The Angel of Death: Analyzing Departures from the Chronic Mode of Suffering in David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives

Essay by Audrey Castillo

Art by Aiza Bragg

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz is an example of “AIDS literature” (Bradway 256) that traverses the queer consciousness during the American AIDS epidemic. It contains the disembodied voices of a population neglected by its government and murdered through the “internaliz[ation of] society’s hate” (Wojnarowicz 179). These circumstances characterized what Eric Cazdyn calls the “chronic mode” of contemporary queer communities, and this paper is interested in death as a mechanism for a departure from said chronic mode. Two mechanisms of departure will be explored in the thoughts and conversations contained within Close to the Knives—a physical one, and a mental and political one. Cazdyn’s premise of the “already dead”—one that confounds the rigid temporal expectations regarding life and death—is a state of being where theoretically, a mental and political departure from the chronic mode of existence can occur. Lauren Berlant’s theories of “slow death,” “environment,” and “event” lend nuance to Cazdyn’s terms, and Lauren DeLand’s notion of the “useful corpse” provides a locus in which the two departures exist simultaneously. The way that Wojnarowicz figures death as a departure from the chronic mode complicates the idea that revolution is “hopelessly utopian” (Cazdyn 6). 

Cazdyn’s idea of “the chronic mode” describes the consequences of late capitalist society and its tendency to forgo reformation in favor of maintenance in politics and culture (5). Cazdyn explains that societies suffering from the chronic mode not only recoil from terminality, but contort its capacity for positive change into a menacing “dystopian fantasy” (7). The malignant chronic mode functions as a euphemism for stagnation in the way that it encourages its population to accept a process that “effectively colonizes the future by naturalizing and eternalizing the brutal logic of the present” (Cazdyn 6). The power of an end goal is neutralized as it is rendered nothing more than a mechanism to sustain that which already is, and people are deluded into complying with, “settl[ing] for, and even fight[ing] for” (Cazdyn 5) eternal uniformity. Cazdyn bolsters his description of the chronic mode by including its literal manifestation in medicine, thereby equating diseased bodies with institutions infected by the “practical need to manage and stabilize” (6). In order to apply the idea of the chronic mode to the political realm and introduce a means of “rethinking the relationship between life and death” (Cazdyn 6), he argues the need to dismantle the differences between the two while simultaneously preserving that division (Cazdyn 6). This paper is interested in the latter part of his argument, as the “autonomy of death” (Cazdyn 7) is integral to understanding it as a mechanism to depart from the chronic mode.

Death is important due to the actual act of ending that it brings about, as well as the promise of an end that it inspires. Cazdyn claims there is an inextricable connection between death as “the pure form of radical change” (7) and “our capacity to imagine other radical possibilities” (7). His subsequent descriptions are rousing and they culminate in the concept of the “already dead”—a mode of “revolutionary consciousness” (Cazdyn 7) that involves the recognition of a virgin future undetermined by the present. The already dead is a mindset that resists the chronic mode by opposing “the maintenance of the status quo” (5), remaining open to the terminality of current capitalist structures, and envisioning a future beyond a comfortable  extension of the present. Cazdyn’s argument reads as though the moment one realizes that imagination, revolution, and transformation exist in the universal, autonomous “right to die” (7), he is immediately liberated from any adversity that may characterize his chronic mode. The departure from the chronic mode is essentially automatic here, as if knowing this information is enlightening enough. However, this call to action is not one that mobilizes activism as easily and as extensively as Cazdyn theorizes. In actuality, the already dead are a rare breed, especially in populations subject to a chronic condition of physical and emotional collective suffering, gross governmental negligence, and pervasive societal persecution. It is exactly this kind of chronic mode—this oppressive and “diseased society” (Wojnarowicz 177) where widespread death in the queer population is not considered a crisis—that characterizes America during the AIDS epidemic of the late twentieth century. 

The gay community’s chronic state of being as victims of social and physical sickness exists on the margins of what Wojnarowicz calls the “preinvented world” (181)—referring to the structures, institutions, and accepted rhythm of the world that people are born into. This world is a hostile, unwelcoming, cruel embodiment of “hell […] on earth,” (Wojnarowicz 46) for those it alienates. During the AIDS epidemic, the priests and politicians of the “preinvented world” (181), or according to Wojnarowicz, the “bigoted creeps who at this point in time [were] in the position of power,” (180) demonized and neglected the gay population. They withheld money, medicine, and information about safe sexual practices (Wojnarowicz 167) and claimed that homosexuals were personally liable for contracting the disease. The government, with the help of the media, placed their responsibility of public health on the shoulders of its most vulnerable, leaving the gay population to suffer in a suffocating, destructive chronic mode. 

