A Conversation on Refusal
The following text is an edited transcript of an online conversation from October 15, 2021, organized by Steph Jordan for the Labor Tech Research Network with invited panelists Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Pat Garcia, mariam asad, Natalia Smirnov, and Stefanie Dunning.
Steph Jordan: Welcome to this special panel of the Labor Tech Research Network. I am Steph Jordan. I’m an assistant professor in the Media and Information department and a core faculty in the Center for Gender in a Global Context at Michigan State University. And I am just so honored and pleased to bring together these panelists today. I need a conversation with them. And I hope that you will find you needed to be here, too.
This panel was built in parallel with the building of the Labor Tech Research Network as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. So congratulations to all of us! And congratulations to Winnie Poster for her hard work! As we began imagining, and manifesting this infrastructure of support for a group that really does represent some of the more radical forms that research around labor and technology can inhabit in and outside of academia, in part represented by this panel today and also by this amazing audience, we had to hold many meetings where the driving question really is: what is the utopian ideal of Labor Tech for us? How can we get there? What do we need? And, to be quite honest, I often find myself without the language to describe what I want and need, as I sit, as we all do, in these times of coinciding crises of police and pandemic and propaganda and patriarchy, and politics and pollution and everything else. And instead, I find myself very much focused on what I don’t want, what I refuse, what I know I’m not and what I won’t perpetuate to the people around me. And these times, they really illuminate the slippery ethics of refusal, as people move in and out of industry, take or deny their monies, cancel, callout, defund, quit. In one conversation, I heard of one of our members joining a harmful multinational that they had spent years criticizing and in the same conversation about another member of our group who refused unrestricted Google funding on the terms of ethics. We never truly know what choices we would make until we have to make them. As we build the Labor Tech Research Network, and as each one of us here works on ourselves and our communities more broadly, it felt imperative to draw us together in a conversation, to communicate about where we are and about what is pressing upon our ethics, to reassess and reinvest in our commitments, to refuse that which does not serve us and to identify what is needed, what we all collectively need and how those needs coincide and conflict across all of our diverse, beautiful, committed parts.
What practices serve us? What platforms hold our ideals in place and what platforms demolish them? How do we work with and around structures to always navigate forward? What accountability forums are necessary to hold ourselves to? And in what form should we hold accountable the people and platforms around us?
Today’s panel, was very influenced by the “Feminist Data ManifestNo” as authored by two of today’s guests: Anna Lauren Hoffmann and Pat Garcia, who illuminate and draw together Latinx, queer, black, trans, and indigenous feminist thinkers who refuse the inheritance of harm brought about by normative flows, traditions and systemic patterns, and not only imagined things otherwise, but manifest them. The ManifestNo is provocatively written as both refusals and commitments. These juxtapositions echo the transformative justice activist and author adrienne maree brown’s book Will Not Cancel Us, which gently encourages us to forego the binaries of good and bad, fair and unfair, canceled and accountable, and considers trajectories that facilitate growth and community. And in particular, I want to think today about her assertion that “refusal gives way to a more ‘Authentic Yes.’” And it is my hope that through this conversation today, and through the development of the Labor Tech Research Network, through our own individual work in this community that we all inhabit together, that we will identify new commitments for ourselves in these changing times and forge some new opportunities that manifest the worlds we need and want.
And so today is an attempt to have a conversation and, to help in that, our panelists are:
Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Assistant Professor with the information school at the University of Washington, senior fellow with the Center for Applied Transgender Studies and affiliate faculty with the University of Washington iSchool’s Data Lab. Candidly, her very prolific work is one of the most helpful tools I can imagine for thinking through these times. She shared today with us Terms of Inclusion, and a piece called “Even When You Are a Solution You Are a Problem,” which was an incredible read and new to me, which I imagine we will hear more of today.
Pat Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. She conducts qualitative research on the complex relationship between race, gender, technology and justice. And her work developing a computational justice program model with libraries to support girls of color is groundbreaking in its pragmatic and significant detangling of the promises of programs to support diversity, and then designing an intersectional and decolonial approach for the gaps where those promises aren’t realized.
mariam asad is a leading sociotechnical scholar and practitioner who explores alternative sociopolitical frameworks in and without design, and has introduced prefiguration to the field of Human Computer Interaction, and develops prefigurative design or how we can use social relationships, material resources and counterinstitutions to help create the worlds we need.
Natalia Smirnov is an artist and editor of refuse or refuse, however you would like to say it, A Journal of Iconoclasms, which provokes a destruction of tradition, saviors, the dominant, the default and the disciplinary by exploring the refusal turn through multiple writings and artworks.
