Making Things Otherwise
On the Feminist Critique of the Anthropocene, Decolonising Geology and Sensing Media Environments
The German version of this text was published in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, No. 23, 2020. Deutschsprachige Version dieses Beitrags hier.
Drawing from the observation of a general saturation in the discourses centered around the Anthropocene, Jennifer Gabrys and Kathryn Yusoff argue for radical and ongoing critique of hegemonic practices of knowledge. The conversation addresses questions of materiality in Media Studies and Geology, alternative methodologies, modes of participation, sensation and representation and sketch ways for feminist-decolonial worldbuilding in, after and against the Anthropocene.
Léa Perraudin I would like to open up the conversation with a general question regarding the importance of framing and labelling one’s research. Can you tell us more about your approach and self-understanding both within and outside the humanities and about the idea of performative statements eventually becoming institutional facts? I’m thinking in particular about your designation, Kathryn, as a professor of «inhuman geography» and of your research methodology, Jennifer, and your hands-on approach of «getting practical» as a broad claim towards the necessity of reframing methodologies in general.
Kathryn Yusoff One of the things that the Anthropocene brings into play for all its bad forms of naming and characterisation is a shift in terms of both disciplines and the knowledge production made under conditions of futurity. In UK institutions, you can choose the title of your professorship. I chose «inhuman geography» because my work is radically interdisciplinary, and is placed somewhere in between human geography and earth histories. If we problematise the notion of «the human» in its historic form as a colonial inheritance, what would an «institution of the inhumanities» look like? If we take the ‹inhuman› as a historical description of both race and matter, then thinking with inhuman and inhumane histories centres a different geography and experience. So I decided to name myself a professor of inhuman geography to push at the politics of nonlife and provoke some reflection around this question of the inhuman. In a sense I’m trying to challenge the discipline I’m in to think more broadly around what it means to be part of the environmental humanities. And to think about that in ways that don’t just reproduce the unthought structures of humanist disciplines and its cultures of exclusion and their colonial affects – namely towards Black and Brown people. I see it as a way to think about decolonising from the positionality that I was situated in. Names matter for how we see and think the world. Institutions produce and consolidate knowledge.
Jennifer Gabrys I have been quite interested in practice and the practical, not as merely accepting the discourse of «let’s get practical and do something with your hands» – which I try to critique in How to Do Things with Sensors,1 because I think that can be an essentialist and even masculinist discourse about what it means to get practical – but to investigate practice as a space of inquiry and relation that has effects in the world and makes worlds through effects. I investigate how to engage in practice as a space of almost deliberate reconfiguration and transformation, when, for instance, groups attempt to monitor air quality because they are attempting to realise environmental justice or hold regulators and industry to account. That’s one of the things I have been asking myself quite a lot lately, when leading the Citizen Sense project and the AirKit projects.2 If you work with people to monitor air quality with tool-kits, then how does this practice-based and participatory research attempt to remake the institutional effects in which we are caught up and even captured?
So, it’s important to think about how academic inquiry can be coextensive with projects that are taking place in the world; how it’s not merely a matter of applying theory to practice or trying to decode from a position of being an enlightened observer. It’s instead about trying to break down those politics of knowledge by querying expertise and querying the ways in which one might work with communities. That is a certain kind of intervention within academic spaces as they are usually configured, and it’s not necessarily going to reproduce institutional power structures.
Petra Löffler Kathryn, as a scholar in the field of «inhuman geography», you criticise the concept of the Anthropocene intensively as a hegemonic Western universalism based on what you call a «White geology». The first thing to mention here is your book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None.3 The title sounds, at least to me, provocative. Could you explain the intention behind it?
