Reading relations

In academia, we are often taught to (and rewarded for!) reading extractively, mining texts for what we want, what we need, and then leaving the rest. How many times have I read something in order to finish a paper, skimming only for the answer or citation that fit my need? Many times. As I grew busier and busier as an academic, I started skimming more and reading less. That’s a problem for a lot of reasons. First, extractive economies like the one this kind of reading participate in are about taking value from peripheries (where people live) and relocating it to the center (where power lives), rather than reciprocating the value to its place of origin. That’s not cool.

I came across a Twitter thread by Eve Tuck that taught me some manners:

  • To watch the white settlers sift through our work as they ask, “Isn’t there more for me here? Isn’t there more for me to get out of this?”
  • I have spent most of my career in education trying to convince non-Indigenous people to read Indigenous people.
  • Now that there’s been a “turn” (to where we already were/are), unsurprisingly surprised by how demonstratively settlerish their reading is
  • “Isn’t there something less theoretical? Something more theoretical? Something more practical? Something less radical? More possible?”
  • “Can’t you make something that imagines it clearly enough for me to see it? For me to just plunk it into my own imagination?”
  • “Can’t you do more work for me? because I have given this five whole minutes of thought and I don’t see the future like you.” . . .
  • “I’ll just keep sifting through all of this work that was never meant for me, sorting it by what is useful to me and what is discardable.” . . .
  • I forgot that people read extractively, for discovery.
  • I forgot that all these years of relation between settler and Indigenous people set up settlers to be terrible readers of Indigenous work.
  • If you suspect this thread is about you, it probably is. (Tuck 2017)

It was totally about me. You can read from a colonial worldview no matter your heritage. And it’s time to change.

But, like all efforts at changing systems that are deeply rooted, it’ll need more than good intentions. Hence #collabrary, a reading experiment to make reading more reciprocal, generous, collaborative, accountable, and humble. A tall order. I’m looking forward to it.

Generosity

#collabrary is a project with Deondre Smiles (@DeondreSmiles), where we read 4 articles or chapters a week and post tiny lit reviews on Twitter. It’s based on and inspried by Jimmy Sweet’s (@JimmySkuya) 365 days of reading Očhéthi Šakówiŋ studies articles (he actually did 431!!) and then posting short summaries of them on Twitter– an act that so many of us benefited from. He could have kept them private, but instead he lead with generosity, sharing his reading.

Reciprocity and accountability

One of the reasons I need to read more is that I’ve fallen out of touch with what other scholars are saying. I’m not being accountable to my field, to the work BIPOC and anticolonial researchers are already doing. Accountability and reciprocity go hand in hand. Here’s Zoe Todd on reciprocity:

Reciprocity of thinking requires us to pay attention to who else is speaking alongside us. It also positions us, first and foremost, as citizens embedded in dynamic legal orders and systems of relations that require us to work constantly and thoughtfully across the myriad systems of thinking, acting, and governance within which we find ourselves enmeshed. Before I am a scholar or a researcher, I am a citizen of the Métis Nation with duties and responsibilities to the many different nations/societies/peoples with whom I share territories. This relational approach means that my reciprocal duties to others guide every aspect of how I position myself and my work, and this relationality informs the ethics that drive how I live up to my duties to humans, animals, land, water, climate and every other aspect of the world(s) I inhabit.

(2016, 19)

That includes reading. Not just reading more, but whom I read and how I read. Including authors in reading lists can be a mere “[indication] of engagement, but as such that ‘engagement’ can be a very superficial one, one which acknowledges the existence of a body of work through name-checking, but which fails to attend to, disseminate, reinforce, or critique the detail of the work” (Maddrell 2012, 326). Such reading or citation actions do not change relations so much as enact a mode of inclusion that barely scratches epistemological regimes (Ahmed 2012). It is not reciprocal, even as an act of recognition (Coulthard 2014).

Luckily, there are a lot of guides out there for how to read in a reciprocal way, a way that accounts for the text not as a site to mine for goods or away to achieve a list of accomplishments, but as a gift, an event, a body of work, and entities with their own terms.

Dumit’s How I Read (2012)

One of my go-to lessons in reading differently comes from Joe Dumit (2012). He provides a framework for reading outside of the dude-core culture of bash-reading, where texts are engaged with so they can be annihilated with criticism during a graduate seminar. If you’ve been to graduate school, you know what I mean. This kind of I’m-smarter-than-the-author is not reciprocal, and not accountable to authors or their worlds. Here’s what Dumit proposes instead (find the full post here):

  • Close reading (as opposed to general): looking at how a text as a text makes arguments in terms of writing style, grammars, uses of words, modes of characterizing others, and of characterizing others’ arguments. 
  • Constructive reading (as opposed to deconstructive): finding the argument(s) in the text and seeing how they are supported, standing with the author and their goals.
  • Positive reading (as opposed to negative): builds on the text to extend, elaborate, or inspire new arguments.
  • A generous reading (as opposed to deconstructive): emphasizes the text’s strengths in fidelity with the text.
  • An archeological or genealogical reading: reading the text within its larger academic, social, historical context and discourses.
  • Methodological reading (as opposed to explicative): traces how the text was made, how it came to its findings and conclusions.
  • Ethical reading (as opposed to descriptive): follows the goods sought and bads fought in the text (to borrow Anne Marie Mol’s terms).

#Collabrary provides an opportunity to work on these, and other, modes of reading as a practice characterized by CLEAR’s values of humility (how we are always in/of  communities and other collectives, even in ways we don’t know) and accountability (the actions that account for and are beholden to those relations). One of CLEAR’s main roles is to incubate (as in technical acts of caregiving) methodologies that are anticolonial, and thus anti-extractive. Reading is one such method.

Bibliography

Many of these ideas are from a piece I’ve written about reading as a method in: Liboiron, M. (2020). “Exchanging,” Transmissions: Critical Tactics for Making and Communicating Research. Edited by Kat Jungnickel. MIT Press: 89-108.

Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dumit, Joseph. 2012. “How I Read.” Joseph Dumit (blog), September 27. http://dumit.net/how-i-read/.

Maddrell, Avril. 2015. “To Read or Not to Read? The Politics of Overlooking Gender in the Geographical Canon.” Journal of Historical Geography 49:31–38.

Sweet, Jimmy. 2020. “A year ago today I set out to read an article on Očhéthi Šakówiŋ studies everyday for a year.” Twitter, December 31, 11:33 p.m. https://twitter.com/JimmySkuya/status/1344841551919329280

Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29 (1): 4–22.

Tuck, Eve (@tuckeve). 2017. “To watch the white settlers sift through our work as they ask, ‘Isn’t there more for Me here? isn’t there more for me to get out of this?’” Twitter, October 8, 11:40 a.m. https://twitter.com/tuckeve/status/917067274799984641.

On March 8th, Deondre Smiles and Max Liboiron did a #Collabrary “post” over Zoom, with an audience. See the hour-long discussion of “Feminisms from Unthought Locations: Indigenous worldviews, marginalized feminisms, and revisioning and Anticolonial social science” by Gaile Cannella & Kathryn Manuelito in the Handbook of Critical Indigenous Methodologies.