Affect, art and scholarship

Earlier this month, a story that I had written with three young teachers was published in English in Australia. It is a piece of fiction, though we did try to follow the poet’s craft in that we drew from personal experience, we allowed our intuitions and our imaginations to shape what we created, and we worked hard to make our story ‘ring true’, to meet some difficult to define but keenly felt criteria of verisimilitude.

There have already been some interesting responses to our story. A beginning teacher wrote to me to speak of his relief at seeing in print something that made him feel that his own experiences were not isolated ones. An experienced teacher wrote to say that he recognised certain truths in the story about the complicated relationships between mentor teachers and those learning their craft in a practicum. Others, including one of my co-authors, have talked about the way the story changed their perceptions. It seems that the story has produced an affect, or many different affects.

I work in a university and I am therefore involved in research. Readers of this blog will know that I wrestle with the nature of my research. In relation to this story, the questions I often ask myself are these:

  • Is my research – in so far as it’s connected to stories like this one – to do with mapping and theorising the kinds of affects produced? In other words, is the scholarly act to do with stepping outside the writing of the story and researching its impact?
  • Is the actual writing of the story a scholarly act in itself? If so, what can we call this kind of scholarship? If not, what does it lack that scholarship has?
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

This morning I have read a wonderful book chapter which, while it doesn’t obviously answer my questions for me, certainly contributes to the complicated but interesting mix of thoughts in my head. The book is Deleuze and Research Methodologies, and the chapter is called ‘Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy’ by Anna Hickey-Moody.

I want to try to summarise the argument. I’m going to do this without opening the book again, because I know that if I do I’ll be tempted to quote large chunks of it, as it’s chock full of evocative phrases packed with resonances and (for me, anyway) affect. Her chapter rests on Spinoza’s philosophy, and on Deleuze and Guattari’s.

Affect is the imprint made on the body/mind by a body’s contact with its environment. With other bodies. These are not necessarily human bodies; bodies are assemblages of many different kinds. When a body is affected (made more or less powerful in its ability to act) by another body, this affect is registered in the body (as a feeling, or perhaps more as a changed state) and in the mind (as a thought, an image, an act of imagination). The body is changed by that contact. The subjectivity (or subjectivities) of the body is (are) in continual flux as a result of this perennial process. (As I read about this in the chapter, I’m feeling more light being shed in my labyrinth, more light on the three syntheses, and indeed a shifting feeling that perhaps I’m not in a Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth at the moment so much as exploring a tunnel or path or territory that is connected to other territories that I’ve found compelling in the past … there are links being made, and this is pleasurable).

A work of art is such an assemblage (in the case of our story, made up of connections and flows and interruptions made possible by the four authors talking, writing, being affected by each other, words being produced and seen and responded to, memories being evoked by the words and the subsequent exchanges, and so on). This assemblage is what Hickey-Moody (following Deleuze and Guattari) calls a ‘bloc of sensation’ … and here I cannot stop myself from opening the book and quoting her definition: ‘A bloc of sensation is a compound of percepts and affects, a combination of shards of an imagined reality and the sensible forces that the materiality of this micro-cosmos produces’ [94]. Art, she suggests, ‘has the capacity to change people, cultures, politics. Art is pedagogical’ [91].

As I read the article, I kept thinking of my two questions. Is she saying that job of the researcher is to map the affects that such a bloc of sensations produces, to document the ways in which art is pedagogical? Or is it to write about the world in such a way that our research papers (or our story, for example) produce affects, are in themselves blocs of sensation?

Mythopoetic knowing

How do I come to know anything? How do I know that what I think I have come to know has any kind of validity or usefulness? Are ‘usefulness’ and ‘validity’ two quite distinct things?

These seem, suddenly, quite pressing questions. My workplace is moving towards a more collaborative approach to research. I’ve already begun work in a small research collective, and the signs are that I’ll soon be working in a much bigger one.  The bigger collective will be working on projects of ‘national and international significance’. I know that I’ve been moving, in recent years, to a more consciously articulated ‘way of knowing’, which I’ve been calling here (following Macdonald) mythopoetics. In my bigger research team, I’ll need to be able to speak about what I think I can offer, as (for example) a research team investigates something like the connection between a nation’s desire to raise standards of professionalism and the introduction of accountability measures.

What contribution might mythopoetics make?

(I’ve picked this example because it was the question addressed in an excellent seminar at my university given by a visiting scholar last month.)

If I try to imagine a research team working on such a project, it’s easy to see how more traditional researchers might employ their methodologies to help come up with knowledge that is both useful and valid.

The statistician would look (as the visiting scholar did) at a wide range of national and international data to tell us something about student achievement, levels of teacher education, professional development trends, accountability measures and so on. The emphasis would be on the longitudinal and the big picture.

The sociologists and the critical theorists would contribute knowledge about societal dynamics and differences, and about the nature of the discourses operating (and their tensions), and about power differentials; we’d end up knowing more about the worlds in which policy makers, administrators and practitioners talk and think about their work, and about societal pressures that shaped certain decisions and outcomes.

What would mythopoetics contribute? As a mythopoetic scholar, what might I come to know about professionalism and accountability? How could I be confident that what I might know could be either valid or useful?

The mythopoetic approach seems to sit on very shaky ground. It rests on the belief that the unconscious is real, that it knows things, and that there are ways to access that knowledge. A mythopoetic methodology, then, is a communication between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Its sources are intuition and the imagination. It is, as Margaret Somerville has called it, a methodology of emergence. It involves patiently sitting with a question or an issue and allowing meaning to surface, then wrestling with what emerges in order to put it through some kind of refiner’s fire to test its validity and usefulness.

It is the methodology of the novelist and the poet, confronted with the blank page and guided by what emerges through the rigorous and disciplined attention given to the craft of creating an object that approximates, as closely as possible, a sense of the real, the authentic.

It is Proust coming to understand family, love and memory; Tolstoy making sense of war; Rilke opening our eyes to the invisible and numinous.