When applying Cazdyn’s claims about the autonomy of death and its role in the already dead to this kind of chronic mode, he assumes too much of both the persuasive power of his argument and its realistic viability. The argument’s power to incite a revolutionary consciousness is feasible, however in a chronic mode saturated with death, pain, and trauma, identifying with the already dead is not an automatic, universal response. His claims take for granted the amount of energy necessary to adopt this mindset, as well as the resilience of a battered population. In actuality, not everybody is able to, or will want to, rise to the challenge of “inspir[ing] political movements” (Cazdyn 7). For some, the glamour of death does not go beyond its function as a physical terminal point; death is appealing solely as a guaranteed and permanent end to suffering. Therefore, a second iteration of death as a mechanism for departure from the chronic mode arises. In simple terms, the first is a mental and political departure from the chronic mode, facilitated through Cazdyn’s concept of the already dead, and the second is a literal departure that comes with physical death—both of which are present in Close to the Knives. The latter is a response that Cazdyn’s theory does not account for, however Wojnarowicz and his experiences reveal that these two are very much alive in the face of his chronic mode. 

These two types of divergence from the chronic mode are in dialogue with Lauren Berlant’s concept of “slow death” (100), as well as her meditation on the temporal differences between an “environment” and an “event” as belief systems for engaging with crises. Her theories directly characterize Wojnarowicz’s circumstances, therefore lending nuance to Cazdyn’s chronic mode, and addresses the logistics of how death can be both part of and a catalyst to exiting the chronic state of existence. Berlant’s slow death signifies “the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deterioration as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (95). This concept is tied to processes of normalization, and it thrives in “temporally labile environments” (Berlant 100), places where crises are embedded in the ordinary. During the AIDS epidemic, the gay community was decimated by the “institutionalized homophobia” (Bradway 257) of the “preinvented world” (181), and it contributed to what Wojnarowicz calls a “windstorm of murder” (249). Hearing the news of someone dying from AIDS became “familiar” (Wojnarowicz 256) to him, and he alludes to the anesthetization that is implicit in slow death when he wonders “if [he] was becoming numb to the idea of death itself” (Wojnarowicz 256). Therefore, slow death is an extremely fitting term for the suffering that defined the queer state of existence at the time, where “survival […] is such a transient thing” (Wojnarowicz 259); slow death describes their chronic mode of existence. In a population ravaged by social alienation, government abandonment, and a widespread, fatal disease, slow death is undeniably at work. Berlant’s theory provides a stronger, more specific theoretical characterization to the queer chronic mode during the AIDS epidemic. 

Berlant goes on to distinguish between the temporal elements of an environment and event and how their connotations impact the ways in which people perceive a crisis, thus clarifying how the two mechanisms of death provide divergence from the chronic state. Temporality does contribute to the difference between an environment and event, seeing as the latter is short-lived (Berlant 100). However, Berlant is more interested in the shock factor or noticeability that is generated by an event; her definition focuses on “its intensities and kinds of impact” (Berlant 101). An event calls attention to itself, is likely to adhere to one’s memory, but most importantly, stands out from the ordinary. In comparison, her conception of an environment involves the development of “structural conditions […] through a variety of mediations” (Berlant 101), effectively neutralizing the affective response that comes from an event. Berlant conceives of the environment as a levelling terrain with the capacity to absorb commotion, crises, and events into the abyss of ordinariness (101). When applying this to Wojnarowicz’s reality, both versions of departure from the chronic mode correspond to one of Berlant’s terms. The idea of the chronic mode, one typified by slow death, can be considered an environment and Cazdyn’s notion of the already dead—a mental and political departure from the chronic mode—as adopting a mindset to reform it. In contrast, the physical departure from the chronic mode through death can be categorized as an event.

