Remaining an outsider, in certain ways, might be the most respectful way you engage with another culture. If that is not enough for you, then you need to explore why that is. What access do you think you are owed? Why? How have you earned it? Who could appropriately give it to you? And, most important, what would further access do for the people you claim to admire so much?” (Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes)
In an era of “openness,” how do we articulate the need for restricted research practices?
It’s International Open Access Week (#OAWeek17) and there are hundreds of events around the globe taking place: events that support and advocate for increased access to scholarly knowledge and publishing. Open Access groups and movements push back against the legal and financial measures that restrict the flow of information: paywalls, access tolls, restrictive copyrights, Digital Rights Management (DRM).
Open Access is an exciting and galvanizing movement that it’s proponents mobilize mobilized as an activist methodology (see, for instance, The Internet’s Own Boy). The language of human rights and equality is often evoked in order to advocate for its necessity:
Teaching in new media and Indigenous Studies classrooms, I also advocate for Open Access. For too long, the academy has worked unilaterally with Indigenous communities, meaning that information has been taken out, largely by non-Indigenous researchers, but little has been returned. In this sense, the academics are resource extractors: mining community for assets that support the development of the state and settler colonial ideology. Within this context, Open Access has the potential to undo the colonial infrastructure of the university insofar as it creates, or has the potential to create, accessible pathways for communities to access and use information towards its deconstruction. My colleagues at Xwi7xwa library and I use OA platforms in my classrooms as a means for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to think beyond the ivory tour and against settler colonialism while writing for, and with, the audiences that matter most to them.
That being said, I am also deeply skeptical of the language of OA and the neo-colonial ideologies it produces and reinforces. Scholars such as Kim Christen (@mukurtu), Deirdre Brown, and George Nicholas, for instance, have produced research demonstrating that OA has very real consequences for Indigenous peoples, insofar as it contributes to neo-Enlightenment ideologies of entitlement to knowledge. According to Brown and Nicholas, the costs of OA for Indigenous peoples include:
loss of access to ancestral knowledge, loss of control over proper care of heritage, diminished respect for the sacred, commercialization of cultural distinctiveness, uses of special or sacred symbols that may be dangerous to the uninitiated, replacement of original tribally produced work with reproductions, threats to authenticity and loss of livelihood, among other things.[i]
It is against this backdrop that I would like to propose a pedagogy of closure. The very word “open” suggests its opposite: closed. And closure, within the framework of OA, is equated, often loudly and with condescending tones, with censorship and the suppression of knowledge. Closure is, as Christen eloquently and rigorously illustrates in her article “Does Information Really Want to be Free?”, an attack on freedom.
Inasmuch as “open,” in the context of this discussion, is framed and understood by what it is not, that is “closed,” my approach to the subject is deconstructionist in intent. Deconstruction—a term coined by the Algerian post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida—operates by exposing the continuum on which supposedly mutually exclusive binaries exist, therefore undercutting supposedly “self-evident” truths that authoritarian politics are built out of. Deconstruction begins from the idea that “official” language—by which I mean the language of the state, the institution, the academy—is based on mutually exclusive terminology: inside/outside, man/woman, savage/civilized. At its best, deconstruction exposes the systems of violence and exclusion of binary thinking and “loosen[es] up [the] paranoid antitheses”[ii] of the official discourse.
Loosely applying deconstruction to the open/closed binary that sits at the heart of OA, I suggest that closure can be not as an end to the conversation, but as a beginning. What if we were to think non-access as a productive pathway to knowledge? What if we were to think closure as openness?
As a non-Indigenous scholar who works with Indigenous communities, listening to my collaborators and recognizing boundaries is a necessary part of what I do. There are places that I am not welcome and conversations that I should not be a part of. Métis artist and scholar, David Garneau, names these spaces of closure “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality”:
Irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality are gatherings, ceremony, nêhiyawak (Cree)–only discussions, kitchen-table conversations, email exchanges, et cetera, in which Blackfootness, Métisness, and so on, are performed without settler attendance. It is not a show for others but a site where people simply are, where they express and celebrate their continuity and figure themselves to, for, and with one another without the sense that they are being witnessed by people who are not equal participants.[iii]
Clearly, being denied access is not an emotionally tranquil event, and as one of my colleagues pointed out to me, there is a very real difference between ethos and practice here. Not being invited to an event, or, even more so, being asked to leave one, stings, particularly if the excluded person feels that they are a respectful and contributing member of that community, or that they have a “right” to attend (be it through academic credentials, personal relationships, or financial contributions).
These moments of closure are disquieting, of course, but they should also be taken as instructive—because, in Paulette Regan’s sense of the word, they are unsettling. In this sense, closure is a “profound disturbing of a colonial status quo”[iv] that provisions against what Garneau identifies as the colonial desire to “penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit.”[v]
Acknowledging, not just through theory but through action, that some knowledge is off-limits to you personally is not only an ethical gesture, it is good scholarly practice. It means being a good relation. No one is welcome everywhere. As such, recognizing one’s boundaries is also an academic gesture: it facilitates the growth and rigour of knowledge and it opens up stronger lines of communication between and across communities. Or, to put it differently, I learn more and I get better at my job when I acknowledge the existence of borders and my hosts’ right to open or close them.[vi]
Closure, in this sense, is, or leads to, openness; it is not antithetical to it. The result is a continuum, along which there are a number of points in which “closed” and “open” can intersect, overlap and inform one another.[vii]
I believe in Open Access because I believe that knowledge does not belong to the academy, or to publishers, or even to individual scholars. I believe that knowledge is contingent on consensual relationships, respect, and reciprocity. But Open Access and Open Access Week can become places of such excitement that they risk silencing voices of concern and dissent. At the ten-year anniversary of Open Access week, it is indisputable that much good work has been done. And ten-years in, it’s time for a change in the way we think and articulate “open”: a methodology aimed at inclusivity, democracy, and human rights. It’s time to think about where Open can’t and shouldn’t go. It’s time to think about closure.
[i] Brown and Nicholas, “Protecting indigenous cultural property in the age of digital democracy: Institutional and communal responses to Canadian First Nations and Māori heritage concerns”
[ii] Terry Eagleton, “Don’t Deride Derrida.”
[iii] David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” 27.
[iv] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 60.
[v] Garneau 23.
[vii] Thanks to Sunah Cho for sharing her thoughts on open access continuums with me.