Data Desire in the Anthropocene

Marcelina Piotrowski


Data desire flows through protest in the Anthropocene. Citizen science, participation in online discussion forums, documentary film production, protest selfies, glacier recession GPS photography, poster making, etc., are just some of the everyday data proliferation efforts comprising resistance to environmental degradation and destruction. These practices – visualisation, datafication, writing, sign making, archiving geological memory, etc., are, I want to argue, produced pleasurably, especially as modes of emerging as ‘subjects’ in relation to the chaos, chaotic affects, and unprecedented pace of destructive ecological events that these practices try to grasp or ‘make sense of.’ Pleasures of data production are hence closely correlated to emerging as a subject within the Anthropocene. Such pleasures function beyond individual emotion, and in relation to subjectification within chaotic events such as climate change. In this article I propose the concept data desire to map out how ‘data’ and ‘subjectivity’ co-emerge in relation to material forces and how people take pleasure in their subjectification through ‘knowing,’ datafying, and creating ‘meaning’ out of material events which are chaotic or have chaotic affects (Guattari).  

I take up contrasting terms of ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’, drawing on the thought of Gilles Deleuze ("Desire"; Essays), for whom pleasure is associated with a craving of individuation in light of chaos while desire speaks to the unlimited postponement of events from being summarised. One such event, and the event I focus on in this article, is oil. Here, I think of the event, not as ‘a moment’ or a ‘happening,’ but as that which has many iterations, instances, and bifurcations, and is often distributed in space and time (Deleuze, The Fold). I draw on my fieldwork in media practices of people taking part in the oil pipeline protests in British Columbia, Canada. I give examples of three data practices, and articulate the relation between media production, generation of ‘data’ and the production of subjectivity within the Anthropocene. These practices include data generation through participation in online news’ comment forums, data created as part of citizen science, and resistance ‘selfies’ or producing oneself as data to be circulated on social media. My analysis diverts from any interest in the representational function of media, towards how pleasures of data practices and the circulation of desire that these are a part of emerge, for many people, as the only ways of becoming subjectified in catastrophic environmental events.

Pleasure and desire may not be the most obvious terms to think of when one thinks of resistance, particularly against environmental degradation. While pleasure has been an important aspect of activism, social movements, and feminist politics (e.g. Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta; Sharpe), it has only recently been engaged with in relation to environmental activism, particularly by Craig, and Alaimo. Alaimo defines pleasure as an important aspects of material engagements and more-than-human ontologies marked by connection and kinship characterised by delight. Craig also calls for the recognition that pleasure is central to the everyday lived resistance found in environmental movements such as the slow food movement and urban farming that are anti-consumerist in orientation. These examples mark pleasure as part of the politics of resistance where the emotion emerges from the belief in a harmonious and symbiotic relationship to ‘nature’ and non-human matter through human emotion. Pleasure however, as I intend to show, can also be thought of beyond the individuating ‘emotion’ and as part of larger flows of desire, where ‘desire’ is conceptualised as vitality and ‘ongoing production’ (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus). Particularly, my focus on pleasure intends to problematise how pleasure through data production emerges perhaps as a mode of ongoing ‘coping’ of ‘navigating’ or of simply ‘trying to be a part of’ or attain some sensation of ‘agency’ amongst ecological catastrophes when being political are deemed to be ineffective or even futile.

Data and Desiring-Production

I propose ‘data desire’ as a concept for thinking about the ongoing social production of subjectivity through data production in the context of the failure of representation in the Anthropocene. Gilles Deleuze ("Desire") argued that pleasure is an individualised emotion related to failures of representation: “pleasure seems to me to be the only means for a person or a subject to ‘find themselves again’ in a process which overwhelms them” ("Desire", n.p.). Such an emotion is one of the outputs of a flow of desire that is non-individual, and not only human.