K. Y. In a sense, the book came out of those institutional effects that I was experiencing in lots of Anthropocene conferences and workshops. Constantly being asked to talk about the «other Anthropocene», which was, in my position as a Brown queer feminist, presumed to be my role within a patriarchal white discourse of the Anthropocene. And in this «other Anthropocene» were all the marginal spaces and people that were assumed to be an addition to this homogenising Western discourse, which was being produced in very particular places of knowledge production, and making totalising statements about the world with a very un-diverse set of constituents. So, I decided to think about what that production of knowledge was about. And I started writing about what a Black and Brown Anthropocene would look like: What history would all these ‹non-events› that don’t get mapped into the event of the Anthropocene (as an account of materiality and space of academic politics and performance) tell? Rather than just renaming the Anthropocene the «Capitalocene» or some other form of -cene. If we don’t go looking to name a «golden spike», for example, but think instead about the embodiment of that ‹spike›, then different understandings of the afterlives of the impact of environmental processes emerge. And the relation between race and environment becomes clear in the wake of colonial extraction. So the «Billion Black Anthropocenes or None» started off as a million, and then went to a billion, and it could go on ad infinitum, because those archives are not privileged. The title is meant as a challenge, of the non-endorsement of the Anthropocene as a colonial narrative and projection! So, we need a thinking that is able to stretch across the endings of many Indigenous and Black worlds and the many erased histories of matter, to decolonise the colonial processes of geology. Or, we find a different word to work with what’s going on, like the environmental afterlives of colonialism.
P. L. So, the «billion» is a symbolic number of all the voids that are there, because there are no traces of colonialism in the stories told about the Anthropocene?
K. Y. Yes, it’s a different way of thinking about the events of the Anthropocene. Who is actually involved in those events? Like, what is the corporeal or subjective place of those events? So, if we talk about atomic explosions and the nuclear Anthropocene marker, where are they happening? Who is becoming the archive of those events? Who has to bear this history? Rather than this very masculine process of naming the «golden spike» or designating a material economy without any subjective or corporeal effects, I started to think about how these events are made in the world not just as material events, but as co-joined material-subjective or intra-subjective events. And it is this interplay between the inhuman and voided subjectives that I have been trying to work through. To think about how geology lives in the world through racialised experience and bodies, and how this politics of non-life creates conditions of unliveability, while it makes other lives possible.
J. G. There is a provocation that the Jamaican novelist Sylvia Wynter brought up – who you are also referring to – that when «the human» is described as causing climate change, or «the human force» that is then being encapsulated in the term Anthropocene, that’s a very particular human that’s being summoned into form. Wynter addresses the need to look at how that’s a very colonial designation of who is in and who is out of the category of «the human».4 How is that reflected in the Anthropocene as a term or concept?
K. Y. I think both of our work engages with the concept that Sylvia Wynter uses of the referent «we». Who is the referent «we» that gets mobilised in the saving of worlds? And, as soon as there is a discourse on saving worlds, this «we» the «human we» – the «humanity-we» is scaled up to represent the world, when in fact it represents a privileged fraction of the world. Wynter suggests that this ‹we› is the ‹preferred›, raced human of Enlightenment thought. And I want to think about what that means for an account of the planetary and materiality. Which is to start from a position of suspicion to any universalising move when we are thinking about environments and about the violent changes to environments.
Birgit Schneider You take a close look at the materials used to manufacture media devices and also at mining, etc. Jennifer’s book Digital Rubbish5 published in 2011 is a pioneering work on the role of media materialities. Can you tell us more about the notion of materiality, which is very important for both of you?
K. Y. As far as I know, Jennifer Gabrys’ natural history of electronics is the first kind of mapping of the relationship between natural history, geology, fossils and electronic waste. It certainly informed my own approach. At the time I was working on the Antarctic, which is another geologic remnant. In subsequent work on media and geology and the Anthropocene, some of this work is erased, as well as the work of Black scholars on the environment (such as Wynter), which raises the issue of who gets canonised. What I tried to tackle head-on in A Billion Black Anthropocenes is this questioning of citation, and how we deal with citation as a decolonial and feminist practice, working in white patriarchal institutions. Work is always a collective endeavour, but what is the work that gets reproduced and what other reproductive politics are at work in their erasure? I think that it matters how we produce a discourse of what’s going on – because those things come to stand for political possibility and the crafting of futurity. They also reinvest certain kinds of privileges within the academy that are beyond individuals and have social affects.
J. G. We are currently working on a paper, «Wasting the Elements», that addresses the topic of materiality and media devices. We are revisiting waste to think about how particular material politics and categories form, as «processes of materialisation», as Judith Butler has termed it.6 We are challenging these elemental or essential categories of materiality when, in fact, anthropocenic forces (which we use critically) are creating all kinds of new material effects. And this is a way to situate materiality within larger studies of racial capitalism, extraction, and environmental racism. With this approach we argue that materiality can’t be reified or turned into a kind of discrete and seemingly detached object, because it is always being constituted and having all sorts of effects in the world. So that’s the way in my prior work on electronic waste that I tried to look at things like silicon or lead, plastic and hazardous chemicals. This approach to wasting queries the boundaries of what counts as material, and think instead through processes of materialisation that have social, political and environmental effects.
