Punctum in research

As part of my PhD wanderings, I’ve recently become interested in the affective turn, in part due to some of the really stimulating discussions and readings which I’ve been lucky enough to take part in through the Human Geography department. One of my supervisors has written quite extensively on affect also, and suggested quite a few readings that we discussed in a recent seminar, where we’re trying to think about writing about place. A particularly interesting reading came from Kathleen Stewart, about revisiting her home region on the North Eastern seaboard, which I greatly enjoyed as much as anything because of the quality of the writing, which for me, falls in between crafted description, informed academic observation and personal narrative (of grief, perhaps). Read it on the train going over to Swansea, and it was very moving, which isn’t something which we can say often about academic writing.

On the back of this and other discussions with my group, I’m currently reading Ordinary Affects, which again is actually quite an extraordinary way of approaching an ‘academic’ book of observations about the US; barely thirty pages into it and there’s a wealth of ideas and approaches which are new to me. Stewart defines Ordinary Affects as the following:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation, but they’re also the the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. Akin to Raymond Williams’s structures of feeling, they are “social experiences in solution”; (p2.)

She goes on to say:

Ordinary affects, then, are an animate circuit that conducts force and maps connections, routes and disjunctures (p.3)

I’m still trying to absorb some of this as someone new to Affect Theory, but further on in the introduction to this book, I also came across the list of influences that had inspired her, including Roland Barthes, and in particular his idea of punctum (which he explored in Camera Lucida, his book about photography), and which she defines as “the wounding, personally touching detail that establishes a direct contact” (p.6).

As someone who’s been a social and health researcher over the last ten years or so, this idea struck me as interesting on two counts: there are undoubtedly moments in any qualitative research project that involves talking to others in which a connection on an emotional level with those who participate with us, or with a small detail of the scene before us, can lead to a perceived leap in our analytical understanding of what we’re trying to explore, and secondly, that this leap or what I’ll call punctum (often beyond language) may offer a glimpse of these animate circuit(s), referred to by Stewart and others.  I speculate here that punctum could be a phrase or turn of phrase, a gesture, a moment of sadness or laughter, that moment when you take in the entirety of a place through your senses or when something connects strongly to your own history or experience. It usually leaves a strong imprint on the mind’s eye somehow, and can potentially lead to what feels like a more profound understanding of the particular field we’re in (…though I’d readily acknowledge that this might not always be the case, and as researchers there’s always the need to guard against being insufficiently reflexive as we shape our understandings of the world).

Going through some recent field notes, I came across an example of this where a chance conversation at the end of a day’s observations at yet another dementia networking event (in yet another arts centre, I’d noted), left me thinking about the role of grief and guilt for those caring for those affected by dementia. I’d spotted S. hovering about what had been a very interesting day of connecting and talking to some of those who I’ve already got to know, and meeting another fantastic DEEP group , and just as things were being cleared away, we caught each other’s eye and started to chat. S. described herself as a ‘post-carer’ which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase, but this led us onto a discussion about grief and the role of carers, and how to cope with her own grief, she’d begun to write.

It was at that point, though I’d heard others talk of how they coped and I’m witnessing all kinds of creative endeavours around this field of developing dementia friendly communities, that I suddenly felt connected on quite an emotional level to how we cope with being witnesses to the decline and deaths of those close to us. In part, this was because it brought up my own experience of trying to cope with the loss of my brother, and how the private act of writing, among other strategies, had helped greatly during his illness and after he’d gone. It was a shared moment of recognition with S., which I think she also sensed, and became a point of clarity between us; without a word said, we both knew exactly where we stood, or at least that’s how it felt for me. With a clear voice, she said: “The voice of carers isn’t heard as much as you’d think. They are going through a continual process of bereavement from diagnosis onwards”.

That moment also brought back, powerfully, other stories in other research projects in which I’d sat and talked to carers of those with dementia. But somehow, it also seemed to catch something which had been at the back of my mind all day; though nominally successful on one level, the event wasn’t that well attended and there was something strained in the air (there are particularities about the day which I noted in my field notes, but which aren’t for discussion here). There was a sense of things going unsaid, something hushed, even though seeing some schoolchildren run around as part of an inter-generational project or meeting the DEEP group were genuinely joyful encounters. Post the recent Welsh Government consultation on dementia friendly Wales, and around the time it was becoming obvious how inadequate the initial draft of this strategy seemed, and how successful dementia activists had been in making their points about this, S.’s comments seemed to hit home something about grief, an undertow of exhaustion. After all, this was in a town in which the idea of ‘Dementia Friendliness’ has been in the air for a good few years by that point.

What I’m choosing to describe here as a punctum, or ‘a wounding, personally touching detail that establishes direct contact’, remained with me for a while afterwards. Aside from the empathetic quality to such moments, which I think we should never ignore when we are involved with other humans in trying to understand the stories and feelings which are part of our research, there was an important analytic aspect to this in a field (dementia studies and the biopolitics which surrounds it) in which the word ‘voice’ is often used and given meaning by all kinds of actors, in as part of various discourses; it will hopefully sensitise my ongoing analysis of this field to other ‘animate circuits’ around caring for those affected by dementia and how they cope when often the focus is mainly on the person with the condition, not those who do the caring. It also reminds me to look up and around to the atmosphere in which such a punctum is created and ponder how it got there.