I recently reviewed an article draft that some EDGI folks were putting together that examines their work to date. The draft is quite useful if you are interested in how EDGI’s work to archive potentially at risk environmental scientific data fits in with related efforts such as Data Rescue, Data Refuge and Data Together. The article is also quite interesting because it positions their work by thinking of it in terms of an emerging framework for environmental data justice.
Environmental data justice is a relatively new idea that sits at the intersection of environmental justice and critical data studies (note I didn’t link to the Wikipedia entry because it needs quite a bit of improvement IMHO). I think it could be useful for ideas of environmental data justice to also draw on a long strand of thinking about archives as the embodiment-of and a vehicle-for social justice (Punzalan & Caswell, 2016), which goes back some 40 years. I think it could also be also useful to think it in terms of emerging ideas around data activism that are popping up in activities such as the Responsible Data Forum.
At any rate, this post wasn’t actually meant to about any of that, but just meant to be a note to myself about a reference in the EDGI draft to a piece by Eve Tuck entitled Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities (Tuck, 2009).
In this open letter, published in the Harvard Educational Review, Tuck calls on researchers to put a moratorium on what she calls damaged centered research:
In damaged-centered research, one of the major activities is to document pain or loss in an individual, community, or tribe. Though connected to deficit models—frameworks that emphasize what a particular student, family, or community is lacking to explain underachievement or failure–damage-centered research is distinct in being more socially and historically situated. It looks to historical exploitation, domination, and colonization to explain contemporary brokenness, such as poverty, poor health, and low literacy. Common sense tells us this is a good thing, but the danger in damage-centered research is that it is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines a community. Here’s a more applied definition of damage-centered research: research that operates, even benevolently, from a theory of change that establishes harm or injury in order to achieve reparation.
Instead Tuck wants to re-orient research around a theory of change that documents desire instead of damage:
As I will explore, desire-based research frameworks are concerned with understanding complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives … desire-based frameworks defy the lure to serve as “advertisements for power” by documenting not only the painful elements of social realities but also the wisdom and hope. Such an axiology is intent on depathologizing the experiences of dispossessed and disenfranchised communities so that people are seen as more than broken and conquered. This is to say that even when communitiee are broken and conquered, they are so much more than that so much more that this incomplete story is an act of aggression.
Tuck points out that she isn’t suggesting that desire-based research should replace damaged-centered research, but that instead it is part of an epistemological shift: how knowledge is generated and understood, or how we know what we know. This is a subtle point, but Tuck does a masterful job of providing real examples in this piece, so its well worth a read if this sounds at all interesting.
I was kind of surprised that Tuck draws on assemblage theory and the work of Deleuze & Guattari (1987) in developing this idea of desire-based research:
Poststructuralist theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari teach us that desire is assembled, crafted over a lifetime through our experiences. For them, this assemblage is the picking up of distinct bits and pieces that, without losing their specificity, become integrated into a dynamic whole. This is what accounts for the multiplicity, complexity, and contradiction of desire, how desire reaches for contrasting realities, even simultaneously. Countering theorists that posit desire as a hole, a gap, or that which is missing (such as, and somewhat famously, Foucault) Deleuze and Guattari insist that desire is not lacking but “involution” (p. 164). Exponentially generative, engaged, engorged, desire is not mere wanting but our informed seeking. Desire is both the part of us that hankers for the desired and at the same time the part that learns to desire. It is closely tied to, or may even be, our wisdom.
I’ve been reading about assemblage theory in the context of software studies (Galloway & Thacker, 2007 ; Kitchin & Lauriault, 2014) and materiality more generally (Law, 2009).
How does this focus on desire work in this piece about EDGI? On the one hand, EDGI is quite focused on the damage that the Trump Administration poses to the environment. Trump and Pruitt’s arrogant dismissal of climate change, and US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement represents a dangerous departure from engagement in pressing world issues. But EDGI are also working on new forms of organizational collaboration, and experimenting with new architectures for data on the web, that respond to the Trump election, but more profoundly move us forward into thinking about how to manage data in a distributed setting without the single-points-of-failure that structure so much of the web we have at the moment. EDGI is not so much a formal organization or project as much as it is a set of collaborations and shared affinities–desires for new modes of sharing and living together.
Finally, this piece by Tuck is of interest to me because of my own participation in the Documenting the Now project. We started out the project with the goal of documenting the damage that occurred when a police officer, Darren Wilson used his gun to kill teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We started it to bring archival attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, that played out so significantly in social media, and in the streets of cities and towns across the United States and around the world.
Black Lives Matter’s focus on police violence is, by necessity, about damage. Damage has happened and is happening. Damage has been denied. Damage must be acknowledged, and repaired. But damage is not the whole story for Black Lives Matter. As we progressed in the Documenting the Now project, and met with activists in Ferguson we learned that our specific challenge was to document the actual complex lived experiences of the people involved. Their activism was not a simple and static thing that lends itself to traditional archival representation. The archive represented opportunities to be remembered, but also posed as a risk for being remembered frozen in a particular moment in time.
Most of all, it became apparent that the story of the activism in Ferguson was a story about desire that the activists had for each other, and for a way of living together in a community that celebrates love and respect for differences, and survival. If you are interested in listening the two meetings with activists are available online. You can also see this theme of desire at work in the Whose Streets documentary about Ferguson.