Death as an event, the ultimate escape from the queer chronic mode characterized by slow death, is tracked in the prevalent craving for physical death throughout Close to the Knives. Early in the memoir, Wojnarowicz reflects on the feelings that arise when he finds himself on the fringes of established cities and towns—completely empty landscapes that have managed to lose their “earth[,] muscle[, and] fur” (63). This void, being an alternative to the “industrial void of the cities,” (Wojnarowicz 63) should provide a sense of liberation, an opportunity to find “psychic room” (Wojnarowicz 298). Instead, Wojnarowicz experiences the physical pressure of the “preinvented world” (181), pushing him to vanish either “within [this] civilizational landscape or else expelled off the face of the earth” (Wojnarowicz 64). He “does not mind” (Wojnarowicz 64) either form of disappearance, and his submission to the pressure comes from recognizing the ubiquitousness of homophobia in the chronic mode. Additionally, Wojnarowicz actually admits “having wrestled with thoughts of suicide” (335) as he struggles with the “preinvented world’s” (181) ultimatum for the marginalized: “remain invisible or die” (335). Explicitly stating this desire for a permanent end speaks to the perverted temporality of the chronic mode. In any kind of chronic mode, where the present hegemonizes the future, all that remains mysterious is death (Wojnarowicz 313). In one characterized by a “FEAR OF DIVERSITY” (Wojnarowicz 236) and slow death, suicide seems like a logical, if not expected, desire. Furthermore, his interviews conducted with friends reveal that this feeling of resignation is embedded in a collective queer consciousness during the AIDS epidemic. Wojnarowicz is not the only one who is hyper aware of how “he wake[s] up every morning in this killing machine called america,” (247) or that this chronic mode is dictated and perpetuated by “death god[s]” (269) disguised as politicians. Dakota’s letter to Johnny, outlining how “he was really tempted to just give away everything he owned and just duke it out with nature,” (Wojnarowicz 314) is a point of relation between three characters —Johnny, Dakota, and Wojnarowicz. This “impulse” (Wojnarowicz 315) to “giv[e] up on the world and the imposed structure of everyday life” (Wojnarowicz 315) is a shared one; they all participate in the same dialogue of surrender. 

The intense desire to die culminates in his friend Dakota’s suicide, and Wojnarowicz includes an interview with his friend Sylvia where she describes what she believes was the motive behind his actions. Her answer relates to the chronic mode that is the “preinvented world” (Wojnarowicz 181), as she explains that there is an appeal of “wanting to adapt” to its “structure” (Wojnarowicz 376). To her, Dakota did not kill himself due to the mere existence of the structure, or because he “didn’t believe in anything it stood for” (Wojnarowicz 376), but because of its hostility, its selectivity, and the fact that he was unable “to fit into it no matter what it stood for” (Wojnarowicz 376). Sylvia then goes on to say that attempting to distance oneself from these “bigger structure[s]” completely is impossible because smaller structures will always be measured against them (Wojnarowicz 376). Dakota’s suicide is a clear example of death as an event to depart from the queer chronic mode, rather than “try[ing] and struggl[ing to] survive in it” (Wojnarowicz 315) .  

On the other hand, the memoir also follows death as a catalyst for mental severance from the queer chronic mode. It tracks Wojnarowicz’s shift from suicidal tendencies to something more congruent with Cazdyn’s notion of the already dead, and positions art as the physical manifestation of inhabiting Cazdyn’s revolutionary consciousness. Wojnarowicz is diagnosed with AIDS himself, and standing on the “edge of mortality,” (172) he no longer wants to die. He “[doesn’t] want to cease to exist” (Wojnarowicz 355) because he realizes the issue with viewing death as an event: “one can’t affect things in one’s death, other than momentarily” (Wojnarowicz 355). As such, corporeal death means eternal silence, and this negates any of death’s former seduction for him. In living through the slow death of the queer community, Wojnarowicz becomes “the repository of so many voices and memories and gestures of those […] who have died from the way this disease was handled” (354). This responsibility is incompatible with a pale, cold, mouth sewn shut, and this jolts him from the “self-destruction that [his] other friends found themselves spinning into uncontrollably” (Wojnarowicz 356). Upon realizing that he must live in order to depart from and reform the chronic mode, he enters the realm of the already dead—he “inhabits revolution” (Cazdyn 9). 

However, Wojnarowicz contends with the transience of life and his ability to “inform political movements” (Cazdyn 9) in his statement that “[he] cannot scream continuously without losing [his] voice” (355). In order to continue the work of the already dead, Wojnarowicz relocates it within something void of mortality: his art. To create art on paper, canvas, film, or any other palpable medium is to “[leave] evidence of life behind [after having] moved on” (Wojnarowicz 238). According to Jacob Mullan Lipman, art is “a means through which the individual can construct for themselves a definable heritage, which will extend beyond their physical death” (377). Wojnarowicz’s art, his “historical records [of] existence,” (227) is not subject to the warped and “controlled” (Lipman 362) timeline of the chronic mode. It cannot be exhausted by slow death, it is immune to disease, and it “[speaks] even when [the artist is] silent” (Wojnarowicz 227). Therefore, the immortal nature of art makes it the perfect arena for the already dead and the “disruptive temporality of queer utopianism” (Lipman 378). 

