This article was contributed by Dr Monika Loewy, an associate lecturer in Goldsmiths’ Department of English and Comparative Literature

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

An interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘replacement’ took place at Birkbeck on the 8-10 of December, which consisted of thirty-six presentations from the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Organised by Professor Naomi Segal and Dr Jean Owen, the conference explored the idea of replacement in relation to literature, art, film, politics, and law. There was additionally a printmakers’ exhibition and a screening of three films: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Un Secret [A Secret] (Claude Miller, 2007) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015). The keynote speakers (Jean Owen, Naomi Segal, Professor Juliet Mitchell, and Professor Naomi Tadmor) focused on the replacement child and partner, and the way in which figures of the past affect the individuals who replace them. Throughout these discussions, questions often arose as to how works of art embody, illustrate, and represent these effects.

‘Trauma always causes replacement’, explained Juliet Mitchell in her presentation, a statement that underpinned the entire conference: trauma, and specifically loss, is often the precursor to why and how replacement occurs. Generally, these losses referred to relationships and objects, memory and knowledge. Several speakers additionally suggested that absences are often substituted with fantasy, a notion discussed in relation to individuals, theories, culture, and fictional and non-fictional works.

Day One:

The conference opened with parallel panels entitled ‘writing replacement’ and ‘cinematic dehumanisation’. Here, speakers introduced ideas about replacement in relation to cultural works, and about how objects and relationships can replace loss, as exemplified by a statement about the way in which nature can, and has, acted as a foster parent (in this case, for William Wordsworth). The following parallel panels consisted of talks about holocaust stories, cultural theory, and haunting, raising a variety of questions, including how the mother is represented in art, and how Freud may have replaced emotional loss with fantasy and religion. These various strands of thought coalesced in a screening of Agnieszka Piotrowska’s fascinating documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008), which is about three women who feel an affinity for, and are sexually and emotionally attracted to objects such as a bow and arrow, The Berlin Wall, a fence, and the Eiffel Tower. The film conveyed that these attractions might be linked to traumatic experiences and mental illnesses, suggesting that the objects may stand in for and protect against disturbing experiences. Following the screening was a discussion about Piotrowska’s involvement with film, and how she responded to public and personal reactions to it. The day closed with a showing of Un Secret, a film about a boy haunted by feelings of having a superior older sibling, and how gaps in knowledge (about his parents’ relationships and experiences in the Second World War) impacted these feelings. Here, the concept of sibling replacement was introduced, which was central to the following day’s discussions.

Day Two:

The second day commenced with papers about political practice, mothers and daughters, and law and replacement, covering a variety of topics, including representations of replacement in human rights law, haunting mothers in Alice Sebold’s writings, and the politics of surrogacy. Two thought-provoking keynotes followed, which were presented by Naomi Tadmor (on early modern kinship and family life) and Juliet Mitchell (on the toddler and the replacement sibling). First, Tadmor spoke about early modern England’s kinship system and how it changed over time. Subsequently, Mitchell explored the way in which Oedipal relations have failed to incorporate the importance of siblings. Sibling replacement, Mitchell argued, is a foundational trauma that has been overlooked in psychoanalytic thinking; the toddler harbours murderous desires towards the new baby that replaces it. There were three parallel panels after the keynote, which included talks about cinematic replacement, family dramas, and ‘lost boys’. A variety of ideas were discussed here, such as ‘lost boys’ in Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf, the connections between Un Secret and Morrison’s Beloved, and about spouses, siblings and children in Sir Orfeo and Amis and Amiloun. The day came to a close with a screening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca on 35mm film.

Day Three:

On the final day, panellists explored how memory and place are rewritten through film, the connections between clinic and culture, and the way in which personal haunting may leave its imprint through writing and art. Professor Valerie Walkerdine, for example, suggested that a trace cannot be erased, and that performance and photography may embody traces of traumatic experiences. In the afternoon, keynote speaker Jean Owen gave an engaging talk that compared the incestual relationships between fathers and daughters in Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne, ‘Genesis,’ and the Greco-Roman myth of Myrrha. This was followed by Naomi Segal’s intriguing analysis about what replacement might mean, and what can and cannot be represented or replicated. She asked how language has been altered throughout time, and posed questions about copies, replication, and the act of translation. She additionally discussed how individuals’ lives and works have been impacted by their deceased siblings, exploring various artists such as J.M, Barrie, Didier Anzieu, Salvador Dalí, Phillip K. Dick, and Victor Hugo. The conference then came to a close with a screening of Haigh’s 45 Years, wherein a woman discovers that her entire marriage was, in a sense, a replacement for one her husband had lost.

