ACT UP: A network's resistance through constitutive rhetoric
First Monday

ACT UP: A network's resistance through constitutive rhetoric by Franklin Nii Amankwah Yartey

This paper examines the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a non-governmental organization within the larger HIV/AIDS movement. ACT UP is examined through the lens of new social movement network theory (Atkinson, 2009). Using constitutive rhetoric (Charland, 1987), the narrative capacities of the rhetorical strategies that appear to be embodied on ACT UP’s Web site are reviewed. The impact that ACT UP has on health and social policy globally has wide reaching ramifications, making the current investigation into its rhetorical strategies viable and important. The findings suggest ACT UP employs constitutive rhetoric to affect a viable narrative capacity in its network.


Literature review
Theoretical framework and method
Analysis and discussion



1. Introduction

If we are to discuss these networks as social fact, as something being built through discourse and action, we must do more than acknowledge their presence. We must tease out their structure and make sense of how they are used. Until they are made clear, they remain a part of the sublimated structure of social movements, an ideology rather than a practice. [1]

This excerpt, drawn from a study on the Zapatista support networks, provides the impetus for examining network structures to understand the functions and roles that they play in new social movements of the twenty-first century. The shifting cultural landscape has given birth to new social movements, which have redefined the class-based motivated movements of the civil rights era. Movements of today are more focused on identity formation (Atkinson, 2008, 2010; Best, 2005; Stengrim, 2005; Huesca, 2001; Owens and Palmer, 2003; Pickard, 2006) by encouraging their audiences to fully participate in diverse ways. Atkinson (2009) asserts that “one of the most important developments in the study of communication relating to new social movements has been the application of the network metaphor” [2]. The Internet has now become a means by which most new social movements garner the support they need to meet their goals. It has become a tool for the creation of alternative media, which allows activists to disseminate news through a non-hierarchical structure of networks (Atkinson, 2009) offering alternative news to marginalized audiences. Stengrim (2005) argues that citizen-generated news production is a powerful response to corporate media consolidation. This response can also be conceptualized as a response to globalization through the interconnectedness of society on the World Wide Web. Pickard similarly asserted that “Indymedia’s technocentric means of communication seems to [...] privilege white North American males” [3], contributing to the technological divide in society caused by issues of unequal access to internet technology that belongs to the privileged few (Nakamura, 2008). It is not only the privileged few who are creating a technological divide but also officials and lawmakers of society who make decisions that affect the lives of millions of people with HIV/AIDS globally.

Atkinson (2009) demonstrated the role that alternative media plays in new social movement networks through his Resistance Performance (RP) research, which explains how activist communications through alternative media created multiple communities of activism or theatres (Atkinson, 2010; Atkinson and Cooley, 2010; Atkinson and Dougherty, 2006). From these communities, activists employ narratives of resistance to garner support for their cause by using a national-level Web site to weave a larger multiplex that facilitates a coordinated resistance under broad themes such as human rights and democracy (Atkinson and Cooley, 2010). Central to this multiplex is the concept of narrative capacity, defined as the ability for listservs, used by various activist groups, to efficiently circulate narratives throughout the network (Atkinson, 2009). Any fractures in the network contribute to the broken multiplex. Atkinson’s (2009) research illustrated the role of narrative capacity in the fracturing of local level networks. I build on Atkinson’s research by exploring the role of narrative capacity in an international level activist network (Web site). I demonstrate how narrative capacity plays an important role in the circulation of narratives within the network structure of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (henceforth, ACT UP), an organization that has an international network presence. I argue that ACT UP’s network, through constitutive rhetoric (Charland, 1987), is able to effectively circulate narratives through its network, leading to a Cohesive Multiplex of Narratives (CMN) that unite and actuate a community of people who share a common identity to resist HIV/AIDS discrimination. I also argue that though there may be traces of Atkinson’s broken multiplex within ACT UP’s network, it does not appear to hinder the flow of narratives within ACT UP’s network. I achieve this through visual rhetorical analysis, by examining images and narratives on ACT UP’s Web site. The narrative capacities (or lack there of) of the rhetorical strategies that appear to be embodied (either intentionally or unintentionally through images and narratives) on ACT UP’s Web site are examined. The impact that ACT UP has on health and social policy globally has wide reaching ramifications making the current investigation into its rhetorical strategies viable and important. The findings of this study suggest ACT UP employs constitutive rhetoric to affect a viable narrative capacity in its network. This study has important implications for theory, building the notion of local fracturing of the Resistance Performance (RP) to an international level by addressing the international narrative capacity of activist organization with a national and international outreach. Furthermore, past research employing constitutive rhetoric to examine ACT UP to my knowledge is non-existent. The review that follows gives a brief background on the HIV/AIDS crisis and also focuses on the few relevant studies on ACT UP. It will also cover literature on networks, stigmatization, media, and international development.