Stefanie Dunning is author of the incredible book Black to Nature. She is an Associate Professor of English, Black World Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University, which is in Ohio, around the corner from here. Her work complicates refusal in a way that feels very helpful. As not just an act of anger, but emphasizes the joyful aspects of refusal, speaking to anti-assimilation, queer and trans politics of resistance and mutual aid, and other forms of radical work that build more supportive spaces and affirmative futures.
The drive of today is to have a conversation seeded by these incredible thinkers, premised on the broad provocation:
- How does refusal come up in your work in practice?
- Or, what does refusal mean for you?
Anna Lauren Hoffmann: I want to think about the idea of refusal as less a theory of refusal, or what constitutes refusal, but to think about refusal as an analytic. And to do that, I want to tell three brief stories.
So the first story is Willem Arondeus.
For folks who aren’t familiar with Arondeus, he was a gay man and artist working in the Netherlands in the 1920s and 30s. Here you can see a picture of him as a quite attractive young man. And you can see a picture of his painting as an example of his art, when he’s straddling these Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. The name of the painting is Salome. And it hangs at the MET in NYC. Like any good gay in the 1920s he was obsessed with Oscar Wilde, hence Salome.
So he’s working in the Netherlands. But after the Nazis invade the Netherlands, he joins the Dutch Anti Fascist resistance, and he uses his art skills to forge identity documents to facilitate the flight of Dutch Jews and Romani people. And most notably, he was involved in the 1943 bombing of the Amsterdam public records office, which has population data that the Nazis were using to identify and target people for exclusion and death. He was apprehended shortly thereafter, there was a narc in the crew, and his last words that he reportedly gave to his before his execution were “Tell the people that homosexuals are not cowards.”
The second story is Tracy Norman. Some of you may or may know her better as Tracy Africa of the House of Africa.
She’s a trans woman, a black trans woman, a model and a foreigner working in the 1970s. And she was a forerunner to and what we think of as a supermodel of the 1980s and 90s. And during the 1970s, she became quite famous, and she was one of the faces of Clairol’s “Born Beautiful” campaign. She was working in an industry that wasn’t particularly safe for her to be out, for her history to be known. And she gets outed at one point. And all of a sudden, her modeling work dries up and her ability to acquire work and navigate the worlds that had supported her faltered and she fled the US. She found some work overseas when she’s in Italy, and then I think she ends up in Paris for a little while walking on the Balenciaga showroom floor. And then eventually she comes back to New York, and finds a home and makes a name for herself in the ballroom scene in the 80s and 90s. And later, her story gets recovered and is spotlighted by figures like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. And there are elements of her life story that are woven into the show Pose. And then eventually she’s brought back by Clairol and her story kind of gets recovered. I think it’s interesting to think about the use of the word “real” and “born” in these campaigns.
But writing of her time abroad after being outed, she noted, “I fled to Italy and then to Paris, I found work, I made a life for myself, but something had been ruined forever.”
And then finally, as some of you may be aware of the UK exams, algorithm protests that happened last summer. So these were student protests against the prediction algorithm that replaced the country’s annual A-level exams, which were canceled due to the pandemic. And despite warnings, algorithm formula was prone to erratic outcomes, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation went ahead with it anyway. The results of the algorithm produced a massive outcry among students when some 40% of students were given results lower than what their teachers had predicted for them, with a particular heavy effect on students from working class and socioeconomically oppressed backgrounds, which in the UK context translates to black and brown students. During the course of the protest, students carried signs or her chanting, notably “Fuck The Algorithm.”
So I think that refusal as an analytic can help us make sense of these three stories, because I think they show us that refusal is not merely a rejection or abstinence but a way of making and doing, of making sense of the situation we find ourselves in at any given moment, whether that’s a situation, an institution, a platform, a system, a system of thought, or a seemingly improbable or unfortunate series of events. And in this sense, refusal is a way of making sense of the world but also necessarily responding to it.
I find it useful to remember that refusal literally means to decline an offer. If we think about what might constitute an analytics of refusal, analytics of sensemaking in action, I think there are three things. First is refusal as a verb, the work of refusal, the combined work of thought and action: understanding the terms of a situation and your possible responses and then refusing certain possibilities or not, refusing acquiescence, refusing acceptance, refusing inheritances, refusing inclusion, refusing overdetermination. It’s an active declination.
The second element of refusal is of course refusal in its positive or generative vision. Etymologically it shares a Latin root with “refund” and “found” as in foundry. To found something is to melt something important into a mold. Declining the terms of a situation does not mean complete or perfect disengagement from that situation or the resources or elements that might be available to you to act with. It reminds us that refusal is about confronting those resources and elements anew and combining them in sometimes radically different ways. And so we can melt down and refound systems and structures, tools, and ideas. This is refusal. In its imperative sense, to borrow language from Sara Ahmed, refusal is the kind of counter institutional project that leaves traces in places and creates paths for others to follow. Or in Ruha Benjamin’s sense, refusal is seeded with a vision of what can and should be, and not only critique of what is.