Dr Asibong introduced the film with a statement that nicely ties together the wide array of exciting discussions about replacement: that ‘real life’ often pales in comparison to the dead, to a loss. Overall, the conference interwove several creative and fascinating thoughts about replacement, raising questions about how loss affects us, how we attempt to replace it, and how experiences and various works of art capture (and are unable to capture) these replacements.

Further information:

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Archives of feeling: the AIDS crisis in Britain, c.1987

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. A podcast of Prof Matt Cook’s inaugural lecture is now available.

Do emotions have a history? We might assume that certain emotions – joy, grief, fear, anger, surprise, disgust – are an intrinsic, universal aspect of being human that have existed in all places and across all time periods. Yet, the word ‘emotion’ didn’t exist until the sixteenth century, when it originally referred to a public disturbance, and it only came to have its present meaning – ‘a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others’ (OED) – in the nineteenth century. We might also think about the shifting definitions of, and relationship between, the concepts of instinct, passion, feeling, sentiment, sensibility and emotion. Furthermore, emotions are defined, learnt in, and moulded by culture and bound by geographically and historically malleable norms and rules of behaviour and expression. Institutions that have a powerful, tutelary role in shaping human behaviour – such as the family, Church, government, law and education – can forcefully shape how people think and feel – processes that can be historically excavated, contextualised and understood.

Exploring how people in the past have experienced and expressed their feelings has drawn historians towards a range of under-appreciated and neglected sources and archives. The cultural historian Ann Cvetkovich coined the phrase ‘archives of feeling’ to delineate the ways in which a myriad of literary and cultural artefacts can reveal emotions in the past. Cvetkovich has emphasised how experience, memory, everyday objects and ephemera, and oral history are particularly important for queer archives: a queer archive of feeling might include magazines, flyers, pamphlets, aural and visual recordings and remembrances, alongside memoirs and autobiographies.

In his inaugural lecture on 1 December 2016 – World AIDS Day – Professor Matt Cook discussed his own research into the AIDS crisis within specific archives of feeling. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, which had a disproportionately catastrophic impact on queer people and was lethally exacerbated by homophobia and political intransigence, has provided historians with rich material for exploring and rearticulating the complex reactions of people at the time. People who suffered and died from AIDS, those who cared, advocated and fought for them, and those who observed – and condemned – from the sidelines, recorded their emotional experiences in multiple forms, generating ample and expansive archives of feeling.

Professor Cook focused on 1987, when there was a marked increase in the UK of deaths from complications caused by AIDS, and on one archive – the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex. Many people know of Mass Observation’s work during the Second World War, when nearly 500 ordinary participants from many walks of life recorded their wartime thoughts and feelings (including Nella Last, the famous ‘Housewife 49’). The project was closed in the 1960s, but revived in 1981 –  it continues until this day. In 1987, as the AIDS death toll rose to over 600, with the impact felt particularly strongly in London, around 633 Mass Observation respondents were recording their feelings on the looming health crisis, the climate of uncertainty about transmission routes and the most effective preventative methods, the political activism of the gay community, and the marked increase in homophobia in the tabloid press in particular, but also within society at large. Opinion polls taken at the time confirmed a massive spike in homophobic attitudes, with the majority of respondents condemning same-sex relationships out of hand.

Professor Cook observed the difficulties of comprehending the emotions of people in the past, but he stressed that emotion is at the heart of historical experience and operates as an engine of change – ‘emotions are never “merely” personal’. During the AIDS crisis, we can observe a ‘dominant emotional pulse’ through mainstream sources such as newspapers, but also through the everyday language deployed by the Mass Observation participants and in a range of ephemeral evidence, including diaries, letters and oral testimonies. Professor Cook described this as a ‘poisonous emotional climate’. In January 1987, to take one of many dismaying examples, the Daily Mail described AIDS as ‘a moral Chernobyl’, comparing the incipient health crisis to the Ukranian nuclear disaster of the previous April. Professor Cook delineated the ‘conventions of fear’ that moulded emotional responses to AIDS, as tabloids deployed widespread anxieties about Cold War showdowns and nuclear strikes to stoke apprehension and direct the blame towards gay men. This was a time of widespread ‘disgust, distrust and anger’, particularly as the right-wing government of Margaret Thatcher, in cahoots with much of the Fourth Estate, promulgated a moral conservatism that extolled ‘family values’ and heteronormative life choices, even as neoliberalism was destroying working-class communities across the UK.

