XXVII.5 September - October 2020
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Between communication and violence

Roderic Crooks

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Just as a tangent touches a circle fleetingly and at only a single point, and just as this contact, not the point, prescribes the law in accord with which the tangent pursues its path into the infinite, in the same way a translation touches the original fleetingly and only at the infinitely smallpoint of meaning.
—Walter Benjamin, "The Translator's Task" [1]

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As the scholar Elana Jefferson-Tatum [2] argues, translation is no innocent task. Historically, translation itself is a field of domination, where those invested with authority interpret the practices, beliefs, and words of a group taken to be inherently less sophisticated, less capable of speaking on its own behalf. Via translation of their texts, lives, and even their bodies, historically minoritized and colonized peoples are offered up for the translation of certified experts, objectified by knowledge systems predicated on the innate superiority of some and the natural inferiority of others. Translation of non-Western and non-white cultural production in particular has been a process in which the translator's own "interpretational inadequacies have frequently participated in the mistranslation of the Other and have provided a legitimate basis for the practice of discursive violence" [2]. At the same time, translation offers the possibility, however slight, of cross-cultural communication, of commonality and intellectual exploration not bound by linguistic barriers. In this framing, Jefferson-Tatum sets the stakes of translation, holding out both the ubiquity of translation as an exercise of discursive violence and the fragile, provisional possibility of more equitable relations. Although her interest is in the field of religious studies, the way she troubles the conditions of possibility for an act of translation has immediate significance to science and technology as well. Citing Thomas Kuhn's conception of incommensurability, Jefferson-Tatum asserts persuasively that translation is not an objective, mechanical process of transcribing a representation produced in one symbolic system into another, that, in fact, there can be "no neutral linguistic or theoretical system through which two theories can be translated without producing conceptual disparity or excess" [2]. Translation can never be free of values and politics: It depends on and enacts systems of power, determinations of norm or deviance, and hierarchies of knowledge. As Jefferson-Tatum puts it: Translation always has its limitations and, therefore, at its best is merely an approximation. Yet, at its worst, translation signifies—distorting, lying, and refashioning. Thus, as scholars we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions: When does translation do discursive violence to the cultures we attempt to elucidate and understand, and how do we prevent these acts of violence? [2]

Keeping Jefferson-Tatum's problematic of translation in mind, I want to turn in this brief piece to a challenge in HCI, one raised by my colleague Gillian Hayes in the March–April 2020 issue of this publication [3]. In a conscientious and ultimately hopeful work, Hayes issues the challenge that inclusive and engaged HCI requires an acknowledgement of structural inequality, of the ways in which research practices reflect the ambient oppression of the larger society in which we participate. Hayes challenges HCI to develop research that will produce locally meaningful designs and that will also "ensure that the communities we study are not exploited like natural resources for the harvesting." One possible strategy for the cultivation of such engagements is collaboration with community organizers, people involved in "grassroots efforts defined and guided by the constituency living with the problems being addressed" [4]. Community organizing is a general technique of social change and political action, not a political orientation: Community organizers work in all parts of the American political spectrum. While it is impossible to say categorically who speaks for a community, community organizers themselves have developed many terms and concepts that name and describe the capacities of collective voice, democratic action, accountability, and diversity ( Community organizers are also deeply interested in technology. For example, recent versions of the Black Panther Party's 1966 Ten-Point Program, an important historical document that is, at root, a living product of decades of ongoing community organizing, place technology amid basic human necessities by insisting, "We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people's community control of modern technology" [5]. My hope is that this short work will remind technologists, scholars, and policymakers of the kinds of expertise that already exist on these matters, much of it produced in the very minoritized and racialized communities where the harms of digital technology frequently manifest. The metaphor of translation is perhaps overburdened, but I want to lean on Jefferson-Tatum's problematic as a way of thinking through the kinds of approaches to design, research, and technology that community organizers have developed and speculate on what it might mean for HCI scholars to engage with this work ethically and authentically.