And finally, I also think it’s important to think of refusal as a reminder, specifically a reminder of what remains. We’ve already been reminded of the connection between refusal and refuse as a term. It reminds us of the things that are discarded or that remain or that are left behind, as when we engage in refusals. So on this meaning of the term, especially in a feminist data justice or feminist data ethics context that I’ve been trying to think about, it reminds us that refusal is not straightforward or automatically good. Especially when we’re not attuned to those things that might become the refuse in the course of our actions.
I’m thinking here of something like T.L. Cowan’s figure of the transfeminist killjoy—a riff on Sara Ahmed’s feminist killjoy, as a figure that refuses both the rhetorical, economic, and physical violences and killing logics, of course of gender norms, and the exclusions and attacks practiced by some feminists, communities, against trans people, especially trans women. I think we should be mindful of certain kinds of tongue-in-cheek efforts or projects to critique patriarchal and colonial ways of working or knowing through data that at the same time inadvertently discard certain bodies or groups. I’m thinking here of terms like “big dick data” that essentialize and could be read as alienating other configurations and bodies. Especially trans bodies.
We can think of an analytic of refusal as universal for feminists but also any movement motivated by a vision of justice and freedom. And one reason I think we should think about it in a universal sense, even though universalism gets a bad rap for a lot of good reasons, I don’t think we should be so quick to refuse the idea of universalism. In part as feminist philosopher Serene Khader argues that we don’t want to preclude views and normative projects that originate from the oppressed as having a kind of normative force on all of us, that is from ultimately having moral purchase on others, especially their oppressors. So if we’re too quick to conflate universalism with imperialism or patriarchy and their ways of knowing then we concede universalism’s practical and rhetorical power and end up doing the oppressors’ work for them. Instead I think we should refuse such a concession and reimagine what a universal value can and should be.
mariam asad: Hi everyone. First, I want to express a lot of gratitude to the folks putting in the visible labor and invisible labor to make this panel happen. Steph, Katie, Kim, and Winnie and others no doubt, IT departments. Thank you all. Very humbled to be here. My name is mariam asad. I use she/they pronouns and I’m speaking to you from the unceded occupied lands of the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa nations, among other indigenous nations, who have stewarded our lake, our canopies, and our plant life, and continue to defend our human and non-human neighbors in our shared home. I try to honor these indigenous modalities with acts of care and service to our neighbors and kin here in so-called Chicago. I want to share some of my identities, which situate me in various and, of course, conflicting positions and structures and have shaped my experience in the world and my relationships to different forms of knowledge and practice. I’m a 34 year old biracial, cis queer woman question mark TBD [laughs]. I’m a refugee from the Gulf War, I was raised Muslim and lower middle class. I’m the inheritor of many generations of colonialism and its myriad traumas on both sides of my family through my Palestinian heritage and my Filipino heritage. I’m also a citizen of two imperialist empires—so-called Canada and the so-called the United States. It is probably then not a surprise that as a result of these life experiences, I have PTSD among other disabilities, which will likely play out in this panel in two main ways. The first, as you may be able to tell, I’ve written out this intro, so please don’t expect the same level of articulation for the rest of my contributions on this panel. The second is that I’m really bad with names and citing things verbally. So apologies if I’m referencing concepts or books or articles and don’t cite the source. My struggle with verbal recall was a large motivating factor for my decision almost a decade ago now to be an academic. My undergrad was a dual degree in English Literature and Communication studies because I wanted desperately to cling to what I thought at the time, was the stability and permanence of the written word. Joke’s on me. I then extended my media studies background into a master’s degree at Georgia Tech, writing about video games and poetry (natural pairing) and a few years ago, I completed my dissertation on digital civics and anarchism, arguing against the liberal assumptions of digital tools and platforms and arguing that we should be orienting ourselves towards forms of direct democracy, such as prefigurative politics and abolitionist organizing, such that we can be a little bit more impactful and a little bit less harmful through our HCI research practice and pedagogy. This dissertation was the outcome of my PhD, which I also did in Georgia Tech — very popular in certain discourses currently — they canceled tenure if you have not heard. I got my PhD somehow at Georgia Tech, and there I gained access to the resources and networks that are what institutions are known for, despite those gains being through ongoing theft and extraction and displacement. I am, despite that, grateful that I was able to publish some words and meet some cool folks, and humble myself in classrooms in front of students who were perpetually surprised at how dated all my cultural references were. So for various reasons, and thanks in large part to those very same institutional resources and networks that I had access to at the time, I made the very difficult decision to walk away from academia. Acknowledging that it’s a very rare and uncommon opportunity for which I’m very, very grateful. And that is made possible by my spouse who does most of the domestic and reproductive labor to sustain us as a household.
