WHILE ONCE PRESENTING Citizen Sense research, I was asked by an event participant whether the work was somewhat risky to undertake because it would be perceived as an “activist” project. Indeed, the questioner considered the environmental topic of fracking to be controversial and the perception that the research could be seen to be “helping people” as forgoing the objectivity that is meant to characterize academic research. I have received variants of this question in several other contexts and events, but the basic gist of these inquiries is a worry over the loss of expertise that is seen to be granted by being a distant academic observer and commentator, ideally working on a more neutral research topic.
If ever there were an anecdote well aligned with feminist technoscience, this one surely must seem ready-made to demonstrate the relevance of this body of work. Cue Haraway’s “modest witness”: the very perception that inquiry involves standing back and letting events take their course, whether in the form of instruments and air pumps or social and political affairs, is a gendered and privileged way of organizing inquiry that allows some people and actions to recede from view to generate universality and objectivity, while others are branded as illegitimate because their presence jams the signal of objectivity. It would be similarly possible to pass through the quantum feminism of Barad to articulate that any observation—even the seemingly most technical and scientific—is an achievement that involves sociopolitical relations. And traveling back to the formation of quantum theory along with its influence on theorists, including Dewey, it would also be possible to say that observing and acting are involved with each other. Observing is acting. Rather than assuming the position of nonengagement to achieve objectivity, Dewey (under the influence of Heisenberg) suggested that new modes of engagement should be deliberately sought to pursue the promise of instrumentalism and philosophy as action. Indeed, as West has pointed out, for Dewey, this was a way in which to ensure “active engagement with the events and affairs of the world” that would contribute to “a worldly philosophy and a more philosophical world.”
You might find when taking sensors into the open air, working to build community monitoring networks, and grappling with the environmental problems people seek to address that resistance takes on an electropolitical oscillation. Communities are diversely engaged in struggles, and sensors enter into the fray as part of a process of inquiry and evidence making. Indeed, struggle is a central part of how these projects and practices unfold. Resistance will be encountered not just as a lesson in voltage but also as a response to citizen data, as a query about proper modes of research, and as a question about how or whether governments could be more accountable. Resistance will also be cultivated as part of a process of circumventing established ways of dealing with or overlooking environmental problems, of gathering and presenting evidence consistently and insistently when it is ignored, and of organizing meetings and listening sessions to make citizen observations of environmental problems matter. At the same time, it is important to account for the ways in which expertise differently manifests and how this informs citizen-sensing technologies and practices in the attempt to struggle with accounts of environmental pollution.
The label of activism suggests that the research has forgone its potential for legitimate inquiry. Yet, on the contrary, because the research is working with and through action and engagement, it is developing new capacities and open-air instrumentalities. Sensors do not simply deliver up transformed political engagements or environmental solutions, despite the marketing promises. Sensors neither singularly empower people nor instantly transform them into activists. Instead, research and practice that are variously situated as collaborative or participatory demonstrate that engagements with environmental problems unfold through differential and complex political struggles. It is by undertaking practice-based and collaborative research that such “findings” become evident. This can also be a way to begin to decolonize research practices and to rework the expert–citizen relations that more colonial modes of research can fix into place.
When working with communities in a participatory way, it is possible to learn about the multiple approaches to addressing environmental pollution, the friction and the discord, the diverse strategies for organizing, and the environmental encroachments that have been held at bay. It is also possible to better understand how collective politics materialize less as a singular pursuit of a goal and more as a working and reworking of instrumentalities: there is work to be done, but the doing of it causes new actions and relations to form. In this way, the political subjects—the instrumental and active citizens—that are constituted through these modes of action are in process. Drawing on the previous discussion of pragmatism, it would be possible to say that action is not the elision of conceptual reflection or development but rather its test and fulfillment. While in the pragmatists’ estimation, action is not to be pursued for action’s sake, it is also possible to ask what modes of action are under way and what experiences and worlds these would generate.
Activism is one way of parsing action in relation to politics, and yet there is often disagreement about what does and does not count as activism. The how-to is also about modes of action and calls to action. This action can be parsed in many different ways: as action for action’s sake or as materialized ways of living. Modes of action are also shifting in relation to present demands. Rather than that old Leninist question “what is to be done?” a more usual question now starts with “how to . . . ?” For some, the question is simply a version of “how to make . . . ?” For others, the question is “how best to live on, considering?” This latter question, raised by Berlant in the context of cruel optimism, is an appropriate one to dwell on at this juncture in this text, because this modality signals most clearly the struggle and resistance that can be embedded within or activated by the how-to.
The search for instructions, the following of procedures, the hopeful pursuit of an effective action or promised outcome: these are ways of looking for direction when potentially floundering on the shores of life. You might find that how-to is a mode of action that often starts in the imperative mood and follows an instrumental trajectory. But how-to is also a vector of transformation. It generates open-air instrumentalities, along with other ways of undertaking research as a collective project. Transformation, nevertheless, encounters resistance and requires struggle. Testing resistance, then, is an important way in which to keep your tool kits well tuned and ready for diverse modes of action, and even activism.