Institutional Transformation: Imagination, Affect, and Embodiment

This article presents reflections on a recent workshop convened by Professor Moira Gatens FASSA FAHA, Dr Millicent Churcher and Professor Danielle Celermajer from the University of Sydney. The workshop Institutional Transformation: Imagination, Affect, and Embodiment explored the role of affect in establishing, sustaining, and transforming (both good and bad) institutional structures and practices.

detail of ‘Chaos and Order’ by Australian sculptor and painter Barbara Licha

The prevalence of emotive media images for example (such as the recent picture of a child survivor in Aleppo whose face is marked with dust, blood, and shock) captures something important about how we experience politics. Such images make us consider how injustice is felt and experienced, and the role of institutions in creating and sustaining our responses to unjust practices. There is an important link between institutional design, imagination, affect, and ethical and political transformation – something that has not been widely explored in an age where we are more aware than ever of our political present.

Photo Mahmoud Raslan / Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images

We understand an institution to refer broadly to sets of explicit and implicit rules and codes that help to structure our social interactions, and which give rise to normative expectations and patterns of collective behaviour. On this view, just as schools, media, workplaces, and law may be understood as institutions, so too may race and gender.

Our day-long workshop, Institutional Transformation: Imagination, Affect, and Embodiment, held at the University of Sydney on 4th August 2017, sought to explore how different emotions (such as trust, fear, hope, and esteem) might cluster in particular institutional settings to produce both negative and positive social and political behaviour. Uncovering the clusters of affects that influence our social and political practices, and developing a more robust account of possible resources for managing these affects, promises to have significance for policy-makers, social scientists, and social psychologists.

Workshop delegates, photo courtesy of convenors

We combined established literature on institutional design with newer research in the field of embodiment and emotion to develop a deeper understanding of how particular social and political practices, as well as institutional initiatives, might harness specific affective states in order to promote responsible individual and collective social and political agency. The importance of this topic becomes clear when we consider, for example, that it is not necessarily disrespect for Indigenous agency that motivates paternalistic and racist policy-making in relation to Indigenous Australians. Feelings of sympathy for Indigenous disadvantage, and a concern among non-Indigenous Australians with maintaining feelings of pride in their national heritage, may also be at play.

The workshop explored how artworks and memorials may help to cultivate ethical, rather than objectifying, forms of compassion and concern for the lived histories and experiences of oppressed and marginalised identities. We considered the potential for grassroots social justice initiatives and social activist movements to disrupt and transform destructive affective investments by creating the conditions for relations of trust and esteem to develop across difference.

The program brought together speakers and participants from various institutions including the University of Melbourne, University, Northwestern University, Cambridge University, the University of Glasgow, the University of Tasmania, and Columbia University and featured a mix of graduate students, postdocs, early- and mid- career researchers, and senior academics from a broad range of disciplines.

Topics treated included:

  • The power of art to effect institutional change (for example, the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama USA)
  • The affective role played by thought experiments in attempts to justify torture (for example, the ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ scenario), and
  • The role of social imaginaries in the maintenance of racist policies concerning the capacity for self-governance of indigenous Australians (for example, the Northern Territory intervention).

In addition to these topics, the workshop identified a number of key questions upon which to base further enquiry:

  • How have different institutions sought to promote social justice and does this help to build awareness of why and how specific interventions in particular settings succeed? (For example, understanding how a police force utilises a range of implementation strategies for institutional-wide policies directed at changing racial sensibilities that take into account metropolitan, regional and rural differences may provide great insights to others)
  • How can we best navigate the relationships between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ strategies for change, including the circumstances under which the transformative capacities of ‘grass-roots’ initiatives are enhanced or undermined by top-down interventions?
  • What is the role of unsettling emotions in ensuring sustained attention to injustice, and how can we resist premature ‘solutions’ that might be attractive because they allow a movement into more comforting emotions?

This workshop promises to develop a new area of inquiry in the humanities, and to open up exciting opportunities for future research projects and collaborations between scholars across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

A special edition of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities is now available featuring papers from this workshop.

About the authors

This piece was written by the convenors of the workshop.

Professor Moira Gatens FASSA FAHA is the Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. She has research interests in social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, early modern philosophy, and philosophy and literature. She is a fellow of the Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Moira’s book publications include Spinoza’s Hard Path to Freedom (2011, Royal Van Gorcum) and Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality (1996, Routledge). Moira is also the co-editor of Gender and Institutions: Welfare, Work and Citizenship (1998, Cambridge University Press).

Dr. Millicent Churcher is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney. Millicent’s research interests include the early modern sentimentalist philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as contemporary studies on empathy, emotions, social imaginaries, epistemic injustice, and the (mis)recognition of difference. She has published work on these topics in Social Epistemology and Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review. Millicent’s latest research focuses on how institutions may constructively engage the imaginations and affects of social agents to facilitate ethical and political transformation.

Professor Danielle Celermajer is a professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her current research focuses on the prevention of torture and on how a structural analysis of the underlying conditions and causes of human rights violations can be operationalised into effective prevention strategies. She is the author of Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies (2009, Cambridge University Press), and has recently published work in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, and in the Australian Journal of Human Rights.

About the Academy’s Sections

The Academy has 11 Sections reflecting areas of expertise in the humanities. Each Fellow with voting rights is a member of at least one Section within discipline specialty. The role of the Sections is to provide advice to the Academy’s Council about their discipline and other matters of interest to the Fellowship.  An initiative piloted this year is the Section Workshop Scheme, where the Academy awards funds to a Section to host an event that encourages and explores new areas of humanities enquiry. The Institutional Transformation: Imagination, Affect, and Embodiment workshop was proposed by the Philosophy and History of Ideas Section of the Academy.

About the image

The featured image, selected by the authors, is detail of ‘Chaos and Order’ by Australian sculptor and painter Barbara Licha

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.