Currently, I pay the bills by working at SassaFrass Tech Collective as a product and planning lead and soon to be worker owner. SassaFrass is a software development consulting agency, and we strive to design and develop software that supports more liberatory social change, supporting ideologically aligned clients and collaborators, such as The Working World, an organization who supports small businesses turning into worker owned cooperatives. And trying to challenge the norms and designs all too common through digital tools. Trying to address online harassment, for example, through trauma-informed storytelling tools and artifacts. I hope to contribute to the many collective movements around solidarity economies and concerted efforts for workers’ rights, and more democratic and liberatory structures. I say all that just to let y’all know that today I’ll be speaking from and drawing from all these different experiences and positionalities. But the through-line here is that I’ve tried to consistently practice refusal when and where I can in these different chunks of my life, from labor picket lines to civil disobedience, and learning from Black-led organizing in the American South to engaged pedagogy, a la bell hooks. These days, I see my acts of refusal as disconnecting from academic discourse, fraught as that maybe. I try to read fiction and poetry in zines, instead of ACM publications; I obviously respect all of y’all’s work, it’s just like, my brain is very tired. My joke is that I’m refusing to be smart, and I’m refusing to talk smart. This is obviously not an endorsement of like populist whatever. But I’m trying to very intentionally mark a turn away from theorizing and elitist and often violent spaces and institutions, and renew my commitment to organizing folks on the ground and the folks most affected by structures of violence, including myself, and to follow other folks as leads and how to refuse subjugation. Or refusal of hypotheticals and a refusal of theoreticals and nuance, and a turn towards addressing material needs and concerns like food distros, and jail support, and childcare, and cigarettes, and strike funds as prefigurative tactics to sabotage the political machinations that are divorced from the material conditions that affect our lives, our livelihoods, our homes, and our futures. I want to give a quick shout out here to a coalition in Atlanta called Defending Atlanta Forest, who is working very hard to prevent the destruction and displacement of our canopy, through which political leaders in Atlanta want to build a police officer training academy.
I see refusal as generative. My approach is trying to replace different norms and strategies with alternatives. So I do want to acknowledge I think there’s a lot, a lot, a lot of value in thinking of refusal as stonewalling. A very necessary tactic to stop things is to throw wrenches in gears. It’s a way to pause, to interrupt, to interrogate assumptions, and try to alter impact. By thinking of refusal as generative, the hope is that we can try to strategize and amass resources and efforts to prefigure more liberatory futures, whether it’s through cultural shifts, or building different kinds of relationships, or changing organizational norms and practices, through the bottom up redistribution of resources and the slow, slow, careful amassing of abolitionist structures that heal and nourish and repair rather than extract and demolish. I know that’s all very abstract. But that is all to say, I try to apply refusal through my various identities — educator, designer, Brown Girl, auntie on the block — all these different facets of my life. To summarize very briefly, through learnings in the words of Leila Khaled, Palestinian revolutionary “revolution must mean life and every aspect of life.”
Patricia Garcia: I have been thinking a lot about refusal lately and returning to texts that I’ve engaged with before. One thing that is just sticking out to me that both of the previous speakers have already mentioned is this idea of refusal being generative. A question I’m currently working through and I hope to work through with you is: how do we focus on the generative possibilities of refusal, without dampening the power of saying no, enough, I refuse? This is not necessarily to say that I think being generative dampens the power, but I’ve seen some outcomes of the DataManifestNo be solutionist in what people think generative is — in finding solutions. So another question is: How do we focus on the generative possibilities without necessitating solutions to issues?
I want to start with some quick ideas of refusal. Refusal marks the point of a limit having been reached. We refuse to continue this way. I’ve been thinking a lot about the point at which refusal happens. Does it happen when a limit has been reached? And so is it reactive? Could it be proactive? I had been operating from that definition and producing things with people like the DataManifestNo, and as it was being circulated and I was engaging in conversations with people about it, it exploded the concept again in my head, and I’m trying to re-make sense of it. So I share this quote to think about when refusal happens, is it at the point of us reaching a limit? And also this just this one word — enough — this is from Audra Simpson where thinking about refusal is the point where you’ve had enough, you’ve said enough, you’ve decided that you don’t want to share stories, or you don’t want to collect stories. It has this feeling of time as being at the last possible point or when you can no longer take anymore. I’ve been trying to wrestle with what that temporality around refusal means and if we could even reimagine refusal or incorporate a different way to think about its temporality.
