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(The Grand Theory of) Neo Emotivism Public Engagement
Viewing “Black Suprematic Square” by Kazimir Melvich, (1915, oil on linen), Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

(The Grand Theory of) Neo Emotivism

October 9, 2014 2068

viewing Malevich

Viewing “Black Suprematic Square” by Kazimir Malevich, (1915, oil on linen),
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Photo: Alexey Sergeev)

“The things that I want to communicate are simply self-evident, emotional things. And the gifts of those things are that they bring both intellectual and emotional gifts — understanding.”

Singer Jeff Buckley in a 1995 interview with Luisa Cortado

Neo Emotivism. You heard it here first. If I am ever going to come up with a Grand Theory (in spite of years of denying the possibility of that very construct in a post-modern world), this is it!

  • There is a New Emotivity emergent in academia worth exploring.
  • Time and time again, when given the opportunity, scholars long to connect emotionally with the people about whom they are writing.
  • The difficulty encountered for academics wishing to write creatively is that we are programmed to repeat (endlessly) what we’ve read to establish “validity.”
  • When you write to provoke (arouse) readers emotionally, don’t mimic words you’ve read to do it. Instead, chose unique words that equal your experience.
  • Scholars realizing the soundness of their emotional connectivity need to find their own language to express feeling—a new language not simply justified by the idiom preceding them.
Kip Jones

This article by Kip Jones originally appeared at his personal KIPWORLDblog and is reprinted here by permission.

Can we move on?

My thinking around the concept of Neo Emotivism began to solidify recently, brought on by two things: a short descriptive phrase about Max Richter’s music and an ARTS in Research workshop at Bournemouth University. Allow me to elaborate.

When I read that Max Richter’s minimalist composition for the TV series, The Leftovers, was tagged as ‘Neo-Romantic’ in a promo, I was startled. “Neo-Romantic? How is minimalist music romantic?” And then I started to realize that it is the same emotional response that I have to Richter’s music that I have to Chopin or Mendelssohn.

“What is ‘Romanticism’ in music composition?” I wondered. ‘Characteristics often attributed to Romanticism … are:

  • a new preoccupation with and surrender to nature
  • a fascination with the past…
  • a turn towards the mystic and supernatural …
  • a longing for the infinite
  • mysterious connotations of remoteness, the unusual and fabulous, the strange and surprising
  • a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly, the frightful, and terrifying
  • fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences
  • a new attention given to national identity
  • emphasis on extreme subjectivism
  • interest in the autobiographical
  • discontent with … formulas and conventions’ (Kravitt 1992, 93–94, 107 cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_music)

These qualities resonate with the characteristics we might look for in Neo Emotivism. There! A checklist.

Can we move on?

The penny began to drop when the Bournemouth University ARTS in Research collaborative met up recently for those two days of experimentation. I am familiar with health and social care academics having a proclivity towards sensitivity to the often-emotional stories of others gleaned through their investigative encounters. What surprised and encouraged me were faculty and students from media, design, engineering and computing and tourism with the same ache to connect emotionally with their subjects and to acknowledge the “first person” in their dialogues.

Perhaps we should look for inspiration to the New Romantics of the late 1970s, with their shoulder pads and quiffed hair? Ziggy Stardust and synthpop? There is a sweet nostalgia often present in my informal biographic encounters with fellow academics, wistful for the days of David Bowie and Kate Bush. Their recollections are often about how we used to be before we were led to believe that we needed to behave (differently). It’s life pre-RAE and REF—the “preREFaelites,” to coin a phrase. It is often reminiscence about a time in our shared lives of both emotional conflict and emotional connect.

Indeed, scholars often find their own narratives in the stories that people tell them for their research. A big part of Neo Emotivism is embracing this phenomenon instead of backing away from it. The relationships that can be established through such connections are potent and comprised of more than the sum of their parts.

Changing hearts and minds was central to my reasons for making the short film RUFUS STONE and I have written about this elsewhere. I realized quite early in the research process for the film that debate, argument, or evidence—none of these by itself was going to change the opinions of some of the hardheaded bigots in our midst. Should we attempt an emotional appeal, even attempt to provoke an emotive disturbance? Would we then have a chance at changing hearts and minds?

I recently watched a BBC 4 programme with architect Zaha Hadid in which she explained how her work has roots in an art movement that is 100 years old. She has long cited the Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich as one of her greatest inspirations. Her experience offers a clue to the very way in which arts-based researchers might explore outside their own turf to enrich their present efforts. Hadid found her inspiration from painting in another era, not by simply replicating what was au courant at the moment in her chosen field of architecture. If we continue to only imitate what has directly preceded us in our creative academic endeavors, we will never produce the forward movements in scholarship necessary for change and innovation. As a student, Hadid bravely embraced Malevich as inspiration and flew with it. Actually, much of her architecture today looks like it is floating or flying. Studying Malevich opened up vast possibilities for her creative explorations and still influences the way in which she works today.

The early waves of renewed interest in qualitative and narrative approaches (or the qualitative and narrative “turns” in research as they were called in the early 1990s) established protocols, procedures, and a language that, by now, is repeated habitually. Perhaps it time now to look elsewhere (to culture, to the arts, to literature, etc. both past and present), to find fresh inspiration and vocabulary to support our new emotive efforts. For example, I often recommend that academics read the contemporary fiction of conceptual novelists such as Michael Kimball in order to unleash creativity and a new, uncluttered way of using language in their academic writing. Should we continue to routinely repeat what are by now shop-worn words in our academic out-pourings such as ‘rigor,’ ‘robust,’ ‘thick,’ ‘embodied’ and ‘evocative’ to support (or deny?) our emotive tendencies? Most of those words have been repeated ad infinitum for more than 20 years now, degenerating into no more than code words signaling membership in a particular scholarly community. They have become words without force.

Can we move on?

The first step in reporting emotive encounters in research, therefore, is moving away from concepts that have evolved from measurement—terms like ‘empathic validity’,  ‘reliability’, etc. Rejecting the use of statistical language to describe the emotional components of our labours is key to communicating an understanding of the How’s and Why’s of the human condition. The second step is to find our own individual language (a descriptive and poetic one?) that does not mimic the status quo language of a specific scholarship simply because of our insecurities or longing to fit in with a particular club or movement.

Acknowledging the emotive connections in our work doesn’t mean simply producing wishy-washy, touchy-feely texts either. In fact, Neo Emotivism insists upon tougher, more resilient, profoundly compassionate yet hard-hitting, productions. This is accomplished through the creative use of language—textural/visual/physical—or some new mode of communication that we haven’t even attempted yet.

An emotional response by a scholar need not be validated like a parking ticket.

Feelings aren’t the same as facts.

As Jeff Buckley said, “The gifts of those things are that they bring both intellectual and emotional gifts — understanding.”

Neo Emotivism may very well cause a riot … or a revolution!

“Let a thousand flowers bloom …”


Kip Jones is an independent visiting scholar at the Faculty of Media and Communication and the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at Bournemouth University. He was executive producer and author of the award-winning short biopic RUFUS STONE (2012). In retirement, he plans to complete several books on performative social science and auto-fiction.

View all posts by Kip Jones

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