Translation can never be free of values and politics: It depends on and enacts systems of power.

In March of 2019, I explored these and other questions in a workshop called "Datafication and Community Activism: Redrawing the Boundaries of Research," at the University of California, Irvine. Community organizers and researchers answered a call for participation to "map out new research agendas that draw on, support, and advance activist responses" to technological change in minoritized communities. The call was intentionally broad, soliciting the contributions of scholars, journalists, graduate students, artists, adjunct lecturers, para-academics, public scholars, community organizers, and information professionals interested in thinking through the relationship between direct action, emergent technologies, and research. In the first half of the workshop, community organizers, most of them Black women, introduced themselves and their organizations by responding to a series of open-ended prompts about data, technology, community, and research. Our academic participants, accustomed as they are to lecturing and dispensing expertise, spent the first day listening. It was a deliberate and generative reversal, but it was difficult for many audience members. I was disheartened and surprised that, when given time and space to be on a university campus, many of the invited community organizers admitted that it made them uncomfortable. After a long and fairly emotional day, the group had dinner and socialized off campus, a respite that gave us time to connect in a less charged environment. Because we had spent some time together, there was enough good will present to try something with higher stakes the second day. During the second half of our workshop, groups formed around a series of themes that emerged from the talks the day before. These breakout sessions formed the basis for an informal piece of writing collectively authored by the group [6].

While this work is ongoing, a few initial observations can be drawn with respect to translation and the very different contexts of community organizing and university research. First, translation, and the underlying power dynamics that make it possible, remind us to think about the imbrication of academic authority and forms of oppression in society. As Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, an abolitionist group that has effectively terminated some uses of predictive policing in Southern California, argues, research universities "uphold harmful ideologies and fund, create, or otherwise influence the development and implementation of technology" [7]. The group insists on an ecological approach to knowledge and direct action, one that links the oppression experienced at the community level to broader systems of power and authority. From this perspective, it is no coincidence that some kinds of people feel comfortable in academic spaces, while others are made to feel under threat.

To address this dynamic, we might think about translation as a way of making space for mutual understanding. Making space (figuratively and literally) for community organizers can be part of a meaningful practice of valorizing the knowledge of minoritized communities. With the support of my department (including funding, use of space, tech support, and promotion), I have incorporated talks by community organizers into our public lecture series ( over the past few years, an inclusion that has been especially popular with students. Giving talks can also be an important source of revenue for community organizers. A single invited talk does not, in and of itself, produce the actions that community organizers are trying to accomplish, but their inclusion in campus speaking events has been promising. Of course, there are stark and sometimes unworkable conflicts here, including reimbursement policies and academic norms around honoraria, conflicts that burden community organizers more than their academic colleagues. Still, in my limited professional experience, hosting a community organizer as an expert has been incredibly enriching, not just for the audience, but also for the host department. Community organizers' talks have drawn scholars from other fields to our department, which has led to some interesting conversations and potential collaborations. For many community organizers, this might represent a chance to experience, even for a short time, a more equitable relationship with an institution of higher learning.

We might think about translation as a way of making space for mutual understanding.


We can also extend the problematic of translation to our pedagogical activities. While the work of community organizers generally concerns mobilizing community members for collective democratic action, community organizing itself is a form of continuing education. For example, my colleagues at MEASURE count pedagogy as central to their organization's mission to "use data and education to empower communities to eliminate social disparities" ( Like many community-based organizations, MEASURE produces a prodigious gray literature. These informational resources include talks, documents, visualizations, and toolkits, all of which can be incorporated into class readings, discussions, and activities. Community organizers, some of whom are themselves academics or speak frequently in academic venues, are excellent teachers; the texts they produce lend themselves to classroom use.