Often people talk about the generative capabilities of refusal, and we’ve already had some really beautiful quotes about being able to imagine otherwise. And in a sense I think when we all co-wrote the ManifestNo, we didn’t want it to just be a bunch of refusal or declarative refusals, we wanted it to have commitments to alternative ways of knowing, being, doing. And so that’s why the declarations are paired. And what I have found is when I do presentations of this to particular audiences, people always want to know what the answer is. They say, okay, we get it, no more extractive data practices, what should we do instead? And I’m always stuck in this tension, because even though I too believe in the generative potential of refusal, I just don’t want it to be instrumentalized, to be used as a way to say there is one solution or tell me what the solution is, I can’t sit with this uncomfortable feeling that I have to face when I refuse something that is the way I have been doing things or the way I’ve been understanding the world. So what I’m trying to make sense of is, how do we allow the power of refusal, the power of stonewalling or rejection or saying “just no, enough” to have its full force and then also allow the hopeful, generative possibilities of what can come after to exist also with its full force, without skipping the uncomfortableness of sitting in that in-between space?
That is what I’m trying to figure out. What is this in-between space?
Natalia Smirnov: Thank you, Steph, and everybody, I’m so grateful and excited to be here. As I’ll talk about, this term refusal gives me a lot of energy. So being here and talking about it with other people who think about it is 100% my idea of fun. Like others I am still in the space of exploring the term and its limits and edges and meanings. So I want to talk about what I see refusal and refuse as being and not being, how it’s different from some other forms of saying no and the other things that it also is.
Refusal to me is not exactly resistance, which I understand as the process of ongoing pushing back, the struggle against something within the space of conflict, or abuse or oppression, such as within the institutional space. And refusal is also not exactly rejection, because rejection to me is inevitably a rejection of yourself as well, because it is a feeling that is internalized and projected back. Rejection is like spitting on the building from the outside, which may be a very cathartic move but maybe not a very powerful move. I struggle with this in terms of my relationship to academia. I’ve been identifying for a while as a recovering academic, but I’m trying to transition out of that identity, because I find that it has a self-rejecting effect. In my experience going through academia, I’ve been rejected by it many, many times in all the usual ways, but I don’t feel refused by academia, you know, I feel like it’ll keep using me and take me and abuse me and exploit me, as long as I’m willing to give my energy to it. I feel like it has not eliminated me from its game. But I sometimes struggle with rejecting academia, feeling like it’s just the worst—it’s toxic, it’s hierarchical, it’s oppressive, it’s exploitative. But when I do that, I’m rejecting a part of myself, because obviously I’ve given a lot of energy and time and labor and love to engaging with theory and intellectual traditions and disciplines and building within that. And so I find that space of rejection to be limiting and ultimately self-destructive.
So I think that a refusal is different from a rejective relationship. It’s more of this Full-Bodied No, of eliminating yourself from the game, of stepping outside, and taking a breath and looking at what else is possible. And I felt that personally toward academia, this full-bodied no, this knowing of I cannot give my life energy to this anymore. And it is like mariam said, it is a very hard decision. And it’s not a one time decision. It’s been a three year long, four year long decision. It’s a decision every day. And it’s a weird head game being in spaces like this, where obviously there’s people who are very invested in the project. And I respect and learn from people within the system.
And so the refusal-rejection-resistance spectrum is not a final place. It keeps vacillating for me. One of my personal practices involving refusal is observing where I am in relation to an institution, a place, a system, an infrastructure, and asking myself: Am I in resistance to something? Am I rejecting it? And therefore am I rejecting a part of myself? Am I refusing it? And then what’s possible for me from that position? And also am I really fully allowing myself to accept the loss that comes with refusal? Because there is a loss, and it’s hard, and it’s sad, but there can also be peace and acceptance in fully accepting it.
I also want to talk about the other things that refusal and refuse is that are not rejection but are generative. And that’s where the journal REFUSE really plays with that word, as Anna has already brought up all the things that it means: the remainder, reminder, excrement, the stuff that’s leftover, the trash, the compost. And then there’s composite verb re-fuse, which is the act of repairing and putting back together and bonding back.
