Feelings on critical systems praxis, for #critlib

I wrote this to reply to the ‘recommended writing’ suggestion by Kevin Seeber¬†for the¬†December 15 2015 #critlib chat on #feelings.¬†I very likely won’t be at the chat itself, so I haven’t quite addressed the questions as posed.

Why practice critical librarianship?

I understand #critlib to mean critical theory approaches to library work as a whole so will say something about why I find this interesting, and why I think it is important and useful in the undertheorized area of library systems. In this piece I refer to #critlib, the idea of critical librarianship, and the critically-informed stance of Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) interchangeably.

I found out about #critlib chats when I was already aware of #critLIS, a critical theory reading group at the University of Sheffield iSchool. The students involved in #critLIS tweeted some of their discussions and I read the things they talked about. I could only join in minimally but what I saw of their discussion seemed thrilling in how they brought social critique to information work, but also intimidatingly erudite in the works referenced.

Later¬†I attended a discussion on critical theory in LIS¬†at an¬†RLC event in London. On reflection at RLC¬†I think the whole critical theory ball of wax¬†was explained in problem-posing terms, which¬†was both¬†more useful, more challenging, and achieved more than a lecture on¬†the same subject would have. At that session¬†Kevin and Lauren didn’t offer grand solutions, but instead many new lenses¬†with which to interpret and inspect practice and some practical ideas too (Smith, 2014).¬†I realized I had some reading to do; fortunately, critical librarians (by all means imagine¬†the ‘smiling cat face with heart-shaped eyes’ emoji here) are inevitably generous with¬†suggestions.

Reading a text is learning the relationships among the words in the composition of the discourse. It is the task of a critical, humble, determined “subject” or agent of learning, the reader.

Reading, as study, is a difficult, even painful, process at times, but always a pleasant one as well. It implies the reader delve deep into the text, in order to learn its most profound meaning. The more we do this exercise, in a disciplined way, conquering any desire to flee the reading, the more we prepare ourselves for making future reading less difficult.

Freire (1994, p. 65)

I quote Freire’s uncompromising view from¬†Pedagogy of¬†Hope on¬†the challenges of engaging with reading, as though I disagree with his¬†presentation¬†of study¬†as an “always [‚Ķ] pleasant” struggle the last part chimes with how I feel on¬†trying to be “an agent of learning” in understanding social critique and develop a #critlib approach with no background in theory. To be clear this is a¬†personal reflection: I’m not telling anyone¬†to do this,¬†and¬†I’m aware¬†I¬†speak¬†from a position of privilege.

In discovering new these areas there is joy in exploring new contours of practice, and opening new discursive spaces. Given new tools for sensemaking, the materials of practice feel new themselves. I value #critlib most in providing a space to create and shape professional discourse, to disagree from a position of inclusivity and respect, and fundamentally to help us develop a reflexive praxis: that is, critically-informed action.

Well, how about it? I found¬†Freire’s explanation of the simultaneous nature and equivalence of reflection and action particularly formative in doing this:

“[M]y defence of praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reflection may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action [‚Ķ]¬†cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action.

Freire (1996, p. 109)

Working through the implications of this¬†allowed me to reframe reflection¬†not as an¬†introspective¬†after-the-event mulling over,¬†perhaps somewhat time-wasting given¬†there is “real work” to getting on with, but something¬†central to action itself and part of¬†an overall method¬†of praxis.

So, this is why I participate in #critlib and RLC. I want to see the loop between theory and practice closed in ways that appreciate it is not just the job of LIS academics to develop theory and practitioners to employ it, but that theorizing from our practice and experience should be an accessible process for all of us.

Theory in an undertheorized field

One of Kevin’s questions for the chat asks if we think #critlib is “worth it,” that is, does¬†talk¬†about theory make¬†any difference to¬†your own professional practice, and more broadly? I argue yes, but‚Ķ

I think #critlib¬†starts with a¬†set of challenging positions to work from rather than a set of¬†agreed¬†ideological fixed ideas¬†or ‘how to’ guides for¬†library¬†work, management, and leadership.¬†Even if someone wrote¬†such a thing,¬†the texts we read and discuss are steeped in¬†and reproduce ideologies and this would remain a¬†problem to¬†grapple with.

#critlib offers multidisciplinary ways of seeing and interpreting our practice that are¬†necessarily critically informed and framed in terms of inclusivity and diversity, but¬†that might¬†not be applicable to practice in straightforward ways. This bears analysis of our¬†situation, and for me, giving up the idea of applying #critlib with a¬†particular framing ‘context’ as this term obscures¬†a great deal. I’m indebted to Clarke’s work on grounded theory (2005, pp. 71-72)¬†in¬†understanding this last point.