Desiring production “causes the current to flow” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 5) between the event of oil and the production of subjectivity, both which propagate and bifurcate, and are continuously produced anew. Desire is characterised by vitality, or the unceasing capacity of processes to continuously become difference, to continuously change, rather than ‘arrive’, ‘conclude’, or ‘be.’ In other words, to think with ‘desire’ is to note how production flows, like a current, through ‘overwhelming’ events that including oil, and through subjectification, both of which continuously emerge in new contortions and produce new affects. The pleasure that emerges through a subject being produced, or a subject ‘coming into being’ by way of producing data – summarising, visualising, representing, and trying to give ‘meaning’ to ‘the event’ – is affected by the ongoing ability of ‘the event’ to multiply and be postponed from being summarised, as it proliferates and reproduces itself in ever new human and non-human bifurcations – oil spills and leaks, protests, policies, bitumen, new movements, new rhetoric, new sanctions, new pipelines, etc.

Malins for instance notes how desire

is not that which a pre-existing subject has for something, nor is it motivated by individual lack or the pursuit of pleasure. It is instead best understood as a pre-subjective, pre-conscious life force or energy that flows between bodies, connecting, animating and transforming them. (2)

Data desire is therefore most importantly not a feeling that emerges out of a lack of data, or a desire for data. Rather data desires suggests that data practices become modalities through which people involved in environmental resistance can continuously ‘sense’ themselves as part of the event, or gain the sensation that they ‘are’ political, even if only as a sensation and only if momentarily, and within catastrophic events that are also always changing and defy representation. Events such as oil hence require analysis of the entanglement or multiple ways in which processes of subjectification, ecology, and media practices are in themselves multiple and folded together in multiple ways, something Guattari called the three ecologies, and more recently, Murphie referred to as a catastrophic multiplicity. This orientation towards desire as production positions the analysis of the pleasure of data practices beyond that of an individual into the realm of social production.

Data Desire Fieldwork in the Oil-Event

My fieldwork focussed on the data practices of residents living in oil pipeline conflicts in British Columbia. This research included examining the media practices and everyday data engagements of residents engaging with and concerned about two oil pipeline projects: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would move crude oil from Edmonton and terminate in Kitimat in Northern British Columbia, and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline that also would move crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to Burnaby, British Columbia. This later pipeline already exists, although the proposed project aimed at twinning of the oil pipeline would substantially increase oil tanker traffic along the West Coast and generate new risk of oil spills, given its increased capacity. As part of my research I spoke with a total of twenty-four (24) residents, and six (6) environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) in Northern British Columbia and the Vancouver Metro Area to examine their media practices, digital strategies and other, everyday data practices in the oil pipeline conflict.

Against the backdrop of an uptake in big data’s relation to ecological transformation (e.g.: Ruiz; Hogan; Maddalena & Russill), I found the displays of pleasure accompanying individuals’ ostensibly everyday ‘small data’ productions as enunciations of subjectivity and resistance in the oil pipeline movement, under-examined and intriguing. Oil pipeline resistance can be charted along affective lines of pleasure associated with data practices, as people living in oil pipeline conflicts find themselves amidst an ever-expanding flurry of directions and affects that oil takes on: #NoDAPL, the Kalamazoo oil spill, the Conservative party leadership, Indigenous law suit claims, hypocrisy rhetoric, oil pipeline decisions approved, challenged, and deferred at municipal and federal levels. Oil is hence not only a substance but an event that continues to swirl off in new directions, and encompasses and also connects with a multitude of other events, such as urbanisation, 300,000 airplanes taking off and landing on a daily basis, peak oil, and animal extinction. I therefore consider ‘events’ not as ‘happenings’ or singular image events (DeLuca; DeLuca & Peeples; McHendry; Yang) in the way they are often conceptualised within environmental communication literature, but as something that is ongoing, and often extensive beyond a single time and space. Image events may be one of the expressions of a broader and larger (conceptualised as having multiple expressions) event taking place. This section provides three examples of pleasures of emerging as subjects through data practices as political resistance to oil. These include contributing to discussions in online forums, engaging in citizen science, and proliferation of photos of authentic ‘non/environmentalists’ faces on social media.

