Heavy Processing for Digital Materials (More Than A Feeling)
Jas Rault & T.L. Cowan
Part I: Lesbian Processing
How about the dreaded “lesbian processing”—seemingly unending conversations in which the couple overthinks, overanalyzes, and overdiscusses the relationship well past the point of usefulness?
– Karen Frost, “Processing is Real: The Truth Behind Lesbian Relationship Stereotypes” AfterEllen (Nov. 12, 2018)
Another oft-recited stereotype is that lesbians are known to process everything to death. Q: How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: I don’t know. Should we use LEDs? What wattage? Are these recyclable? Maybe this is a sign we should be lowering our carbon footprint. Let’s make a pro and con list of solar panel options and revisit this next year.
– Anna Pulley “Bed death, U-Hauling, processing: Lesbian stereotypes abound — here’s the story on 7 of them” Salon (Dec. 29, 2015)
Over the past several years we have been practicing and theorizing a collaborative method of working with digital materials that, at first, we characterized as “process-heavy” or “micro-processing” — where process is product. Process generates knowledge and it allows us to understand our own place within and outside of the research we are doing. Process is a form of experimentation, it is a method, it is a way of learning, of gathering and sharing information, of knowing. We’ve been jokingly calling this the lesbian method of heavy processing. This is usually good for a knowing insider chuckle or two — the queers in the room might pay a little more attention, might see that we’re talking to and about them. Recently, we’ve been taking our own joke seriously. We have come to think of heavy processing as a desiring, pleasurable and hard-working set of attachments and sensibilities to relationship-based, complex knowledge formation–a kind of socio-political-aesthetic-epistemological heavy petting + heavy lifting, if you will–and reflecting on the ways that this method is in/formed by a long history of trans- feminist and queer (TFQ) practices and information technologies. Of course, lesbians do not own processing — or process-based approaches to knowledge formation, transfer and cultural survivance (Tuhiwai Smith 2012; Wemigwans 2018), to data (Crawford, Miltner, Gray 2014; Puschmann & Burgess 2014; Mulder et al. 2016), ethics (AoIR Ethics Working Committee 2012; 2019), ontology (Roy 2018; Barad 2007; Braidotti 2006; Haraway 1991) — but we want to stay with the possibilities here for understanding process as a sexy, sometimes agonized but always committed, method, an orientation towards unruly information. This is processing not only to get consent, to communicate care, to clean your data, to publish your findings or move to the next agenda item in the meeting, but as an orientation to the pleasure (sexual, emotional, political, intellectual) of complex and sometimes incommensurate information.
Of course, heavy processing is also at the heart of so many colonial extraction economies — mining and refining petrochemicals from and on stolen Indigenous lands, poisoning lifeways for decades past and future; and transnational agricultural economies — patenting and monopolizing seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, and so on, to create transnational monocropping to heavily process into cheap sugars and oils for low-nutrient foods. However in the same way that lesbians do not own processing, neither do multinational corporations! We want to think through some of the cultural histories of heavy processing that can get buried by these pressing toxic projects, to consider its queerly life-building rather than life-destroying potentiality, while realizing that sometimes processing itself, while attempting to work through toxicity, can just make things worse.
We’ve probably all heard, or told, a few lesbian processing jokes — or referred to it as a joke, as something synonymous with futile over-working, as painful, redundant, and, most of all, inefficient (footnote to lesbian lightbulb joke). Of course, to paraphrase another contentious truism, scratch a lesbian-processing-joke and find a misogynist (footnote to scratch a gay misogyny joke). That is, we probably also all recognize the seething anti-femininity in the tendency to pathologize processing as too much: as over-thinking, over-sensitive, over-analyzing, overly-politically correct, and over-discussing. Whether it’s being done by lesbians or not, the worry about being seen to “process” or to engage in “processing” seems to be a worry about being thought to be either a lesbian, a feminist, a girl, a woman, a queer, a pussy, a faggot, an activist, a therapist, or someone who is in therapy. This is true even, and perhaps especially, within LGBTQ worlds. “Stop being such a lesbian” is an insider insult that is primarily about being such a processor: demanding more information, and wanting to give more information. That is, to be seen to process, to require more or too much information, is to be seen to be weak, vulnerable and inefficient, overly concerned with what is equitable, overly considerate in relationships, overly sensitive, overly concerned with fairness, respect, not hurting each other’s feelings, apologizing if you do, being accountable for your actions and learning from mistakes. To be concerned with process usually means gaining a reputation for being a humourless pain in the ass, who just wants to talk about how everyone is feeling, who is difficult to work with and/or takes everything too seriously.
