‘Your Nostalgia is Killing Me’: Activism, Affect and the Archives of HIV/AIDS
Nostalgia has long been dismissed and derided by scholars and popular commentators as a pointless and self-indulgent wallowing in the past that stands in the way of social change in the present and for the future. In this archival ethnography, I examine the critical potential of nostalgia as recorded and produced by archives documenting 1980s and 1990s HIV/AIDS activism in the United States. I argue that critical nostalgia, an ethical mode of critique grounded in the bittersweet longing for a past time or space, is a productive lens at every moment of collaboration between HIV/AIDS archives and the AIDS activist communities they document and serve. I present case studies using materials culled from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, and Visual AIDS, a community-based arts organization committed to raising AIDS awareness through visual art, assisting artists living with HIV/AIDS, and preserving artists’ legacies. Using these case studies, I show that critical nostalgia shapes the ways in which we record and remember in, with, and through archives. With attention to the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and ability, my inquiry focuses on the historical development of these collections, the connections of activists to their materials, and archivists’ relationships to the communities implicated in their records. I also analyze contemporary activists’ and artists’ creative use and reuse of these archival records to produce knowledge, provoke dialogue, preserve legacies, and support ongoing movements to end HIV/AIDS. These archives, which often center gay, white, middle class men, translate the past in and for the present, shaping collective memories and dominant historical narratives. Such memory practices and narratives in turn shape future possibilities. An analysis of the data collected through ethnographic fieldwork resulted in the rich description of these phenomena that is fundamental to the project of building theory around the concept of nostalgia. The nostalgias produced and reproduced by these archives and their materials infuse and constrain present HIV/AIDS activism, cultural productions, and the lives and life chances of those living with HIV and AIDS. This dissertation demonstrates that archives and critical nostalgia in combination are an essential means to reflect on the past in the contextualized manner necessary to for fostering communal identity and direct action in the present and future. Ultimately, a responsible and ethical scholarship and activist archiving practice must harness critical nostalgia to actively engage and to serve the archives constituencies with an eye to the present and future.