Inquiring About Affect - A Conversation with Naomi Greyser

Authored on:

Mar 20, 2014

Naomi GreyserHow might the work of artists, scholars, and activists be more pleasurable and easeful? How might our working environments and labor conditions be more healthy? These are some of the questions this year’s Obermann Humanities Symposium, Affect & Inquiry, will address. Co-directed by Naomi Greyser (Rhetoric, CLAS), Deborah Whaley (American Studies, CLAS), and Jeffrey Bennett (Communication Studies, CLAS), the three-day symposium, March 27-29, will welcome leaders in the field of affect studies to the UI campus for keynote lectures, panels, brownbag lunches, and performances. Obermann Assistant Director Jennifer New (JN) talked with Naomi Greyser (NG), pictured at left, to learn about the conference.

The Lived Experience of Knowledge Creation

JN:  How did you become interested in organizing this year’s Obermann Humanities Symposium, Affect & Inquiry? What gaps in the field of affect studies do you hope it will fill? 

NG: Deborah, Jeff, and I are all invested in stepping back and reflecting on the material conditions where we create knowledge--where “knowledge” encompasses a full range of projects and practices, including art, teaching, research, activism, collegiality, engagement and other forms of service. I've been inspired by how both of my colleagues support graduate students, colleagues, and the profession with an amazingly attuned awareness of how and why we do the work we (mostly!) love to do.  

Though each of us is in different departments, we all work in a growing field in the interdisciplinary humanities, affect studies. This field provides us a way to think powerfully about the lived experience of creating knowledge —how it feels to extrude paint, to stare down a blinking cursor on a screen, or to step into the social rhythms of a laboratory as a working community.

Exploring Work-Life Balance

JN: For those who are less familiar with it, can you give an overview of this burgeoning field?

NG: Sure!  Affect is a word that situates emotions in a social and political context. Researchers in affect studies define emotions not as private, but as shaped through publics, technologies, and social conditions – and therefore as profoundly political. Sara Ahmed (The Promise of Happiness, 2010), for instance, charts the unequal social distribution of happiness. She tracks myths about “happy housewives” and “melancholy migrants” to expose raced and gendered patterns of coercion into devalued labor. Work like hers builds on a longer genealogy from Aristotle to Adam Smith, Spinoza to Nietzsche to Freud, who considered the human condition in relation to both reason and emotion.

Only a very few people in affect studies, however, have turned their attention to the psychic life of knowledge, and its social, political, and material contexts. We wanted to ask:  What do people need to do their best work?  This question feels really radical, even subversive to me right now. In a moment of budget crunches and an onslaught of pieces about the “Humanities in Crisis,” how can we take time to ask what we most need and want as artists and humanists and people who care about our social world?  It is a rare luxury to be able to spend time strategizing together about the social and physical environments where we work and their impact on us.  It also feels urgent to me right now--a luxury but also a necessity--because a lot of us are feeling like it is hard to keep on doing what we live to do given the precariousness of life in the academy (and globally) right now.  

Kerry Ann Rockquemore"Where are you stuck?" 

JN:  In addition to your faculty position, Naomi, I believe you work with one of the keynote speakers, Kerry Ann Rockquemore (pictured at left), and the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity—an organization the University of Iowa has joined to support the work of our faculty members. As a writing coach, you work regularly with small groups of especially underrepresented faculty across North America to enhance their research productivity as well as “work-life balance.” I am curious about your experience as both a faculty member and a writing coach with regards to the question you pose: What do people need to do their best work? I realize that some of this is individual – one person needs the quiet of a writing carrel and another needs the energy of a coffee shop. But do you have any broad thoughts?

NG: I think you are right that people have individual orientations, desires, and needs! Psychologists often talk about flow, which is supposed to be an experience of “balance” between challenge and skill that positive psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi have promoted. I appreciate Csíkszentmihályi's interest in our finding a sense of joy in tasks, and I think most of us recognize a feeling of being swept up in a project, or deep immersion when a project feels like its own reward. Yet, I also really appreciate affect theorists like Ann Cvetkovich (who will be joining us for the symposium and speaking on Saturday morning) and Ahmed, who offer alternatives to “finding” flow – or joy— or happiness. They each point out the difference between offering “guideposts” for “the good life” (as Martin Seligman does) and examining critically how our culture values “certain forms of personhood” in ways that distribute positive affects and experiences unevenly (Ahmed 11).  Cvetkovich (Depression: A Public Feeling, 2012) is very clear about wanting to “depathologize negative feelings so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action” (2), especially in a world where it might make sense to feel depressed or find it difficult to work, given that our bodies and minds and souls are asked to be flexible and increasingly available in a global capitalist labor market.

