Tracing Affect Through Imagination/Being Affected Through Imagination

Madeleine Rungius

The intricate connection between affect and imagination leaves room for creative methodological and theoretical exploration. This is the case when prison reports by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons are discursively analysed to explore the prison as an affective institution of the state within broader structures of morality.

Prison reports are characterised through bureaucratic, sterile and controlled language, which embody positivist and rationalizing elements to present the appearance of a neutral and objective viewpoint which silences affect in an Enlightenment tradition. Taking prison reports produced by HM Inspectorate of Prisons as material, textual and visual artefacts as the focus of my PhD research, I realized that my imagination and the way I got affected when reading them plays a substantial part in decoding rationalized state narratives within such reports. Imagination and affect elevate what is otherwise silenced or addressed in much more subliminal and subtle ways in prison reports, helping to address knowledge gaps that are otherwise hindered from more critical understandings of the prison.

What are prison reports and how can they be read differently?

Prison reports ought to be understood as an objective and factual textual, and more recently also photographic, documentation of prison inspections performed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons which declares to be an independent institution of the state. A close reading of their statement of independence however outlines that the Inspectorate exists at the behest of the state and is overseen and governed in the periphery of it. Accordingly, prison reports are positioned as official state documents, which are a key element in creating a state discourse on the penal estate.

Based on the Critical Discourse Analysis of prison reports of three English prisons, spanning from 1981 to 2019, my research develops a counter narrative that questions the supposed neutral rationality as prison reports are recognized as constructed artefacts of a rationalized state which domineers the discourse on prisons through mostly affect-averse and pro-rational language. My discursive analysis of prison reports stresses the contrived absence of an overt discussion of emotions as a “passion for rationality” (Williams, 1998): a paradoxically affectless understanding of rationality that is common in masculine reasoning and patriarchal domination, and reflected in the majority of mainstream sociological accounts, in which the predominantly white, cis-male depictions of the state and state institutions are elevated as the norm. Feminist critiques of knowledge production recognize the (re)production of a limited, patriarchal view that asserts the claim of generalization through the unquestioned celebration of rationality. Undermining this celebration of rationality, a standpoint feminist approach to knowledge and a conceptual understanding of affect as object-, body- and space-imbuing, as something that goes beyond language and limiting conceptual accounts of emotion and feeling in sociology (Ahmed, 2010, 2014; Sedgewick, 2003), allows prison reports to be read critically and imaginatively for their textual and visual content.

As prison reports offer a regulated and narrow description on prisons through their limited bureaucratic accounts, my imagination and affect are essential in creating a critical counter narrative to official state-centric narratives found within prison reports. As such, I embrace imagination and affect to interrogate what seems at first sight absent in these official documents. What emerges through their embrace is an alternative reading and viewing of textually and visually produced information that questions the idea of neutral rationality and enables us to see official state narratives otherwise; as an affective permeated construct which facilitates the legitimisation of state violence via incarceration, and that which manifests itself in the practices of imprisonment and infuses the built environment. In doing so, imagination and affect bring to the surface the affectivity of the institution, helping to recognize that prison reports operate within a distinct patriarchal epistemological tradition, which is guided by rationality that in itself must be understood as an affective construct that comes with its own imagination of what the prison ought to be.

Centring imagination and affect in research

Sociological research is no stranger to imagination where it usually stands in the tradition of Mills’ Sociological Imagination. Equally in critical criminology, it is recognized that “imagination enhances creative thinking” (Seal & O’Neill, 2019) and the analytical potential for the interpretation of meaning. However, seeing imagination as a creative tool and crucial point of reflexivity (Wakeman, 2019) is here equally restricted by conceptions of “disciplined imagination” and “disciplined creativity” (Frauley, 2010). Whilst these accounts critically assess how social sciences make sense of imagination, they equally imply that imagination is a skill that can be somewhat consciously applied or consciously left out. And in that way do not differ that much in their approach from other sociological accounts that often see emotion (‘emotion’ or ‘feelings’ are here predominantly the concept of choice over ‘affect’) as an untapped or overlooked resource for questioning dominating ideas, and how they could help to broaden our knowledge about institutions like the prison (e.g. Jewkes, 2011; Flam & Kleres, 2015). Though affect in research is no longer silenced or fiercely disputed, equally too imagination, affect continues to be understood along a rational-affect dichotomy that ascribes rationality higher value over affect.

