Reply to Wolfe (and Rifkin) and Some Questions


Dear Patrick,

I very much appreciated your note in response to my April 9 blog, “Settler” What? Our conversations at UCLA and since are helping me sort out my thinking about “settler colonialism.” In the hopes of continuing these conversations (and provoking others in this blogosphere to participate), I have some questions for you. I hope this will not be perceived as a surely indulgence of the argumentative or pedantic, nor too much of an assumption on your time. I will do my best not to be rhetorical. These are genuine questions.

Question 1: And for another “settler” thing….

I do not need “settler colonialism” to have a concrete, global definition of what it means as much as I am concerned about what I have perceived to be the far too general application of the term to seriously diverse histories of imperialism and the continuing political struggles of Native peoples for de-occupation and self-determination.

In other words, the lack of a concrete, global definition is not an issue for me; but, the analytical equivalences of or between vastly different historical situations and ongoing political struggles is. It has seemed to me that these equivalences occur in the context of the explicitly comparative approaches characteristic of “settler colonial” studies that illuminate some characteristics of colonialism while obscuring others in the name of the comparative.

I do find your arguments about the “logic of elimination” useful. Your care in retaining an analytical focus on the violence and the subliminal of “elimination” in understanding the social inequalities and oppressions that Native peoples confront is important.

So my question is this: When you argue that the “elimination continues beyond the establishment of settler society,” are you locating the “logic of elimination” as a decidedly colonialstructure? Why “settler colonialism” and not “imperialism”? Why – or how – is the “settler colonial” society or state different from the empire?

When “imperial” means “having a commanding quality” and the “empire” means “rule, authority, kingdom, imperial rule” (at least according to a quick look at the on-line etymology dictionary) – why do I need “imperialism” and “the empire”?

To try to make obvious that which I take for granted.… At whatever historical point in time the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were “colonies,” “settlements,” or newly formed “nations,” they are most certainly now empires. Different kinds, of course. But empires with all of their implications to militarized and economic violences that enact – sometimes through celebratory apologies – their plenary powers to enslave, to kill, to dispossess, and to subjugate, “at home” and abroad, within national boundaries and beyond.

“Settler colonialism” seems to qualify a colonialism, suggesting that other kinds of colonialisms took place and are taking place. Maybe as a project of imperialism? Maybe instead of the imperial? I do not understand the qualification since its own differentiation is left unclear (usually in claims of its specific comparability).

Question 2: On why “settler” is not a proxy for racialization…

On your points about racialization within “settler colonial” societies, I concur. In your presentation at UCLA – and as an issue that percolated throughout the symposium – and in your blog here on April 26, African slavery and Native land dispossession were addressed as interrelated to the “uninterrupted operation of the logic of elimination after the frontier,” and into the present. I agree that slavery and dispossession are linked by the “logic of elimination” and that the logic includes not merely physical violence but the violence of re-representation/interpolation into the nation’s juridical hold (most evidently via ideologies of blood’s equation to culture).

But I must equivocate again over your language again. What do you mean by “the frontier”? Is this marking a moment of “colonialism” proper, and then the advent of “settler colonialism” after or when something else happens? Was the colonialism “settler” all along, now that we can see its structural legacies?

Question 3: Concluding….

I have written about the racialized and gendered politics of right’s discourses in relation to Native women’s roles in sovereignty movements in Canada. These discourses are put to work to thwart anti-imperial solidarities but also to distort the terms and conditions of existing relations and politics within Native communities — pitting Natives against one another (around women’s equality rights, for instance) and pitting Natives against African Americans and other racialized and ethnicized groups (such as over the perception of ever limiting and threatened federal resources or lands – and I’m thinking here specifically of Malinda Lowery’s excellent discussions of the mythologies of “the pie” during our panel’s Q&A at UCLA).

But again I am stuck on the “settler colonial” teleology, geography, episteme. What is illuminated about the operations of the empire and the social terms and conditions of imperial social formations, and what is not.

I do not think you and I disagree on the analytical necessity of understanding our divergent histories and the current configuration of our social relations and conditions owing to the histories and conditions of imperialism. For you, “settler” illuminates, lays open, and allows for Native perspectives and concerns where other terms do not.

So, beginning there, I quote you back to you: “The surprise occasioned by tensions between Blacks and Indians is an artefact of a liberal universalism that takes for granted a pastiche of difference – colours, races, minorities, ethnicities – on a multicultural canvas that levels the varied histories that produced these differences in the first place.”

I think anti-imperial solidarity must include a fierce rejection of liberal universalism and all its modernist clichés – from the binaries of the savage and the civil to the celebrated public and national restorations of Native-nation relations via apology. This is because liberal universalism and modernism are the constitutive ideologies and discourses that undergird and regenerate imperial social formations. And one of the central ways that they do this is through the racialization of legal status and rights – to suggest a recognizable and investable (propertied) difference between citizen, native, immigrant, minority and then to regulate, discipline, and punish that difference in the name of national identity and security.

Against that, anti-imperial strategies – such as those enacted by the Indigenous Environmental Network, The Cultural Conservancy, the California Indian Basketweavers Association, the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada – insist on other ways of knowing and being in the world. Ways that are about relationship and responsibility, respect and ethics, justice and accountability. With each other and against state oppression

To those ends….


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