Lesbians hurt each other and others, but still, lesbian processing has a reputation for a reason. As Lisa Henderson (1999) writes in her essay about the 1994 lesbian romantic comedy Go Fish, the film — about “a foibled and venturesome group of lesbians” (37) — thematizes “conflict as a producer of clarity and even good faith along with its agonies (in contrast to the faux alliances and limited comfort which often emerge from effaced or evaded conflict) [with] the power of conjoining humour at one’s own expense and the rare joy of lesbian address” (62). Our “heavy processing” joke lands as a joke/not-joke when folks in the audience share the experience of processing conflict, as an agonizing, yet strangely pleasurable and hilariously dogged group commitment within what Henderson calls the “lively cultural universe” (54) of lesbian existences, a universe which is nonetheless still inconsequential to most people who are not in it. Our interest here is to attend to heavy processing as a lesbian-leaning trans-feminist and queer method of being together (and not always doing it well), and to identify this as one genealogy for the many calls for better processing, better information politics in contemporary justice-oriented digital research methods.
Surprisingly (to us), it seems that very little has been written about lesbian processing. Ann Cvetkovich has mentioned it in the context of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) — “lesbian processing is often viewed derisively, not least by dykes themselves” (1995, 354) — noting presciently in 1995 that while lesbian processing aims to create transformation through conflict and controversy, it can “end up domesticating controversy in the process of welcoming it” (354). While Cvetkovich does not mention it in this article, the MWMF is perhaps the most notorious and protracted example of the failures of lesbian processing — with the festival’s painful insistence on excluding trans women, maintaining (in a mind-crushing misreading of Simone de Beauvoir) its ‘womyn-born womyn’ policy, despite the epic efforts of transfeminists from at least 1992-2015 — preferring to shut down rather than transform, even after 23 years of processing the conflict.
Lisa Vogel founded the MWMF in 1976, one year before signing on to another notorious failure of processing, the “Open Letter to Olivia [Record Collective]” wherein the signatories write “concerning your decision to employ Sandy Stone…. We feel it was deceptive not to share this process with the women’s community” (Sister: Westcoast Feminist Newspaper 1977 vol. 8:3, 6). Ostensibly concerned with ‘sharing process,’ the letter represents a then-recent surge in anti-trans sentiment running through some segments of lesbian and feminist scenes by 1977. (In a beautiful essay on “the Transfeminist 1970s,” Finn Enke shows that transwomen, like Beth Elliot and Sandy Stone, were central to lesbian organizing in the 1970s. Rather than reflecting some long-standing friction, Enke finds that it was “[n]ew, young members [of lesbian organizations], politicized through adherence to an emerging separatist politics, and in their refusal of sexism and male dominance” (2018, 16) who insisted on and so created a division between transwomen and lesbians.) In response to this open letter, “the Women of Olivia Records” defended Stone and their decision not to announce her hire more broadly: “If Sandy were to become a focus of controversy, we all felt we needed a period of time in which to develop a foundation of mutual trust and support and a solid working relationship to help us withstand that turmoil” (Sister: Westcoast Feminist Newspaper 1977 vol. 8:3, 6). Dedicating time to building mutual trust, support and relationships was central to the Olivia Records collective — as Stone recalls, “they invited me to hang and stay for a few days, which I did. One thing led to another, and I wound up being invited to join the collective, which was what you did instead of getting hired” (Vice 2018). For the Olivia Records collective, this hanging out, staying, period of time was called processing.