B. S. In the humanities, there is a long tradition of forgetting about the materiality behind all of our gadgets and devices. I was also thinking about the politics behind this exclusion of materials in media theory.
P. L. I found it really interesting not only to think about the production and composition of media devices, but also about their de-composition, their decay, and the cycles of materials especially in regard to recycling. So we have plastics, raw minerals and materials composed into to media devices, on the one hand; and on the other hand, we have human remains. Kathryn, you write about fossils and bones as material remains of human and inhuman bodies. These are, of course, very different materials. Do you have any idea about how these sub-cycles of materials are intertwined or how they encounter each other in some way?
K. Y. I have been thinking a lot about this question of what I call «anthropogenesis»7 – how the human gets made materially. We are all composites of geology. And that’s also in relation to the production of subjectivity as an effect of various technologies. I’ve been interested in human origins in terms of these longer stories of the relationship between climate, environment and geologic materials. And, even to think about the non-human as well and of the long evolutionary histories which are shaped around co-constituting materialities. So there’s a certain effect of capitalism to displace materiality to extraction zones and to try and make us forget the conditions of materiality. Materiality is obviously coming back in the Anthropocene, in all these forms of excess. But they are not really excesses. They are just something that’s been taken out of a restricted economy, a sort of apprehension or capital aesthetics of materiality. The weight of materiality is made the burden of the racialised poor. So thinking about the aesthetics and affects of certain arrangements allow us to forget, maybe, what certain technologies do to the world in their extraction, and how material relations of power are lived. And, Jennifer’s work on electronic waste has been actually filling out a lot of that story.
J. G. I think that’s an excellent point in terms of how there are elisions of materiality, but that it is not possible to simply make visible these forms of matter. Many forms of materiality are outside the sphere of influence, including the bodies that are making electronics, the toxic effects that they bear, the sites where devices go when they are discarded. Who is breaking them down? Who is repairing them? Who is burning them in scrap heaps in Africa? Who is having to inhale that particulate matter? Who is having to drink the groundwater where chemicals are leaching into the ground? This elision enables a seemingly friction-free capitalism, where the immateriality of the digital undergirds extractive economic processes. But then the material returns in different forms and has certain effects. So that elision is also imperfect. It comes back as a sort of remainder but is actually integral to those very economies that perform those operations of elision.
This is why the fossil was so important for me, because I was also drawing on Walter Benjamin’s work, who wrote about fossils as the traces of economic processes.8 You could look at commodities within an arcade, first seeing them through the traces of their initial promise, and then encounter them as they eventually decay. At these moments, they lapse out of economies of circulation and become strange artefacts again. How do these fossil-like forms allow for a greater understanding of what is sedimented in these objects, as that which allows them to circulate and seem to be free of material residues? At what point do they come back into states of appearance as material form? And how do these things crystallise in such a way as to be able to understand them?
L. P. I was wondering if you could follow up on the notion of scale in your work, because scale is one of the primary points of interest in Anthropocene scholarship. I think in that particular moment, when we focus on the materialities themselves as media to pass through the process of scaling, we are able to make another statement about the relationship between local practices and planetary capitalism, as well as between deep time and the instant yet persistent effects of structural injustice incorporated in the Anthropocene.
K. Y. Scale is a very loaded word for a geographer. We can see these scalar effects in the Anthropocene in the articulation of localised problems becoming planetary. So the idea that is propagated is that geopolitics just gets bigger without any sense of what it means to expand. And that imagination is in itself a kind of colonial force. Like the idea of what Édouard Glissant called ‹a projectile imagination›, of the idea of a masculinist force of empire, that you can just scale up these things, so we move very quickly from a set of specific environmental problems to the end of the world.