Despite sociological researchers making functionalistic use of imagination and affect in social research, the argument has been made that the lack of imagination in research is related to the absence of the researcher (Aldridge, 1993), that in turn silences the researcher’s perspective in their work. This is problematic as the idea of engaging imagination and emotions as a tool carries the notion that when they are not actively engaged, research can actually be detached from it, which again suggests that knowledge could be created from nowhere when affect and imagination are not engaged.

Therefore, imagination and affect are thought about differently to domineering accounts in sociological and criminological research. In contrast, I want to introduce the idea of an unfettered embrace of affect and imagination – which does not mean unreflective embrace!

Putting imagination and affect to work

That affect cannot be reduced to being a rationalized tool the researcher can draw on in a controlled way whenever they see fit is stretched in affect studies (see e.g. Todd, 2020; Berlant & Stewart, 2019), where it is understood as a sociocultural artefact as much as an automated and unconscious experience.

When reading prison reports, I did not consciously ‘switch on’ my imagination or affect but the description of the practices and built environment brought feelings of disgust or utter disbelief when the narrative came to life through imagination. Whilst prison reports also refer to the poor and inadequate conditions prisoners have to face on a daily basis, potentially more critical accounts of the institution are concealed by the specific style, language, formatting and purposes for which prison reports are intended serve.

Imagination and affect are seen as key elements that should be embraced by researchers. Consequently, feelings of injustice at the continuous violence and indifference to the wellbeing of prisoners and the imagined space of the prison that emerged throughout the Critical Discourse Analysis, provide accounts for further critical interrogation of the institution. As imagination and affect take us beyond the sanitized bureaucratic language of the textual artefact that is a prison report, prisons can be further explored and understood as an affective, and not a rational, project of the state which is always positioned in the moral values of its time, and therefore deeply rooted in cultural and affective processes.

So, rather than ‘using’ imagination as a rationalized tool within controlled boundaries of creativity, imagination here is understood in a freer sense. After all sociology should be recognized as an art form (Nisbet, 1962) that should not be regulated by rigid, rationalized standards of methodology, but should support a free flow of imagination that embraces not only the wonder, but also the terrors of this world and its possibilities.

Thereby it is important to emphasize clearly that tracing affect through imagination/being affected through imagination does not simply mean being overcome by affect and imagination, though their spontaneous qualities give a potential for this. Embracing the connection between affect and imagination is much more about recognizing that they are vital and essential components of research, which brings responsibility to the researcher to be transparent about and reflect on their knowledge production and, therefore, demonstrate a responsibility to be conscious about political and moral standpoints. Thereby, acknowledging affect and imagination also means actively writing ourselves back into our research and theory.

Embracing my own imagination and affect as an automated, situated and valuable part of my PhD research allow for criticising and revealing the mostly silenced epistemological conviction that consolidate rationalized accounts of the prison; it outlines my own fundament to knowledge production, which ultimately shapes the counter narrative of prisons in England established on the basis of critical discourse analysis of prison reports. This allows for seeing the prison differently: as an affective institution of violence in a Western democratic state.

Embracing imagination and affect in research

As such embracing imagination and affect offer creative ways to research affect, especially when official narratives like prison reports effectively silence such practices. Consequently, it allows us to address gaps in official narratives of the state – found in documents such as prison reports – an interrogation of which makes clear that the prison, as much as other institutions of the state, ought to be understood as having affect at the centre of their formation, practices and built environment. In this sense, making imagination and affect transparent in research has a revelatory effect, which compels us to rethink modern state institutions like the prison in new and more critical ways, which ultimately questions rationalising accounts not only of institutions but also long held dichotomies that form the core of many sociologists’ research.

Madeleine Rungius is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. Drawing on feminist epistemologies, affect studies and a re-reading of Durkheim, she is particularly interested in questioning long held dichotomies, like affect – rationality, in Western states and sociology.

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