Notes on settler colonial theory


Humpty Doo (photo by T. Neale)


Last week, the seminar series at the Institute for Culture and Society began with a paper by Max Haiven (NSCAD University) on settler colonialism and financialisation. What he was presenting, Max pointed out, were notes for a future project drawing links between the histories of these two things, suggesting one built off the dissemination of the other. Max’s paper was excellent and provocative, and brought back to mind some questions which I have been working through over the past few years in some essays (like this one). More specifically, it reminded me of a seminar I went to several years ago where an indigenous scholar was discussing the difficulties their specific group had experienced in maintaining their autonomy from a settler nation. In questions, the discussion turned to how this group maintained some financial autonomy through enterprises which, some one in the audience pointed out, where physically harming to other indigenous people. Asked to justify these economic activities, the scholar pointed to the deep and subtle workings of settler colonialism. Some found this response satisfactory. Some did not.

I mention this because it captures a certain explanatory problematic in settler colonial theory (SCT) which I’m going to call here the ontology of settler colonialism (apologies for the use of ‘ontology,’ but there’s no getting around it). That is, at what level does settler colonialism operate? Is it a directive transmitted between generations? A social ideology that encourages settlers to participate in their own privilege? A psychological complex? This brings us to a recent paper titled ‘Indigenous Heterogeneity‘ by Tim Rowse, which sketches a critique of SCT as it has been articulated, in particular, by the late Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini (amongst others). SCT, Rowse suggests, has become a dominant paradigm for reading the histories of certain countries, such as Australia, where the colonists came to ‘settle’ (as against strictly ‘colonial’ [the colonists come to leave] or ‘postcolonial’ [the colonists have left but remnants remain] situations).

To rewind slightly: Rowse focuses on Wolfe’s influential two-part thesis that 1) settlement is a structure rather than an event, meaning it does not simply recede with time or the end of open violence, and 2) this structure is driven towards the elimination of ‘the native’. This latter point does not mean that settlers are always trying to kill actual indigenous bodies–though they have and may well still–but that they are, more generally, trying to eliminate the fact of ‘nativeness’ (i.e. people ‘outside’ the settler nation and its law, people who have a prior or subtending claim on territory, people who refuse the authority of the settler state, and so on). The headline here is that settler colonialism is an [interminable] structure, or system of relations, built to produce an [impossible] outcome: settlers find themselves ‘at home,’ untroubled by their having directly and indirectly profited from the violent dispossession of first peoples (sidenote: all of this bears a strong resemblance to what Beth Povinelli calls ‘the governance of the prior’ that conditions settler nations: settlers try to govern prior people; the prior peoples’ have their own governance; settler try to govern the fact of this other governance).

Okay, let’s go back to my slightly selective reading of Rowse’s paper (Veracini offers a different reading and defence of SCT here). The SCT approach, as he states, ‘emplots the colonial story as a teleology of “elimination” and inhibits historical characterisation of the many forms of Australian indigeneity to which colonial history has given rise.’ In other words, Rowse is troubled by two quite seperate aspects of the theory. The first is that there is a teleology (or design principle) at work here whose existence is difficult to track. How is it transmitted? What is its ontological status? Is it ideology? Is it still operative in those (rare?) cases where settlers intentionally act to prevent the elimination of indigenous people/nativeness or where they seek to withdraw? The second aspect, which I suspect is more important for Rowse, is that SCT (the critique of the structure) is premised on a binary distinction between settler/settlerness and indigenous/indigeneity. The task for settlers is to capture and eliminate this thing–indigeneity–that troubles their belonging, and a significant amount of SCT has been devoted to discussing the strategies deployed to this end. What indigeneity actually is, Rowse notes, is rarely made explicit in SCT, with the result that it appears as something more like a space, an outside, an otherness-to-settlerness.

This brings us to Rowse’s main concern in his paper, which is that SCT ‘has reduced sensitivity to Indigenous heterogeneity’. Looking at the post-1788 history of indigenous people in Australia:

…it has become increasingly evident that Indigenous Australians recall oppression and opportunity in different ways, and this underpins the variety of their projections of survival and future flourishing. Thus I find unhelpful the homogenising, psychologising and dehistoricising tendencies of the elimination’  paradigm. By attaching its analytical ambition to establishing the teleological sameness of all narratives of colonisation, that approach not only dampens historical curiosity about distinctions of period, place and agent, it also renders uninteresting an arresting feature of the recent empowerment of Indigenous Australians: the diversity of their remembered pasts and projected futures (310).

In other words, the binary outlined above implicitly values the rejection of the settler order by indigenous people. Any other kind of response–ambivalence, accomodation, incorporation, repurposing, etc.–is either elided or, perhaps, devalued (perhaps?).

SCT has a lot of critics, amongst them people who deny the distinctiveness of settler colonialism, and I do not wish to imply that it is not valid. I’m a big reader of Wolfe and Veracini’s work and I’ve published in Settler Colonial Studies (!). For me, it’s an extremely important theoretical development in contemporary scholarship. However, there are a set of problems here that I have not yet found satisfactory answers to. Does SCT have anything to say about indigenous people themselves, or is it primarily an analytic of settlers and their discourses and strategies regarding ‘natives’ and ‘nativeness’? Is it a description or an intervention? Veracini’s position, in the paper mentioned above, is that ‘the settler colonial paradigm remains a heuristic tool, not an attempt to revolutionise relationships’. I remain uncertain that a theory that opposes ‘the settler’ and ‘the native’ is not actually intervening in those relationships by valuing, however subtly, some responses to the disaster of settler invasion over others.

In closing, I do not mean to imply that I endorse one or another part of this debate. I am writing this to put some thoughts together on the page and see where they lead. Perhaps with some more time they will lead to a more worked-through position.



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