And, of course, the world is not going to end because the earth has all sorts of iterations of being that don’t include humans. So scaling is always political. And scalar effects always embody a certain kind of politics. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is: What are the politics of deep time? If ‹we› start thinking about ourselves as geologic beings, ‹we› suddenly start thinking about these longer histories of matter. What does it mean to invoke deep time? In the work that I have been doing about geologies of race, the question arises about how is deep time being used historically to organise populations in a eugenic sense? How is deep time mobilised for the acquisition of power in the political present? I think scale and time are always political trajectories and they are always trajectories that are involved in some kind of reproductive logic or futurism. So, I think scale is something we have to think very carefully about and there is a certain lazy politics of scale in the Anthropocene. It’s just like, «oh it’s bigger and we get to make even bigger claims».
J. G. Or «How do we scale this to address the whole planet?» I have also looked at critiquing the notion of the planetary and scale in a short essay in eflux architecture called «Becoming Planetary».9 Within media studies there is this discussion now of computation on a planetary scale, but what does this mean exactly? How are scale and the planetary invoked? What do they refer to? Is the planet self-evident in this rendering of it at a planetary scale?
In this analysis, I infuse my work with Sylvia Wynter’s thoughts about becoming or being human as praxis in order to talk about being planetary as praxis.10 In this way, I also think about the planetary through the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak11 as something that is in the making, a collective responsibility, something that can’t be assumed in advance. This approach opens into a discussion and critique of scale that typically assumes a common universality of how things might just move up and down at certain levels, and that the computational will encompass the planet. I suggest it is necessary to look more carefully at that sort of rhetoric along with its assumptions and effects. For instance, if we think about geoengineering as a media project, it involves thinking about and managing the planet as a computational problem on a planetary scale.
So, I think this question of scale is important, to agree with Kathryn, and it is important to look more carefully at not using scale in such an easy way. Many geographers have had battles over the use of the term scale. But other scholars, such as Anna Tsing, have written very eloquently about frictions as a kind of counter-concept for not working so easily with scale. In The Mushroom at the End of the World,12 she also critiques scale within her analysis of commodity chains and argues that things aren’t moving fluidly within the spaces of global capitalism. In fact, much different things are happening within much different kinds of milieus. So how can we account for these differences without using scalar logic and scalar concepts?
B. S. Kathryn, in your research you also make reference to maps, for example the time-lapse map by the Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto charting nuclear explosions since 1945. What is the role of mapping for you? Can you imagine a map that would be able to portray a Black Anthropocene? And what is the role of mapping for you, Jennifer, concerning your citizen sensing projects? To put it differently, is there any potential, any power, still implicit in maps or do we have to forget about maps because the scale is contested?
K. Y. Maybe another way to respond and also to ask that kind of question back is to say, I think one thing that’s evident in both our work is a concern around world-building. So, what are the scripts that build the worlds, what are the practices that build the worlds? So maybe maps look differently when they are not designed as visual regimes of power. They have other forms, and I think the map is always an orientation. So how do we start building non-normative maps that potentially start to queer the scripts of this world building? That’s the question that is always there for me. But I don’t know what that looks like because maybe it doesn’t look like something maybe it sounds like something, as pulse or rhythm (as in Isao Hashimoto’s map) that discloses points of intensification and exposure, or it has a different sensory register.
J. G. I agree with that and that’s actually a perfect point. How could we think of processes of mapping not as colonial territorial tools but modes of wayfinding? Of course, you can draw on lots of other navigational traditions that involve modes of alignment and relationality that are about tuning in and forming collective conditions of possibility. Mapping has taken hold as a certain kind of static colonial rendering to allow a privileged observer to survey a domain over which they presumably have some authority or control, which is a very particular way of thinking about mapping. But that should not prevent other possibilities for what it would mean to undertake other forms of navigation and wayfinding.
B. S. Maps can also tell stories. In my examination of climate change maps, I’ve noticed that it’s often the very conventionalised Mercator map or Google Maps that have been chosen as a basis for the data. Could we use these same maps – with all their problems – in a different way to tell alternative stories, for example, the story of slavery? And could we link them to ideas of the Anthropocene and climate justice? Would this perhaps be more relevant than always depicting the climate as a globalised object? For instance, The C-Story of Human Civilization created by the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research13 is a world map where you can see the development of CO2 emissions since 1750. At first, the emissions – in the form of colours – flash up only in Britain, then Germany, France, North America and Japan. The fact is that many other countries didn’t even start to produce carbon emissions in this timeframe. In other words, no colours at all appear in those countries during the last 300 years. For me, this map represents a very different way of addressing climate change injustice, because it makes explicit which countries have been producing the emissions.