The Government itself was divided on the question of AIDS education, with Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, energetically pushing for a nationwide campaign, which Thatcher baulked against as potentially inflammatory and vitiating. For Thatcher, describing particular sexual practices explicitly would dangerously encourage children to try them. ‘The child’ thus figured as, in the words of theorist Lee Edelman, ‘the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention’. ‘The child’ also stood, in contradistinction to the corrupted homosexual, as the symbol of an innate, morally superior heterosexuality, embedded in and bolstered by ‘Nature’. In these internal wranglings, Professor Cook argued, we can see how the Government understood itself in gendered terms as masculine, rational and paternalistic, in opposition to an inchoate ‘public opinion’, which was imagined as femininely irrational, volatile and unpredictable.

As Professor Cook observed, though, in dominant emotional responses to the crisis, gay men were rarely, if at all, understood or represented as sons, while the suffering of their parents was underplayed or simply overlooked. In various archives of feeling, Professor Cook has unearthed ample evidence of parents struggling to support their sons and wrestling with the intense grief of watching their children ail and die. Grief was also used as a metaphor for parental responses to sons coming out, particularly the sense of homosexuality as a form of social death that was also, in the era of AIDS, brutally actualised as physical death. Organisations such as PFLAG (Parents, Friends [and Family] of Lesbians and Gays), helped parents negotiate and understand their conflicted and negative feelings towards their gay children, enabling some to counter shame, disgust and rejection with pride, love and acceptance. Professor Cook observed that, during the AIDS crisis, the mothers of gay men who were dying were afforded a moral purchase when they spoke publicly about their suffering and grief that was often denied to gay men themselves.

We might thus espy the power of emotional rhetoric to shape what was felt. Within a culture, there may exist emotional imperatives: in mainstream culture in 1987, the imperative was on mourning ‘innocent’ victims of AIDS, such as hemophiliacs or children born to infected mothers, while simultaneously framing death as a divine or ‘natural’ punishment for men whose sex lives were depicted as morally offensive and dangerous. In a homophobic emotional climate, the experience of physical suffering and death was elided and instead crudely represented as a just castigation for iniquitous bodily pleasures.

Within the Mass Observation archive of feeling, then, we come up against ‘anger, fear and disgust’, as respondents reflected the emotional consensus. In the 1980s, we can observe a backlash against the gay rights movement, which had become increasingly visible, vocal and demanding over the preceding decade. For many, gay men had dubiously encroached upon public consciousness and space in a manner that undermined the limited permissiveness of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which only permitted consensual sex in private between two men over the age of 21. Rather than limit themselves to the ‘conditions for middle-class tolerance’, as Professor Cook called it, gay men were embracing modes of living that placed a premium on openness, honesty and experimentation and that self-consciously reconfigured dominant norms of individual and communal life.

We can observe the Mass Observation respondents’ ‘daily negotiations’, as they articulated their fears of contracting HIV, even as knowledge of transmission and safer sex were publically promoted. One respondent reported a friend’s obsessive, irrational fear of contracting the virus from everyday objects, while another wrote about a colleague who was shunned in her office and eventually forced to leave her job after it emerged that she had visited a dying gay friend in hospital. Her colleagues were so uncertain and frightened about how the disease was transmitted that they physically quarantined her by moving her desk away from theirs, citing their children as justification. Many of the diarists responded negatively, parroting the crude morality of the tabloids, but others responded with concern and sympathy, articulating their sorrow and anger at the dominant mood of homophobia and intolerance. A female respondent living next door to a gay male couple wrote matter-of-factly about how ordinary, even boring, the circumspect couple seemed, while salaciously fantasising about some of the more outré behaviour that she imagined might be going on behind closed doors.