I find those versions of refusal and refuse very generative. Once we can take the position of accepting a refusal, of taking ourselves out of the dominant game, out of the resistance and rejection relationship, then I think we could play with the stuff that’s been neglected and marginalized and left behind and think about what we can repair in the process. I think about it very metaphorically and visually, I think about walking around ruins and bombed out buildings and picking out stuff that can be salvaged and then seeing other stuff that’s like rubble that we just need to clean up but we don’t actually want to repair. One of the concepts I recently encountered is Langdon Winner’s “epistemological luddism” that he proposes at the end of Autonomous Technology. He says that one of the ways to relate to technologies is to NOT repair what’s broken, to not rush to repair systems that are problematic, to withdraw from existing systems. So one of the things you could do with the ruins is repair, another is to remove some rubble and clear out some space to not even to do anything with, but maybe just let nature reclaim it and let some wild berries arise there. I’ve literally been walking around an abandoned golf course that nature has reclaimed in South Philadelphia a lot, and it’s just the most beautiful place I can’t believe it exists and in 2021 and it just teaches me so so much.
In terms of theory and picking up neglected cultural and theoretical and intellectual traditions, what it has meant for me lately is reading a lot of anarchism, which I never really took seriously as an intellectual tradition while I was a grad student, but it very much is. And it’s still very alive and evolving, and it’s especially really powerful when it’s contaminated with all the other struggles and refusals. One of the books that’s really beautiful and succinct in doing that is Marquis Bey’s Anarcho-blackness.
Anarchism claimed the ultimate refusal with its slogan “no gods, no masters.” Sometimes I’m just really struck by sitting with a cliche, or a very overused slogan and being like, “Wow! what would this really mean, what would the world, or a community or an institution look like where this was really honored? No gods, no masters.” To me, Academia has GODs very much. The gods are science and disciplinarity. And there are many, many masters that you have to bow down to.
Anarchism also reminds me that there is no pre-designed solution, it very much respects a nomadic process of figuring it out together, prefiguration. So what could a place or community structure that loves theory and that works with intellectual ideas look like other than what academia currently looks like? It probably would look many different ways, but one way that I’m experiencing it is through this organization called Incite Seminars. We’re technically a nonprofit, but we actually operate more as a worker-run collective and are always struggling with what to designate ourselves as an official entity, and whether that really matters or whether what matters is like how we really operate. But in terms of what it looks like, we’re really bad capitalists, we’re really inefficient, we are really bad at making money. We don’t take grants, and we don’t invest our energy and labor in the “development” cycles. We have really long meetings because we just start talking about books and reciting poetry to each other. I personally find this space really energizing.
On this spectrum from resistance to rejection to repairing something and composting stuff, find out where you get your personal energy from. I think some people get a lot of energy from resistance within the institutional space. I respect that and I’ve seen some of my mentors do that really brilliantly. And then some people get a lot of energy from the rejection experience. There’s this interview with a philosopher who talks about Lordean Rage in The New Yorker as instructive and virtuous rage and anger. But I personally can’t stay in anger for very long. I just want to pass through it. I do a lot of dialectical behavioral therapy with myself, questioning my thoughts, because I want to return to a place of acceptance. But other people can and they can get a lot of energy from rage. Anger motivates them to mobilize. I personally get a lot of energy from this post-demolition phase, where we’re walking around the ruins and figuring out what to build from that space. And I appreciate that some people might not find that safe or comfortable or energizing in their own ways. I don’t know why I like that. I grew up during the Soviet Union collapse. So there’s something about that transitional space that feels very familiar and fun to me.
We need people who resonate with different aspects of refusal. We need people who get energy from resistance to write a policy to end Columbus Day and we need people who get energy from rejection to knock down the Columbus statue. We need the people to protest and decimate it with spray paint. But I’m the person that, once we get the Columbus statue out of the public space, before we replace it with something obviously more correct, like some other cultural icon, I want to spend some time sitting around and talking about what culture means and what monuments mean, and then having a party to shake out all that leftover stuff from all the fighting, and then maybe after that decide together how we fill that place. Maybe the new thing is a tree and not another cultural symbol. There’s a park that I also go to that has the Columbus statue. It’s been boarded up since last summer 2020 when all the protests were happening, and there’s so much controversy around it. And in the same park, there’s also a 400 year-old American Elm tree that’s a current living habitat to so many critters, and it’s just so much historically important as a monument to me.
So the journal REFUSE, I call it a post-academic journal. It’s an invitation for that party: for iconoclasm, for destroying some cultural traditions. Through the destruction we can get energy to create new forms. And it might feel really scary, because we won’t know what those new forms will be. We have to trust each other to figure it out together. And so we have to do the work of figuring out how to trust each other. And that’s really, really scary, because we actually don’t really trust one another. And that work is really hard.
I want to offer a little personal historiography of refusal. If you grew up in a traumatic situation, as mariam was talking about, then you probably already are a natural refuser. You learn the tactics of refusal very early if you grow up with trauma as I did. I think about the term killjoy a lot, because if you are in a family system that’s traumatic and problematic, you are that killjoy, you are that one. Like, I am definitely that one. My daily life is characterized by refusal. When I’m on social media I’m like, Nope, no, no, no, no. There’s a constant refusal, and that’s something that I have been doing my whole life.
