of color, and as a result of the high cost of this “Americanness” (by which I imply that our ethics of consumption has been so fully integrated into our national psyche as to become inseparable from our ideals of ourselves), the physicality of both the landscapes of the communities which suffer from this and the bodies residing within said landscapes become compromised. This dumping of waste into poor communities is telling because 1. it highlights what communities and people must bear the brunt of the “American” way of life (despite the fact that usually, the communities which receive the detriment of rampaging “Americanness” are not the same ones living this “American dream”); and 2. it shows which communities and bodies are deemed valuable within structures of American hegemonic ideals.

Basically, what the author of this article is arguing is that there is a certain
idealogical notion of the “American people” and the “American lifestyle” that is often perpetuated through a dependence upon members of communities and bodies not considered a part of this “Americanness.” Thus, bodies and communities become “toxic” because they are forced to pay for this “lifestyle” and are simultaneously deemed valueless because of their status as outside of said lifestyle.

Similarly, Berila focuses on the ways certain bodies, specifically those of individuals living with AIDS, are rendered “impure” and are viewed as “
contaminating” to the “purity” of national hegemony. She draws parallels between environmental justice activism’s work to make visible the high cost being paid by members of certain communities and with certain bodies, and the ways in which the bodies of people who have AIDS are constructed as “toxic” and threatening to the “purity” of the “American” lifestyle. Thus, both movements are interested in who (what types of people, bodies, and communities) counts towards national conceptions of “Americanness,” as well as underlining who (what types of people, bodies, and communities) pays for this “American” lifestyle so dependent upon consumerism.

In a parallel fashion, the construction of the “toxic” bodies of those who have AIDS is not a static work, but a continuously shifting process. The bodies of people living with AIDS are surrounded by perceptions of being “toxic” to public health, similar to the poor communities who become (literally, in some instances) toxic as a result of the massive consumption of the “pure” of the nation. In both cases, there is a stark divide between those viewed as “pure” and “uncontaminated,” and those who are “toxic” and threatening, as well as a power structure that necessitates the exploitation of the one for the sake of the other
. However, it is through the construction of the “contaminated” that the “uncontaminated” is also created.

ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, then, works to trouble this construction of the bodies of those with AIDS as “toxic” to public health. Members of ACT UP challenge these constructions of “toxic” bodies by infiltrating public spaces, often through a manipulation of the privileges (being white, financially well-off, etc.) available to them, and “passing” for a member of America’s heteronormative landscape. Berila writes that, via ACT UP, “passersby are implicated in the production of some bodies (usually those who are healthy, white, not poor, and straight) as the ‘general population’ of the nation precisely by marking others (usually those who are queer, poor, HIV positive, or people of color) as stained and toxic, and therefore as ‘contaminants’ of the nation.” This, again, focuses on Berila’s point that there can be no “purity” without first rendering others “impure,” and that it is through this construction of “toxicity” that national ideals of hegemony are upheld.

*photo credits unknown


  1. Very nice summary! So thorough millertime and thanks for providing an image! Can you help readers out with some of the terms you use like dichotomy, purity, toxic, hegemony, un/contaminated, detriment, consumerism, etc. I can kind of get some of the definitions from context but can you say a bit more or provide a link to a definition? Also I don't think you mean "our ethics of consummation has been so fully integrated" might you mean consumption?

    Really thoughtful summary. I can tell you got a lot out of the piece! Let's see if we can help others get the most out of it too.

  2. My response is not only to the article, but also to a certain comment made in class. Saying that a certain group of people is "at risk" defeats the whole purpose of the author and the discussion. Labeling a group of people under this title is perpetuating the same form of oppression that is mentioned in the article describing the AIDS phobia and the association of being a "toxic" body. It is fair to ask who determines the groups who are "at risk" the same way it would be fair to question who is able to determine "facts" or "statistics". How do we know that one group of people is more vulnerable to this disease than another group? How do we determine that one group of people has a higher percentage of AIDS? As long as an individual is sexually active, they are no more or no less vulnerable than someone else because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. AIDS does not discriminate. An important point that I drew from this article is that a privileged group of people get to decide what is considered factual vs. fictional, normal vs. abnormal, and what is natural vs. unnatural. The statistics that are commonly misconceived as "facts" are a political game that is in the hands of biased, privileged individuals who disparage the identities and faces of communities whom they deem threatening or "toxic" to their "pure" white communities.

  3. ProfBailey: I can definitely go back and add some links for clarity, and yes, I definitely meant "consumption," sorry! :)

    Please feel free to let me know if there's anything else this needs.