K. Y. We know where emissions are produced. We know that asymmetry of power in terms of energy and production. But it doesn’t make any difference to what we do. That ‹we› see better actually doesn’t change anything that ‹we› in the industrial North are doing. The climate science for the last ten years was obsessed with showing people what was going on. But we still don’t do anything to make radical shifts. So, I think we have to denaturalise the link between seeing and doing and address the infrastructures of power. I think mapping is useful in how it draws affects, which might allow us to inhabit a different geographical imaginary.
P. L. Considering the dominance of Western mapping and cartography, it seems to be hard to find alternative mappings or maps…
J. G. What we try to interrogate in the Citizen Sense Project is exactly how a certain kind of environmental citizenship has been articulated or formed around information. Is there something bundled into those modes of analysis, information and awareness in the way they are usually captured? That leads to a certain kind of inertia and business as usual and deferring the problem to expert actors where people don’t feel they can really engage or do very much because of the configuration of the problem.
Isabelle Stengers and Alfred N. Whitehead have suggested different ways of framing problems, which then can have different kinds of effects and bring together different actors to work on those problems.14 That is to think about how data isn’t just self-evident facts, but it has to take hold in some way. It has to have relevance, it has to generate certain kinds of effects. What are the maps that might demonstrate or materialise these different matters of concern? How could we begin to generate more of these maps? What other kinds of maps or modes of engagements or effective architectures might be generated?
K. Y. In particular within in the US, there’s the whole environmental movement, which very much began with Black communities that were subjected (and continue to be) to intensified environmental effects of waste and pollution actually mobilising around different mapping. So, it’s a way to start to unpack the familiar into something a lot less familiar. Yet, maps from poor Black communities did not have the same political traction in terms of action as those from middle class white communities, nor do they make it into the dominant narrative of the environmental movement.
J. G. I think that’s right about the environmental justice movement. Robert Bullard’s work was using mapping as a key way to show that dumping was primarily taking place in Black communities. His work15 kicked off a whole set of practices that are still important in environmental justice today, which can involve mapping where low-income communities of colour are living in relation to where pollution and waste are primarily located. I think that’s an example of how mapping practices can have particular effects in terms of sparking movements and forming methods for wider use. Critical cartography and radical cartography are other practices that investigate how to make the maps that weren’t being made: Mapping where people could have access to green space, mapping where different kinds of socio-economic effects were occurring, mapping different organisms.16 I think these can be ways – and that’s perhaps what Robert Bullard was doing as an urban sociologist – of bringing together things that aren’t ordinarily studied in the same diagram and seeing how they coincide in order to generate a critical or radical perspective.
K. Y. Maybe a word of caution. If we look at the work of Forensic Architecture, for example, the sort of mapping back onto maps of power is compelling and can seem like a very empowering and strategic practice. It also promises a transparency of engagement and possibility, which is not always the case. So the idea that you can make something visible and that this translates into some action often exposes a big fracture. This fracture is often raced. Sometimes a different kind of affectual architecture can actually open up a lot more possibilities. The map is still a judicial tool in a sense and it can be used in those spaces as evidence but it often overpromises.
P. L. The question about maps brings me to another aspect. We can also think of maps as a way to quantify geo data and order that data in a certain way. Storytelling, oral history and other kinds of communication play an important role for community building in both of your work. So, on the one hand, we have this more qualitative approach to the question of the Anthropocene and, on the other hand, we have a more quantitative approach with respect to data collections. What is your relation to these different approaches, that is, between quantification on the one hand and storytelling on the other?
J. G. Within the Citizen Sense project we’ve been collecting so much numerical data. But it’s been that very process that made me aware of the problematic distinction between apparent qualitative and quantitative approaches. Quite a lot of «qualitative» work has to be done to settle the «quantitative» into a legible numbering practice. Because of this, in our research we’ve developed a particular data stories format and methodology for working through citizen data.17 We’ve used the data stories to bring together numerical data, citizen observations, maps, along with different kinds of plots and graphs. With this practice, we draw on Donna Haraway’s concept of «figuration» that she developed in her book Modest Witness.18 So when we think about data stories as ways of «figuring», it’s not as though a series of numbers has to be so completely distinct from an in situ observation. The notion of figuring begins to open into the notion of speculative fabulation,19 which differently resonates with how Kathryn has engaged with the work of Saidiya Hartman. So I wouldn’t contrapose stories to quantification, but rather I see them as ways of working with different kinds of data and stories to figure worlds.
