This essay focuses on the controversy incited by Thabo Mbeki's comments at the Thirteenth International AIDS Conference, held in Durban in 2000, which unleashed a deluge of opprobrium that has inundated the South African president since then. By analyzing the ensuing discursive conflict, it makes visible and intelligible some unarticulated and unarticulable assumptions about bioscience as a natural and exclusive framework for comprehending and addressing HIV/AIDS. In particular, it suggests that the bioscientific paradigm “immunity,” which lies at the very center of HIV/AIDS, might not transparently reveal the material processes of the living organism as it coexists with other living beings in shared environments. Instead, “immunity,” which existed as a powerful juridical and political concept for almost two thousand years before it was applied to vital contexts, construes the individual as a “natural unit” and thereby renders the social and political milieu within which this individual necessarily lives extrinsic or epiphenomenal with respect to life itself. To the extent that the bioscientific imagination of HIV/AIDS enfolds this individualizing and self-isolating framework as an essential truth, that is, as a “natural fact,” it necessarily represents the phenomena it describes as an inevitable consequence of the political and legal assumptions that it unreflectively incorporates.
By considering the controversies about HIV/AIDS in South Africa as conflicts of values, we might illuminate how the “concerns” of health care get construed in bioscientific accounts of HIV/AIDS and reconsider what the salient biopolitical dimensions of health and life actually are.