Literature review

Brief background on the HIV/AIDS crisis

Before moving into the historical background and description of ACT UP, it is important to provide a brief overview of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The world is now making real progress in response to this crisis (UNAIDS, 2013); HIV infections among adults and adolescents has been reduced by 50 percent between 2001 and 2012 (UNAIDS, 2013). In 2013, there were 2.1 million new infections, which is a decline of 38 percent, compared to the year 2001 when there were 3.4 million new infections (UNAIDS, 2014). Of Western and Central Europe and North America, the United States has the highest HIV affliction in the region, “accounting for 56 percent of people living with HIV in this part of the world” [4]. According to 2013 estimates, 15 countries account for almost 75 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS. This includes the United States, which accounts for four percent of people living with HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS, 2014). More people are obtaining live-saving anti-retroviral therapy, which is helping reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths and preventing new infections (UNAIDS, 2013; UNAIDS, 2014). There were 35 million people living with AIDS globally in 2013, an increase from previous years, and the numbers of new infections are rising (UNAIDS, 2014). Though there has been progress with HIV/AIDS, one of the reasons for the rising numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS has been described by many scholars to be the lack of cultural sensitivity in prevention campaigns around the world (Melkote, et al., 2000; Conquergood, 2002). There were 2.3 million infections globally representing a 33 percent decline in new infections from 3.4 million in 2001 (UNAIDS, 2013). Some 1.6 million died from AIDS globally in 2012, down from 2.3 million in 2005 (UNAIDS, 2013). UNAIDS (2013) report suggests in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa that there have been declines in condom use and/or the increase in sexual partners.


Social movements of the twenty-first century have mirrored the notion of constitutive rhetoric (Charland, 1987) as the process of shaping identities through physical involvement on Internet networks (Greene, 1998). According to Eriksson (2005), “The emergence of the new communicative order, designated by [network], is related to a number of technical, discursive, institutional processes, such as the development of information technology and increases in the number of communicative relations and instances” [5]. Today some people with access to the Internet can get online and attend a virtual meeting, send e-mail messages, chat to anyone in the world, and most importantly, participate and contribute to movements by writing articles or leaving blog comments for others to respond. The visual and discursive tropes of new social movement Web sites like,, Sweet Water Alliance, and all contribute to the cultivation of identity and other functions that new social movements play in the lives of their audiences (Atkinson, 2008; Eriksson, 2005; Pickard, 2006; Russell, 2005; Stengrim, 2005). In a study on adolescent activism, Elbaz (1997) argued that YELL, a committee of ACT UP “challenged entrenched cultural patterns in the area of HIV/AIDS education, proposing different social and ethical visions” [6]. He describes adolescent activists as identity crusaders, who through the use of ACT UP’s media savvy and mobilization capabilities, were able to garner tremendous support for numerous demonstrations that called for sincere HIV/AIDS education and the distribution of condoms together with HIV/AIDS information. Gillett (2003) also asserted that “there is a connection between media activism within the contemporary AIDS movement and Internet use among people with HIV/AIDS” [7]. Gillett also added that the use of media, including the Internet has helped create cultural spaces that are used as forums for marginalized and stigmatized identities (Garrido and Halavais, 2003; Owens and Palmer, 2003). These persons use the media/Internet as a tool to vent their anger, and as a counter-discourse against the dominant discriminatory discourses that exist. “People with HIV/AIDS have been compelled to make sense of their relationship with the epidemic and have done so through the use of media technologies like the Internet” [8]. New social movements, through the use of new technologies, have become an important medium for the cultivation of identity (Castells, 1983; Huesca, 2001; Touraine, 1981). Novel health-based organizations like ACT UP with their network of Web sites perform what Gillett (2003) describes as “education and advocacy” [9], which involves challenging inequality, oppression, and static institutional discourses that antagonize the fight against the spread and containment of HIV/AIDS.

