Affective societies, affected scientists! Five questions to Adam Alston

The interview series poses questions concerning the role of affects and emotions in research practice and contemporary society to researches on short-term visit and associate members of the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies”. Today, we introduce Adam Alston who is Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Surrey. His research explores the aesthetics and politics of immersive theatre, audience participation in theatre and non-theatre settings and the phenomenology of complete darkness in theatre. He’s the author of Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation (2016) and (co-edited with Martin Welton) Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (2017). He’s invited to our CRC in April 2018 as short-time fellow and guest lecturer of the Spring School “The Power of Immersion”.

Adam Alston

1. Which research question affects you at the moment? What is its social significance?

In the UK at the moment our Universities and Colleges Union has called for strike action. We have recently completed 14 days of strike action, with another 14 days planned for late spring. This is all in response to proposed cuts to staff pensions, which led to a number of difficult conversations with colleagues and students as the impact of these strikes was – and is – worked through. While the solidarity demonstrated by staff and students in support of the strike has been inspiring, draconian treatment of staff by management (which has been well-documented at a number of universities) as a result of the strikes led to a great deal of resentment, and much wider discussion about the neoliberalisation of higher education in the UK. I say all this to offer a bit of context as to the questions that are not so much informing recently completed work, but that will no doubt play into what I approach moving forwards, particularly around the politics of antagonism, dissensus and compromise, alongside their diverse affective resonances. These are inherently social issues with important political and ethical ramifications.

2. Can you think of an emotion whose relevance has recently surprised you?

In light of the above, I would say anxiety. Anxiety is not a surprising emotional state in higher education – in fact I’d struggle to think of a more common one – but what surprised me was how anxiety found itself linked not so much to the day-to-day practices of teaching and research, as to how we, as staff and students, relate to one another in a context that we might otherwise like to think is predicated on collegiality and mutual respect.

3. Do you perceive any affective driving force or affective barrier concerning your research work?

See above! This is a particularly pertinent issue in the neoliberal university, which values metrics and data over and above the content, quality and rigour of research, at least as far as universities themselves are concerned. The bodies that actually rate the quality research, though – in the UK context this would be the so-called Research Excellence Framework – do nonetheless go to great lengths to measure the “value” and significance of research. So what this means for researchers is that they feel pressure both to produce as much as possible, to publish as many publications as possible to satisfy the universities, whilst also ensuring that this doesn’t end up reducing the quality and rigour of the research if they are to avoid receving low scores in external research measurement exercises. Researchers are caught, in other words, between a rock and hard place. They find themselves “driven” by a sense of obligation to produce, whilst rubbing up against an affective “barrier” that needs to be continually overcome within an academic context.

4. Which book has lately affected you the most?

The book I’ve been reading most recently is Rose Biggin’s Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience: Space, Game and Story in the Work of Punchdrunk (2017). It’s an intelligent and rigorous book, and essential reading for anyone with an interest in immersive theatre. However, the book that affected me most over the past few months was probably Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017). Like all of her books, the pace and thrust of the writing is thrilling, but in this case the challenge of how to approach the book on the basis of my own gendered and sexual experience was particularly affective, often in ways that were profoundly, if productively, unsettling.

5. From which feelings or sentiments would you rather refrain at the moment?

Given the above, finding ways to abstract oneself from the political, social and cultural production of anxiety harboured by the neoliberal university would be most welcome. I’m looking forward to this spring school as welcome respite, then, and as an opportunity to share ideas and challenge one another in ways that are mutually enriching.