Beginning With Friction

Though it seems a bit plain to say so, what I appreciate most about Lisa Gitelman’s approach in “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” is her insistence that data are invariably “cooked,” that they come to us “scrubbed” and involved in relations of “friction” (171). I am particularly struck by the latter of these two terms: friction. In her 2005 ethnography of resource development and extraction practices in late 1980s and early 1990s Indonesia (conveniently called Friction), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that friction both enables and constrains. To be sure, friction slows and inhibits motion, expressing itself as resistance. But paradoxically, it also makes movement as such possible. Without friction, Tsing reminds us, a tire simply spins in the air, propelling nothing at all. Even as friction holds us back, it moves us forward. It sets things in motion, shifts the scene, moves stuff around, forms, deforms, and reforms relations; keeping open the possibility of invention even as it holds certain arrangements in place.

Approaching data in these terms – as an ensemble of frictive relations, or what Gitelman elsewhere calls “potential connections” (172) – is productive in the context of my own project, which will attempt to visualize the relations between changing legal definitions of Nativeness, Indigenous depopulation, and territorial dispossession in Hawai’i. Beginning with friction – emphasizing the “worries, questions, and contests that assert or affirm what should count as data, or which data are good and less reliable, or how much data is enough” (171) – helps me to understand how two relatively similar datasets, such as the 1897 Kū’e Petitions against the Annexation of Hawai’i (see image below) and the Hawaiian Census of 1896, both of which sought to enumerate the Indigenous population of the Hawaiian islands at the close of the 19th Century, are nonetheless quite distinct. Even as they claim the same populations, they marshall those populations differently, producing them as evidence of different phenomena, siphoning them into discontinuous and even oppositional political projects. In the very production of these populations as data, then, friction is produced; the data become freighted, vexed, and fraught, involved in a pitched contest over who will count, why, and to what ends. The process of turning populations into data, in other words, makes things happen. It moves bodies into and out of legibility, arranging them in particular ways; a frictive shifting that has had and continues to have profound (and often deleterious) consequences for Indigenous Hawaiians.

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Beginning With Friction