According to Eriksson (2005), the concept of network has different meanings, ranging from representing threads and wires, to the development of electricity, communication and transportation, etc. Erickson thus defines networks as “[organizatory], discursive, and technological order through the interaction of several interlinked processes” [10]. This entails the following: (1) the breakdown of the hierarchy structure, (2) dissolving the nervous system metaphor when thinking of communication systems and societal processes, and (3) the speedy development of information technology and strengthening its social acceptance (Eriksson, 2005). The notion of hierarchal breakdown, dissolution of the nervous system, and speed of information transfer are reflected in organizations like ACT UP, which depends on collective efforts in its fight against hegemonic forces. Through collective effort and decentralized approach to decision-making, ACT UP activists were able to gain control of medical knowledge, which was then disseminated to their audiences, forcing government agencies to speed up the production, testing, and supplying of drugs at affordable costs to affected individuals in the United States and around the world (Keefe, et al., 2006). Stengrim (2005) described the Internet “as a promoter of niche consumerism, a vehicle for global citizenship, and a refreshed democratic forum” [11]. Stengrim adds that the decentralized power structure that networks have offers unique ways for activists to create identities through their interactions with Web sites and networks. Pickard (2006) refers to networks as tools for production and storytelling. Pickard stresses that all individuals should have access to this tool (Internet/networks). Networks should also have the capacity to circulate narratives to various nodes or parts of a network as explained by Atkinson (2010) in a study that discussed Resistance Performance (RP). Atkinson asserts that the diffusion of narratives in a network attracts other activists who could then form short-term protest communities to protect narratives that are under threat.

The proposition that the Internet is different than previous media technologies is not wholly without controversy, and has generated its own body of literature. Clay Shirky (2008) has argued in several works that the declining transaction costs associated with new communications technologies are making it easier for individuals to organize in a variety of ways. Manuel Castells has made perhaps the most significant single contribution to date in this field, with his massive three-volume treatise The information age, which argues that network technologies have subtly shifted nearly every aspect of society in a transition to what he calls network society (Castells, 2009). Castells has followed that text with additional work exploring why the Internet is so different, examining for example the unique ability of new communications technologies to communicate emotion on an empathetic level that makes them such a powerful tool of social movements and other traditionally “weak” societal actors (Castells, 2012; Castells, 2013). Such seminal works as Negroponte’s Being digital (1995) and McLuhan’s The Gutenberg galaxy (1962) cover additional theoretical bases on the Internet’s distinction from previous communications technologies.

International contexts/ACT UP

The inequitable distribution of resources in some developing countries makes it unrealistic for many people to have access to the Internet and interact with organizations like ACT UP. Most people in rural areas are cut off from the bare necessities that make the information age a reality and so are unable to participate in Internet based HIV/AIDS movements that potentially have much to offer. ACT UP, as an activist organization, has a strong presence online and off-line. Following struggles in the 1990s when many of the group constituents started to die, surviving activists began to lose hope and the urge to fight on and continue the movement (Hilderbrand, 2006). Now, activists are fighting back via Web 2.0 technologies. On 26 November 2003, ACT UP launched the ACT UP oral history project, a project that documents and makes public interviews of surviving AIDS activists. In one of these interviews activist Garance Franke-Ruta (2007) stated,

I think that’s one thing that ACT UP really taught me, is that in a democracy, change comes from the outside. Politicians are lagging indicators. And whoever works hardest wins. And it’s just a matter of figuring out how do you organize things. [12]

ACT UP affected activists like Franke-Ruta by providing the necessary guidance through its networks. Greenberg (1992) explained,

We do demonstrations, and act in such a way that the authorities (and in this case we mean government officials, researchers, politicians, the church and the law) feel is inappropriate but ultimately accomplishes our goal by bringing into focus the problems which they are unwilling or afraid to address. [13]

In demonstrating their anger to government officials and policy-makers, ACT UP activists access resources. Elbaz (1995) explained that “resources are understood broadly to encompass not only occupations, wages, and intellectual capital as recorded in a 1989 survey, but also networks and activist experience in other social movements” [14]. The results of the study suggest “both resource mobilization and social construction must be clearly elaborated to understand the emergence, strategy, success, and limitations of a social movement” [15]. Christiansen and Hanson (1996) argue that ACT UP’s use of humor, humane and rational responses to a profoundly tragic situation is an appropriate use of the comic frame. ACT UP’s Web site, which to my knowledge has not been analyzed in any study, provides rich indications of how resources are mobilized through the network structure. The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Larry Kramer, playwright, AIDS activist, and one of the founders of ACT UP who ignited the passions of AIDS activists when he described the religious, political, and corporate conservatives as people who hate gays during a gathering of AIDS activists at the Cooper Union in New York City:

These people make the rules. They are rarely elected officials. They may or may not know each other. They have several things in common. They are very rich or have strong connections to money or power. They are in agreement on what they do not want. They believe fervently in their God. And that they are doing all this for Him. And they stay in constant touch. (Kramer, 2004)

