The Politics of Affect: an interview with Dr Audrey Reeves

medium-246537On Thursday 2 March, CIRE members enjoyed a talk by Dr Audrey Reeves from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) here at Bristol. Audrey shared with us her recent doctoral research exploring the politics of affect in the context of education for peace and conflict at the Pearl Harbor museums and memorials. Through a visual journey around the Pearl Harbor site, we were introduced to the increasing link between war museums and the wider tourism industry and consumerism. In particular, Audrey honed in on the idea of affect referring to the response of our bodies to stimuli, prior to any conscious or subjective reaction; emotion is a more conscious reaction that we display and can be put into words. Through the careful design of visitor sites, affect is therefore promoted in order to encourage or repress consumption. The Contemplation Circle at Pearl Harbor looks out across the water and contain the names of all Americans who died in the 1941 attack. The design reinforces the belief that this was a grievable event, with presumably innocent lives lost in an illegitimate attack at home from a foreign place (Japan) and dictates a quiet, sombre response. On the other hand, other areas are colourful and fun in design, reinforcing the idea of just wars, American force and protection; being uplifted means that people are more likely to buy. Audrey’s research encompassed museums in Germany, Israel and the UK as well as the USA, all of which demonstrate this principle.

Following the session, I had the opportunity to ask Audrey a bit more about her research and her journey in academia so far.

 

Laura: What drew you to studying museums?

Audrey: I was very keen to do my PhD at the intersection of feminist international studies and peace and conflict and security studies. I originally offered a completely different proposal, derived from my Masters degree, but two years into doing the research I stalled. I was finding all kinds of other things to do that were relevant to my development, like teaching, but I wasn’t doing the PhD. On the side I was doing a museum project that I had started as part of the Discourse Analysis unit I was taking with Prof Terrell Carver, one of my supervisors. I had really enjoyed writing the assignment and was told I should publish it and so I was trying to develop it further. A year or so later I realised that this had hijacked my thesis. I think at some point your interest evolves and you change as a person. I was making a bold move but I had my supervisors’ support. It did mean that my PhD was longer and that I had a tougher time at my viva.

 

How did you decide on your methodology?

I come from a Foucauldian background so discourse analysis was already what I had been doing. I think if you become proficient at doing a particular method or theory you are more likely to read the world in that particular way. When I started my PhD, discourse analysis in International Relations (IR) was still very focused on the written and spoken. Visual analysis was emerging, but I felt there was something lacking in terms of how embodied practices and bodily movement make up meaning. That was where I was going when I was looking at ‘affect’. I was lucky to have supervisors, Terrell but also Prof Jutta Weldes, who were open to me looking at things that were not traditional, yet forcing me to be rigorous in grounding my ideas in existing scholarship in other disciplines. Other people had done similar things before, I just didn’t know about it!

 

You have taken a very reflexive approach to your research…

It was difficult and involved a lot of moments of crisis in the research process, but they were productive. I am writing a piece at the moment for a volume on how to study emotions in IR (edited by Dr Maéva Clément and Dr Eric Sangar) where I am arguing for people to use autoethnography as part of their visits to sites that are experiential yet political at the same time – such as war memorials and museums. Taking one’s emotions seriously during the research process, including but not only during fieldwork as such political sites, is the means to keep one’s own assumptions in check about the object of study. We all have an emotional relationship to our object of study – we may be really enthusiastic, or may think there is something really wrong with the thing or people we study. These emotions are revealing about how we conceptualise that thing or group of people, the moral judgements we make about them and our own subjectivities, how we are positioning ourselves in discourses about the thing we study. Autoethnography is not simply about talking about your life, but using your experiences to learn and explain new things in the social world

 

What were the greatest challenges for you in your PhD?

If you are going to do fieldwork, you need to start looking early on for money, which I did not do as much as I could have. In retrospect, the nature of the project may have made this difficult anyway. Finding funding takes time and the problem was that as my project was evolving organically there was no grand plan or strategy from the start. I had to pay for a lot of it through working other jobs (such as teaching) as there was no time to apply for funding and wait for the response, which can take several months.

 

What advice do you have in balancing your own development with your PhD project?

For those of us that are looking for an academic job after a PhD the demands are really high. I was lucky with the people that surrounded me, my supervisors and senior PhD students who made it into a lecturing job, so had a good sense of what I had to do. But in terms of how to integrate it into everyday life and balance time management and priorities, that was hard. I got distracted with writing blogs, teaching, conferences and workshops. All these experiences were valuable and I don’t regret doing them – but now I’m finishing my PhD and I only have one peer-reviewed academic publication on my CV. That’s a problem as I can’t get a job with that, but I think I got distracted at times during my PhD as it felt easier to do things that have an immediate impact with instant gratification. Actually, it’s the publishable writing that counts!

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