“Absent Presences & Present Absences” (Reflections on the International & Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies)

Absent Presences and Present Absences

Dr Cheryl Mcgeachan (Geography, Glasgow University) writes:

Returning this week from the fourth International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies at the University of Groningen, I am truly inspired by the range of wonderful people and papers encountered. Discussions on emotion and affect have swirled around the pages of various journals across the humanities and social sciences for some time but this conference sought to bring together a range of scholars (over 300) from a variety of backgrounds to creatively explore the role of emotion in thinking about and experiencing society and space.

I took part in a moving set of sessions organised by Professor Liz Bondi (University of Edinburgh) entitled ‘Absent Presences and Present Absences’, which sought to explore the different emotional experiences that hover between presence and absence in a variety of broadly therapeutic contexts. Papers in these sessions were split in themes; Family Ghosts, Haunted Bodies and Spiritual Encounters. Across the sessions individuals brought to fore issues of haunting, trauma and family ghosts that echo across generations.

My paper, entitled, “There were many ghosts walking with me”: (re)remembering through the archive, aimed to look closely at the absent presences that can be revealed in the researching and writing of lives and the (re)awakening of family memories through particular archival encounters. Using my recent fieldwork in collaboration with Glasgow Museums with the adult-children (Adrian, Karen and Fiona) of the late eminent psychiatrist and psychotherapist R.D. Laing, I wished to think more carefully about the importance of emotion and imagination in historical geographies.

Other papers in the sessions included, moving portraits of families haunted by those who are missing from Judith Fewell (University of Edinburgh) Tattered Scripts: Stories About the Transmission of Trauma Across Generations, Olivia Stevenson (University of Glasgow) “No New Today”: The use of Ambiguous Emotion and the Absent Presences of Missing People, Liz Bondi Starving in the Silences, and Dagmar Alexander (University of Edinburgh) Troubling Fairy Tales: An Exploration of the Unspeakability of Trauma.

Ghosts became a reoccurring theme with papers also discussing the different, and often incredibly difficult, ways in which individuals can be haunted by the ‘other’ including pieces from Joyce Davison (Queen’s University) Autism and the Ghost of Gender, Sophie Tamas (Carleton University) Ghost Stories, Alette Willis (University of Edinburgh) The Geography of Survival: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse of Women’s Relationships to Everyday Places, Andrew Williams (University of Exeter) “We work by Faith Everyday – we believe in Things that we can’t do”: Spiritual and Therapeutic Experience in a Faith-based Drug Programme, and Richard Scriven (University College Cork) Spaces of Encounters and Experience: Embodiment and Emplacement at Irish Holy Wells.

These papers, alongside many others across the conference, will haunt my thinking for some time to come as I continue to make steps in my own research into exploring the intimate connections between space, society and emotion.

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