What I call “rhetorical affect studies” situates emotion within value systems, physical environments, discursive forms, and material practices for the sake of understanding their emergence as political. So as both a writing coach and someone who works in the critical interdisciplinary humanities, I like to ask people, “Where are you stuck?” And I like to take the answer to that question seriously as a knowledge problem, not as a reflection of someone’s individual shortcoming (e.g., “lack of flow” or “lack of expertise” or what a lot of us sometimes feel in a moment of stuckness--you know, that we're somehow not smart enough).  

When we depersonalize the negative affects attending the writing process while at the same time totally taking that emotional experience seriously as telling us something, often words and ideas—knowledge can emerge. Sometimes the knowledge that emerges from those stuck places is powerful because it can reflect on the epistemological or disciplinary blindspots or limits of a field, not a person. To do our best work, I think we need to feel like we are respected and taken seriously for what we do--so that it is easier for us to take ourselves seriously even in moments of self-doubt. Especially in the humanities, naming the knowledge problems that undergird our work even as we undertake that work vigorously can be a powerful position to proceed from.

The Psychic Life of Knowledge

JN: You note that “only a very few people in affect studies have turned their attention to the psychic life of knowledge, and its social, political, and material contexts.” For faculty and grad students considering attending the conference, can you tell us what are some of the central questions that these theorists are raising about the “psychic life of knowledge,” questions that we can expect to hear probed during Affect & Inquiry?

NG:  I think of work like Judith Halberstam's Queer Art of Failure (2012) or José Muñoz’s powerful project on “Feeling Brown.” These scholars understand affect as “organizing our reality” in ways that very much pertain to race or gender yet avoid what Muñoz calls “the pull of identitarian models of relationality.” [A note that José Muñoz, who had been scheduled to speak at the conference, passed away unexpectedly in December; a panel about the influence of his work will take place Thursday afternoon.]

Halberstam explicitly challenges “approved methods of knowing” to validate exploring the counterintuitive or the complex — and does this difficult work in sparkling and humorous ways via attention to children’s animated features alongside avant-garde performance. I don't know that these figures have named their work as attending to inquiry as a lived, affective experience, but I see them opening our discussion.  

Cruel Optimism coverApproaching Inquiry as Both Grounded and Theoretical

JN:  You are convening highly theoretical scholars, such as Lauren Berlant, on one end, and highly pragmatic thinkers, such as Kerry Ann Rockquemore, on the other. What are your hopes as organizers in bringing together such relatively disparate intellectuals? I'm curious both what might be the experience of the attendee in hearing from these different kinds of experts, as well as your hopes for possible outcomes in the field of affect studies.

NG:  That is a really good question. I feel like our conference is part of recent efforts to undo some of the binaries out there about the humanities — that we in the humanities are valuable because we attend to grounded and material contexts, or that we are valuable because we are theoretical and resist commodification.  Our conference really approaches inquiry as both grounded and theoretical.  Inquiry can be highly abstract, and it also an embodied activity - you know, we need food and drink and time and space and experiences and stimulation and calm and sleep and a lot of other things to create.  Inquiry can be valuable when it makes us step back and notice complications we hadn’t recognized (in activism or a performance or an article), but also when it provides solutions to problems or is applicable in various ways.  We are exposing the complexity of the material conditions for the production of intellectual labor – and we are also wanting to smooth the way for people who want to work with more ease.

Lauren Berlant (who is our closing keynote on Saturday) is obviously one of the more theoretically honed minds in the interdisciplinary humanities. She is also seriously interested in writing as a material practice, and on her blog Supervalent Thought posts a number of pieces exploring constraints writers face. Kerry Ann Rockquemore will be giving a plenary presentation on Friday that includes a hands-on workshop designed to help us break through perfectionism and into writing.  She  develops research-based practices in relation to her acute theorization of academia as a social context with its own histories, rituals, power structures, and reproductive mechanisms. 

I think this combination of theory and praxis could be very powerful in getting us to both think about and then also do our inquiry differently.  From exploring how art engages the senses in ways that are healing and political, as Ann Cvetkovich (a keynote speaker) will do, to contemplating computers as “debility and capacity machines,” as Jasbir Puar (another keynote speaker) cheekily puts it, to chalking responses on our affect wall, our hope is that our events will draw us into considering the creative and created dimension of our activities, so that they show up in fresh ways. 

I’d like to consider together as a community the uneven distribution of flow and ease in academia, as some voices, experiences and perspectives are more valued by disciplines, scholarly conventions, and the history of the academy as a space built with particular bodies and subjects in mind.  Mostly, though, I want us to tap in to why we love to do the things we love to do, and have them seem a bit stranger yet also more possible than they did the day before.  That's a lot - but maybe a glimmer of that would be amazing!