I am pleased to announce this year’s Research Recognition Award, the recipient of which is selected by committee through Pratt’s Academic Senate. The award is one of the highest honors of achievement at Pratt Institute. This annual award is given to a person who has made significant impact on academic research, has achieved impressive critical review and reception, and—not least—has cultivated strong ties to the Pratt Institute community.
This year’s recipient of the Research Recognition Award for 2020-2021 is Dr. Macarena Gómez-Barris, Chair of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies in the School of Liberal Arts and Science, and founding director of the Global South Center.
In her five years at Pratt, the contributions of Dr. Gómez-Barris have been far-reaching and impactful, from supporting colleagues in the development of their research within her department, to founding the Global South Center, which has hosted more than one hundred visiting scholars.
We are grateful for her contributions to Pratt Institute, her commitment to knowledge creation and sharing, and her determination to traverse the perceived boundaries of disciplines and geography.
Kirk E. Pillow
Dr. Macarena Gómez-Barris
Dr. Macarena Gómez-Barris is a scholar and writer who works at the intersections of the environment, decolonization, visual arts, memory, and land and sea restitution. She is the author of four books, Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009), The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017), Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Américas (2018), and Towards a Sociology of a Trace (2010, with Herman Gray). She is completing a new book on what she terms the colonial Anthropocene, At the Sea’s Edge: Liquid Ontologies Beyond Colonial Extinction (Forthcoming Duke University Press 2022). She is series editor with Diana Taylor of Dissident Act, Duke University Press. She is Founding Director of the Global South Center (globalsouthcenter.org) and Chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Award, the 2020-2021 Pratt Research Recognition Award and the 2020-2021 Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Q+A with Dr. Gómez-Barris
How would you describe your research and its practice?
My research is rooted in my ethical, social, and political commitments. As an immigrant and exile from Latin America, I learned the importance of engaged research and practice from an early age. Studying Sociology and the devastation of neoliberalism and authoritarianism led me to publish my first book Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile. I ended that book by describing how the submerged memory of the Rio Mapocho, a river in Santiago that had been used to dispose of those disappeared and killed by the Pinochet regime, overflowed one fateful stormy day. The metonym of the river’s repressed return was a way for me to express the legacies of state and US imperial violence as well as resistance to it.
Focusing on repressed memory led to my work on extractivism and the documentation of Indigenous communities. Through visual arts, building relationships, and engaging with decolonial theory and praxis I showed how territory, and land and water “resources” are the wreckage spaces of colonial violence. Theorizing memory, power, and extractive zones within geographies of Indigenous land and water protection led me to see and perceive the importance of what I call submerged perspectives.
As a researcher traversing numerous subjects simultaneously, how do you balance the varied ontologies of your research while still deeply engaging with the material?
It has taken me many years to develop methodologies that are accountable to those I research and whose lives are impacted by state and colonial violence. Mere historical description does not get at the layers of historical terror committed against Black, Indigenous, subaltern peoples and racialized geographies in the Global North and the Global South. Focusing on visual arts, documentary films, memorials, social movements, and learning from Black and Indigenous scholars, queer of color critique, critical ethnic studies, Native, Black, and transnational feminisms has allowed me to develop a decolonial queer approach to my work that foregrounds others’ voices as well as situates myself in my research.
For those researchers that don’t want to be restricted by disciplines and push against traditional research frameworks, what advice would you give?
My advice is stay with your practice. Disciplines within the humanities and social sciences are essential in that they teach specific ways to engage the texture of social life, theories of power, and the history of ideas. We cannot innovate if we do not understand how we got here. For me, mapping decolonial thought as well as learning from the the practices of the mothers of the disappeared, working with women former combatants in repatriated communities in El Salvador, working in solidarity with the Mapuche people, being a part of arts and intellectual communities in Ecuador, Chile, Beirut, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and now in Brooklyn and New York, all of that has been key to my practice.
But in the end, I have given myself permission to not stay within the specifications of a single discipline, and I have prioritized my writing and speaking as a practice. I am not afraid to make my political and ethical commitments known. And, I continue to evolve this work on a daily basis, yet I often hit roadblocks and frustrations. At this point, I’ve learned that creating good work means that there will be more obstacles than not. And, the final work will be better precisely because of these challenges.
What is the biggest challenge you’re currently facing as a researcher?
The pandemic has exposed white supremacy again, and the massively differential impact that immiserate, dispossess, and deplete communities of color exponentially. I am currently researching Black and Indigenous ontologies in the Américas. I had planned to go to the Panama Canal in July of last year in order to research a key chapter of this current book project, a research stay that obviously did not happen!
Given that I rely on experiential knowledge, interviews, engaging community knowledge, listening, and walking in the places I write about, this felt like a set back. Yet, I realize that I cannot rush my academic and creative work, especially during this particular time of urgency and ongoing emergency. So the challenge is balancing my own self expectations and timelines in the context of the current global health crisis.
What was the biggest challenge when you first started your research journey?
My biggest challenge was never having enough funding to do international research. As a graduate student conducting international field research I did it all on a credit card. It took me decades to pay off student debt. In my book Beyond the Pink Tide the first chapter addresses student debt, the massive constraints it puts on young people, and how student movements focused on debt and credit are so essential. My son, Renato, has consciously chosen to go to a public university this coming Fall. He chose low tuition and a “no debt” future precisely because this is such a big topic of conversation in our household. Student debt imprisons generations of young people; Education should be state subsidized, period.
What are you most proud of having accomplished as a researcher?
The more than 200 activists, scholars, and artists we have invited to speak, participate, and dialogue with us at the Global South Center has truly shaped my research. All of these participants work towards radical justice through their scholarly and artistic approaches, as well as providing unique visions of how to do this often. Working with my colleagues in the Global South Center has helped shape my research trajectory, and personally represents an important accomplishment. The Global South Center models a trans-disciplinary approach to research and action. I am grateful for this award for my research and the recognition by my peers at Pratt, such an enlivened arts and design context to work in. This award means that the critical labor we do in the humanities, the environmental humanities, social sciences, critical and visual studies is seen and supported, especially at a time when context-driven research is crucial.