This was one of Kramer’s first public speeches that ignited activists. ACT UP began in New York in 1987. Not only did it introduce an active stance to the United States AIDS crisis, it also brought a sense of unity to people on different sides of the political divide through its rhetoric (González, 2008). The organization consists of middle-class gay and lesbian individuals united in fighting a discriminatory and oppressive system of “elected officials,” “the rich, strong,” and well-connected individuals. Kim (2001) adds, “ACT UP had always been attentive to issues of racism and poverty — working, for example, to diversify clinical drug trials and forcing homelessness and intravenous drug use onto the AIDS agenda” [16]. With the growth and expansion of its network, the group has refocused its attention and is now a part of a larger global alliance that focuses on equal access to health care (Kim, 2001). Some of the goals of the organization are to achieve the following: (1) challenge anyone who doesn’t work for adequate funding or leadership for AIDS research, health care, or housing for people with AIDS, (2) challenge anyone who blocks the dissemination of life-saving information about safer sex, clean needles, and other AIDS prevention strategies, (3) challenge anyone who encourages discrimination against persons living with AIDS (ACT UP, 2009).

ACT UP is now a global network with a strong presence in many countries and with various chapters in the United States. The organization has an international presence in a number of countries including Kenya, France, India, and Kathmandu. It is present in the United States in a number of cities including Philadelphia, Louisiana (statewide network, they do not have a physical location), Los Angeles, East Bay, Austin, Chicago, and Boston. ACT UP is strongly focusing on the global AIDS epidemic, pressuring the United States government and pharmaceutical companies to hasten the process of generic drug manufacturing and providing immediate debt relief for developing countries who are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the global AIDS crisis (Kim, 2001). ACT UP has been characterized by the personality of Larry Kramer, who was described by many as “high-strung and volatile” (Leo, 1990). Indeed some of its activists display similar characteristics:

ACT UP can get you at the polls. It can zap you at your office, church or home with picketing, poisonous phone calls and face-to-face abuse. Press coverage is muted, presumably because publishers and editors do not enjoy being harassed as anti-gay bigots and murderers. [17]

ACT UP’s controversial actions (Chávez, 2012) included members storming into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, throwing condoms and chaining themselves to the pews during Sunday mass; such acts received considerable attention from the media (Gere, 2004; Leo, 1990). The New York Times and other newspapers reported that activists, made up of about 300 members of ACT UP, protested outside the White House on 13 October 1996, “tossing funeral urns with ashes over the fence before being dispersed by police officers on horseback” [18]. These are among numerous other events that served as image events (DeLuca, 1999) disseminated by the media globally. These acts of agitation and polarization continue to be used by ACT UP to garner support for their cause. Similar acts by the group have been repeated many times globally.

ACT UP has fought for the affordability of anti-retroviral drugs in the United States and for rights of access to medical care for gays and lesbians (Smith and Whiteside, 2010). ACT UP has used different rhetorical strategies in the fight for equality and against discrimination of gays and lesbians (Morris III, 2012). It has also fought for the international recognition of HIV/AIDS stigmatization. According to Hartwig, et al. (2006), “HIV/AIDS stigma continues to be a major obstacle to prevention and care interventions in sub-Saharan Africa. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) have been shown to both foster HIV stigma as well as mitigate it” [19]. Stigma is an important issue that needs to be addressed because of the threat it poses to curbing HIV/AIDS or to reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Earnshaw, et al., 2013; Ha, et al., 2013). Wu, et al. (2008) also opined that

Stigma and discrimination have been identified internationally as the main barriers to HIV control and prevention in every country and region of the world, posing challenges to preventing further infections, alleviating the impact, and providing adequate care, support, and treatment. [20]

The stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS exists in all countries affected by this disease. Millions of people are stigmatized for having this deadly disease, often due to fear of contracting the disease. Common misperceptions include, sharing a plate or spoon, or having contact with an HIV infected person causes the virus to spread. Most of these fears stem from ignorance and not knowing all the facts about HIV/AIDS and its modes of transmission (Witte, et al., 2007).

To further the goals of ACT UP, a Web site was launched ( in 1994. According to the Webmaster for ACT UP, the “site was initiated and created by Stephen Shapiro in 1994; and inspired by the histories and actions of talented, noble AIDS activists... living, burned-out and dead.” Between 1 December 2013 and 1 January 2014 ACT UP New York’s Web site received a total of 202,522 requests with an average daily request of 6,328.8 received (ACT UP, 2014).