While lesbian and feminist processing does not seem to show up in academic publications, as anyone who has spent time in the archives will tell you, it is everywhere in 1970s lesbian and feminist organizational documents and publications. For example, “Olivia: We Don’t Just Process Records” (published in a 1976 issue of Sisters: Westcoast Feminist Newspaper — the same paper that published the Open Letter and Reply two years later). On behalf of the collective, Ginny Berson explains “the two elements we consider vital to our survival: collectivity and accountability” (1976 vol.5:2, 8). Processing is the key to arriving at these vital elements, and takes months (or years) of “getting to know each other by talking about our politics” and developing a shared “analysis of what makes the world run” (9), before embarking on a project. As they warn, “To come up with a project first, and then an analysis, could lead to lots of trouble, and is one of the main reasons why collectives don’t last” (9). Collective process precedes not just product, but even project. And this process takes time:
We spent time deciding whether ours would be an open or closed collective, how new people would be brought in, how people would be hired and fired and how they would be paid. We spent time deciding how we would be accountable to the community. And then we made plans for our first record. (9)
Before making a plan, they made a process. A process that involved spending time together, ‘hanging out’ (as Stone puts it), developing a shared analysis, building mutual trust, support, relationships and accountability.
In her essay on Lizzie Borden’s beloved film, Born in Flames (1983), Christina Hanhardt invites us into the seemingly endless times and feels of process:
There is one feature of lesbian feminism and radical politics that might be worth generalizing about: a proclivity for what is often called processing. In [the film] Born in Flames women are mostly talking, debating, and making plans. For anyone who has been to such a meeting, you likely have experienced that moment of clarity when, four hours in, you realize that this might go on forever and there really will be no future. But at the end of an individual campaign that may or may not have been won, the process of making arguments and of building a group can feel like a win even if the world at large can prove to be worse than it was when you began. (Hanhardt 2013: 32)
This ‘proclivity’ is not especially oriented to a ‘win’ and not conventionally productive — it doesn’t always result in a product — but it makes room for, spends time with, values and revels in the work of working together. Furthermore, “processing” or building relationships is not only about “getting a yes” in terms of consent for a research project, or a decision within a collaboration.
Audra Simpson has been one of the most influential scholars writing about the information you get from a ‘no’ — or when your research subjects, the sources of your data, refuse to give you the information you asked for. In her essay “On Ethnographic Refusal” (2007), Simpson reflects on the complex ways in which “Kahnawakero:non, the ‘people of Kahnawake,’ had refused the authority of the state at almost every turn” (73), including the settler colonial state that may have resonated with the questions she — herself Kahnawake Mohawk — was asking. She learns from her research subjects’ answers to her questions a complex
quadrupleness, to consciousness and an endless play, that went something like this: “I am me, I am what you think I am and I am who this person to the right of me thinks I am and you are all full of shit and then maybe I will tell you to your face.” There was a definite core that seemed to reveal itself at the point of refusal and that refusal was arrived at, of course, at the very limit of the discourse.
Anthropology in such a context is, I think, sometimes really funny. (74)
As is media studies, hilarious. If you gather a few people committed to TFQ cultural protocols and ethics into a room to process born-digital artefacts, digitized materials, whether to online an image, how to caption an image, whose consent needs to be given in order to online an image (or story), what harm looks like in networked digital culture (and so on), this may not, to paraphrase Hanhardt, get us to a ‘win’ (or a generalizable action plan) or a yes or even a clear no, but will likely explore every difficult and pleasurable angle of the question such that, four hours (or four years) in, you realise this may never end. Instead, it will take us to what Simpson calls ‘the very limit of the discourse’ where the information created and gathered during the processing is more important and valuable than the place we were ostensibly trying to get. Unlike other forms of processing data or materials, heavy processing functions as an information technology that guides you to, that seeks out and aims for, conflicting and complicated information — messy and dirty data. Heavy processing gives you the information you need to see what was wrong with the questions you were asking to begin with.
Processing is a multidirectional street. Sometimes (often) other people don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about. And as difficult as it may be to hear no (or to be ignored or to receive silence), let’s remember, feminists: no means no. Silence means no. Not right now means no. There are so many quiet refusals that mean no. Backing off / backing away, and leaving someone (or a group of people) the hell alone is just as important to heavy processing as the endless meeting. Forcing non-consensual processing — being that processing bully — is not so different from forcing a yes. If someone (or a group of people) does not enthusiastically and regularly consent to heavy processing, even when we really feel like they should, we need to step back and consider why that might be.
Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run. Kenny Rogers probably wasn’t a lesbian, but there are so many drag king Kennies, he’s got honorary status.
Coercive and non-consensual processing is a bad information technology. Following and thinking with the collaborative design and community-building work of “The Consentful Tech Project” (which we first encountered in workshops at the truly amazing Allied Media Conference), consent can be defined by the FRIES principles, articulated by Planned Parenthood: Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. Research projects and online research environments need to be “built with consent at their core, and [need to] support the self-determination of people who use and are affected by these technologies” (The Consentful Tech Project). Heavy processing is one of these consentful technologies.
Rather than researching forward towards a product, or the finish line of a project, when you are into heavy processing you find yourselves just as often researching backward, directing your inquiry to the research questions themselves. Because it is oriented to always finding more — more perspectives, angles, feelings, relations, objections, supports, stakeholders, contexts — heavy processing is a technology of information gathering, rather than management, of big data where every single datum is understood to come from somewhere worth learning from. For heavy processing, there is no such thing as TMI (Too Much Information), only NEI (Not Enough Information).
The Processing Room: Inside Killjoy’s Kastle
Get ready for a tsunami of processing!
– Moynan King, “Demented Women’s Studies Professor Tour Guide Script Killjoy’s Kastle.” Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: dykey ghosts, feminist monsters, and other lesbian hauntings. Eds. Allyson Mitchell & Cait McKinney. UBC Press, 2019: 104.
Isn’t it a hallmark of lesbian experience to leaven what makes us high, what beckons us to soar, with hard questions about what you’re actually feeling? No, tell me what you’re really feeling.
– Karen Tongson “On the Cusp of the Kastle.” Inside Killjoy’s Kastle 2019, 121.
Allyson Mitchell has built her research-creation career on Too Much — as a maximalist artist of what she calls Deep Lez aesthetic/political projects. Her most recent collaboration with Dierdre Logue, Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House, gives the terrifying spectre of processing a starring role. “Get ready for a tsunami of processing!” (104) Moynan King declared, playing one of the Demented Women’s Studies Professors greeting and ushering groups through the installation. In their recently published book, Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: dykey ghosts, feminist monsters, and other lesbian hauntings, editors Mitchell and Cait McKinney describe Killjoy’s Kastle as “a large-scale, multimedia, walk-through installation and performance that evokes all the fright in lesbian-feminist histories so that we might unpack, reject, or critically recover these stories for the queer present” (2019, 4). Playing and working “Valerie Solanas as the goddamned welcoming committee — the first face of Killjoy’s Kastle,” Felice Shays (as Valerie) would announce to those people entering: “You are, all of you — not just the beautiful, groovy freaks you came here with — are now a group. A band — a clan. So, through lesbian processing, you will come up with your group name” (2019, 83). But not only did Felice/Valerie demand processing from the kastle’s audience-participants, she also undertook her own conflicted processing over the course of her performance:
Valerie needs to tell them they’re scum and useless. Felice needs to tell them a few rules. Valerie says Fuck Off. Felice says Welcome…. Every person who went through the kastle doors met Valerie, and I met each of the thousands of them. And I changed my words because of them. Valerie would have spit on my softness. (2019, 80, 81)
Shays published the changes she made — changes to Valerie’s (jarringly gender essentialist) SCUM Manifesto (Society of Cutting Up Men) — which “caught in her throat” (2019, 81):
Let the only light that exists be the light that emanates from your cunts (ADDED: or assholes) and shines up to the sky leading us to the magnificent truth! (SOMETIMES CUT NEXT LINE: If you don’t have a cunt [ADDED: or an asshole] [CUT: I pity you], stand near someone who does.) (2019, 81)
Shays’ introduction to the Solanas script (which was used by all artists playing Valerie during the Toronto 2013 and LA 2015 runs of Killjoy’s Kastle), shows the importance of processing and conflict (and processing conflict) as a method of and for change.