Community organizing is irreducibly political, so it follows that the resources produced in the course of this work are explicitly politically motivated. Some students might simply refuse to engage with perspectives they do not consider sufficiently disinterested or objective. But under some conditions, working with these kinds of texts and resources can help students to sharpen their own ethical commitments, especially those who stubbornly insist that digital technologies are neutral and have no political or moral dimensions. There are certainly risks for both teachers and organizers here: Sharing these works in the context of the classroom might do violence to the intentions of their creators, who might object to any decoupling of action and teaching or to any partial use of a larger tract or document. Translation in this context might mean figuring out how to foreground the competing and incommensurable frames of reference in how technology—and society, for that matter—gets defined in scholarly research and community organizing. There is of course no simple workaround, but these kinds of resources can produce meaningful educational experiences and give scholars a way to break out of staid or moribund debates about privacy, agency, and media effects.

Finally, a note of caution: Community organizers do not want academics to rewrite their words for academic audiences. This is perhaps where the problematic of translation is most useful—and sharply admonitory. Many community organizers specifically reject what they perceive as elitism in academia, including academic publishing. This is an area where my own work has been contentious and frustrating. While I am still learning what forms cooperation between academics and community organizers might take, my first efforts in this area were clumsy and inept. At issue is how to balance the intellectual contributions of community organizers and the norms of scholarly citation, including recent efforts such as the Cite Black Women movement (, which urges academic writers to "[a]cknowledge Black women's intellectual production." I have had to start anew several times to find scholarly projects in which community organizers might want to participate. Again, for many good reasons, community organizers can be mistrustful of university researchers or feel that the power dynamics of academia make any collaboration in research unworkable. The attention of academic researchers has frequently been disastrous for the objects of the scientific gaze; that history is very much alive and ongoing in many of the communities I care about. I don't have any answers to these problems, except to note that translation always frustrates direct attempts to capture or fix meaning in new systems of representation. As the poet June Jordan puts it in "Problems of Translation: Problems of Language," our efforts at communication must attend to "not just the message but the sound" [8].

Inspired by the understanding that scholars, organizers, and communities are already captured by and working through the non-innocent relations of academia, technology, and the social world as a whole, my own work in this area has sparked a variety of responses from community organizers: suspicion, anger, and recalcitrance, but also support, generosity, and camaraderie. Translating the work of community organizers into scholarly practices enrolls us in longer, older struggles to reimagine the technological and social world, partially, step-by-step, by fits and starts, all the while recognizing the potential of our own translations to harm. Likewise, our practices are translated, interpreted, misinterpreted, and fleetingly, haltingly traced by our peers, by our readers, by the communities we wish to serve. While this challenge cannot be addressed by any single person or team of researchers, community organizing affirms the ability of people to act for a shared purpose over time. The specific tactics of working against structural inequality vary over time and place, but we might find inspiration in the many successive generations of thinkers, activists, scholars, and everyday people who have asked, "How do we imagine a better world and raise questions that permit us to see beyond the given?" [9].

back to top  References

1. Benjamin, W. The translator's task (S. Rendall, trans.). TTR: Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 10, 2 (1997), 151;

2. Jefferson-Tatum, E. The violence of translation: An indigenous world-sense and the Western "prostitution" of Dahomean bodies. Journal of Africana Religions 3, 3 (2015), 279–324.

3. Hayes, G. Inclusive and engaged HCI. Interactions 27, 2 (2020), 27–31.

4. Woodsum, G. The cost of community-based action research: Examining research access and implementation through the food dignity project community support package. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 8, A (2018), 83–99;

5. Roberts, F.L. Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest [syllabus]. Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, 2016;

6. Datafication and Community Activism Workshop 2019. What we mean when we say #AbolishBigData2019. Medium. Mar. 22, 2019;

7. Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Free Radicals. The algorithmic ecology: An abolitionist tool for organizing against algorithms. Medium;

8. Jordan, J. "Problems of Translation, Problems of Language." In Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan. Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 2005;

9. Davis, A.Y. and Barat, F. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Haymarket Books, 2016.

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Roderic Crooks is an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine. His research examines the use of digital technology in minoritized communities and the civic institutions that serve them. His current project explores the application of data analytics and associated computational techniques to the politically fraught realm of urban education.

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