ACT UP is one of many health-based organizations within the larger HIV/AIDS movement that has a “rich history in impacting health and social policy [...]” [21]. The organization continues to display this important characteristic; however, an initial examination of its Web site reveals some issues relevant to new social movement network research. In a globalized world, identity formation and the exchange of information have transitioned to the World Wide Web. Activists who are part of organizations such as ACT UP rely on the Internet for empowerment and the circulation of life-saving information in order to carry on with their activities. Epistemologically, networks exist for people to exchange and learn new information, and any flaws in the network may compromise the flow and fluidity of information, which could defeat the underlying purpose of such organizations. The rhetorical strategies embedded in ACT UP’s network thus bear scrutiny. Currently, no study specifically addresses ACT UP through constitutive rhetoric. The impact that ACT UP has on health and social policy globally makes the current investigation into its online rhetorical strategies viable and important. I therefore pose two research questions: (1) How is ACT UP’s network structured? (2) How do the Web site’s rhetorical strategies and interactive components facilitate or hinder its narrative capacity?



Theoretical framework and method

I employ the rhetorical analysis of Maurice Charland (1987; 2001) in examining ACT UP’s Web site. Numerous scholars have used rhetorical criticism to decrypt the relationship between language, images, and power (Brummett, 2010; 2011; Gorsevski, 2010; Warnick, 2007). Specifically employed in this analysis is a partial use of constitutive rhetoric (Charland, 1987) in analyzing ACT UP’s Web site. What is meaningful about constitutive rhetoric is that it situates the audience/reader towards social, political, and economic action in the physical world (Charland, 1987). I extend Charland’s thought by including the online world; therefore, constitutive rhetoric can also be used to make meaning in critiquing Web sites such as ACT UP. Fusing Burke’s (1969) notion of identification and Louis Althusser’s (1994) theory of interpellation that always already “presumes the subject position of addressee” [22]. Charland (1987) argues that audiences do not exist in isolation from the speech that is intended to persuade them; they are, however, free to persuade and be persuaded (Thieme, 2010). Charland (1987) developed the theory of constitutive rhetoric through his analysis of autonomy claims by Quebec in its bid for independence from Canada. The artifact he examined focused on a white paper that sought to persuade a specific population to vote for separation, a populace that had to distinguish themselves as rhetorically framed “Québécois” (Charland, 1987; Stein, 2002). Similarly, ACT UP seeks to motivate and persuade its audiences with a shared identity and who identify with the collective goal of fighting against HIV/AIDS discrimination locally and globally. Identity and identification are conceptualized in the current study in the following ways. Potential audiences of ACT UP are identified through interpellation (the use of narratives and images by ACT UP) as subjects who participate in ACT UP’s discourse. ACT UP audiences are thus interpellated the moment they realize and admit they are the ones being communicated to and thus enter the rhetorical situation (Charland, 1987). These audiences admit to sharing ACT UP’s identity and ideology by participating in the discourse.

Charland’s (1987) theory conceives three ideological effects: (1) the course of constituting subjects through narratives, (2) the placing of subjects as historical actors, and (3) the notion that embodied subjects act unconditionally in the world to assert their subjectivity (Charland, 1987; Stein, 2002). This is the impression of freedom, in which the narrative presented reins the subject to act in ways that maintains the integrity of the narrative, which is already been documented or spoken (Charland, 1987). The first ideological effect is of particular importance in unraveling the constitutive rhetoric of ACT UP. It provides a means for deciphering how ACT UP constitutes and actuates its audiences through identity and ideology to unleash power that opposes discriminatory HIV/AIDS discourses and policies. According to Charland (1987), “The power of the text is the power of an embodied ideology. The form of ideological rhetoric is effective because it is within the bodies of those it constitutes as subjects” [23]. ACT UP thus presents a powerful pathos of persuasion through the political dissemination of affect (Rand, 2012) to its audiences, and constitutive rhetoric is an appropriate tool for parsing these emotional appeals.

A visual rhetorical analysis was used in this study in examining several images including narratives and documents on ACT UP’s Web site. The entire Web site was perused and the analytical themes that emerge were written down. The analysis presents some of these themes. A number of these images and narratives are also presented in the analysis for examination. A visual rhetorical analysis is appropriate for this study because the author examined images, narratives, and the visual network structure of ACT UP’s Web site. A visual rhetorical analysis not only allows the researcher to examine meanings and possible interpretations of visuals and narratives, but it also helps interpret the creators’ purposes (Stiles, 2012). While visual methods are by no means generalizable, their conceptual tools help to “excavate deeper, and more textured meanings in visual narratives” [24]. In preparing this study, the author also communicated with the developers of ACT UP’s Web site by e-mail, identifying as a researcher due to ethical considerations (Madison, 2005). Questions were submitted in regards to the number of hits that the Web site receives, but no response was received from the developers. The interpretations of the analysis in following section are subjective (not objective interpretations). They are based on the images and narratives on ACT UP’s Web site informed by previous research. No approach is superior to another in studies of this nature (McKerrow, 2013). It is thus important to focus on the questions being asked and the best way to answer these questions (McKerrow, 2013). What follows is a selected presentation and analysis of some of the visuals and narratives on ACT UP’s Web site.



