Openness and/as closure

black and white photo of several old and rusty padlocks, one open and the rest closed

Padlocks, by Skitterphoto on, CC0

In my previous post I considered one way to think about how those of us who value and practice open education may also value and practice respect for privacy, that openness and privacy need not be considered opposites (despite the fact that one could think of openness as related to reducing barriers and privacy as putting them up or maintaining them).

This reminded me of a blog post I read recently, “Towards a Pedagogy of Closure”, by David Gaertner who is in First Nations and Indigenous Studies at UBC.1 In the post Gaertner talks about closure being a form of, or leading too, openness. He explains that, as a non-Indigenous scholar working with Indigenous communities, “listening to my collaborators and recognizing boundaries is a necessary part of what I do. There are places that I am not welcome and conversations that I should not be a part of.”

I don’t think this is about privacy in the same way that Meinke and Wagstaff were talking about, in my previous blog post. It’s more about respecting the appropriate boundaries of spaces, conversations, and knowledges given the context of what those are; sometimes this is about privacy (e.g., personal health information being restricted only to some), but not always. It is also about resisting colonialism.

Closure and anti-colonialism

Quoting from Métis artist and scholar David Garneau in “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” Gaertner points to how open access can further neo-colonial ideologies:

The colonial gaze is characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them.

Thus, closure can be about refusing the mindset that everything must be laid bare for the inquiring mind to know and understand, for the exploring body to traverse, for the writing hand to record, and for the hungering mouth to eat. Maintaining barriers, closing some things off, is a way to resist those kinds of colonial ways of knowing and acting.

Kimberly Christen, in “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the “s” Matters,” explains how, while working at the Washington State University Library, several women from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation discovered that “a cassette tape collection we held contained a set of religious songs that were not traditionally to be heard by outsiders.” The library digitized the collection for the sake of allowing those who should hear it to do so, and also pulled the collection from general circulation. Similarly, in “Protecting Indigenous Cultural Property in the Age of Digital Democracy,” Deidre Brown and George Nicholas explain that “to provide full public access to collections … exposes them to the threat of inappropriate, offensive or dangerously transgressive use.”

Christen explains, in “Tribal Archives,” that such concerns lay behind the creation of Mukurtu, a content management system for digital archives designed to provide fine-grained control over how items are stored and who can have access (and under what circumstances):

For example, if a tribe has traditional access parameters around the viewing of sacred materials limited only to elders, or if some songs should only be heard in specific seasons, or if only initiated members of a specific clan should be allowed to view cultural objects, they can use these protocols to determine access within the database itself.

Closure as openness

In the context of such concerns, David Gaertner asks whether closure can be itself a kind of openness: “Closure … is, or leads to, openness; it is not antithetical to it.” Respecting closure can better facilitate knowledge, understanding, and the flow of information in an ethical way. This is, Gaertner says, an “academic gesture”:

I learn more and I get better at my job when I acknowledge the existence of borders and my hosts’ right to open or close them without my consultation. The university benefits as a whole, when we think of research like this—as a relationship based on good boundaries and consent, as opposed to a “discovery” wrought from the mind of individual genius.

Here is how I think about this: coming to understand the need for closure, the value of closure, when closure is appropriate, we come to have new knowledge. We are able to participate in conversations in a more respectful way–understanding why this is respectful–with those whose spaces we are not allowed to enter as well as with others. We are able to better work with others to generate knowledge in a way that adheres to their epistemological processes and values.  And we learn more about ourselves in the process, including how much we have yet to learn and what, rightfully, we should not expect we have a right to learn.

On this view, one way closure can support or even be a kind of openness is that we not only allow others agency in their closure (as discussed in my previous blog post) but we open ourselves out to new ways of thinking, understanding, acting and being in our relationships with them. We open lines of communication and being together in respectful ways that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

This kind of closure shares some affinity with, but isn’t quite the same as concerns about privacy. I think of privacy as largely about wanting to keep something to oneself, or to a small group of people, because for various reasons it is not something that should be made publicly available. That’s also the case with some Indigenous spaces, conversations, artifacts, knowledges as discussed above. But the latter is also about things that have strong community and cultural import. David Garneau describes it this way:

Every culture circulates around a set of objects and spaces that are beyond property and trade. They are the national treasures, sacred sites and texts, symbols that are a community’s gravitational centre. The objects and their protection define the culture; they hold its many parts in orbit. . . .

The desire of the colonist is directed not just at appropriating these material things, but to displacing their local symbolic value. This decontexualization erodes the culture by removing the gravitational centre.

The damage done by opening up certain artifacts, spaces, knowledges is not just to an individual, but to relationships, beliefs and practices that work to hold a community together.

I must admit I struggle a bit to understand this, and maybe that’s not surprising–I come from a context in which the things that most easily come to mind as holding a community together are those that have to do with the larger public I belong to, such as national historical sites, symbols like flags, documents like constitutions, and the like. These are meant to be widely shared, not closed or restricted to people within the community. Still, I can see how taking those things and decontextualizing them from their local meaning, their relationship to the community, would have a detrimental effect on the community.2

And if the local meaning and relationship to the community of those objects, symbols, spaces, knowledges have to do with their restriction to the community, or to certain members of the community, then opening them up more widely would harm the “gravitational center” of the community.

Respecting and valuing closure, then, could be a way to be open in the sense of being with others in a way that allows all of us to be and act authentically in our communities and in our relationships with each other across those communities. That’s a kind of openness that can only happen if our relationship is based on “good boundaries and consent,” as quoted above from Gaertner.



1. I am writing this post largely to write my way to trying to understand what Gaertner and others are pointing to with closure as openness. I’m not sure I’m really adding anything to that, only using this space to try to better understand it for myself, which is often helped, for me, by writing things out.

2. And yet, in my own cultural context it is so common for such spaces, items and symbols to be copied and commercialized, to be removed from their meaningful connection to the community and put into a completely different space of meaning, that I still struggle here. This is not to say that such decontextualization is acceptable, only that because of its ubiquity in my own experience that I find it hard to feel the sense of loss and community harm that can come from it.


Works cited

Brown, D., & Nicholas, G. (2012). Protecting Indigenous cultural property in the age of digital democracy: Institutional and communal responses to Canadian First Nations and Māori heritage concerns. Journal of Material Culture, 17(3), 307-324. DOI: 10.1177/1359183512454065.

Christen, K. (2015). Tribal archives, traditional knowledge, and local contexts: Why the “s” matters. Journal of Western Archives, 6(1), article 3. Retrieved from:

Garneau, D. (2016). Imaginary spaces of conciliation and reconciliation: Art, curation, and healing. In K. Martin and D. Robinson (Ed.), Arts of engagement: Taking aesthetic action in and beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier Press.