The first example of subjects emerging through practices of data desire is the production of online data, especially in online political forums or online news comments sections. Here, we might envision the pleasure of data production, in the form of writing online comments, as correlating to the individual wish to ‘count’, particularly as ‘individuals’ are seen to be peripheral to geological forces and capitalist machines of oil production, as well as to the processes of decision making, lawsuits, and municipal and regional politics. One example from this study demonstrates how residents living in oil pipeline conflict areas take pleasure in consuming and producing data. The excerpt below comes from a conversation I had with a resident living in and resisting the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion in the Vancouver Metro Area. This resident, an avid canoer and computer programmer in his thirties, showed immense pleasure in generating data in the form of contributing to news comments sections. Below I treat the participant’s talk not as an ‘account’ in the positivist sense in which ‘interview data’ might be taken to represent ‘participants’ voices.’ Rather, I treat such expression as a flow of desire that flows through individuals, often constituting them as subjects.

I love discussing these issues. I love identifying what is not necessarily of paramount concern as opposed to what is. I have a lot of conversations. I have friends involved in policy. And I read. I’ve got news alerts coming my way from—you know, I must have about twelve Google alerts coming up just regarding pipeline issues and environmental issues. It’s become such a passion for me that I almost was sad once I felt it was finally defeated. I would get up in the morning and hop on the computer to read the latest articles and, you know, respond to comments and stuff. Often what I’m more interested in than the news article is the comments because it tells me where the Overton window is at any given time. I mentioned that some people attend rallies and stuff, well I post to the comments sections and I have conversations all the time online.

As seen in this excerpt, pleasure/the subject emerge simultaneously through projects of comprehension and expression. The excerpt shows how contributions to conversations are ‘productive’ not in terms of any kind of political outcome, but in terms of a sensation of emerging/becoming subjectified in the event. Pleasure manifests within projects related to constituting subjectivity by not only consuming data, but also contributing to its ongoing production. In other words, this resident living in an oil conflict area found pleasure in calculating the Overton Window of online news comments about the oil pipeline, as well as in being constituted within the event as a political ‘subject’ by producing ‘data’. His becoming ‘subject’ was concurrent to a sensation of being able to ‘summarise’ the event and its articulations under ‘a unity’ and giving some ‘meaning’ to the constantly shifting event of ‘oil’. While both ‘the subject’ and ‘oil’ keep being produced anew, the momentary emotion of ‘pleasure’ functions to give a sensation of albeit temporary coherence. Here, as Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus) argue pleasure is “an affection of a person or a subject, a way for people to ‘find themselves’ in the process of desire that exceeds them” (156). This ‘excess’ characterises the evasiveness of ecological events and objects from being ever truly graspable, comprehensible, represented, or even ‘known’ to humans. de Freitas for instance notes how matter is already mathematically monstrous, quite literally multiplying, and evasive in its capacity to be ‘calculated’ (3). Input through online comments are therefore attempts at contribution to calculations, ‘making sense’, and also to feeling ‘counted’, attempts which in themselves amount to a great pleasure.

The second example of subjects emerging through practices of data desire involves citizen science as a mode of data generation. Practices such as citizen science became pleasurable activities of subjective enunciations – practices of a ‘subject’ coming into being against, or within, this chaos, through data generation. Citizen science is a prime example of residents living in oil pipeline conflicts becoming enunciated – pleasurably – as subjects in the oil pipeline conflict in BC. Citizen science, for example, can take many forms. Streamkeeping, the act of taking care of local streams, is a key form of citizen science in areas facing oil pipeline conflicts, particularly as it puts data practices front and centre as part of resistance. While streamkeeping has many aspects to it, including stream clean-ups, a key component is the production of data about ecosystems health, which including wading into water to count fish, measure construction runoff such as silt, gravel, and sediment, and create comparative archives. Measuring, noting salmon counts, documenting debris emerged as pleasurable ways of engaging in pipeline politics–emerging as a subject, by way of somehow trying to datafy the oil-event, by making it ‘meaningful.’

