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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