Affective societies, affected scientists! 5 questions to Alison Rooke

The interview series poses questions concerning the role of affects and emotions in research practice and contemporary society to researchers on short-term visit and associate members of the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies”. Today, we introduce Alison Rooke who is a is a sociologist with a special focus on urban theory and creative research methods at Goldsmiths, University of London. Furthermore, she’s the Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research. Alison Rooke was part of the interdisciplinary symposium “Affect and Gender between Academia, Arts and Activsm” at our CRC this spring.


1. Which research questions affects you most at the moment?

I have worked for many years researching the arts and cultural sector, in particular, I have been concerned with the ways institutions and organisations include various publics in institutions through ‘participation’, collaboration and public engagement. Much of this work is well-meaning. I am interested in the experience of the workers tasked with engagement and participation.


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

I am interested in the emotions surrounding acts of kindness. I am interested in the ways this can translate into feelings of community and connectedness and the ways it can hold existing power relations in place, placing the person on the receiving end of the gift in a position of obligation (à la Marcel Mauss’s theory of the Gift). I am interested in this in my professional and personal life. I volunteer on the committee of a community arts centre and do a lot of fundraising for community activities and maintaining an old building. This offers me, and others involved, multiple opportunities for kindness and generosity. I don’t do this to generate appreciation or gratitude but I am aware that even though this seems selfless: giving up evenings and days to work for the community is also a gift to the self, in that it’s incredibly rewarding and satisfying to be able to make a small difference locally in such troubled times.


3. Do you perceive driving force or affective barrier concerning your research work? Can you think of an emotion whose relevance has recently surprised you?

I am interested in how cultural institutions can find value disagreement, anger, frustration and conflict. In my recent research work on museum engagement I have been surprised by how feelings of anger and frustration are received and managed and the significance of an organisational atmosphere of kindness. At the moment I am interested in the benefits of conflict for institutions working with the public. So often when publics and ‘communities’ interact with institutions these encounters are filled with institutional benevolence and a strong emphasis is placed on generating agreement. I find that a great deal of emphasis is placed on kindness and benevolence. This is at once interpersonal (through workers responsible for this agenda being genuinely kind, thoughtful and considerate) and institutional  (that the gallery/museum is being kind in allowing various publics to collaborate with them). The risk here is that this dynamic of kindness generates reciprocal feelings of gratitude which results in a reluctance to be critical about institutional arrangements from those invited to the party. This plays out through those invited not wanting to hurt the feelings of well-meaning workers. Being considerate of people’s needs and making sure they are met in spaces of participation is good professional practice for museums and other cultural institutions that seek to be more open and responsive and ultimately more representative of the populations they serve. However, the value of conflict and criticality need to be embraced and recognised as valuable, rather than an interruption of the ‘good feelings’ generated through participation. I find Chantal Mouffe’s work on agonism inspiring in this regard and her argument that a healthy public space is one that allows for conflict and disagreement. It is only through acknowledging the relations of power that are just under the surface of these seemingly benign and well-meaning encounters that the desired change in power relations can be realised.


4. Which book has lately affected you the most?

I am reading Chris Kraus’s work at the moment. I am a little late to her writing which was published in the late 1990s. For me, her work provides an insight into the emotions that are ‘behind the scenes’ in the work of producing art and academic research. Her books Torpor and I Love Dick are about a couple. She is an artist living on grants, constantly writing grant applications, making indecipherable unfinished experimental films while her husband is tenured internationally mobile Professor of cultural theory. The work is very observant humorous and makes me laugh out loud at times. I recognise the characters she writes about and the worlds she describes. Kraus’s feminist perspective on academic labour is insightful. Her writing is about the ways that (male) intellectual reputations are built, the sometimes torturous work of writing or thinking about writing, the production of theory and its relationship to lived time, and how feelings of failure and inadequacy surround so much academic and artistic work.


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

I am trying to refrain from feelings of despair given the prospect of Brexit and the rise of populist sentiment in the UK and across Europe and the destruction of the planet.