K.Y. I think for me it comes together – this is just because of the work that I’ve been doing – in terms of the history of geology around the archive. Whether we’re talking about the archive in a literal sense or as a set of privileged knowledges, and how to engage the archive, and what makes it into the archive, or everything that’s inaccessible in the archive. There is much errant knowledge that doesn’t fit into those kinds of grammars of sedimentation at an epistemic level, which become the operative space of knowledge. I am very influenced by the work of Black feminist scholars that use or approach the archive in terms of a speculative or critical fabulation. This is the term that Saidiya Hartman uses in her book Scenes of Subjection20 where she talks about fabulation as a critical engagement with the archive as a way of telling the stories of Black life differently from the way they enter into the archive as a problem or a form of disciplining etc. I think working with these ideas of escape, what Hartman calls creating ‹loopholes of retreat›, embraces the idea that you need to answer the carceral logic of colonialism in a different register of redress. So, it’s not so much storytelling or the facticity of the archive, but actually it’s thinking about all of these as fictions in a sense, colonial fictions of subjugated life. You know that fictioning is going on whether you’re a colonial geologist or you’re subjected by the practices of that geologic imperative. This is also to think about how science narrates itself and what that narration is doing, in particular in terms of climate change, that narration is always part of the scientific facts, and its affects. We see it much more obviously, much more blatantly in the Anthropocene discourse, but there is also a need to think critically about these relationships while not investing in certain interests that are producing a kind of fictional climate change through climate denial. So where science is involved there is also a politics of representation to think with.
B. S. Jennifer, you say that in order to make data sensible we also have to make it actionable. You offer an alternative to the typical humanist critical interpretations of surveillance society by calling for a civic practice of sensing what you call environmental citizenship. To what extent is the construction and use of sensors a practice that belongs to environmental citizenship? And how does this practice change power relations?
J. G. What sorts of citizens are these? They’re not, I would say, the citizens that tech companies are imagining, who so effortlessly say that by monitoring the air people will be politically empowered and be able to improve their environments. In fact, it’s much more gnarly and entangled than that. How do different kinds of citizenship form though struggle with different forms of evidence, for instance? We’ve tried to address the questions these devices pose by following through distinct modes of inquiry that have been practice based and participatory. This has involved working with communities who are already engaged with monitoring, and who use devices that we develop with them to see how they push at these questions of the kinds of citizenship that might emerge in these spaces.
This also involves thinking through what it means to attempt to follow the script of digital empowerment and citizenship. Part of the objective is to query these empowerment narratives to see how different configurations of environmental citizenship might emerge. In this sense, I’m interested in work by Rosi Braidotti who talks about the ecological constitution of citizenship, which might form with and through other entities.21 So, the «citizen» is here not a rationally enabled and information-driven human actor who in a universal register is trying to lower their carbon footprint, but rather it is a provocation for thinking about different configurations of entities and relations and worlds.
B. S. The Center for Embedded Network Sensing (CENS, 2006-2013) in LA made the distinction between «oppositional sensing» and «participatory sensing».22 Other people choose binary differentiations, for example when Mark Hansen from Duke University discriminates between «passive» and «active» sensing. What differentiations do you find useful as a way to grasp various modes of sensing?
J. G. I think that it is really difficult to have such a binary understanding of sensing. Well, the fact is if everybody in this room is sensing, they’re sensing each other and their devices are sensing. So these are kind of environments of sensing that need to be thought about relationally because it’s not as simple as an individual who is empowered to sense because they are also capturing other people, processes, and entities along the way. I would say this oppositional – participatory, and active-passive binary doesn’t work in practice. That distinction has been used for a while to refer usually to people actively going out and sensing as opposed to all forms of surveillance, as well as passive sensing in terms of just sensing the environment through the ongoing operations of your smartphone for instance. I’m less convinced about these binaries in terms of sensing or being sensed. That’s why I use the term creaturing to think about the different relations and entities that are brought into being.
