Briefly, on Dual Pandemics and Archives of Feelings

AO, RG 10-20-F-0, Rockwood Asylum – Admissions, Warrants & Histories

On many occasions throughout my research work for this project, I’ve thought back to an elective course that I took at McGill University as part of my Master of Information Studies: “Archives/Anarchives – Practices of Potential.”  I was exposed to an array of robust and useful theoretical frameworks that allowed me to consider issues related to power, access, and narrative, which neatly complemented the more “nuts and bolts” knowledge that I was acquiring in core courses (i.e., how to create a finding aid, database management, etc.).  Among the most influential experiences in this course was engaging with Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Spaces.  The text is “organized as an ‘archive of feelings,’ an exploration of cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions, which are encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception” (6).  With respect to her activism and personal experiences, Cvetkovich also writes, “the AIDS crisis offered clear evidence that some deaths were more important than others and that homophobia and, significantly, racism could affect how trauma was publicly recognized” (5).

I see the materials with which the team has engaged for the GMM project, in some ways, as a repository of feelings and emotions.  Feeling drives so much in the practice of the documents’ production in terms of medium, tone, audience etc.  Fear of embarking on a transatlantic journey into the unknown.  Pain in the separation from family.  Hate towards a person one sees as unworthy of their care.  Emotion is inseparable from the practice of receiving the texts.  Intake records are so often heartbreaking and it is not easy to read about people dying in an asylum.  I have cried while working with these materials.  These emotions and feelings have histories of their own.  They are central to texts themselves as well as the experience of their reception.

I’ve also been meditating on other pandemics and how they reinforce Cvetkovich’s words about some lives being valued more than others.  Many studies highlight the dual pandemics of racism and COVID-19 (with similarities to the AIDS crisis and homophobia); this is evidenced by the rise in anti-Asian racism, and the fact that COVID-related death rates among BIPOC people are disproportionately higher than rates among white people.  I see this dual pandemic in the historical documents about the experience of Irish people living with mental illness in Canada during the cholera epidemic and the typhus pandemic that I have transcribed, translated, and analyzed for the GMM project.  The very language used in transcripts of hospital board meetings debating the policy of intaking Irish immigrants who require treatment is steeped in the language of the pandemic of hate.  A common thread thus connects the topic of Cvetkovich’s work, the subject of the GMM project, and the current moment: rather than having parallel trajectories, these pandemics are intrinsically related; the pandemic of hate creates the conditions for the virus to thrive.

                                                                                                ~ GMK

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