By Marisa Cohn
What does it mean to act as “a lab”? This has been a fundamental question we have faced as a collective of researchers and as an institutional unit within the University. This pertains to the question of our ambitions and our remit. The lab has always been many things – a workers’ collective every Wednesday to discuss the challenges of academic life within and beyond the University walls, a feminist methods lab and space for experimentation, a student lab supporting safe spaces for pedagogic experiences of research exploration and apprenticeship, a community for sharing resources to infrastructure inquiry, a meeting point for critical interventions through writing, maging, and imploding technological worlds. But being so many things, not anchored in a single unified research agenda, also provokes questions on what it means to act as The Lab. What are the lab’s crowning achievements, what does it hope to achieve, and for whom? How do we enable and celebrate the lab’s activities, how do we orient its actions towards certain outcomes, and also recognize the diverse labor that goes into reaching them? We have given these questions a lot of reflection, to consider what it is that it means for the lab to “act” as one, and to aim our collective will towards set goals, when we are each also pulled in multiple directions and the lab has several communities to serve.
However, according to the cards :) a shift is afoot. Following the Knight of Wands, we might shift from asking “how can we act” as a unit towards a unified goal or achievement, to asking how do we set values that give us direction because they ignite our sense of purpose and energize and nourish our needs for a greater “why”. This is a shift from seeking answers about how we act as a lab by finding a common action to take (let’s write this paper, let’s win this grant, let’s make this thing), to finding common purpose around a set of values. This semester we are trying out a new way of organizing our collective endeavors – instead of expecting the lab to act as one when we are all pulled by different commitments and work conditions – we are trying out a new mode. We are inviting our lab members to bring to life the praxis of the lab by organizing a maging session, a vulnerable writing session, a feminist digital methods workshop. Hopefully this focuses less on the ongoing deliberation of What Should We Work On to instead have our members bring something that energizes them to the lab. This shift hopefully helps make the lab into a place we come to relight the fire – to ask why are we researchers, what do we value, why do we care about our work, how do we fuel and nourish each other through offerings of readings, workshops, as well as time to just be and rest?!
Speaking of rest, the Queen of Swords reminds us that this is precisely what has perhaps been difficult for the lab. It is not that we have not taken time to rest or pause or slow down as a lab. But we are challenged to rest in a sustainable way. We have ebbed and flowed, had times with lots of activity and times where we struggle to make time to come together. We need rest not in the form of the complete collapse that comes after slaying a huge beast of a deadline or pulling off some big event. Rest is important. But rest can become detrimental to the ongoing sustaining of the lab when it requires a total retreat from the lab to gather energy again, when the work of making the lab “active” is too much, or when the work that goes into coming together remains invisible, airy, ungrounded. The semester and its topology burns us out for periods of time. In our research, the monster that brings us together as a lab is a vast and unwieldy one – the deterministic hype machinery that serves a monolithic vision of technocratic world-making. There can sometimes be a sense of futility in severing one of its many hydra heads only to feel like we are still in the same battle all over again (are we getting anywhere?). Facing this difficulty, we have started to ask how we might land softly together in the collective work of our teaching and research? How do we find downtime together rather than naturalizing an unsustainable ebb and flow where the lab appears energized for a period of time but then deadens again under the weight of overcommitment and invisible labor, when people realize quite reasonably that they do not have the energy and time to participate. Perhaps this speaks to a need to return to our “wheel of the academic year” and think of ways to work with these ebbs and flows, to be clearer about when we can bring energy to the lab and when not, and to create an ease to these comings and goings of energy.
But it is important to remember what makes sense to us. What helps us recharge and return to the work or to the journey we embark on jointly as a lab. And that is – our curiosity and our highly refined skills as academics to “be in the weeds” of the unknown. The Hermit may be a bit ornery, he might want to put his head down for a bit and refocus, but he also knows how to begin again into the total unknown, to identify what ignites his curiosity, to not only fight the beast but to make of it a companion. The monstrous, we know, can be a useful guide towards alternate paths, ways to again confront the existential questions of living together and reconfigure knowledge-making together.
The ultimate goal for the lab is action, turning academic questions, insights, and theories into forms of world-making via method. But here the goal is not for the lab to Make Decisions or Produce Things but rather to create a space of ease and swiftness – not in order to obtain our goals quickly (we prefer the slow route), but more in the sense of creating clear skies, smooth waters, safeguarded routes, streams of thought and movement into which we can jump without the heaviness of second guessing or concern for the weighting down of invisible institutional labor. This also means having a sense of direction – not in the sense of a hand steering the helm, but an understanding of the current of the waters we wish to navigate. So that when people dip into and join the lab or visit us for a time, they know how to ease into our “flow.” Finding this ease will not necessarily be easy! But the Knight of Swords tells us that finding our “flow” is our ultimate goal right now, finding our sustainable rhythms, our sense of purpose, our praxis, and then seeing what can emerge from there.