P. L. In this regard, what do you think about the data mining practices engaged in by companies? Mining has a very long history in colonialism and slavery, plus it recalls a geological practice of extraction and excavation. And now we’ve taken on the term ‹mining› to designate a very real practice that has a wide-ranging political impact. I was wondering what you think about data mining, because your project deals a lot with data.
J. G. Yes, that’s right. And I think many people are writing about this question now, data mining, data extraction, data colonialism. It’s really a burgeoning area right now. We’re looking less in the Citizen Sense work at data mining, although I think that is a consideration when people are generating data sets, wittingly or unwittingly. Who’s using data and for what purposes? Are you also producing data that will be used in unjust ways? I think we have a much different relationship to data with the Citizen Sense project because people are generating their own data to challenge the usual ways of understanding the effects of data. I’ve written a chapter called Data Citizens: How to Reinvent Rights23 to look at how people aren’t just adding to the usual store of data when they generate data so that it becomes an even larger database to be mined. Instead, they are shifting the ontologies and registers of evidence. This also recasts how data goes from being sensible to actionable, to get back to Birgit’s question. So, data mining assumes a certain kind of ontology in relation to data that can be disrupted through different kinds of data practices. This is perhaps an unexpected finding from studying citizen-sensing practices. They do not merely add more data. Instead, they shift the registers of data.
K. Y. We could think about the Anthropocene as defined by the extraction principle, in all spheres of life, in terms of materiality and environments. The principal question for me is: How we address that extraction principle and not just add further to it? So, if we end up mining lithium rather than coal, we’re still engaged in the same set of relations of extraction and relation between peripheries and centres of production, or the creation of sacrifice zone and subjecting subjects. So, for me, that’s the key historical and ontological relation that defines everything, including data.
P. L. Collecting data and storing data requires lots of energy. This is an ecological issue, but it also raises a major political question: Who is consuming what level of energy and for what purpose? Does the storage of data play a role in your projects?
J. G. Yes, we are always interrogating these kinds of ecological aspects to digital devices as part of the research. One could say that everything in this room – whether it’s digital or not – has what is called by energy researchers embedded energy. And of course, it’s a consideration, that everything that we are doing like sending emails or saving emails, everything that’s digital has an environmental footprint that is not really present or material when we’re doing this labour that might seem so immaterial friction-free. Collecting data, storing data, processing data: Every time computational analysis is done on a data set, it will have an ecological effect. What do we do with all these devices that are meant to compute our way to a better tomorrow? Online meetings, smart cities, energy metres: all of these technologies are meant to make us more efficient. Yet such apparent efficiency through digital devices typically drives new forms of consumption. It doesn’t lead to an overall reduction in consumption. People just consume differently. And they end up consuming more because they are more efficient and faster in their consumption.
L. P. I would like to ask you about alternative genealogies and alternative futures, in particular. With predictive intelligence and automated data collection, processing and evaluation on the rise, we have also witnessed the emergence of new accounts with regard to what has been and what will be. How does your research relate to these technological ways of world making, and what is your contribution to non-linear and non-teleological thought?
K. Y. It’s a great question and it’s always the most difficult question, in a sense, for doing theoretical work. You can do the critique, but what can you offer? What nourishment or care is accounted in relation to the recognition of predatory or negative forms of accumulation? I’m very influenced by Tina Campt’s work and she talks about the ‹future perfect› of that which will have to be in order that certain kinds of Black freedom and certain anti-racist worlds are built.24 And the imperative is that we have to act as if that is possible. So, for me, theory is about trying to build towards that which will have to be. But, at the moment, I’m in some ways still at that «taking apart» stage. I think we’re at a cusp in terms of what replaces this current form of racial-ecocidial capitalism, and that this cusp is also posed in terms of disciplines and knowledge, and what takes the place of traditional forms of knowledge production. If we’re working against the globalism of the Anthropocene, this has to have local resolutions. I think we can come up with a set of guiding principles but not a prescriptive map. As academics, it’s always the hardest question, how we set some sense of directionality, methods for redress, without reinstating a teleology. Without producing a map, there are the things that we can practice with in order to challenge and change the extractive principle. For me, it’s coming up with those questions: What are those sets of affects, relations, modes of subjectivity, and most of that is a «what not to do» rather than a «how to do». I’m still at the «what not to do» stage! I am a slow learner.
