Women in tech panellists inspire students to break the gender disparity in the industry

Jenna Davies, Employability Consultant, writes about the Women in Tech Panel Talk, held on 24 January 2017

women-in-techBirkbeck Careers’ Upscale programme welcomed an exciting panel of women in the tech industry to deliver a thought-provoking discussion around their journeys within the world of technology. With stories ranging from eye opening career hurdles to key bites of advice for aspiring techies, guests were treated to an evening of laughs, gasps and inspiration.

Emma Beer, Senior Delivery Manager at the Government Digital Services, revealed a past fear that many women today resonate with: that you have to be a proper ‘techie’ to work in the digital world. But every tech company requires the so called ‘old skills’. Communication is vital, having the natural ability to talk articulately and express yourself well. Project management is also among a host of skills that are equally crucial to such organisations, yet often overlooked by potentially strong applicants, who are bound by this belief that they don’t have the right knowledge for this sector.

The knowledge topic proved to be a fundamental part of the discussion and Nicola Byrne, successful entrepreneur and CEO at Cloud90, identified with Emma’s point. Understanding tech is one thing, but you don’t need to necessarily do it to succeed in this world. Nicola has built extremely successful businesses by understanding the industry and highlighted the vast amount of jobs that she, and fellow entrepreneurs, have created that never existed before. The job for those in the audience is working out how to innovate for the future, looking ahead at jobs that don’t exist now but will in five, 10, 20 years’ time.

wit3Jo Salter, Director in People & Organisation at PwC and the first female fast-jet pilot in the RAF, looked at where children start their tech journeys; primary schools are doing great things but it’s soon reinforced that tech isn’t ‘cool’. Exciting, vibrant people are needed in IT classrooms to teach children and young people the exact opposite; that tech is the way forward. Jo also highlighted that pivoting in your career is perfectly acceptable and thoroughly encouraged; changing direction builds experience, presents new skills and keeps you moving.

The panel discussion, facilitated by Gen Ashley, Director of Women Who Code, certainly succeeded in positively influencing the audience towards the reasons women need to be key players in tech sector, with many guests indicating they’re inspired to get back on track with their tech goals. Gen emphasised the importance to be yourself in tech, and reinforced a key piece of advice from Emma to join Ada’s list, the global community for women in tech where Gen is part of the leadership team. The evening ended with guests and panellists mingling over wine and continuing the conversation, bringing more women into the world of tech.

So what did we learn? Networking is vital. It’s ok to pivot. Being ‘flighty’ is good. And that watching a demo on folding a fitted sheet could change your life.

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Open Cultural Data: Discussing Digitisation

This post was contributed by symposium organizers PhD candidate Hannah Barton, Dr Joel McKim and Professor Martin Eve. The Open Cultural Data Symposium took place at Birkbeck on the 25 November 2016 and was co-sponsored by the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology and the Birkbeck Centre for Technology and Publishing.

Birkbeck’s recent Open Cultural Data Symposium was an opportunity to reflect upon several decades of major digitisation initiatives within UK cultural institutions. Academics, curators, archivists and IP specialists gathered in the Keynes Library to discuss the successes, ambitions and challenges of recent open access projects in some of the UK’s most prominent museums, libraries and broadcast institutions.

The College has digitised the diary of Anna Birkbeck, the wife of George Birkbeck who founded the College

The College has digitised the diary of Anna Birkbeck, the wife of George Birkbeck who founded the College

Adoption Beyond Access

The theme discussed by the first panel of the day was ‘Adoption Beyond Access’. Dr Rebecca Sinker (Tate), Dr Mia Ridge (British Library) and researcher and curator Natalie Kane each set out to question what, beyond publication alone, institutions can do – or indeed are doing – to facilitate the use of their digitally accessible archives, collections and cultural data.

Dr Rebecca Sinker began by delineating the issues of scale and scope faced by institutions wanting to provide digital access to collections and facilitating associated outreach. Rebecca highlighted the importance of institutions committing to comprehensive infrastructural change and sustained investment when undertaking digitisation initiatives to avoid ad-hoc forays into collections access. However, Rebecca noted that resource limitations oftentimes make this an unattainable approach. Further, since it can take significant effort to establish digitisation and publications systems alone, the importance of facilitating audience engagements with the published collections risks going unrecognised.

