Animal viruses (e.g., lentiviruses and herpesviruses) use transcriptional positive feedback (i.e., transactivation) to regulate their gene expression. But positive-feedback circuits are inherently unstable when turned off, which presents a particular dilemma for latent viruses that lack transcriptional repressor motifs. Here we show that a dissipative feedback resistor, composed of enzymatic interconversion of the transactivator, converts transactivation circuits into excitable systems that generate transient pulses of expression, which decay to zero. We use HIV-1 as a model system and analyze single-cell expression kinetics to explore whether the HIV-1 transactivator of transcription (Tat) uses a resistor to shut off transactivation. The Tat feedback circuit was found to lack bi-stability and Tat self-cooperativity but exhibited a pulse of activity upon transactivation, all in agreement with the feedback resistor model. Guided by a mathematical model, biochemical and genetic perturbation of the suspected Tat feedback resistor altered the circuit's stability and reduced susceptibility to molecular noise, in agreement with model predictions. We propose that the feedback resistor is a necessary, but possibly not sufficient, condition for turning off noisy transactivation circuits lacking a repressor motif (e.g., HIV-1 Tat). Feedback resistors may be a paradigm for examining other auto-regulatory circuits and may inform upon how viral latency is established, maintained, and broken.