Data production functions to mathematically calculate a course of action within a concoction of persuasive efforts of oil pipeline corporations, environmental non-governmental organisations, governments, activist, and neighbours to define what ‘political subjectification’ might look like. Science is in perpetual struggle against chaos (Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?) and data generation through grass-roots citizen science becomes a tool, or an instillation of data about a changing biome through which to encounter oil, and through which to emerge as a subject in relation to oil. Production of data as part of ‘citizen science’ also functions as a way through which to assert ‘independence’ and stage some resistance within a multiplicity of other ways in which oil becomes a reason of various attempts to define ‘political subjectivity’, such as ENGO campaigns, government statements about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ process to show resistance to the oil pipelines, and the branding of environmentalists as ecoterrorists. Perhaps data production becomes a way to effectively fold oneself into the oil event, without needing to confront a lack of other ways one could, or might resist oil pipeline development.

The third example of the circulation of data desire are the increasingly common expressions of individuated pleasures associated with showing ‘faces’ of people engaged in environmentalist issues like oil pipelines, on various social media feeds that try to portray ‘real’ political subjects, in contrast to stereotypical representations of ‘activists’ or ‘environmentalists.’ Here I am specifically talking about selfies taken at environmental protests. Such productions of images of ‘authentic’ political subjects within oil movements has been a popular way to demonstrate authenticity of resistance efforts within environmental movements, particularly in relation to a struggle against accusations of hypocrisy fed by oil pipeline corporations and pundits (Piotrowski). Given the numerous social media feeds of environmental anti-oil pipeline groups that attempt to show ‘faces’ of ‘real’ political subjects, these depictions attempt to produce subjectivities, particularly with the intensifying circulation of what might be thought of as “faciality enactments” (Piotrowski, 849). Here, ‘faces’ are generated as ‘data’. The continuous production of faces/data becomes what counts, or matters, within resistance, as a way of continuously reproducing environmentalist subjectivity, particularly at a point of ‘crisis’ of environmentalist group identity. Such micro-productions and pleasures of individual faces on social media feeds or Instagram posts, are part of flows of data desire: the desire of individuals to emerge as subjects within a multitude of stereotypes about environmentalism; the desire for environmentalism to assert itself as meaningful within ecological events such as ‘oil’, and the desire of corporations to assert different rhetorics about both oil and environmentalism itself.

To close, I have articulated that a subject – a subject that takes part in ‘their’ resistance to ecological degradation – is a residual one, the product of a circulating flow of pre-personal data desire. This data desire exceeds individual pleasures and undulates between the chaotic event of oil, its continuously shifting political, economic, and social affects, and ‘a subject’ also continuously trying to be enunciated and ‘individuated’ in the event. Satisfaction, or pleasure, becomes the individual expression of a larger circuit of circulating desires which shows the flows of data between the expressions of material and ecological events which generate all sorts of breakdowns in meaning about ‘the human’ and the Anthropocene, and between breakdowns of activist’ subjectivity. Desire functions as a mode of inquiry that moves thinking about pleasure beyond individuals’ emotions of ‘their’ craving for individuation and meaning within the chaos of the Anthropocene and in the anti-oil pipeline resistance. Rather than see data production as a response to a lack of information, I have shown how data desire, as a concept, can help to think about ontological production, or the production of subjects. This ontological production refers both to the event’s capacity to become continuously different and unforeseen, and the subject’s ongoing self-production through data practices. Three examples discussed here – participation in online news comments sections, citizen science, and production of activism selfies are just but some of the media practices that are part of the circulation of data desire, though there are undoubtedly more.


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Deleuze; Deleuze and Guattari; Environmental Communication; Media practices

Copyright (c) 2018 Marcelina Piotrowski

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