On refusal and the challenge of thinking collectively.

“I’ve always rejected being understood. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.” — Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

I first learned about journal clubs (or scholarly reading groups) by reading Sarah J. Coysh, William Denton, and Lisa Sloniowski’s article “Ordering Things.” I have been invited to thesis writing clubs, but never to a journal club, so I was thrilled to have a chance to lead one session with my colleagues at the beginning of this year. For someone who carries article print-outs to most places I go (at least, I used to, when there were waiting rooms or transit involved), I struggled to pick one that might be representative of the ideas I’ve been working through but that does not require extensive background to readers unfamiliar with the domain. While “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” set me off on this journey of reflection, I chose the chapter “R-Words: Refusing Research” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, as it was broad enough for anyone familiar with research institutions and had some guiding questions at the end. I also find their writing very eloquent and powerful.

I was really happy to see several colleagues join me for this instance of the club, given that I only posed one question to anchor the discussion: “Is it possible to refuse or resist when one is a worker?” I made some notes for myself to prompt the conversation, should it stall at any point, though that didn’t happen with this group. The first of these aimed to touch on the central themes of the chapter: How not to participate in the logic of extraction in the academy? The second was my own interest, not specifically addressed by the authors, though hinted at in the “Culmination” section by stating that “all refusal is particular, meaning refusal is always grounded in historical analysis and present conditions” (p. 243). Ultimately, what I wanted to explore with the group was whether refusal is only conceptual. If so, is it moot given that academics have to pay the bills too? I was thinking about how challenging it is not to feed the machine that makes promotion and tenure possible, that rewards certain types of results, and that pays lip service to interdisciplinarity and collaboration while making those who commit to them work three times more without much recognition. In other words, the perennial problem of “playing the game while not getting lost in it” was guiding this thinking.

While I did not frame this reading in terms of library work specifically, our experiences inevitably came back to the practice of librarianship, with some examples of the production of research at the institutional level. What the discussion showed me was how challenging it is for us to talk about refusal in terms beyond the smallest individual actions. All of us say no to requests, or steer students or faculty toward some options over others, or step down from committees, or select some subscriptions at the expense of others, or perhaps stop some services completely. Yet we don’t tend to think of these decisions as forms of active refusal.

Photo by vigouroux gérald on Unsplash

And while I do not discount individual actions contributing to larger sets of practices, this is not typically what I have in mind when I talk about refusal in the profession. I wondered if perhaps the reliance on the individual acts is partly due to the fact that every one of us had specific responsibilities, with no budget supervision responsibilities and relatively low institutional authority. In other words, the people joining the discussion have rarely had a chance to consider saying no at a high level of organizational operations, because we were never in the room when big decisions happen. During the discussion, we did not get to such wild proposals as cancelling expensive journal packages or all proprietary software licenses. We did not entertain the idea of restricting racist and colonial digital collections. We did not get to talk about strikes and withholding labour collectively.

But I also wondered to what extent we have been conditioned to think only in individual terms. I would often bring this up when talking with students about the larger machinery of education. For example, it’s easy for me to stand at the front of the room and espouse the social nature of learning, when all other structures of the university are pointing toward the isolated, individual experience. They would nod when I would remind them that sure, they practice creating group digital projects, but they would ultimately be evaluated individually. The grade gets attached to a name. Degrees are conferred on people, not collectives. Once the degree is obtained and the individual successfully passes through the gate of employment, more individual structures are in place to ensure one stays in the right lane: performance evaluations, salary negotiations, feedback mechanisms, promotion and recognition. For all the talk of collaboration, the incentives are set up not to transcend the silos too far.

I also wondered, by virtue of passing successfully through the gates of employment, the very idea of refusal has also been conditioned out of us. A good worker dares not imagine the end of the institution! Librarianship’s vocational awe does not help entertain avenues for refusal. When I proposed taking a stance as an organization (during an Open Education/Open Access week or some other awareness campaign), I was reminded how my proposed strategies “would only hurt students.” This is the trade-off of service work: rather than seeing how refusal to continue to fund expensive textbooks or restrictive software packages aligns with the ultimate goals of students to pursue an education free of barriers, such positions are seen as being in competition with students. Yet as soon as we charge tuition for education, we turn students into consumers and everyone else into suppliers of that education. With this socio-economic relationship comes the customer service ethic that takes any kind of refusal off the table.

Perhaps I should have been more specific in my question: is it possible to refuse the production and reproduction of knowledge on the terms set by the institution, which was built around exploitation, extraction, and perpetuation of what Tuck & Yang describe as “pain narratives” in the field that came to be known as social science? In my experience so far, we have very little language to talk about institutional conditions but plenty of language to describe individual acts. I see vestiges of this every time tweets to the tune of “libraries are made of people” or ”there is no such thing as institutions, only people who work in them” are shared. This type of sentiment can be understood as humanizing organizations, which is important, but I fear it serves to obscure how things actually function in them. Someone makes things possible or shuts them down; someone approves plans, stamps proposals, or deletes budget lines. Not dedicating time to understanding how and why it works this way doesn’t help educators in the long run. Mystification is comforting but it does not lead to redistribution of power.

The “Refusing Research” chapter ultimately interrogates the kind of knowledge made possible and legible by the academy. Thus, the call to put into practice making some knowledge off-limits, to commit to some practices of sovereignty, is deeply unsettling to librarianship. It goes against the liberal worldview of all people being on equal footing, perpetuating the fiction of discourse as “negotiations among equals rather than the operations of power” as Rinaldo Walcott put it.

Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

In yesterday’s Kansas University “Diversity: Its History and Purpose” series lecture, which I can only describe as ‘fire emoji’, Walcott proposed the strategy of “in the meantime”, which nevertheless must eventually be breached. When I asked whether we should take up Harney & Moten’s offer of exodus or stay in place and rebuild, he told us that we should take over the university, not walk away from it. I see evidence of this as more and more people are pursuing graduate education and seeking to make contributions to the scholarly community out of genuine curiosity, passion, and care for the collective possibility rather than a desire for academic celebrity.

What the invitation to breach the strategy of “in the meantime” toward a new hegemony of collective liberation requires of us is challenging, unknown, and not guaranteed in light of global climate crisis. As referenced in another stellar lecture by Sara Ahmed this week (and argued more militantly by Rosa Luxemburg), relying on due process has proven not to get us there. I too am not relying on university presidents or boards of governors to suddenly commit to mutual emancipation of our communities. I am skeptical that tactics of convincing, pleading, describing, outlining, and persuading will get us to make tuition free, provide stipends, fund humanities programs, and turn precarious positions into permanent ones. This writing is not for them. It is for us, seeking to build a collective vocabulary, a grammar of the multitude, which is a humbling and daunting project. But mutual aid is happening all over the world, so the possibility is not off the table.

I’m glad I chose this chapter and had a venue to air some of the ideas I’ve been marinating on in the last few months. We didn’t get to talk about what the focus on desire as an ‘epistemological shift’ might look like in practice, but I imagine it has already been operating under the veneer of information access all along. It is there every time we show up to a meeting brimming with ideas. It is there when we get jazzed showing students how to figure out a process and seeing them find their own way. It is there when we feel understood and connected by our intellectual community. It is there every time we make professional calls that are challenging but ultimately pave the way for liberation of everyone, not just upholding the select few at the expense of others. Along the way, the academy beats joy out of many of us. Yet still it wiggles free.

Speculative librarianship, labour, power, technology. I am interested in land education.

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