For the gay Mass Observation respondents, we can see a ‘complex emotional juggling act’, as they negotiated the crisis and the feelings of fear, grief and rage it evoked. Some took on the shame and opprobrium that others piled on them, while other diarists counter-responded with anger, pride and pleasure, combining mourning with militancy and contributing to the nascent Queer movement, which rejected assimilationist politics and adopted more confrontational, disruptive and consciously rowdy and irreverent modes of political engagement. Age and generation were important indicators for emotional response, with older gay men more likely to inhibit their feelings and prioritise quietism, blending in and privacy. Some gay men recorded that they didn’t speak to friends, family or colleagues about their fears of contracting the disease or their experiences of visiting and nursing dying friends. For some men suffering from AIDS, concealment could feel like a professional and personal necessity, despite its huge emotional costs. Now as then, shame and fear ensured the continued transmission of the virus, as individuals struggled to access knowledge or negotiate safer sex practices. The queer thinker Sara Ahmed has recently termed emotions such as shame and fear ‘sticky feelings’, in their glutinous ability to adhere to the psyche and to pick up and conglomerate other emotions.

Professor Cook did stress the difficulty of comprehending the emotions of people in the past, particularly as emotions can be fleeting, shifting, amorphous and confusing or contradictory. Mass Observation participants, for example, could reframe, downplay, censor or reinterpret their feelings when they sat down to write their accounts. We can struggle to understand or express our own emotions, so historians must tread carefully when venturing into the terrain of feeling.

Nevertheless, the archives of feeling under discussion provide immediate and moving access to the range of emotions experienced by people with AIDS and their friends and family, as well as the feelings of people not directly affected. Throughout these archives of feeling, Professor Cook argued, we can observe emotional ‘styles and dynamics’ and explore the ‘emotional terrain’ negotiated by individuals. We can also gain historical insight into how emotional responses are regulated, framed and moulded by culture, and appreciate how something that feels intensely personal is also deeply communal and determined by multiple forces outside of the individual.

LGBTQ archives in London








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UpScale visits 10 Downing Street

This post was contributed by Kate Dodgson, UpScale’s Employability Project Manager

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

On 24 November 2016, UpScale went to 10 Downing Street to attend a Women in Tech Networking and Mentoring event. The event was on the invitation of Rt. Hon Karen Bradley MP – the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and was organised by one of UpScale’s partners – DevelopHer – a non-profit organisation elevating women in tech.

100 women in tech were invited to attend and were divided into mentors and mentees. I was invited to represent Birkbeck as a mentor. Birkbeck’s UpScale programme aims to encourage Birkbeck students to pursue work in technology and has a strong focus on under-represented groups including women in technology. Partnerships with organisations such as DevelopHer support UpScale to achieve this important aim.

While nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and sipping elderflower cordial, the fifty mentors began networking with the fifty mentees. Roughly ten minutes were allocated to each conversation before a gavel was hit and the women rotated. Ideas, business cards and laughs were exchanged, and there were women representatives from the public sector, higher education, the private sector (ranging from huge multi-national companies to brand new start-ups) and everything in-between.

The Rt. Hon Karen Bradley arrived and gave a speech highlighting the gender gap in STEM industries and emphasising the need to close the gap. She said that the event was designed to allow prominent women in tech to get their heads together to try and find ways to combat the inequality. She invited the women attending to suggest to her ways that the government could address the under-representation of women.

downing-st-4The evening ended with a hundred selfies by the front door of No.10 and a walk to a nearby pub. Here the networking continued, and the wine drinking commenced. Ideas on how to lessen the gap and make technology a sector of choice, for all women, continued and relationships were built and no doubt will continue to be nurtured in the coming weeks and months.

Birkbeck’s UpScale programme helps promote women in tech by exposing female students to the tech industry and offering ideas and thoughts, directly from industry on how to support them to enter it. Through partnering with numerous companies and organisations, UpScale provides students with a series of co-curricular events which improve their digital and soft skills. Providing female students with these skills gives them greater confidence to enter a currently male-dominated industry and over time will reduce the gender imbalance.

UpScale is delighted to have been invited to No. 10 to act as a mentor for women in tech and looks forward to continuing the incredible work being done to boost women’s prospects in this substantial industry.