Analysis and discussion

This study was informed by multiple theoretical frameworks (Atkinson, 2009; Charland, 1987; Deleuce and Guattari, 1976; Pickard, 2006; Stengrim, 2005; Eriksson, 2005). It, however, builds on the theory of the “multiplex” (Atkinson, 2009; 2010; Atkinson and Dougherty, 2006). Central to the multiplex is the concept of “narrative capacity” defined by Atkinson as the ability for listservs employed by various activist groups to efficiently circulate narratives throughout the network (Atkinson, 2009; 2010; Atkinson and Cooley, 2010). The questions posed earlier served as framework for the analysis, which are presented in sections by analytical themes.

Constituting through chaos

Chaos is the first impression created on ACT UP’s home page. There is so much information confined onto one space, almost every space of this Web site’s page is filled with words and images that make it visually exhausting to navigate. On the homepage, there are over 40 links connecting to different sections of the Web site (see Figures 1–5). As an information hub (Best, 2005) the creators of the Web site do a good job of providing knowledge to visitors, however, the layout of information may leave much to be desired for a first-time visitor. On the other hand it can be expected for a Web site like ACT UP to have such a disturbed look. It is a reflection of what they stand for, “[U]nited in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis” (ACT UP). Anger can lead to doing things haphazardly and this is what is reflected on the Web site. One is not only presented with different links but also different colors that add to the disarray on this Web site. For example, each triangle on the screenshot in Figure 2 is a separate link to information, as are all the other images and texts on the screen shot. The links on this Web site appear to have been planned and placed in what seems to be an anarchic manner, however, the presence of a link or image, represents a communicative choice by the Web site designer and the possible alternatives for structure are also shaped by communicative ends. Web site designers may employ a limited number of links or use them to animate a linear progression through site content or use them purposefully to create a specific experience for the user. Thus differences in a Web site layout reflect differences in communicative goals and experiences.

The Web site provides a wealth of information for visitors, user movement does not appear to be guided in any particular fashion. The availability and placement of links (There are over 37 links on the ACT UP’s homepage) though appear to have some degree of organization at the top of the homepage seem more randomly placed as one scrolls down the homepage (see Figures 1-5). The use of different colors to highlight text, the employment of various font sizes contributes to interpellating an audience by affecting a common shared identity into existence (Charland, 1987; Zagacki, 2007). However, the organized chaos this homepage communicates also emits the livid energy that reaffirms the sense of urgency ACT UP communicates to its audiences and activists. Some of the resources available on the homepage include, training on civil disobedience, a link that takes visitors to ACT UP’s civil disobedience index, which provides users with a series of links from the organization’s direct action guidelines, to what happens when one gets arrested. The homepage also provides information on how to open an ACT UP chapter and a link to videos of speeches from various AIDS activists, individuals and organizations who oppose homosexuality. ACT UP thus also represents a counter discourse to those that discriminate against gay and lesbians. They represent an organization within the larger HIV/AIDS movement that fight especially for individuals and groups afflicted with HIV/AIDS. To meet their communication goal of encouraging people to fight against HIV/AIDS discrimination the How to form a new ACT UP chapter link takes visitors to a page that explains how to form a chapter. Scrolling down to the bottom of this page shows a list of ACT UP chapters in the United States and around the world (see Figure 1). The following section teases out the network structure and the levels of connectivity and interactivity that these nodes (ACT UP chapters) have in relation to the main hub (ACT UP).