In my view¬†systems librarianship is relatively undertheorized and ahistorical in its understanding of thought and practice; not obviously¬†fertile ground to¬†develop #critlib.¬†As the¬†head of a systems team I see¬†systems as occupying an important nexus in two areas often claimed neutral in various ways: libraries and technology. Of course neither are neutral, when put like this it’s laughable to suggest they are, but it’s easy to slip into such¬†positions by default if we don’t¬†interrogate our practices and¬†how we utilize¬†technology.

It can be¬†easy for systems workers to think if we are¬†satisfying¬†the requirements of library¬†staff as clients and library users as customers that’s enough, and we needn’t¬†over-think the technology we employ beyond compliance with law (such as¬†data protection legislation), our professional ethics (such as CILIP’s¬†Code of Professional Practice), the¬†standards of our employers, and so on. I’ve heard¬†very¬†reasonable positions voiced in the profession that this is “just good librarianship”.

I argue that this¬†is not enough and our response should be¬†non-neutral¬†as our technology¬†and information¬†management is non-neutral.¬†But to exaggerate for hyperbolic¬†effect, critically-informed¬†ethical approaches are more complicated¬†than lazily rejecting every new idea¬†as “problematic” while maintaining our own comfortable, compartmentalized silos. A systems approach to¬†#critlib (#critsyslib?) means¬†delving into¬†our underlying assumptions by using¬†reflective practice as a technique, taking critically reflective and reflexive approaches in our implementations of new systems and technologies.

For me developing a critical systems praxis means reject instrumental or mechanistic approaches to information, its storage and indexing, its use and understanding by our users, and the stack of technologies that underpin all of these things. A #critlib perspective would mean taking critical approaches throughout systems work including in selection, procurement, and implementation of new technologies and systems, and using critically-informed methods in researching them and in directing their development. For managers and leaders in systems it means role-modelling positive behaviours, and taking an authentically #critlib stance in what we do in our work, including for example line management and hiring practices.

I struggle with these things and cannot claim to do all of them or that my team do all of them, yet, but referring to the Freirean equivalence of reflection and action, taking on #critlib viewpoints and approaches begins the necessary perspectival shift to move towards a critical turn in systems praxis hence, why I #critlib.

References

Clarke, A.E. (2005) Situational analysis: grounded theory after the postmodern turn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2nd edn. London: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of hope. Reprint, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Smith, L. (2014) ‘Radical Librarians Collective (part three): critical theory’, Lauren Smith, 16 May. Available at: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity: thoughts on #radlib15

Image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC-BY. Available at: https://flic.kr/p/s2mJjL

Last weekend I attended the #radlib15 event organised by Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) in Huddersfield. I wanted to draw some threads between sessions I attended, and follow up on a few things left unsaid on the day.

RLC has come a long way in a few years and is evolving, but importantly it has maintained a safe space for discussions in LIS that are not happening elsewhere. My grateful thanks to the organizers at RLC for their work.

Professional confidence and professional identity

During the day, I felt two discussions on impostor syndrome and team working were linked by points made about professional confidence and identity, questions about radical perspectives on management, and ideas about the presentation of an authentic self.

Elly¬†O’Brien recently wrote a compelling¬†article problematizing¬†impostor syndrome and professional confidence which helped inform the impostor syndrome¬†session, with¬†Elly’s article referenced at the beginning. I agree with Elly’s points about the unhelpful librarian tendency towards self-deprecation, and I¬†think Kevin nailed¬†it when he¬†called out this “syndrome” as a political creation¬†exerting power on the subject:

About lacking confidence, a point was raised in discussion about whether there is a psychological disconnect between our presentation of identity online, and our true or authentic selves:

I think Simon’s point on¬†the marketized self is good, and I would expand on it and generalize from it. From a Marxian viewpoint anyone who is worker is compelled to sell labour as a commodity, representing a market relationship between the self’s potential for labour (labour power, Marx’s¬†Arbeitskraft)¬†formed from our own living bodies, and capital.¬†In a¬†sense under capital that marketized self is no more or less than¬†one’s real self as it is reflected and understood by capital. This situation is deeply problematic.

Performativity in online identity

On Twitter, Chris followed this with a point and a question about authenticity in our online selves:

I’ve been thinking about a similar question about online identity since I read Ned’s blog post about creating online identity last year, especially his points about “consistent voice” and¬†advice on not “adjusting who you are for other people”. Here I draw a line to the session on teams and teamwork and library managers as a potentially radical subject, relating them using¬†Judith Butler’s concept of performativity.

