Material Renderings of Mental Space
How do our material work spaces embody or inspire our mental space? How are these spaces entangled with the emotional labour of writing?
Our emotional experience, and the way it affects and shapes our work, is often relegated to the sidelines or ignored in the name of academic writing.
While writing my thesis project, which focuses on rethinking affective engagements with anxiety, I have been inspired by feminist accounts of emotion. Theorists such as Kathleen Woodward and Ann Cvetkovich write against modes of thinking that construct a division between intellect and emotion. They are concerned particularly with resigning of those emotions deemed irrational or ‘unruly’ as either unimportant to intellectual work, or an obstacle to it. In writing against this division many feminist theorists acknowledge the importance of writing with emotion—not just as the object of our work, but with emotionality as the method. One way in which Cvetkovich does this is to situate her own experiences with depression and anxiety in her academic work, using them as critical tools. As a part of her memoir in her book Depression: A Public Feeling, which has been a companion to my thinking throughout my project, this includes constructing an ‘altar’ on her desk. Cvetkovich writes that
“[i]n addition to incorporating religious candles and images, I piled onto it pictures of family and friends, letters and mementos, and other objects that had special meanings for me…The altar stood as my material inspiration, the embodiment of the mysterious links between the chapter, my ability finally to write it—a miracle after so many months of despair—and my emotional life” 
Taking Cvetkovich’s desk altar as inspiration, I wanted to explore the situatedness of feelings of anxiety, and the ways we find to relieve them, while undertaking a project which takes anxiety as its object. Our emotional experience, and the way it affects and shapes our work, is often relegated to the sidelines or ignored in the name of academic writing. In this light, my research project asked my colleagues to share a little piece of their situatedness while writing their theses. I asked my classmates to take a picture of their workspace, their altar or their surroundings—material renderings of their (desired) mental space—especially those they have perhaps turned to in moments of struggle or affective blockage. The pictures I received tell a story about the tools we rely on, the environment and the material embodiments we use while undertaking an emotionally fraught writing process. It asks us to think, in some small way, about the importance of our physical and emotional situatedness within a project.
- Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press. 2012, p. 54