Besides Wojnarowicz’s own art, he includes his friend Johnny’s “xerox magazine called MURDER” (260) as an example of art with the power to disrupt the chronic mode. The magazine exists  to portray murder in all its forms, and it includes “found clippings from newspapers, photographs of both real and staged murders, [and] drawings of mayhem” (Wojnarowicz 273). Johnny concludes that “people are unable to respond emotionally to reality unless it is translated through media images” (Wojnarowicz 275). Here, photos are situated as the sole authority on triggering affective responses. Their capacity to do this, in conjunction with the fact that art is suspended from the chronic timeline, gives photographs the power to either change or perpetuate the chronic mode. Johnny’s stills force people to confront the gory truth of the “packaged world;” its “fake moral backdrops,” “illusion[s] of security,” and “created system of corruption” (Wojnarowicz 137, 92, 93). His magazine exposes the artificiality of the “preinvented world” (Wojnarowicz 181), and evokes the “new radical temporality or spatiality” (Cazdyn 7) of the already dead. 

A mental and political departure from the chronic mode is implicit in physical death, making coexistence between the two seem impossible. However, Lauren DeLand purports her theory of the “useful corpse” which acts as a locus where the two types of departure are reconciled. The useful corpse repurposes the otherwise “expendable” (Wojnarowicz 338) bodies of the marginalized, conveying them as “more useful dead than alive” (DeLand). DeLand claims that these corpses “stage [their] own disappearance in order to command the attention necessary to sustain life.” At one point in the memoir, Wojnarowicz explores how “each public discourse of a fragment of private reality serves as a dismantling tool” (Wojnarowicz 179) against the chronic mode. He contemplates the various means of “making the private grief public” (180) and conjures a perverse version of the typical memorial. He imagines a mass grave on the steps of the white house; a mountain of necrotic flesh composed of “lover[s], friend[s], [and] stranger[s]” lost to the AIDS epidemic (Wojnarowicz 181). In this image, DeLand describes how the “[once] vilified corpse [functions as] a political weapon to be detonated at the door of those directly responsible for perpetuating the epidemic,” and “indicts” the chronic mode that facilitates it. Like art, the dead body becomes a site for the already dead to inhabit, and the physical departure from the chronic mode no longer inhibits the possibility of a mental or political one as well. Though these are “tragically perverse bod[ies]” (DeLand), Wojnarowicz finds comfort in seeing them “mark time and place and history in such a public way” (182). When the disintegration of the queer population becomes standard, and homosexuals dying of AIDS becomes commonplace, the useful corpse must be utilized in order for their deaths to have meaning. They are visible to the American public in ways that living bodies were not (DeLand), and the notion of the useful corpse embodies a final resort for the gay community to halt slow death and redefine the chronic mode.

Close to the Knives is deafening in its portrayal of the queer consciousness during the AIDS epidemic, representing the voices of people “expected to quietly and politely make house” (Wojnarowicz 169) in the slaughterhouse that is America. It is located in a chronic mode characterized by “society’s hatred and repression of homosexuality,” (Wojnarowicz 179) and the memoir follows two major ways in which death functions as a departure from this chronic mode. In the thoughts and conversations traced throughout the book, one hears a chorus yearning for escape, whether it be physically or mentally, from their circumstances of slow death. In DeLand’s theory of the useful corpse, there is a space for both departures to complement one another and exist simultaneously. Evidently, Wojnarowicz uses his art to cheat the corporeal limits of the already dead and perpetuate its reformative mandate—all of which continue to disrupt the chronic mode today. 

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. “Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency).” Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011, pp. 95-119.

Bradway, Tyler. “Literature in an Age of Plague.” American Literature in Transition, 1980–1990, edited by D. Quentin Miller, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 239–255. American Literature in Transition.

Cazdyn, Eric. “Introduction.” The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture, and Illness, Duke University Press, Durham, 2012, pp. 1-11. 

DeLand, Lauren. “Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Useful Corpse: The Terrible Utility of David Wojnarowicz.” Performance Research: On Abjection, vol. 19, no. 1, 2014, pp. 33-40.

Lipman, Jacob M. “Queer Heritage/Queer Horizons: Disruptive Temporality in the Works of David Wojnarowicz.” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 4, 2018, pp. 360-382.

Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. Apple book, Open Road Media, 2014.