List of ACT UP chapters
Figure 1: List of ACT UP chapters, retrieved 1 September 2013 from


Eriksson (2005) mused about different theoretical perspectives for framing networks; one framework that interprets ACT UP’s network is the theory of the rhizome network (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987), This theory asserts that “A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” [25]. ACT UP’s Web site and network epitomizes the rhizome network that Deleuze and Guattari (1976) described. We see the ceaselessness that the authors allude to, reflected in the layout of the Web site. Eriksson (2005) affirms that the rhizome network entails two points. First, “rhizome does not constitute a pre-given order, principle, or structure. The connections it enables are unanticipated and open in their number”; and secondly “rhizome does not have a logic of its own” [26]. The rhizome functions by variations, spreading out and developing new nodes, thus a rhizome is very unstable, volatile and unpredictable, as reflected in the ACT UP’s network. Atton (2002) adds that numerous alternative media exist in the ghetto sphere (the ghetto is normally associated with negative connotations. It epitomizes a space for struggle, resistance, violence, and hostility) thus they are looked down upon because they operate from the ghetto sphere. However, this may also signify authenticity in the resistance movement of activists/producers. The anger that ACT UP shows can be conceptualized as the eruption of the rhizome (Deleuce and Guattari, 1987), an unpredictable organization with various nodes in a volatile network.

Cohesive narrative capacity

ACT UP’s network is made up of 16 nodes (only nodes that are listed on the ACT UP’s Web site were included in this study, sites that were not presented as links on the site were excluded). With three nodes existing internationally (India, Kathmandu and Paris) and 13 nodes in the United States (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Key West, Washington D.C., Oberlin Ohio, Golden Gate, Asbury Park, East Bay, Los Angeles, Louisiana, and Philadelphia), the interactive components of ACT UP New York’s Web site demonstrates a cohesive narrative capacity. According to Warnick (2007),

[F]ull interactivity occurs only when messages sustain reciprocal exchanges between communicators. That is a person sends a message; a respondent replies in terms relevant to the topic initiated by the first person, and then the person responds to the response in a relevant way. [27]

ACT UP’s Web site appears to allow for the interactivity that Warnick described, with links connecting users to various documents embedded on this site (See Figure 2). ACT UP’s goal of providing (“giving voice to the essential creative will of our humanity”) crucial information to its constituents in order to help in the fight against all forms of discrimination and to gain access to life prolonging drugs, I argue is achieved through the overabundance of information on this site. ACT UP is thus able to effectively disseminate narratives of resistance to international nodes within its network including Kenya, France, India and Kathmandu.

Cohesive multiplex of narratives

Through constitutive rhetoric a cohesive multiplex of narratives (CMN) is generated. Audiences are interpellated to embody a discourse of resistance. Similar to the white paper analyzed by Charland (1987), ACT UP also offers an array of arguments signifying that gays and lesbians are an oppressed microculture. These arguments are communicated through a constitutive rhetoric of the acronym “ACT UP,” a discourse that compels audiences to unite in anger and end the AIDS crisis and discrimination. The narratives on ACT UP’s Web site embody a rhetorically potent anger. Phrases and words such as silence=death, Yell, civil disobedience, disseminate information!, agitate!, resist! (See Figures 2 and 3), reinforce the irritation that ACT UP constitutes in its audiences.


ACT UP homepage
Figure 2: ACT UP homepage, retrieved 1 September 2013 from



Narratives on homepage
Figure 3: Narratives on homepage, retrieved 1 September 2013 from


ACT UP’s constitutive rhetoric articulates what it means to be a part of this collective identity. It means acknowledging that AIDS is a political crisis, it means taking action and resisting discrimination through non-violent demonstrations, knowing how the past is shaping the future through ACT UP’s oral history project, and remembering AIDS activists who initiated the struggle for equality and access to life saving drugs. The aids coalition to unleash power therefore constitute collective identities who describe themselves as advisors and educators “We advise and inform. We demonstrate. WE ARE NOT SILENT” (from the ACT UP Web site). These are people positioned within an ideology committed to producing counter discourses. The constitutive rhetoric of ACT UP is thus communicated through a rhetorical repository of documents, links that are embed on, interpellating audiences to collective action against discrimination. This constitutive rhetoric represents a cohesive multiplex of narratives. Some of the narratives lament about how living with HIV/AIDS in the United States is like a battle occuring for gays and lesbians (see Figure 4). Other accounts on the Web site are written in “harsh remembrance” of persecution by the Catholic Church of gays and lesbians through the withholding of life saving information, such as its refusal to promote condom use to help curb the spread of HIV/AIDS (see Figure 5).


