Visuality and Emotions in International Politics

Amya Agarwal, Katja Freistein, and Christine Unrau discuss how their upcoming workshop aims to introduce new methodologies, and the ways in which the project relates to the Centre's research agenda

Visuality and emotions in international politics? From a practical perspective, it might seem that they are ubiquitous, but in the domain of substantiated research, examples are few and far between. For some time, social science has been dominated by its focus on rational choice theory,. The abuse of emotions in totalitarian propaganda made scholars wary of engaging with the role of visuality and emotions more broadly.

But there is another path of research: art history, cultural studies, anthropology, and an interest in counter-culture movements and actors beyond established institutional frames. Recently, postcolonial studies placed value on approaches that focus on materiality, practices, and motivations.

The application of that perspective in international relations (IR) research is still rare. At the Centre, an interest in these approaches has been growing for some time and has already produced pioneering publications on narratives, emotions, and the visual strategies of populist movements. This research provocatively addresses some well-defined research themes and policy fields in the Centre's research agenda.

The story of an upcoming workshop

The workshop, entitled Visuality and Emotions in International Politics is co-organized by Amya Agarwal, Katja Freistein and Christine Unrau. Agarwal, a current fellow at the Centre and research group leaders Freistein and Unrau share an interest in emotions and visuality as significant components in international politics discourse. Cooperating with the Transnational Hub of Doing International Political Sociology, a network of researchers seeking the introduction of more sociological thinking into IR discourse, seemed a good opportunity for opening the debate. With this partner and platform, the workshop creates a diverse and interdisciplinary programme. Freistein explains:

As we’re starting the new research stream on conceptions of world order, this is one of the interests that we carry over from the previous phase as not only a methodological bridge to the humanities but also as a way to explore these sort of non-elite fora of international and global politics.

The state of the art

What is the state of the scholarly debate more broadly? Has there been any resistance against inquiry into visuality and emotion in the political realm? The visual still is a very small undercurrent in political theory. Christine Unrau explains that a lot of post-war political thought was concerned with reestablishing rational rules for interactions between political leaders and citizens.

 Anything that smelled of emotional manipulation or propaganda was viewed with a lot of suspicion, so there has been this very slow counter-movement towards an appraisal of the positive roles that emotions can play.

Katja Freistein finds that both emotions and visuality are often trivialized because they 'can’t be easily made into a dependent or independent variable—they resist this kind of logic'. But she also identifies a research landscape in the UK where these studies are more mainstream compared to Germany or the U.S. More than any other field, gender studies has criticized this bias of a traditional dominant approach. Amya Agarwal points out that feminist and gender studies’ scholars have been exploring concepts like emotions and visuality since long, as part of alternative discourses that came to the forefront and began to make an impact on existing research methodologies.

The visual and emotional turns in International Relations, explains Christine Unrau, are very much associated with people like Roland Bleiker and also Emma Hutchinson, who we will be fortunate enough to welcome at the Centre as a speaker (April 2021). Talking about interdisciplinary connections, she stresses the value of art history and iconography but also of film. Methodologies like narrative analysis will contribute a different angle on the performativity of emotions and visual strategies. Katja Freistein and Frank Gadinger have already done some methodological work in this vein. Amya Agarwal contributes a peacebuilding and feminist perspective. Christine Unrau’s current work is focused on emotions in the context of migration debates.

A non-conventional approach and the Centre's research agenda

How do the non-conventional approaches fit into the overall frame of research at the Centre? Amya Agarwal explains that her research uses an ethnographic methodology to uncover the gendered character of conflict and resistance movements.

I feel that visual representations are very important indicators, and they do provide some kind of a pathway to understand how global cooperation works in more informal ways.

Christine Unrau points out that these fresh approaches already were acknowledged and considered in the formulation of the research stream 'Global cooperation and diverse conceptions of world order' (2021-24).

We distinguish between practices of world-making and practices of world-ordering and actually for both of them emotions and visuality feature prominently: They matter for how we conceive of ourselves as humans and how we understand belonging. A turn toward the emotional complements the traditional focus on the rational with a more nuanced anthropology. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that from the focus on rationality, we now simply switch onto a new focus on emotions as drivers of choices. In the beginning of the Centre when we dealt with culture and we contested the essentialized notion of “different cultures” that hinder cooperation, we would maybe go about ideas of emotion in a similar way and see how emotions are constituted in practices.

Contributions from the Centre

Amya Agarwal
Graffiti, Gender, and Emotions in the Kashmiri Resistance Movement

I believe that visual representations in the form of graffiti and murals are significant political acts in the Kashmir conflict. I provide an intersectional analysis of gender and emotions in street art. In doing this, I study two images from the Kashmiri resistance. The first one is an image of graffiti (and counter-graffiti) showing the contestation between the resisters and the state security forces. The second one is a mural of a grieving mother at gunpoint through which I discuss maternal symbolism and representations of feminine emotions as a norm in the Kashmiri resistance movement .

Katja Freistein
Dressed for Power: Female Leaders, Fashion, and the Performativity of the Emotional

My paper is about two pictures of Kamala Harris and the way that she both represents herself and is represented: the picture from Vogue that no one liked, and the picture of her calling Biden when the election results were called. It’s really about how there is so much symbolism attached to Kamala Harris that it is difficult for her to even represent herself in a way that is consistent. It is very much about the fragility of self-representation, because there are so many things attached to it. I think the important point is not to trivialize self-representation with fashion and so on, and not to make it this issue of who wears which designer and who looks more beautiful. She is a politician, so there’s a lot to say about how she dresses. I didn’t want to take Merkel, or any of these younger generation people because that would have been too straightforward, and with Kamala Harris I think it’s more complex.

Christine Unrau
Crafting Compassion: Flight and Migration Documentary Films

The idea is to take a closer look at various documentary films on migration and flight and show how they actually manage to widen the circle of the ‘we’. That is, to make it clear that refugees are actually people like us. ‘Crafting Compassion’ is of course phrased with a question mark because, first of all, you can’t craft compassion; it’s not something that you can just build depending on aesthetic or narrative means that you can deploy. Second of all, the question is: would you want to craft compassion? There is also an ethical problem linked to manipulating other peoples’ emotions and in representing people in order to manipulate emotions, so that is a doubled ethical question. I also question whether it needs to be compassion all the time, or maybe hope or joy, or empathy more generally, are more important than compassion itself.