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“Boy Brain, Girl Brain” – A TRIGGER Seminar on Cognitive Early Development

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

boygirlSex differences have been the source of contentious debate in recent years, beguiling scientists, lay people and major stakeholders like the NHS and pharmaceutical companies. There are obvious physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes but cognitive differences are often conveyed through stereotypes – that males have better motor and spatial abilities and females have superior memory and social cognition skills, for example. While there is research to support some areas of cognitive sex difference, recent studies have shown that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years. This suggests the causes of these differences may have less to do with one’s genetics than one’s environment – that nurture may be just as powerful as nature to one’s brain development. It also provides further evidence for the effectiveness of contemporary social movements to bridge the gap between “women’s roles” as nurturing child-bearers and “men’s roles” as workers.

So what can research into typical and atypical early development tell us about sex differences? And should we be focusing on biology as the route of sex differences?  These were just some of the questions addressed by guest speaker Teodora Gliga, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, at a special seminar on Wednesday 7 December. The event was arranged and hosted by the Birkbeck TRIGGER initiative, a European-wide research project dedicated to Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research.

Why look at sex differences?

Hormonal differences initiated by biology and genes affect physical and cognitive development; the genes on sex chromosomes and the levels of sex hormones influence the brain during early development. Many psychiatric disorders are more common either in boys or girls; boys are more likely to develop autism – the focus of Teea’s research – but girls are more prone to anxiety. By utilising animal models of development and human studies that have revealed early biological differences between sexes present even before birth, Teodora was able to explain differences in susceptibility to risk factors associated with autism.

However, that the effect is amplified when the brain is exposed to risk factors or adversity, such as stress, demonstrates that biology is not the only variable in the development of a disorder like autism; recent research by Anne Fausto-Sterling on how best to study difference in infant early development has shown that, although birth characteristics provide a moment to begin analysis of developmental processes that lead to sex-related differences in behaviour and preference, this is an arbitrary starting point. Many of the biologically-oriented studies use prenatal sex differences in hormone production as the explanation for later difference in behaviour but according to Fausto-Sterling, it seems likely that hormones are but one of many factors affecting human foetal growth and development. In this framework, behaviour after birth develops independently as small biological differences are slowly magnified by external influences – social, cultural and environmental.

Case Study: The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings

The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings was established to explore the development of autism in young infants, and to advance and improve early detection and diagnosis. Parents frequently tell medical professionals that they knew there was something different about their child’s development quite early on, often long before an official diagnosis is received. However, it has been hard for researchers and clinicians to know about the very early signs for autism as they typically only see the child when they are over three years old, when a diagnosis can be reliably given. Although diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fallen in recent years, it remains more commonly developed by boys – 1:42 boys and 1:189 girls, according to studies from 2010 and 2014.

Scientific understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism has advanced dramatically in past decades, but there is still very little known about how the condition develops over the first few years. This is precisely why Teea’s team at the Birkbeck Babylab launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risks (STAARS) project, which looks specifically at the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders and typical development. The project is notably an output of the TRIGGER programme, as the initiative provided the funding for the research assistant who carried out the analysis.

Of the participants with elder siblings with an ASD diagnosis, 20% went on to develop and get a diagnosis for ASD. The study showed a negative correlation between IQ and severity of symptoms, which provides further evidence that IQ is a protective factor against the development of autism. But Teodora was quick to remind the audience that there is still a lot of debate on these findings – there has not been one specific gene that can explain more than 10% of cases. One must also consider that the symptoms of autism might be exposed more easily in this case study, as it must be conducted on “High Risk” families, where they might be more actively looking for symptoms because of a heightened awareness of autism, and where interactions with siblings with an ASD diagnosis might even be a contributory environmental factor.

Teea finished her presentation with a call for more statistics and better models through which to analyse these statistics. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of ASD, its causes and its early detection, we must focus first on mediating effects that may reveal protective mechanisms, and on increasing our understanding of underlying biology of sex differences and the implications of hormones. According to the expert, “it is a story of interactions between biological, social and cultural factors with cascading effects.”

Further Links:

The TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is currently seeking mentees and mentors for their Athena SWAN mentoring programme 2016/17. The mentoring scheme is open to research, technical and academic staff who work at Birkbeck – find out more here.

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