Butler originally applied her Foucauldian reading of performativity in developing an analysis of gender, arguing that identity can be brought to life or made real by repeated and consistent use of authoritative speech, as:

There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; [‚Ķ] identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.
(Butler, 1999 p.33)

There is a subtle point here. Butler is not simply¬†suggesting that if¬†we¬†talk as if we¬†have identity x, we will have identity x, as in the “fake it till you make it” suggestion that was raised¬†in the impostor syndrome session, but that performativity¬†is:

[T]hat reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains
(Butler, 2014 p.2)

I argue online identities of LIS workers are¬†performative in the way that our use of language itself reifies, by repetition of authoritative speech, those¬†identities that we create online rather than being something authentically constructed or a mere result of “being oneself”. For example, the identity of¬†“an efficient, competent subject¬†librarian”, or “a grounded, authentic manager”,¬†created¬†exactly by the¬†discourse of¬†those¬†individuals on social media platforms like¬†Twitter.¬†I would expand this to include identities we create as¬†managers, in that management is fundamentally performative:¬†expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech,¬†a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

On¬†the broader question raised of library¬†management as potentially radical, I¬†have written before about¬†authenticity in management and leadership at Radical Library Camp (the original RLC unconference in 2013) where I facilitated a discussion.¬†In hindsight¬†I’m not satisfied with that perspective, because I don’t see much difference between what I described and straightforward good management.

Instead I think we need to¬†approach management¬†and leadership from a critical perspective, and that there is¬†space for a¬†critical management studies (CMS) view of¬†library management as Kenny Garcia suggested on the #radlib15 hashtag.¬†CMS is something¬†like a critique¬†of management informed by Frankfurt School critical theory; to provide¬†LIS¬†focus¬†I’d add in critical perspectives on information management and information literacy, and perhaps a¬†Marxian lens to analyze information as a commodity in a marketized society.¬†For much more development of the latter, I recommend¬†Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

This is something I’m very interested in developing in future, so if you are interested in a CMS plus LIS mashup let me know.

References

Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2014)¬†Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”.¬†Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K, and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182. doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”‚Äô, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617‚Äď637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Photo credit

Sunset Flowers. Huddersfield‘ header image by Flickr user Michael Podger. License CC BY.

Information as a commodity – at #radliblon

I pitched this session at the Radical Librarians Collective (formerly Radical Library Camp) unconference in May following encouragement on Twitter from other delegates.

I wanted to open a¬†discussion on information as a commodity¬†using Marx’s analysis from Capital as a starting point to provide theoretical perspective.¬†I hoped for free-flowing discussion about problems this relation introduces into information work – if indeed what I proposed was a¬†reasonable¬†analysis.

Commodities and the labour theory of value

Commodities in Marxian economics¬†are products of human labour¬†that have a value. They are typically sold or exchanged on the market and¬†can be physical goods, or intangible services.¬†Marx presents¬†various ‘cycles’ of¬†capital in his analysis, describing how money and commodities circulate by processes of exchange and how this introduces various contradictions that, Marx argues, lead inevitably to crises.

The notation takes a little getting used to. One of the simpler cycles in Capital volume 1 is:

M-C-M’

The hyphen means an exchange has taken place. Money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1976 pp. 247-257).

Marx really gets into the idea of cycles of capital in Capital volume 2. More complicated but relevant to our interests as workers is the cycle of:

M-C‚ĶP‚Ķ-C’-M’

The ellipsis indicates interruption – here, capital moving from circulation into production.¬†Money (M) is used to purchase¬†commodities (C) in the form of means of production, and labour. These are used in a process of “productive consumption” (P) that forms extra value to produce new commodities (C’) which are sold for more than the original money outlay (M’) (Marx, 1978 pp. 109-143).

I like Marx’s approach here because he recognizes the¬†central importance of living labour in the production¬†process of society as a whole. Important to¬†Marx’s labour theory of value is the idea¬†invested¬†capital is ‘valorized’ with added surplus value from the labour process of the workforce above and beyond the cost of their own labour.

One sobering implication of this cycle is that the labour power, that is our own time and energy, is also a commodity.

Information as a commodity

John Feather (2008 p. 109) states plainly information is a commodity:

Information is a commodity which is brought and sold. However difficult it may be to define how it acquires value, the fact of the commodification of information cannot be denied.