I think of refusal as ambiguous, because there’s a lot of questions about deployment. Refusal is a theory of action, action or non action, because refusal can also be highly problematic. Someone could refuse to intervene where they should, and that’s a refusal that we would not embrace.
When you have a theory of action, not doing one thing over here means doing something over there. So, action is like a coin, and it has two sides. And non-action is also like a coin; it has two sides. When I think about refusal, I’m thinking about myself, because I’m the only thing I can control. I’m wondering, “How can I move through the world as harmlessly as possible?” Someone mentioned earlier adrienne marie brown’s We Will Not Cancel Us. I think that’s a really excellent framework for thinking about action in the world. We’ve all been harmful on a spectrum to some extent, at some point. I came to thinking about refusal actively 15 years ago because my life fell apart. And in the falling apart of that, I felt that I really had to look at myself and think about my own actions and evaluate what should be refused, what should be embraced.
I want to throw a sentence out. The sentence is: To reject “wanting” as an activity is to refuse an idea about myself which suggests that I am not already complete. And there’s a couple of layers to that because so much of what drives people’s actions in the world is a belief that they are not complete. And that belief is always untrue because we’re all complete. There’s nothing you need to do to be enough.
I also think about refusal as “against” agency. This is an afropessimist theoretical position that’s developed by Jared Sexton and Frank Wilkerson. It’s really confusing for people, because in our lingua franca around power — I’ve been an academic for over 20 years — agency is always coded as good. And now so many people still evoke agency as a site of something good. We have politically grown up in certain ways. The theorisation around agency was well intentioned but perhaps naive. The problem with agency relates to this polemic about action: all actions have what they’re intended to do and also what they’re not intended to do. Whenever we move into the arena of action, there’s always going to be a question of: What are the effects that you could not have anticipated? Because your intention doesn’t represent the full range of what your act will do in the world. And so to me refusal also ties into a very nuanced decision to abandon certitude. If we strategically abandon certitude, then what happens is refusal becomes possibility. When we reject certitude we create a spaciousness, a capaciousness, that makes a range of things possible. The moment that you make a decision or the moment you act in a certain way, you have disclosed the possibility of possibility, right? Because now you have chosen a way to go. And obviously, this is not a great strategy that you should use tonight when you’re out with your partner or your lover or your friends or whoever and you’re trying to choose something off the menu, like please just choose something and move on. But when we’re talking about real life and death political matters, abandoning certitude is such a powerful tool for helping us just exist in the space long enough to even figure out what the heck is really going on.
There’s a wonderful, very short novel by a writer named Chana Porter called The Seep, which I recommend to you highly. It’s a sci-fi or speculative fiction text where aliens come to earth, but you can’t see them because they’re disembodied. They just come into the water and they create a utopic society. Like there’s no more transphobia, there’s no more racism, there’s no more capitalism. They abolish all of the structures that we connect to the dystopic in the structures of our lives. But the main character’s (Trina) partner has chosen to be reborn as a baby. So her wonderful marriage is over and the whole book is a lot about Trina mourning the loss of her partner. In this utopic world, Trina is not experiencing it as a utopia; Trina experiencing it like a dystopia. So what Trina’s doing throughout the entire text is refusing the appeal of the social contract that is established by the Seep. It’s a social contract that’s kind of like LSD or mushrooms; they’re like “we’ll be in your body, and you’ll be happy all the time, and you’ll be able to live in peace, but you have to be happy” and Trina’s like “you know, fuck that, I’m not going to be happy.” So a lot of The Seep is really about the importance of refusal as a methodology of being in the world, even in the face of notions of “utopic conditions.”
If you’ve read Black to Nature, you know I’m really into meditation — I think of meditation as a methodology of refusal. Because it is taking several seats. You sit down, and you do nothing; that’s what you do when you meditate. And if you want to meditate and you think to yourself, “I cannot calm this mind down,” that’s fine. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything; you just have to sit there; that’s all you have to do. So when we think about morality, and by morality I just mean don’t kill people, don’t hurt them, don’t lie, things like that, all of the core moral codes begin with the same two words, which is “Do Not.” So in my view, the moral code is actually just “do not” and all the other stuff is contextual because there may be a time when you need to steal, there may be a time when you unfortunately might need to kill. So if you’re intervening in the harming of vulnerable subjects, you may do some things that you would otherwise not do. But if you are stopping something you are “doing not.” If you’re stopping harm of others, you are “doing not,” and you are helping the harm doer “do not.” I see refusal as the core of ethical behavior. And it can function as a kind shorthand. If you ever have a question, I wonder if this is a helpful or harmful thing? Well, just don’t do it. Just refuse if you don’t know. If you don’t have clarity about something, you can just refuse to do it.