J. G. I would answer it through the approach I outline in How to Do Things with Sensors, which attempts to get inside the imperative mood. This work examines prescriptions for «do it this way or else», «this is how you achieve success», «this is how you work toward an instrumental outcome» and repurposes these approaches toward more open engagements.
The term I use is open-air instrumentalism to think about how the instrumental is a mode of experimentation, drawing on pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey. This is not about seeing ideas as merely operating in abstraction and also not about doing practice for practice’s sake. Instead, it involves putting things to the test in order to experiment and to build worlds, where this movement is integral to the fulfilment of ideas. This involves inhabiting ideas as they are doing work in the world, to see what effects they have, but not necessarily to arrive at a final or predicted outcome.
So, the «how to do» is exactly «how not to do» in the sense of «how not to assume the how to is going to give you a manual to sort everything out». My answer to your question of how to engage without expecting an outcome would be to approach engagement as the very condition for making things otherwise.
- 1 See Jennifer Gabrys: How to Do Things with Sensors, Minneapolis 2019. Also available at https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/how-to-do-things-with-sensors.
- 2«The Citizen Sense project is led by Professor Jennifer Gabrys and is funded through a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. The project, which began in January 2013, investigates the relationship between technologies and practices of environmental sensing and citizen engagement.» See https://citizensense.net/. AirKit: https://citizensense.net/kits/airkit/ «The AirKit project, which is funded through an ERC Proof of Concept (PoC) grant, builds on Citizen Sense research to investigate the role of low-cost and digital monitoring technologies in facilitating and organising new types of environmental engagement. AirKit tests and develops a comprehensive citizen-sensing toolkit for participants to undertake air quality monitoring in order to realize the social and environmental potential of these technologies.»
- 3See Kathryn Yusoff: A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Minneapolis 2018.
- 4See Sylvia Wynter: Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation. An Argument, in: CR: The New Centennial Review. Vol 3, Nr. 1, 2003, 257–337.
- 5See Jennifer Gabrys: Digital Rubbish. A Natural History of Electronics, Ann Arbor 2011.
- 6See Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of «Sex», New York 1993.
- 7See Kathryn Yusoff: Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 33, Nr.2, 3–28.
- 8See Jennifer Gabrys: Digital Rubbish, Introduction «A Natural History of Electronics», 5-17. See Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge 1999.
- 9See Jennifer Gabrys: Becoming Planetary, in: eflux architecture, 2018, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/accumulation/217051/becoming-planetary/.
- 10See Katherine McKittrick (ed): Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, Durham 2015.
- 11See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Imperative to Re-Imagine the Planet, Vienna 1999.
- 12Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing: The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton 2015.
- 14See Isabelle Stengers: Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Cambridge 2011; Alfred N. Whitehead: Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, New York and Cambridge 1929.
- 15See Robert D. Bullard: Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Boulder 1990.
- 16See Orangotango+. Ed.: This Is Not an Atlas. A Global Collection of Counter-Cartographies, Bielefeld 2018.
- 17 See Jennifer Gabrys, Helen Pritchard, Benjamin Barratt: Just good enough data: Figuring data citizenships through air pollution sensing and data stories, in: Big Data & Society, Vol. 2, Nr. 2, 2016, 1–14.
- 18See Donna J. Haraway: Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManß_Meets_Onco-MouseTM, New York 1997, 11.
- 19See Donna J. Haraway: SF: Speculative Fabulation and String Figures, in: dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts, No. 033. Ostfildern: 2011; Donna J. Haraway: Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham 2016, 30-57.
- 20See Saidiya Hartman: Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, Oxford 1997.
- 21See Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall. Eds.: Posthuman Ecologies. Complexity and Process After Deleuze, New York/ London 2019.
- 22See JA Burke et al.: Participatory Sensing, in: Proceedings of the International Workshop on World-Sensor-Web (WSW'2006), ACM, October 31, 2006, Boulder, CO, USA.
- 23See Jennifer Gabrys: Data Citizens: How to Reinvent Rights, in: Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, Evelyn Ruppert (eds.) Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights, New York 2019, 248–266.
- 24See Tina Campt: Image Matters. Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe, Durham 21012.
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