BISA Working Group on Emotions in Politics and IR and the University of St Andrews, School of International Relations
By Chaeyoung Yong, PhD candidate, University of St Andrews
On 3 September 2019, the University of St Andrews held a postgraduate workshop on “Globalising Emotion Studies: Embracing Multiple Voices”, funded by BISA’s Emotions in Politics and IR Working Group and the University of St Andrews. This workshop intended to question the Euro/Western-centric roots of emotions research and embed this burgeoning research agenda into debates on Global IR. The workshop was keen to provide a space for dialogue and mutual learning between emotion researchers and researchers who are interested in Global IR and decolonial approaches.
Professor Karin M. Fierke (St Andrews) opened the workshop by asking why we need to globalise emotion studies. She pointed to the necessity of multiple angles and methods, arguing that recognising a multiplicity of emotions leads to a diversity of life. The first panel focused on the reflection of knowledge-production on emotions, whether emotions research is diverse or/and inclusive in dealing with marginalised dimensions such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, and culture. Chaeyoung Yong (St Andrews) suggested several agendas of globalising emotion studies by problematising the Western-centrism of emotion studies and stressing the importance of engaging with plural narratives and listening to marginalised voices from the ‘non-West’. Katharina Hunfeld (St Andrews) followed up on the discussion by emphasising ‘epistemic injustice’ which is embedded in the Western-centric knowledge production in IR and reproduced as gatekeeping mechanisms such as the lack of respect for non-Western epistemic capacity. Her crucial point was that the call for globalising emotion studies is not just to merely ‘include’ non-Western narratives but to ‘overcome’ long-standing epistemic injustice that silences epistemic diversity. The panel ended with Charles Gray (Leeds) who discussed Western-centric narratives of Russia’s foreign policy as ‘revanchist’ and potential ways to excavate different layers of Russian foreign policy. In this way, he offered empirical evidence of the Western-centrism inherent in emotion studies.
The second panel explored the multifaceted emotional dynamics beyond the Western experience and interrogated how emotion studies can bridge ‘the West/non-West divide’ in terms of theorising and empirical research. Ahmed Abozaid (St Andrews) pointed to the need to explore new epistemological and methodological tools beyond the Eurocentric epistemological perspectives which have built upon Western experiences. To understand states’ behaviour and counterterrorism discourses in non-Western societies such as the MENA region, he investigated the genealogy of states’ use of violence from the premodern period. Scott Edwards (Bristol) examined how the concept of ‘trust’ can be developed from non-Western perspectives and contexts by analysing trusting practices and ideas shared among actors within the ASEAN.
The third panel examined global emotional actors in non-Western contexts. Shamima Ahmed (Portsmouth), for example, attended to the contemporary challenges of refugees and the various emotional backgrounds of actors in dealing with numerous refugee crises. Her research on border security in Myanmar highlighted contrasting political and emotional contexts between the Global North and the Global South. Moutaz Alkheder (St Andrews) investigated the role of humour, often neglected in emotion studies, in counterterrorism strategy of Anti-Extremist rhetoric. He provided a detailed theoretical discussion of humour, joy, and satire as well as empirical illustrations of Arabic comedy shown in popular videos and cartoons. This panel considered the innovative research agendas on practices of emotions in contemporary policies through keen attention to non-Western contexts and voices.
Related to Moutaz’s presentation, the workshop concluded with a documentary screening, watching the first episode, War: The Survivors, of Dangerous World of Comedy (2019) by Larry Charles. I chose this documentary as food for thought to rethink the underexplored role of joy in global politics where fear, hatred, and misery seemed dominant. This Netflix series looks at the role of humour in ‘unlikely’ and ‘dangerous’ places, highlighting the power of comedy as a tool of healing and rebuilding people’s lives in the face of violence and death. Larry Charles, the director, interviewed various comedians in conflict zones such as Iraq and Liberia. The content provoked questions about what is acceptable as comedy, to whom and why. I was aware that this documentary can be emotionally distressful due to the content and somewhat Western, male-centered perspectives. As this documentary drew on American popular culture as a reference to make a joke, one of the audiences found it difficult to laugh about it. Yet, all kindly shared their honest feelings and opinions of the film.
We found that there is a blurred line between political satire and humour, and the way comedy becomes a power largely depends on each context. Answering whether comedy can be a survival mechanism, a pedagogic tool or a relaxing step was not easy. As the comedians in the film were ‘in’ conflict settings and their comedy linked to war, we discussed whether comedy could, in the end, be a coping mechanism that was delaying actual healing rather than genuine therapy. Regarding the question of whether joy and comedy fit together, we concluded that comedy can not only generate exhilaration but also constitute a tool of forgetting and ignorance. Also, we discussed when humour derives from ‘othering’ since laugh may involve a sense of superiority over the target of humour by humiliating them. The final discussion was about the lack of feminist perspectives and experiences in the documentary which largely interviewed male comedians and seemed to merely ‘add’ few female comedians in Liberia.
Hence, the workshop interrogated critical enquires on the politics of emotions and was a successful stepping stone to globalise emotion studies. Yet, while we attempted to navigate non-Western experiences and contexts, incorporating non-Western thought and ideas into our discussion was limited. The next workshop, hosted by the Working Group, on “The West and the Rest? Challenging the Emotions Research Agenda” in December at London South Bank University will also seek to broaden the complex questions raised in this workshop by exploring the everyday politics of emotions from non-Western and postcolonial perspectives on emotions.