In a show that offered up every lesbian-feminist stereotype you’ve ever lovingly embraced and/or painfully confronted, it should come as no surprise that the final room in the haunted house was dedicated to processing. In the book’s introduction, Mitchell and McKinney explain,
Over the course of its three iterations, Killjoy’s Kastle shouldered a tremendous representational burden – how to playfully evoke the tremendous love and also horror in lesbian- feminist history without reproducing racism and transphobia or relying on one monolithic narrative as reference point. The project misstepped, made adjustments, and worked to respond to criticisms from community members, many of which were articulated online or through processing sessions in person with the Real-Life Feminist Killjoys at the kastle’s exit. Over the course of its three iterations, scenes in the kastle centred more stories and performances by feminists of colour and trans people within its haunted halls. This work is not over. (2019, 12)
What Hanhardt calls this ‘proclivity for processing’ is certainly not locked in the history (or past) of lesbian feminist cultural practice. Indeed, the book itself might be understood as an extension of the processing that started in the show’s final room — or in the line up to the show — continued online and has not stopped. Perhaps the measure of processing’s success is that it does not end.
Another measure of its success is that it is initiated, or imposed, even when you least expect it. As Karen Tongson puts it, “[i]sn’t it a hallmark of lesbian experience to leaven what makes us high, what beckons us to soar, with hard questions about what you’re actually feeling? No, tell me what you’re really feeling. Some guests aptly noted ours was the scariest room of all” (2019, 121). For Tongson, as Real-Life Feminist Killjoy, aka a processor performing/working in the final room of the Kastle in the LA installation, the surprise was not the scary processing room itself, but the fact that so much processing was indeed intiated there:
What I anticipated would only be a pantomime, or parodic re-enactment of the work we all do with students, community members, and patients, made itself apparent as the real thing — an even realer set of encounters with people we didn’t know or understand within our institutional contexts or preexisting worlds. (2019, 122)
Tongson draws attention here to the contexts and worlds that are necessary to doing ‘the real thing.’ That is, processing is not a quick formulaic check-box that can be added to a project — if that project involves humans, or other materials — but a commitment to (and a pleasure in) the ‘hard questions’ that take time and do not always go where you want or expect them to go. In her experience working in the processing room (at the Kastle installations in Toronto 2013 and LA 2015), Cvetkovich misses time: “it’s a sham to imply that processing could be done so quickly” (2019, 128). Without “really getting the input from people or performing the back and forth that I consider central to processing” (2019, 128), her role (and perhaps the Kastle overall) could provoke but not really process processing. Processing is a durational performance. As performance art, sometimes there is room (or a room) for this. In research culture, it’s hard to justify the time and space for “hard feelings.”
When we went through Killjoy’s Kastle on its first night in Toronto, with our friend, the artist Michèle Pearson Clarke, we walked away with heads close to together, at once appreciative for what Mitchell and Logue and their collaborators were working towards, but also angry about some of the things we saw and heard, and what we didn’t, by the absences. We were hurt by what felt like the project’s nostalgia for a lesbian feminism that seemed still so tied to, in love with, a white-washed history, and trans-exclusionary politics. And we were not alone. In all directions leading away from the Kastle, were groups of us, in varying (in)formations of still fucking talking about it. And indeed, seven years later we are still talking about it. We have not sat down in a group, with Mitchell and Logue, with everyone who went (or refused to go) to the Kastle installations, but the imperfections and disappointments, hurt and anger, mixed with the thrill and appreciation for such a mammoth collaborative effort, such a beautiful attempt to achieve an excellent and hilarious idea, becomes the texture of dyke-oriented queer culture, relationships and art-making, and the fabric of future processing. Even when we love something, perhaps especially when we love, there seems to be a shared urgent sexual/political orientation to ‘leaven what makes us high, what beckons us to soar, with hard questions about actual feelings’ and ever more room(s) for never-ending processing.
In her reflections on working in the processing room, Kyla Wazana Tompkins considers her own shifted positionality over time:
I remember during the last two rounds of ideological wars – the race wars and the sex wars – that I was on the angry/wounded/not-yet-institutionalized side of the issue, and I then sounded a lot like the generation coming up now, a generation who are doing a lot of the necessary and exhausting push work around trans issues. Now, I’m that cliché – a tenured gender studies professor – and I’m on the other side of things. (2019, 143)
Tompkins stays with the conflict and anger, the exhausting, necessary, generous work that makes up much of lesbian and feminist processing culture and history. Following from Audre Lorde, Tompkins thinks through the anger/woundedness as a source of information, as a gift for feminist futures. Thinking through conflicting intergenerational feelings and directions that she felt herself pulled by, Tompkins makes an argument for paying close and textured attention to generational anger as a recurrent
sign of shifts in feminist thinking… recognizing that intergenerational anger is a key mechanism through which feminist thought develops dialectically and it might just be the key to opening up new possibilities for building on past feminist praxis while undoing the exclusions of current thinking. (2019, 143)
Rather than ignoring these tensions, Tompkins offers an explanation of her own transformation in thinking. That is, Tompkins writes out the trajectory of her process as an invitation for more processing (more information from conflict, anger, woundedness).