Yet the online publication of collections does not guarantee the material will be accessed by widened audiences. Using Tate’s Archives & Access project as a case in point, Rebecca demonstrated how offering a range of ‘entry points’ to digitised collections can support varying levels of participation: from the additional access afforded by large-scale digital publication, to the entrees supported by online learning resources (such as explanatory films and blogs), to the in-person facilitated engagements, which can support audiences with differing levels of familiarity or confidence with cultural collections. Digital affordances allow new and exceptional modes of access, but some audiences may need support as they gain confidence and awareness of cultural collections before they take up that offer. In offering outreach in conjunction with digital access a more comprehensive cultural repositioning of cultural collections may be achieved in the long-term. However, with limited resources in mind, and a growing understanding of the role of outreach in engendering participation, advocacy remains necessary, the message being: publication and outreach in conjunction make for accessible – or rather accessed – open cultural data sets.

. Mia Ridge (British Library)

Dr Mia Ridge (British Library)

Dr Mia Ridge’s presentation followed. Mia suggested that we begin by problematising the notion of cultural data. She asked the room to firstly take into consideration the quality of any data set that may be made open – what errors might it contain? Is it viable as structured open data? –  and secondly to take into account the historicity of the set itself and its context of production. Does it contain any degree of cultural bias? Would it impart any degree of cultural bias if it was made open? To elucidate this point Mia references the digitally accessible Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 ‘A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court’ – which is an amazing resource – detailed and accessible, but also a necessarily limited one. Exposure to open access data sets poses a risk, insofar as cultural bias may be created by over or under representation in open cultural data collections. The lives of non-criminal Londoners 1674-1913 are not so easily accessed, for instance, which may effect how literature or historical accounts are researched, written and interpreted. Further, individual issues of data set quality have the potential to impact on intra-institutional structured cultural data sets. “Every institution catalogues its archives in very different ways”, noted Mia, which will inhabit the ability for data sets to be joined up, and stymie the ambitions of those who wish to make horizontal journeys. She suggests that staff involved in open cultural data projects would benefit from increased understanding from scholars and other institutions alike – joined up conversations help to navigating this complex and dynamic topic, and events, such as hackathons and roadshows, can help in this regard as well as break down barriers to participation. Data in all forms, from published to collections to outcomes of practice sharing, flows both ways,

Natalie Kane gave the final presentation of this panel; a fascinating talk that asked the room to challenge the politics of the archive, create parallel narratives, disrupt the space work occupies, interrogate categorisation and explore absence. “What might a postcolonial or feminist search engine look like?”, Natalie enquired. Pursuing this line of thinking, she showcased work from a range of artists who have explored this idea: 3D printing is mooted as a form of cultural reconstruction; a bust of Nefertiti is subject to a guerrilla-style digital scan as a challenge to colonial art theft; archival imagery is repurposed in unexpected ways, exploring absence and the tolerances in historical narratives. Natalie draws the audiences’ attention to Cécile B. Evans’ Agnes, a digital commission produced for the Serpentine Gallery’s website.  Agnes is a bot in possession of an ‘aim-to-please’ character that playfully offers website visitors information both direct and tangential in nature. Agnes’ contributions can delight, confuse or frustrate and ultimately showcases disruption and frustrated forays into cultural collections. Natalie seizes upon this lack of structural totality as a distinguishing characteristic for anyone person exploring immaterial collections, and expounds the limits, but also the potential, such terms of distinction offer.

