Introducing: Feeling Political

Apr 26, 2023 | Projects, Research Development Projects, Transformations (Issue 9)

Feeling Political: how intimacy and everyday life make political identities
Dr Laura Forster and Professor Julie-Marie Strange

How do people ‘feel’ their way to political conviction? From being working class and knowing it, to understanding embodied encounters, to sharing food with friends – this project considers intimacy as pivotal in shaping how people understand the world and their place within it. Bringing interdisciplinary scholars working on modern Britain into conversation with a range of activists, we are exploring how everyday intimacies – affects, encounters, atmospheres – constitute political beliefs and actions. Everyday intimacies, we suggest, can be far more generative of political conviction than ideological ‘conversion’ narratives typically allow. Moving beyond a focus on ‘high’ or organised politics alone, we examine how bringing ‘sentiments’ (emotion, affects, affinities, bodies) into dialogue with issues of citizenship, belonging and ‘ordinariness’ broadens our conception of political actors and brings the historically so-called ‘apolitical’ into view.

Working at home during Covid restrictions (2020/21) brought a renewed, hyper-real awareness of the dynamic between the intimate and the political. It was in this context that a group of Durham colleagues working on modern Britain began (online of course!) – a conversation about the common ground in their seemingly diverse research interests (from state-nation politics, transnationalism, radical and oppositional politics, emotion and everyday life, material culture and embodied experience): how citizens ‘feel’ their way to political ideas, convictions and actions. We were struck by the ways in which our research tended to sit in silos with specific methodologies, outputs and communities that rarely came into dialogue. The conversation became more animated (helped by finally being able to meet in person) and extended to include scholars working in different disciplines and institutions across the Northeast. We were ‘Feeling political’ and it felt good.

In spring 2023 we host two workshops that bring scholars from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, creative practitioners, heritage bodies and activists together to explore where questions about political intimacies might take us.

Our first workshop asks how we define ‘political intimacies’ and how we can develop creative, interdisciplinary methodologies and new ways of writing about political intimacies. In conversation are people from History, English Literature, Anthropology, and Sociology, working on organised political protest (from petitioning to rioting), family formations, childhood, the state, migration, friendship, cross-species relationships, socio-economic inequalities, heritage, and queerness. The study of emotion and affect is a burgeoning field, and we want to bring some of its key themes and methods into conversation with meta-narratives about political developments and the making of political communities. If the personal has long been understood as political, it is not always clear how we overcome perceived differences between orthodox studies of ‘politics’ and new approaches to affect and emotion. We will think about how creative methodologies and partnerships can bridge potential gaps between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, the collective and the individual, the public and the private.

Our second workshop takes a more focused lens to these broad issues by examining recent cultural artefacts concerning the 1980s in the Northeast and, specifically, the broad context for thinking about the Miners’ Strike. Working with artists, writers, journalists, heritage bodies, activists, and community groups with a stake in remembering the 1980s in the Northeast, we consider how the intersection of major political and economic change with manifold intimacies created specific political identities and beliefs. The rationale for this came into focus during the Northeast premier of the film Blue Jean (2022) where the writer and director, Georgia Oakley, discussed how test audiences in the Northeast (where the film was set and made) complained that although the subject matter was the introduction of Section 28 (1988), the film failed to mention the Miners’ Strike or the broader Northeast context (deindustrialisation more generally, including of shipyards and docks – the Northeast’s gateway to the world). Oakley, born in 1988, acknowledged the significance of these contexts and the particular importance of regional identity for shaping the experience and understanding of a single piece of legislation. The interplay this discussion suggested – between multiple political contexts with specific and general personal consequences for different historical actors – is a microcosm of the themes we are discussing in our ‘Feeling Political’ network.

Through these interdisciplinary workshops we aim to further build our ‘Feeling Political’ network; facilitate partnerships with relevant non-HE partners; scope possibilities for external funding bids; and work towards establishing Durham as a centre of expertise for research on the intimate character of political identity. We’ve been working on these themes – intimacy, politics, and everyday life – as a small Durham-based group for almost three years now, and it feels very exciting to build on this momentum and engage with colleagues and friends further afield (both literally and figuratively) in order to develop and co-produce fresh research questions and agendas.

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