As we wrote in an earlier post, a focus on process over product is central to many trans- feminist and queer organizing, art, politics and cultural practices. Over the past decade of thinking about and working on trans- feminist and queer online archives, collaboration and research protocols, we have realised that the process you undertake as you design and build a thing may sometimes (or even often) lead you to a bailful conclusion: the thing (the site, the app, the platform, the data scrape, the publication, and so on) that you’ve been working on still needs more work, still needs more rigorous reciprocality, more accountability to and contribution from the people whose lives and materials you are studying, or archiving.
Here we propose what so many activists, scholars, community organizers and artists are also proposing in one way or another: that before you can identify your protocols, your ethics or your method, you need some heavy processing. You need listening and talking and asking for more information. Method might be understood as the procedures by which you go about your research, or which tools you’re using and how (i.e. data collecting and visualization softwares, content management systems, etc.). Process, especially heavy processing, allows us to come to understand which archives or data we want to collect in the first place and why; which bodies are attached to this data and whether the platform from which you are collecting it is evil (and does that matter, why or why not?); what kinds of a priori agreements and values are built into your chosen tools (and does that matter, why or why not?); what does this data or archive not tell you (i.e. the context of who the data is attached to); and/or what the impacts of your research might be on the people who may or not know that they are implicated in your research? Process is checking-in multiple times during each stage of research or creation to reassess commitments, to find out if everyone still consents to participation, if the tools are good or just actually too evil, and if there is new information that we need to think about. We admit, process is not great at deadlines.
In this series of posts (okay, they are essays, not posts), we reflect on process as a central element to our digital design, our research protocols and TFQ pedagogy, and we consider how the call to something like processing (though it goes by other names) has been an important feature of critical digital research methods, internet studies and digital humanities for quite some time. Here we write to think through some of the activist, artist and academic histories of TFQ (and lesbian) processing. Ultimately we consider: what happens to our research when we think about TFQ heavy-processing as an information technology? And where do we see examples of heavy-processing that help us to understand this not as a practice of unproductive time-wasting, but as the rigorous practice of experiments, making mistakes (fucking up), dealing with miscommunication, and being able to do this by building relationships based on respect and trust?
Our ideas about heavy processing have been encouraged, informed and re-formed in the context of many important relationships and friendships, and ongoing discussions with students including Jessica Lapp, Carina (Islandia) Guzmán, Itzayana Gutiérrez, Moska Rokay, Henria Aton, Stephen Lawson, Elisha Lim, Nelanthi Hewa and Chido Muchemwa; as well as research fellows Jessica Caporusso, Sara Shroff, Naveen Minai, Cass Adair and Emily Simmonds; and many, many colleagues and friends including those here at the University of Toronto who we met in the context of the Refusal and Repair Working Group, the Consent and Its Discontents Working Group and the Monday Night Seminars at the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology; the Technoscience Research Unit (TRU); everyone involved in “The Labour of Being Studied/ The Labour of Refusing to Be Studied” workshop at U of T (thank you Jackman Humanities Institute); friends and colleagues near and far in the Feminist Data Manifest-No Workshop, the Feminist Technology Network (FemTechNet) and the Centre for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV); everyone involved in the Digital Non-Neutrality: Decolonizing and Queering DH series (WGSS) and the DH Lab at Yale University; and our Feminist Mutual Mentoring group at The New School. Special thank you to Cait McKinney for a massively generous early reading of this series.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be posting new work on heavy processing in this More than a Feeling series. Watch out for upcoming posts, including Jessica Lapp’s take on Heavy Processing in feminist archiving.