Legalities and Logistics of Digitisation

Fred Saunderson (National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (British Library)

Fred Saunderson (National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (British Library)

The second panel of the day focused on the “legalities and logistics” of implementing and maintaining large scale digitisation projects. Our three presenters, Fred Saunderson (IP Specialist at the National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (IP Manager at Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (Project Manager at the British Library Labs) outlined some of the pragmatic difficulties that can potentially stand in the way of a project’s lofty open access ideals. All three presenters dispelled the optimistic notion that the online environment could somehow alleviate the need for material spaces and physical “leg work” in relation to these projects. Fred Saunderson opened the panel and helped extend our discussion beyond the confines of London. He highlighted the efforts made by the National Library to provide access to its collections to users across Scotland, despite being physically centred in Edinburgh. Online resources are not the only answer to this problem, he revealed, as onsite copyright licences can be considerably less restrictive and not all users gravitate to the digital realm. In response to these factors, the library has just opened a new film archive access centre at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, with dedicated onsite terminals. While the library has currently been focusing on “low-hanging fruit” (material readily available for digitisation under various existing copyright exceptions, such as preservation requirements), Fred noted that there are considerable “scaling up” challenges ahead as the institution is committed to having a third of its collection available in digital form by 2025.

Bernard Horrocks focused on Tate’s recent Archives and Access digitisation project funded by the Heritage Lottery and involving approximately 53,000 archival items. While these items are all wholly owned by Tate, their copyright is not – a situation which introduces some considerable IP challenges. The scale of the problem was made clear when Bernard revealed that, despite belonging to 53 distinct collections, the items involved in the project could be traced back to some 1,500 rights holders. The number of human hours and amount of chasing involved in securing these rights (including a flight to Zurich) was clear and rather daunting, yet Bernard highlighted the level of success Tate achieved, with 98% of rights holders agreeing to some form of creative commons licences. Bernard emphasized the mix of due diligence, risk assessment and judicious use of copyright exceptions necessary for a project of this magnitude.

Finally, Mahendra Mahey outlined the impressive number of projects that have been supported by the British Library Labs since its inception. The BL Labs is an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and charged with encouraging public use of the library’s digital collections and data. The nature of the projects supported by the Labs varies considerably and Mahendra introduced a number of recent competitions, residencies, collaborations and events. Again, the success of these digital initiatives required considerable “real world” leg work, as raising awareness of the BL Labs was dependent on going out and talking to people. Mahendra emphasized the importance of “learning the story of the collection” as the origins and background history of the data in question largely determines the challenges involved in making it open.

Ethics and Organisation

The final panel of the day took a turn towards the ethical and organisational challenges surrounding open cultural data. Initially, we were supposed to be joined by a representative from HEFCE, who was sadly laid up with an illness. In his stead, however, Mia Ridge rejoined the panel, which also consisted of Dr Mark Coté (Lecturer in Digital Cultures, King’s College), and Bill Thompson, Head of Partnership Development, Archive Development, at the BBC.

3. Bill Thompson (BBC) and Mark Coté (King’s College)

3. Bill Thompson (BBC) and Mark Coté (King’s College)

The paper given by Dr Coté was provocative. Arguing that many corporations are already collecting quantified behavioural data about users, he suggested that it was necessary for us to consider the opening of personal data as a site of political struggle. The suggestion seemed to be that because these corporations already act in this way, they remain the only entities who benefit from data analytics, leaving other actors out in the cold. But this suggestion came with many privacy challenges that left me feeling uncomfortable. I also was unclear over what political transformation we might see; do social justice organisations, for example, have the wherewithal and technical expertise to efficiently mobilise such data profiling – and how would it be used anyway?

Bill Thompson followed this with a talk about the institutional difficulties of working within an organisation such as the BBC at this time. Noting that the most recent charter for the organisation specifies little other than “programme making”, in contradiction to its founding remit of developing technologies for the public benefit, Bill pointed to the precariousness of his situation, working with the BBC archive; an amazing and diverse body of materials that are of enormous cultural significance.

The day closed with discussions evolving into wine but one final point struck me, that Mia brought home. In this final twist on “data produced by humans as cultural data”, Mia noted that the temporal distance between recording and exposure is now so limited as to cause problems. In a previous era, if one wrote a personal diary, one would expect this to remain private. Not so of the public documentation of lives on social media, which can affect employment and many other aspects of one’s life. Indeed, though, how can we know which elements of our practices might be troublesome? How can we possibly evaluate the transactional benefit against the (only moderately) deferred risk? How does such open cultural data lead to a change in our own behaviours? These are the challenges of open cultural data that arose in the final panel.

More photos of the event are available on flickr.

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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.

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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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