Marx’s examples are of their time and place so there is a lot about linen,¬†iron, and corn, and less about intangibles like information. I read Feather’s comment as¬†a rational and dispassionate¬†statement of fact about life¬†in the¬†information society.

The session took place in the library of the London Action Resource Centre so¬†I gave an example of a¬†book on the shelf (a single author monograph)¬†as a commodity that was produced for sale. No-one would¬†disagree¬†the pulp, card, ink etc. that makes up the print book are commodities and it follows¬†the content created by the¬†author’s intellectual process is also treated¬†this way.¬†Removing¬†the print book, if we present the same information in the form of an¬†ebook¬†we would still have a commodity.

Commodification and commoditization

A former BT phone box containing books in rural Essex.
A former BT phone box containing books, in rural Essex.

Straying from classical Marxian economics, information can in another sense be commoditized. To avoid confusion I use these meanings:

  • Commodification means making something¬†saleable that wasn’t before
  • Commoditization is the process of a product¬†becoming a simple commodity, where there is little to differentiate different¬†brands and suppliers

In the commoditized sense above, information becomes¬†independent of its intellectual meaning. The RLC session wasn’t focused on this meaning, but I mentioned it as I find expressions of this idea particularly dangerous. It can justify thinking along the lines of closing libraries¬†because the simple commodity ‘information’ can be delivered in other ways, for example books sold cheaply in¬†supermarkets.

Commodities and information work

What does this cycle of exchange, valorization of intellectual work, and commodified information mean for information workers? There were thought-provoking points made in discussion of which I will give a flavour as I was trying to facilitate rather than takes notes.

Dan Grace spoke about the idea of the knowledge commons, and how commons being enclosed and commodified is the start of a process of turning knowledge commons Рshared by all Рinto something exploited for private gain. Following the RLC conference Dan recommended The wealth of the commons edited by Bollier and Helfrich (2014) which is focused on resistance to this process. It is naturally enough Creative Commons-licensed and available online.

Charles Oppenheim noted that information has special characteristics related to its intangibility, for example:

  • It can be copied without loss of content. With digital media the¬†marginal cost of making extra copies¬†approaches¬†zero.
  • More than one person can own it without depriving¬†others of it, it is¬†not¬†“used up” in the way¬†goods and¬†services are.

Information is not like widgets rolling off a factory production line. Copyright is central as it represents an artificial limit on copying that, however originally intended, can be used to exert control over intellectual work. This introduces a contradiction in information work for the library worker who may oppose such control but have a responsibility of enforcing copyright in their workplace. We reached no easy conclusions about this particularly thorny problem.

I speculated on the “copyright¬†judo” of copyleft approaches such as Free and Open Source Software and Creative¬†Commons licenses. These approaches use copyright law as a lever to ensure enduring openness and freedom to use information-as-commodities for¬†whatever purpose the user wishes. The question is, does co-opting¬†these¬†levers for our own use get us far enough? Arguably not, as this approach still perpetuates control of intellectual work and existing hierarchies of knowledge creation.

That said, access is powerful in itself because knowledge in our minds Рversus information on a page or represented as bits Рcannot be subject to copyright or otherwise controlled. In higher education there are drivers from Hefce (2014) and others to provide open access to the quintessential commodity made in higher education, research.

I believe this driver is strong enough to make this process part of a changed institutional approach to the research lifecycle as a whole, but a more subtle reading of the policy includes the implication academics as knowledge workers should be more sensitive to issues in licensing and copyright of their intellectual outputs.

In discussion Stuart Lawson shared a proposed declaration for LIS professionals to make their own work open access wherever possible. Since the RLC event Stuart and others have worked on finalizing the LIS open access declaration.

Overall I felt the analysis worked, and discussion provided interesting food for thought around the characteristics that make information special and how its flows are limited or encouraged. The LIS open access declaration is a particularly inspiring professional statement of intent and I hope many library workers sign up.

Photo credit

Ever Conquest (Evergreen Container Ship) at the Port of Los Angeles – Pictures from the Sprit Cruises 1-Hour Harbor Bay Cruise (San Pedro, California) – Saturday November 2, 2013‘ by Flickr use Corey Seeman (license CC BY-NC-SA)

References

Bollier and Helfrich (eds.) (2014) The wealth of the commons. Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press. Available at: http://wealthofthecommons.org/ (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Feather, J (2008) The information society. 5th edn. London: Facet.

Hefce (2014) Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2014/201407/#d.en.86771 (Accessed 3 June 2014).

Marx, K (1976) Capital volume I. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin.

Marx, K (1978) Capital volume II. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.