This is an image from The Nap Ministry, which you can look up online. This is a woman in Atlanta. Instead of going to a yoga class or something on your lunch break, you can go to her studio and take a nap. Her whole kind of pedagogy is about stopping, it’s essentially about refusal.
In capitalism, you cannot refuse labor. I mean, unless you are independently wealthy. If you’re independently wealthy, then yes, you can refuse labor. But your independently procured wealth is dependent upon the exploitation of others, because you’ll be living off of your dividends. And so, at least for me, there is no refusing labor. I am a slave to capitalism, as is everyone I know, so the option of refusing labor is like, a tremendously difficult life situation that would also affect like your dependents, such as if you have children. I have a daughter, Anna has two kids, so I don’t just go to work for myself; I go to work so that this person can have a life and eat and go to school and whatnot. As academics, I think the Georgia thing is critical here. Because what that is doing is removing whatever cushion of refusal faculty have by instituting post tenure review.
When we talk about labor refusal, I really feel this viscerally – which is the line between slavery and capitalism. I mean, there are distinctions. Obviously, I don’t want to say that contemporary workers of all races are exactly like chattel slaves. But the capitalist system we have comes directly out of slavery. All our logics about labor are slave logics about labor. I ask my students this all the time, when they go out to get a regular job, I ask them, what are your hours? 8 o’clock to 5, 6 o’clock? What is that sunup to sundown schedule? Who decided that was the best way for work to happen? I’ll tell you who decided, Thomas Jefferson (and his contemporaries) decided it, because that was the schedule his slaves had. And the only reason we have weekends and two weeks of vacation is because of labor activists.
I think it’s Michel de Certeau who has a critique of office workers he called “La Perruque.” Basically, it’s little strategies of refusals that workers drop into their day, although he doesn’t use the term refusal. It’s being at the watercooler a little too long. Nowadays, it would probably be updating your social media while you’re supposed to be working or whatever. I think that refusal relative to labor comes in these little capsules that people inject into their day, these little sites of like, “Oh, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that.” But as a broader structure, it’s impossible to not labor.
When I think about refusal, I think about it as a strategy by which to decrease the amount of object-events that I bring into the world and thus decrease the amount of possible harm. If we embrace this way of thinking about refusal, almost like a religion of refusal, which is how I see meditation as a methodology of refusal. It’s a spiritual methodology of refusal. If we embrace that, then we can solve more problems by just letting the problems expire.
Steph Jordan: I’m almost overwhelmed by how much I love so many things that you’ve all said. I’ve been gathering some thoughts about what has been said across the talks, defining what refusal is and how it operates. It’s this moment of declining what has been offered to us, but it’s also the discarded parts, the discontents, the parts that we’ve left behind. It’s this removal of a part of the self that you built under previous conditions that Natalia highlighted. And thinking about what we’ve refused as not just an externality to ourselves, but something moving forward. And then it’s a putting things back together, a bonding, which begs the question of bonding to what? What are we re-bonding? What are we putting back together? Thinking about the trash, the rubble, the compost.
Stefanie brought forward this really interesting idea that rarely gets talked about, which is that agency is not inherently a good thing. What people do with agency is an important part of understanding whether intervention should happen or not, whether refusal is an action or an inaction. I also really love the idea of inefficiency as refusal. Stefanie commented on this also with meditation and the nap ministry as examples of not engaging in capitalistic, product oriented, generative-in-a-capitalist-flow sort of form.
I think there’s something really powerful about thinking of inefficiency as refusal. I don’t think it should be the word because it’s such a negative term, but thinking of a non-productivist, non-progressivist sort of form, but one in which we engage in forming ourselves in a possible way. When we know we don’t like something, when we have to refuse, when we are not being fed by or nourished by the structures that are within us. We see it, but then how do we react next? How do we produce or not produce or create structures or coalitions or build something in those moments of next-ness, what happens next? Thinking about how we organize ourselves, and what we organize ourselves around in those moments.
So one of the things that I was grappling with throughout all of these talks is what are the ways in which we can refuse or think about refusal if it’s not productive? And if it’s also inefficient? And if it’s also all of these things, what kinds of ways do we bring to our work and our lives as a vision for the future? What do we need? I guess I keep coming back to this thought of, we refuse, but what do we need? And how do we acknowledge what we need moving forward and thinking about what it is that is precluded by refusal, but also is helpful for thinking about our moving forward?
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