Talk Script: Archiving Against Petro - Archive Ethnography as Tactic


What is the world we have observed?
We are interested in understanding what kind of data capacities and data infrastructures are needed to support "the long game" of transnational environmental activism against petrochemical expansion in the US, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In that work, we have observe activist data practices and what "informated environmentalism" (Fortun 2004) has become almost 40 years after the passing of right-to-know legislation. Today, activists have begun to tackle all impact points of plastics production (from production of basic petrochemicals to garbage in the ocean) and negotiation of a global plastics treaty (framing plastics as "the new coal"). We argue that there is an ensuing shift in civic knowledge production.

Activism against Formosa Plastics in places like Texas provides empirical examples of data activism, including documentation of environmental harm and campaigns to curb expansions -- of existing plants, but also the construction of new facilities. However, these efforts are complicated by both "dominant" data ideologies and a swirling pool of "repressed" data ideologies. There is both data glut and oily data, and we study how activists use and develop data infrastructure in response.
Here are two examples:

1. Diane Wilson's barn: there is an overflow of data, literal boxes that span over 30 years of documentation and Wilson's "transpacific" writing (Amin-Hong 2022). There is also data divergence, both phony – the corporation is notorious for lies and deception – and sincere – Calhoun County is a complex setting, with many stakeholders.

2. Diane Wilson's website: there are many ways that activists like Wilson make their data available, from drop boxes to blog posts, books, op-eds, and press releases. In our research, we are trying to scaffold activist efforts but also want to learn about the design of civic knowledge infrastructure more broadly. Mike's paper demonstrate the drawbacks of "divisible archives" -- data repositories that separate published data (and metadata) from the research process (e.g. Mukturtu). PECE hospitality, in contrast, provides a space where data is not as divided. Rather, hosting the data on the Disaster-STS Network allows us to experiment with linking the Formosa Archive to an array of (public) anthropology, infrastructure, and pedagogy projects.
In the process, we are extending the concept of informated environmentalism -- it is not just about the content (or availability of data) and data practices but also the structure of the data itself (see Lindsay Poirier's ethnography of datasets). We also develop a set of questions (see civic data capacity across systems and scales) that allow for collaborative analysis of civic data infrastructure across sites and themes (from community air monitoring to water and energy infrastructure and the formation of right-wing movements).

3. The 2019 Waterkeeper lawsuit is remarkable in many ways, whether it's the creative data collection, relatively short duration, and amount of the settlement. The over 300 files related to the lawsuit (montoring data, leaked company emails, worker testimonies, engineering assessments, etc.) are equally interesting and worth studying in depth. While we argue for the development of data infrastructure to host this data (on DSTS and ToxicDocs, among others), we also became aware of the need to think beyond the lawsuit as a "flashpoint". Here, we are interested in understanding what kind of capacity and infrastructure is needed to support "the long game" of environmental activism. Readiness to anticipate and respond to Formosa's future developments (a $200+ million expansion in Texas was just announced).

4. In addition to Formosa Plastics, there are many more industrial developments – Alcoa, Union Carbide and Max Midstream – to worry about. The archive is a way to think across individual cases.

What does this world call for?
Howey and Neal argue that ethnography can be used to "map the connections that divisible governance fragments" (2022, 5). In light of this workshop, how can digitally infrastructured ethnography respond to this? We are calling for digital archiving as a way of infrastructuring deutero-learning, coming to terms with the way that divisible governance continues to shape anthropological thought and practice.
a) The archive is a "future generating device" (Fortun 2003), supporting ongoing efforts in Calhoun County to move beyond dependency on petro-capitalism, raising questions about the kind of data and archiving infrastructure needed to support complex projects like the fishing cooperative (backed with funding from the legal settlement). Data gaps and data divergence prompt new forms of collaboration, for example with filmmakers, to build lively oral history collections of the fishing community.

b) Wilson's activism has always been transnational, calling for infrastructuring activism across communities. This includes working with activist fisher folk in Taiwan, supporting plaintiffs in Vietnam and collaborating with residents of Louisiana's Cancer Alley.

Where does that leave us? What's the next relay?
Intellectual Merit: the archive helps answer our research questions: diverse data practices and infrastructures (empirical), shifting knowledge ideals (theoretical) and university-community collaborations (design). We engage in second order scaffolding with community activists.

The archive as a space for hosting an ethnographic encounter, to see what informated activism against petro-public/cultures/ideologies looks like. This means we have to transition data infrastructures and ideologies as well.

Futurist Orientation/Social impact: we are refreshing the relevance of ethnography, committing to try to figure out what it means to maintain this archive and continue to keep it lively, rather than "nail it down" in a book. It's like the "hearth."

Archive Ethnography
Best practice: How do we further refine archive ethnography as a tactic through collaborative creativity. To think of archive ethnography as an emergent, "open" collaborative project. (shots of the event for the following week, the analytic).

We invite you to join us in trying to figure out what archive ethnography is.


Creative Commons Licence

Contributed date

May 21, 2022 - 9:43pm

Critical Commentary

This is a talk script for the UCI Center for Ethnography 2021–22 Conference Multimodal Aspirations and Futurist Orientations in Ethnography Today organized by Dominic Boyer and George Marcus. 

Cite as

Tim Schütz, Mike Fortun, James Adams and Kim Fortun, "Talk Script: Archiving Against Petro - Archive Ethnography as Tactic", contributed by Tim Schütz, Mike Fortun, James Adams and Kim Fortun, Project: Formosa Plastics Global Archive, Disaster STS Network, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 31 May 2022, accessed 18 August 2022.