What Place for Emotions in Academic Activism?

By Soha Bayoumi
Submitted to Session P5991 (The Activist-Academic Hyphen, 2020 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
“What did you expect? You needed to have some emotional distance in order to have more analytical clarity” was a senior colleague’s response after a talk my co-author and I gave a few years ago about our research involving certain actors during the Egyptian uprising and its aftermath. In the talk, we described how the arc of our research and fieldwork mirrored the arc of the Egyptian uprising itself, as we grappled with the emotional impact of traumatic experiences and major setbacks that culminated in the retrenchment of authoritarianism in the country. We also spoke about how we were first met by euphoria and enthusiasm from our interlocutors, followed by caution and suspicion and then by outright fear and paranoia, as many of our interlocutors ended up in prison, were exiled or significantly traumatized and depressed.

In my intervention, I hope to investigate the role played by emotions in our academic endeavors, particularly those of us engaged in different iterations of what has been described as engaged scholarship or academic activism. Some of the questions revolving around academic activism have become more salient in recent years in light of the current crackdown on both activists and academics in many countries in the Middle East, as well as with the rise of academic activism in the US under the Trump Administration and in other parts of the world witnessing waves of fascist politics (Brazil, India among others).

Relying on germane works, from Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual (Gramsci, 1992) to Foucault’s theorization of intellectuals and power (Deleuze and Foucault, 1977), and from bell hooks’s notion of theory as sanctuary and liberatory practice (hooks, 1991) to Sara Ahmed’s affect theory (Ahmed, 2013), along with insights from feminist Science and Technology Studies (Haraway, 1988 and 2016), I argue that the hyphen separating, or rather conjoining, the “activist-academic” is constantly inhabited and occupied, but not without tensions stemming from how we negotiate our emotional investments within the conventions of academic research and writing.