When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Carton, Benedict
Pub Date: 06/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Fassin, Didier
Accession Number: 202479956
Full Text: When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa. By Didier Fassin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xxiv plus 365 pp.).

Didier Fassin's When Bodies Remember focuses on a notorious controversy in South Africa. The author, a medical anthropologist and sociologist, explores why Thabo Mbeki and his supporters do not believe that a sexually transmitted disease is contributing to "the collapse of millions of our people" (15). Here, Fassin performs a delicate balancing act. He accepts the viral etiology of AIDS but sidesteps the epidemiologists, politicians, and activists who dismiss Mbeki as a vindictive conspiracy-monger. Indeed, Fassin seems far more concerned with lending a sympathetic ear to Mheki's "flatearthers" who attribute the sudden rise in South Africa's mortality rate to chronic malnutrition. Unlike most academic studies of AIDS, When Bodies Remember claims not to choose sides: it delves critically into the rationale behind AIDS "denialism," looking beyond Mbeki to probe why some South Africans doubt the existence of HIV and choose to blame other factors for its consequences.

The opening chapters introduce the roots of AIDS denialism by tracing its links to three major sources: the normalization of democratic discourse--i.e., South Africa's transition from a pariah state to open-minded participant in global debates over equitable development and public health; Mheki's keen interest in "AIDS dissidents" like Dr. Peter Duesberg (55); and a resurgent creed of black nationalism that aims to heal post-apartheid society by healing the national injuries inflicted by racist rule (a creed that Mbeki promotes as the "African Renaissance"). Many of Mheki's fiercest critics scorn AIDS dissidence and wince at mention of the African Renaissance. Instead, they champion of equitable development and public health; their ranks include eminent medical scientists and members of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), who accuse Mbeki of committing genocide through his willful neglect of the AIDS crisis. These well-meaning researchers and activists see themselves as ethically grounded, wholly reasonable, and justly angry. They make up a righteous group that Fassin calls the "orthodoxy." Throughout his book, Fassin treats this orthodoxy as old news in prose that reveals impatience and even annoyance. This may be because When Bodies Remember seeks to challenge the moral ground on which the orthodoxy stands by compelling its proponents to question with equal vehemence why black people, from officials to citizens, are wary of AIDS-prevention.

Without apparent pre-judgment, Fassin carefully untangles the contrarian strands that bind denialist thought. His intent is to interrogate the AIDS controversy from multiple angles, drawing on an analytical framework that incorporates post-modern and post-colonial theory, medical anthropology, epidemiology, and social histories of colonial policies that criminalized the "sick native." Of all the factors informing denialism, Fassin suggests that disease-control laws that underpin white supremacy exacerbated African suspicions of AIDS. With this past in mind, Fassin engages the toxic disputes between the denialists and their opponents. The latter, he argues, have shown an astonishing capacity to ignore Mbeki's seemingly justified view of global health and colonial history. The South African president embraces the AIDS dissidents, Fassin writes, because they acknowledge the long-standing inequalities in Third World health care and emphasize that AIDS is an over-hyped phenomenon obscuring what really sickens South Africa. What ailment is this' It is a different retro virus, namely the insidious effects of white subjugation--a politically created misfortune that has decimated thousands and threatens the lives of millions more. Such reasoning enables the denialists to blame the proliferation of deadly infections on apartheid rulers who further entrenched black poverty, thus weakening the bodies of the majority population. It is this strain of denialism that permeates Mbeki when he evokes the specters of racism in speeches about the pandemic. Regardless of whether readers accept this point, particularly when considering the spread of drug-resistant TB, Fassin urges them at least to ponder the legacies of past epidemics, which incubated in mine shafts and crowded labor compounds, where black migrants could not escape killer contagions (134-140). The illnesses that struck these itinerant workers were transported back to their rural families, along with a healthy fear that the "white man" purveyed both hardship and death.

It is now fairly known that white-minority governments reacted to occupational hazards in the South African capitalist economy by pathologizing the "native"; he became the target of panicky (and admonishing) public health bulletins (for example, during venereal outbreaks, 141-43) and draconian regulation (such as pass laws and mandatory medical examinations in industrial centers). The climax of this regime of regulation was revealed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard in testimony from "Dr. Death," a Mengele-figure named Wouter Basson, about apartheid-era biological warfare plans to reduce black fertility with airborne chemicals (161-64). It is unfortunate that such lines of inquiry in When Bodies Remember are sometimes burdened with the abstruse terminology of Paul Ricoeur ("Other as self"), Pierre Bour-dieu ("heresy"), and Stuart Hall ("black cultural politics"). Yet despite these few shortcomings, Fassin ably integrates their ideas elsewhere in his book to trace the intricate arc of AIDS, a phenomenon that produces as many existential opportunities for truths as crises (144). The second half of When Bodies Remember (chapters five and six) bears out these truths and crises, as the author uses social theory to elucidate the deeper meanings of interviews he conducted in communities plagued by AIDS. Such testimonies punctuate When Bodies Remember with profoundly affecting passages, revealing how ordinary people who are seen to support Mbeki's denialism confront AIDS in idioms that the orthodoxy does not understand. These idioms reveal, among many things, that the pandemic is real to most South Africans, certainly if we are to take seriously the accusations of AIDS-inducing "witchcraft," which carry the mark of local jealousies over economic success in an increasingly consumerist democracy. The orthodoxy is also deaf, according to Fassin, to the clamor in former homelands and sprawling townships over the fatal "pollution" (a synonym for HIV, or amagama amathathu, the three-letter word) purportedly loosed by sexually active women (202-207, 214-221, 244-245). Fassin's highlights these complex reactions to show that the epidemic is "a powerful lens on postapartheid society" (32; see also 272-75). One can say the same about When Bodies Remember. It is destined to become a definitive record of the most poisonous and poignant discourses defining the first decade of post-apartheid South Africa.

Benedict Carton

George Mason University
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