How to Research Affect Ethnographically: A #AAA2012 Panel Review

Photo by Jaime Silva, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

How are anthropologists and other ethnographers to study the seemingly ephemeral and slippery category of affect? This was the question taken up by the three presenters and three discussants at a panel at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association entitled "Researching Affect/Affecting Research: Empathy and Imagination in Anthropological Methods."

Elizabeth Anne Davis considered the question in the context of her experiences trying to conduct visual ethnography with the Campaign for Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP). Despite the frequent presence of cameras at CMP-sponsored exhumations, Davis was denied permission to film interviews with the forensic team and relatives of the disappeared. Out of this fraught experience, Davis was able to describe the creation of a new subgenre, whereby the CMP values the indexical evidentiary power of bones rather that the iconic confessional testimony of victims. Discussing the paper, William Mazzarella pointed out that even the rhetoric of transparency that the CMP cultivates produces its own opacities, evoking the idea that there is always more to be revealed. Mazzarella asked the audience to consider the process by which bones acquire meanings in affective interactions with humans and media technologies.

Moving away from the visual, Lila Allen Gray examined the ways affect is rendered audible in ethnographic practice. Through an examination of fado music in Lisbon, Portugal, Gray demonstrated the ways that subtleties of voice and music—which are difficult to capture in writing or musical notation—carry rich meanings that can enhance the practice of ethnography. These learned and embodied forms of listening, Gray argued, become a conduit for emotional engagement. Such engagement can occur in the ephemeral moment of a song just as much as the fetishized concrete object, like a worn-down record. Discussing the paper, Valentina Napolitano called for special attention to the pedagogies that enable these sorts of listening. Napolitano also emphasized the importance of developing new strategies for writing with care, as Gray had done, cultivating a politics of representation capable of exploring its own hauntings.

Yael Navaro-Yashin examined the affectively charged solidarity protests in Turkey following the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Navaro-Yashin focused on the cultivation of vijdan, a Turkish concept roughly translated as an inner, individual sense of ethics, a judgment of the heart that promotes empathy and solidarity. Navaro-Yashin traced the ways that vijdan promoted critiques of the state, calling into question the official narrative of the 1915 genocide, while simultaneously mobilizing a public against the state’s current treatment of Armenians. Ultimately, however, Navaro-Yashin warned against idealizing vijdan. Affect, she pointed out, is unstable, especially when its basis is a public that must see the other as somehow like themselves, rather than embracing their difference. Discussing the paper, Diane Nelson argued for renewed attention to the performative in public displays of affect. Beyond focusing on the limitations of such public performances of affect, Nelson urged the audience to consider the ways that even forced or feigned performances of affect produce new subjectivities and sensibilities.

Taken together, the panelists and discussants offered an innovative set of techniques for the ethnographic study of affect. They called upon researchers to be particularly attentive to their own experiences of affect, both in how they share in the emotional responses of their informants and in how their own responses differ. These interventions remind us that, as anthropologists, we must be mindful not only of what goes on in the field, but also of how these events’ circulate in mass media, public gatherings, and in our own writings.