Affective societies, affected scientists! 5 Questions to Dina Makram-Ebeid

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 Dina Makram-Ebeid who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo. During the Workshop “Affective Politics and political transformation in Turkey and Egypt”, organized by the subproject C01 “Emotion and Affect within the context of authoritarian Transformation in Egypt and Turkey” (December 5/6 2019), she presented a paper on “Trauma and the Haunted Archives of the Aftermath of Revolution in Egypt”. Jana Treffler interviewed her on that occasion.

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

I often think of research as something that helps me survive. So recently, I’m interested in research questions on feminist politics of care, also things that have to do with feminist resistance and re-centering women’s wellness and well-being in movements.

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

This is going to get personal. I am trying to bypass it, but I can’t. I’m thinking a lot about shame, I guess this comes from being interested in women and their trajectories after the revolution and also from the work of my best friend Yara Sallam who has produced a book on women’s wellness after the revolution. So, I think it comes out of an internalized question about how to make sense of all these years. I wonder: were we just stupid? Have we just lost our lives fighting for illusive things? And I’m not really sure what this is called, maybe it is called shame, guilt, whatever it is, resentment. So, these are just things I’m trying to understand. I am also interested in surprise. It comes out of my teaching, not necessarily my research. Recently I have been teaching the same courses for quite a bit and I was starting to feel I’m just teaching the same things, but I realised it’s far from this – I now cherish the ability to be surprised by things that come up unexpectedly, by beautiful things and new perspectives that emerge out of the blue, even in the most conventional and repetitive settings. The ability to be surprised surprises me.

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

These are difficult questions! Given the topic of today’s talk [“Trauma and the haunted archives of the aftermath of revolution in Egypt” – ed. note], I think it is very hard to imagine what your driving forces are and often one has to ask again and again, what’s the point of doing this, what’s the point of doing this, what’s the point of doing this. If your work is about trauma and repression, it’s hard to be hopeful. I often feel like, because of the situation we are in, there is no point in doing this. But I think there is also just joy, in finding that things come together, the joy of writing, even though I really find writing gruesome. But there is something beautiful in the ability to create and I think that is the driving force, it is an attempt to create, to build, to be a witness, to tell stories when everything else doesn’t make sense and you know that your possibility to change things on the ground is not so high. For the affective barriers, there are so many, but I think mostly a sense of the uselessness of research in repressive conditions, the difficulty of it, the fact that being an engaged academic took away so much time from one’s ability to enjoy other things in life. I think there are a lot of barriers, but I keep trying to remember my driving forces.

4. Which book has lately affected you the most?

An academic book that I have been reading again is “Ghostly Matters” by Avery Gordon and I love it, I really love it. It is nice to read, the ability to just enjoy the writing of someone who is thinking of how we do sociological research in different ways, it’s beautiful, especially that her work on haunting opens up to me so much about how to find a language that talks about things that preoccupy me and are recurring without needing to pathologize them as ‘trauma’ or other. I’ve also been reading books that are less academic and more self-help about perfectionism and vulnerability and such.

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

Oh my God, I didn’t expect that! I think sentimental defeat, I would like to refrain from that because they are very difficult to keep living with, so I want to find a way out somehow, not refrain altogether from the feeling of defeat, because they also inform a lot of our experience of the world but sometimes they take over too much and I think maybe there is something else to be explored, something more than defeat.