Humanities Research Fellow Jessica Scarlata

Humanities Research Fellow Jessica Scarlata

Mason’s Center for Humanities Research Fellows included English professor Jessica Scarlata among its first cohort of residential fellows this past spring, and while “residential” in the era of COVID meant Zoom meetings and presentations instead of face-to-face work in the center itself, Scarlata reflected on the experience as “one of the best professional experiences I have ever had at Mason!” She shares some reflections here on the fellowship.

Tell us about your research project “Geographies of Irish Visual Culture.” Is this working toward a new book?

This research is part of a book on space, memory, and history in visual representations of the Troubles made after the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998. I seek to challenge existing analytical frameworks for understanding Northern-Ireland-related visual culture by studying works that deliberately or haphazardly open Irish history up to a wider global history of occupation and that therefore have the potential to challenge both British/unionist geography—which positions Northern Ireland as an accepted part of the United Kingdom—and Irish nationalist geography, in which the North is an organic and obvious part of Ireland.

The project I proposed was to look at recent documentaries about the Troubles that foreground under-represented acts of dissent, but that do so in a way that embodies dissent within the film’s form. In other words: dissent as subject matter and as formal cinematic practice. The question of dissent is a complex one with regard to Northern Ireland because the contours of what constitutes dissent are constantly shifting as the statelet’s relationship to the Irish Republic, Britain, the EU, and even its own history changes with increasing distance from the 1969-1998 Troubles. I was interested in the representation of contested spaces, places, and memories in the North, particularly in works that dissent from dominant narratives of the Troubles by inviting associations to other contested sites/sites of contest within and beyond Ireland and the UK.

The documentary films that I proposed to look at for the fellowship all offer moments when the North and its hyper-visualized conflict are de-spectacularized, moments that challenge Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA’s self-image as the heroes of the Troubles, and moments that challenge the representation of the Good Friday Agreement as a conflict-resolution success story. They do all of this in addition to taking the British security state and the unionist government to task. What I love about the films and works of video art I had proposed for the fellowship is how fiercely dissentive they are with regard to multiple frameworks. There are no easy narratives in these works, but their investment in complicating representations of the past doesn’t preclude them from taking a stand. In other words: the works I proposed to look at for the CHR fellowship demonstrate that a clear political point of view is not incompatible with artistic, cinematic, and intellectual complexity.

How did the fellowship specifically aid your research?

I was lucky to work with a phenomenal group of people, which included the CHR director Alison Landsberg as well as three other CHSS faculty members and two doctoral students, and to be part of an exciting exchange of ideas over the course of an entire semester. The theme of dissent was manifest in our work in various ways, and the many points of convergence among our projects as well as the moments of divergence helped me to revise, reposition, and reconceptualize my own use of the idea of dissent with regard to the North. Our twice-weekly meetings fostered a wonderful sense of an intellectual community, and I found the whole experience to be inspiring.

What was the biggest discovery or surprise about your research this spring.

That I was taking on the politics of cinematic/photographic realism. I tend to be a big fan of realist cinema, so it surprised me to find myself arguing against an aesthetic and narrative approach to film that I normally love.