How should I begin, How should I presume: framing our thinking for radical research

Subjectivity means studying what one has experienced oneself and valuing it.

Theresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect

With great research comes great responsibility. To enter a space, to question, to prod, to theorize, to document, all require tact. Our perceptions, our deductions, and our phrasing of those perceptions and deductions have the real — and by real, I mean visceral — capability of influencing the world. Relaying information roundly and dynamically while staying true to the truth of the subject matter is an incredibly weighty undertaking. We must recognize the reach of our action: how when we enter an environment, we impact that environment. To do research responsibly, we much approach with intention. This intention begins with setting a framework of thinking before we even begin to explore the matter. How can we frame our thinking to ensure that the research we do will do our subjects justice?

In the field of research, empathy is boldness.

In her book, The Transmission of Affect, Theresa Brennan explores the profound importance of affect, of feeling as it is shared and transmitted from sources outside the body into the body, and vice versa. Empathy is an acknowledgement of affect: it gives importance and validity to what is often over-looked and written off in Western ways of understanding the world as unimportant because it is not physical or embodied. Brennan makes the argument that affect is in fact physical.

In the field of research, empathy is boldness. By this I mean active, intentional empathy: engaging with and making a genuine attempt to understand both the said and the unsaid experiences and truths of the other. Abandoning the rote, canonical insistence on the objective approach; the approach that values primarily what can be seen and calculated and quantified, that paradoxically believes that maintaining a marked distance is essential to the discernment of a bigger picture. Instead, approaching with an acceptance of the existence, influence, and affect of subjectivity. Validating the unquantifiable and “unscientific” feelings (as Brennan defines them, “sensations that have found their match in words”). Empathy as a framework of thinking allows for multiplicity and for — and this is the essential, the radical — both the animate and the inanimate subjects, for those who can speak for themselves and all that which cannot.

In her book Vibrant Matter, political theorist Jane Bennett makes a case for the vibrancy — vivaciousness and aliveness — of all matter, even that which is reasonably accepted as inanimate (picture here; trash, sidewalks). She expands our colloquial definition of matter to encompass not just that which is physical but that which is of a more nebulous definition, like the environment of a room or the collective of a crowd.

Perceiving all subject matter as vibrant, as sentient and alive, as experiencing and interacting, is radical in that it is conversational. It levels the dynamic between the researcher and the researched. It makes it possible to meet people and things where they are and as they are. It forces complete immersion and receptiveness on the part of the researcher, and thus grants a clarity that cannot be seen through an objective lens.

What does this mean for my research? As I begin my journey into researching the Urban Agriculture scene of New York, I will delve beyond the quantifiable. In critically questioning the practices of Urban Farms whether they live up to their bold goals of expanding access to produce, improving environmental conditions, and educating communities as well as the short- and long-term sustainability of their structures and flows, I will give equal importance to the subjective, in my experiences of these places, the experiences of those closely involved with them, and the experience of being in the farms themselves. I will grapple with both the effectiveness and the affectiveness of the Urban Agriculture movement.

Spurthi Kontham (reach me at konthamspurthi at g-mail dot com)

Works Cited:
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press, 2004.

~ by Spurthi Kontham on September 23, 2019.

4 Responses to “How should I begin, How should I presume: framing our thinking for radical research”

  1. Most affected/engaged: “empathy is an acknowledgment of affects: importance and validity to what is often over-looked and written off in Western ways of understanding the world as unimportant because it is not physical or embodied.” I feel engaged with the strategy and feelings when approaching an ecology with intentions, which make us not objective but more related to what’s being physically embodied through all actants in an ecology.

  2. Best Overall: Your post read like a manifesto. There were many affective sentences like the line “empathy is boldness,” as well as a lot of informative contextualization of key concepts from both readings that just left a strong impression on me.

  3. I feel this post is the most engaged. You are theorizing how you will approach your research with RESPONSIBILITY, a value that I think all of the class will eventually have to think long and hard about as we continue to discuss ecologies and communities in precarity.

  4. Best Overall: I think all blog posts have achieved the goal of the assignment. Ultimately I chose this post as the best because I think it is designed the best. The images, the pulled out quotation in bigger font and color, and the beginning quotation.

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