Lamentations of the past
Figure 4: Lamentations of the past, retrieved 1 September 2013 from



Remembering the past
Figure 5: Remembering the past, retrieved 1 September 2013 from


The CMN is also affirmed by the apparent free flow of information/narratives (Atkinson, 2009; Atkinson and Cooley, 2010) between network nodes strongly positioning ACT UP’s network as an alternative media source. These interactive features enhance ACT UP’s viability for promoting affordable widespread access to alternative news and information while encouraging the free flow and generation of information by its activists and audiences (Stengrim, 2005). Atkinson (2009) argued that it is important for the cross-pollination of narratives to take place between listservs and locally produced media, networks for the “construction and maintenance of a multiplex where performances of resistance can be coordinated” [28]. Structurally this appears to be happening within ACT UP’s network. The multiplex in which performances of resistance are coordinated as described by Atkinson (2009) is also reflected in ACT UP’s network. Pickard (2006) introduces the notion of network sustainability, and asserts that strong networks should exhibit strong cohesive narratives and sustainability. ACT UP New York’s network appears to constitute this characteristic. Owens and Palmer (2003) argued that

Having a core is essential to using the Web as a mass medium. Importantly for use as both a mass medium and an alternative one, core sites also send a much higher number of links back out to the rest of the network, encouraging movement back to the periphery. [29]

The flow of information as described by Owens and Palmer appears to be attainable through ACT UP’s interactive and discursive network constructions. There are many developed nodes that have active interactive features or intertextual constructions, making them not only vibrant mediums of information but active nodes that are able to send information back to the main hub. Erickson (2005), on the ontology of networks, asserts that the notion of the network metaphor describes “[organizatory], discursive, and technological order through the interaction of several interlinked processes” [30]. ACT UP’s network shows active interactive/network constructions, which makes the concept of the metaphor that Erickson (2005) discusses and the notion of the multiplex (Atkinson, 2009) attainable within this network structure.




Past research (Atkinson, 2009) demonstrated the challenging nature of unproductive narrative capacity for the construction of multiplexes of synchronized resistance within Atkinson and Dougherty’s (2006) RP framework (Atkinson and Cooley, 2010). Though the findings of this research reveal a chaotic network structure for ACT UP, which could contribute to the broken multiplex that materialized in Atkinson’s research, this does not limit the narrative capacity of ACT UP’s network because it appears to embody a cohesive multiplex of narratives. I have demonstrated that developers of ACT UP use the Internet to disseminate narratives to fellow activists, locally and internationally, to help shape HIV/AIDS discourse by engaging in resistance performance online. This research builds on Atkinson’s (2009) illustration of the role of narrative capacity in the fracturing of local level networks by introducing an international dimension to the metaphor of the broken multiplex. I argue that ACT UP creates a cohesive multiplex of narratives, rather than a broken multiplex, which are then circulated internationally to country networks including Kenya, France, India, and Kathmandu. ACT UP remains an organization with an international outreach that has created an HIV/AIDS movement within the larger HIV/AIDS movement to help garner support, circulate narratives, catalyze action, and help stop discrimination within the global HIV/AIDS community. Its network appears to enhance the flow of narratives to local and international hubs through alternative media. Through its network presence, ACT UP remains one of the leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS discrimination and the quest for equal access to drugs. Its ability to spread narratives to other parts of the network is facilitated through interconnected narratives. As Stengrim (2005) noted, alternative media is a powerful response to corporate media. For some, alternative media remains a powerful response to dominant, oppressive, and globalized discourses of discrimination. ACT UP is an alternative media source that continues to disseminate information, agitate, resist, constitute, and shape identity through its online presence. I have demonstrated through my analysis that the ACT UP New York network does not epitomize the broken multiplex that Atkinson (2009) established, but rather, a cohesive multiplex of narratives. It is argued here that though the chaotic feature of ACT UP’s site may be unsettling for some visitors to the site, it also represents an intentional persuasive attempt to constitute audiences by communicating a sense of urgency surrounding the polarizing discourses of HIV/AIDS that discriminate, stigmatize, and segregate persons living with the disease. Networks such as ACT UP remain a social fact, Web site architectures built through action and discourse. It is important that these networks are explored by teasing out their structures and making sense of how they function, otherwise they continue to be a part of the concealed structures of social movements (Garrido and Halavais, 2003). The findings of this study suggest the developers of ACT UP’s New York Web site constitutes its public through chaos as represented by the numerous links, images, and narratives. The developers have also created a network that structurally facilitates interactivity and maintains a cohesive narrative capacity. Through interpellation a cohesive multiplex of narratives is produced and audiences are constituted to embody a discourse of resistance in the fight against HIV/AIDS discrimination, which includes advocating for adequate funding and dissemination of life saving information. End of article


About the author

Franklin Nii Amankwah Yartey is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Dubuque.
E-mail: fyartey [at] dbq [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 12 February 2014; revised 11 October 2014; accepted 19 January 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Franklin Nii Amankwah Yartey.

ACT UP: A network’s resistance through constitutive rhetoric
by Franklin Nii Amankwah Yartey.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 2 - 2 February 2015

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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