Towards a Methodology of Closure

The colonial gaze is characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them. (David Garneau, “Imaginary Space of Conciliation and Reconciliation”)

In an era of “openness,” how do we articulate the need for restricted research practices?

Open Access activists and strategists, and there are many of them, myself included, push back against the legal and financial measures that restrict the flow of information: paywalls, access tolls, restrictive copyrights, and Digital Rights Management (DRM), to name a few.

Open Access is an exciting and galvanizing movement often mobilized as an activist methodology (see, for instance, The Internet’s Own Boy). In this discourse, the language of human rights and equality is evoked in order to advocate for its necessity:

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Teaching in digital humanities and Indigenous Studies classrooms, I advocate for OA, because it has the potential to serve the communities I am most accountable to. For too long, the academy has worked unilaterally with Indigenous communities, meaning that data has been taken out, largely by non-Indigenous researchers, but little, if anything, has gone back in.

In this sense, researchers have historically positioned themselves as resource extractors: mining communities for assets that support the development of the nation state, which, for hundreds of years, was at work on its own research question, what Duncan Campbell Scott called solving the “Indian problem.”

Against these contexts, although not without caveat, which I will come to in a moment, Open Access has the potential to undo the colonial infrastructure of the university insofar as it creates, or has the potential to create, accessible, and reciprocal, research pathways. Pathways that Indigenous faculty and students can mobilize against settler colonialism and towards resurgence, sovereignty, and self-determination.

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]

I am also wary of the OA mandate because my Indigenous friends and colleagues demand it of me. Take, for instance, these words from Cree poet and scholar Billy Ray Belcourt, winner of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, who wrote the following in response to a critic in a major Canadian literary magazine that chose to refer to his writing as “simple”:

You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else, from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one. You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come.

“We are not yet at that point of hospitality.” This is to say, that “we,” in this instance Belcourt is directly referring to settler scholars like myself, are not welcome in some spaces. The door is closed—and rather than continuing to ask when it will open, perhaps, I think Belcourt is suggesting, we need to interrogate our own desires for open access.

“Remaining an outsider,” Chelsea Vowel writes, “might be the most respectful way you engage with another culture.

Vowel goes on,

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?

It is against the critical backdrop offered by Belcourt and Vowel that I would like to suggest closure as an insight into data (perhaps accompanied with the hashtag #unpopularopinion). I know that openness is all the rage right now, but let’s just take a minute and think about what it might mean to take up “closure” as a way to facilitate the movement of information.

To begin, I want to make clear that “closed” is not the same as “stopped”. I am not suggesting that research with Indigenous communities end (although in some instances it probably should). In fact, much the opposite, I am suggesting that “closure” can facilitate the knowledge moving in a more ethical fashion. In a rather deconstructivist gesture, although I’ll spare you the Derrida, I want to suggest that closure should not be seen as an end to the conversation, but as a new beginning. I want to suggest closure as a path to openness.

As a non-Indigenous scholar who works with Indigenous communities, Indigenous faculty, and Indigenous students, listening to my collaborators and colleagues while recognizing their boundaries is an important and necessary part of what I do. There are places that I am not welcome and conversations that I should not be a part of–no matter how strong my relationships with those people and communities might be.

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]

These moments of closure are disquieting, of course, but they should also be instructive—exactly because, in Paulette Regan’s sense of the word, they are “unsettling.” They ask us to look inward, to interrogate our own desire as researchers, and to question the systems that hold up very specific, and often very Western, ways of knowing and sharing.

Acknowledging closure as a methodology is not only an ethical gesture, it is also just good scholarly practice (and I should add here that it is probably also a good policy practice). It means being a good relation. It means not getting in the way. It means deconstructing your own authority and expertise, and, in doing so, holding space for community knowledge keepers, for those who, under the logic of the public domain, have had their knowledge appropriated, decontextualized, and monetized.

As such, rather than taking it as censorship, or as a constraint on academic freedom, I want to suggest that closure is an academic gesture: it facilitates the growth and rigour of knowledge and it opens up stronger lines of communication between and across communities. 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 without my consultation. The university benefits as a whole, when we think of research like this—as a relationship based on good boundaries and consent, as opposed to a “discovery” wrought from the mind of individual genius.[i]

[i] At this moment, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, when universities are feeling the pressure to “indigenizing” curricula and “decolonize” their campuses, closure as insight also means holding space for Indigenous faculty, staff and students. It means recognizing the massive amounts of unrecognized service and emotional labour that Indigenous faculty and students are asked to undertake in the University system, and it means giving them the option of saying “no”

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]

This year will mark the eleventh anniversary of Open Access week, and it is indisputable that much good work has been done.  But as we enter the next ten years, I want to suggest that it is time for a change in the way we think and articulate “open”: a methodology aimed at inclusivity, democracy, and human rights: To come back to Belcourt, “We are not yet at that point of hospitality.”

It’s time to think about where Open can’t and shouldn’t go. It’s time to think about closure.

[i] At this moment, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, when universities are feeling the pressure to “indigenizing” curricula and “decolonize” their campuses, closure as insight also means holding space for Indigenous faculty, staff and students. It means recognizing the massive amounts of unrecognized service and emotional labour that Indigenous faculty and students are asked to undertake in the University system, and it means giving them the option of saying “no”

#openforwho#openforwhat

Endnotes

[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.

[vi] The two paragraphs above are based out of an essay I published in The Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

[vii] Thanks to Sunah Cho for sharing her thoughts on open access continuums with me.

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