Tagged: reading

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.



Summer Reading ’15-’16

My wife and I recently came back from an extended on-again-off-again summer break in work. Of course, I stayed on the emails throughout and kept working on a few odds and ends, however, I also had time to get through some ‘recreational’ books. The first was a book that I probably should have picked up some time ago – Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). This is one of Solnit’s less-celebrated books, but it is fairly well-known amongst natural hazards scholars as a (rare) non-academic text trying to theorise the diverse and often contrary reactions people have to major hazard events. In the book’s introduction she adopts a familiar framework, which is to pose disaster events as ‘windows’ into the immanent potential of human community:

Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.

Further, while conceding that talk of essential natures is unfashionable (rather than unjustified), she proposes that ‘the question of human nature’ is ‘at stake’ in disasters. Why? Because they produce ‘constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation’ in the communities that suffer their consequences. In another senses, though, these constellations are not ‘produced’ by disaster events. Cooperation, extraordinary giving (or, more accurately, giving-in-mutuality), etc. are expressions of latent energies, crystallisations of an immanent order of communality that Solnit describes as ‘paradise’:

The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.

Thus, for Solnit, disaster events ‘suspend’ those forces and ideologies that have sedimented themselves into our everyday lives, severing us from one another and our commonality/communitas against our ‘natures’. In fact:

We have, most of us, a deep desire for this democratic public life, for a voice, for membership, for purpose and meaning that cannot be only personal. We want larger selves and a larger world. It is part of the seduction of war William James warned against—for life during wartime often serves to bring people into this sense of common cause…

I struggled a little with the book’s easy celebrations of moments of communalism, and was frustrated by the selection of events, but the exemplary Romanticism and anti-capitalism of Solnit’s argument is something that I need to keep thinking about.

I’ve also started to pick back up an old habit I had when I worked in a bookstore of reading the long-list for the Samuel Johnson Prize. For various reasons – one of them being that I know several medical doctors and often pester them for stories – I started with two books about medical practice. The first is Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2015) and the second (which I cannot seem to stick with) is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014). Marsh’s book, which I’ve been raving about to a few friends, progresses through a tripartite device, explaining particular maladies of the brain (and their surgical treatments) through anecdotes about specific cases, using the anecdotes as opportunities to reflect on the nature of medical practice and his own life as a doctor. Part of the appeal of the book is Marsh’s unflinching account of medical practice and practitioners, providing ‘back stage’ access to a realm of professional expertise that, for all its adulation, can be obscure in its particularities (of course, go read Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple, for a different account of medical practice). Marsh writes about himself and his colleagues as arrogant, over-confident, and detached, characterising these facts as at once necessary (attending to such a volume of trauma everyday requires certain strategies) and counter-productive. I had not realised how many tumors in the brain come back, and therefore how often neurosurgery is palliative rather than curative. As he suggests, the result is that:

[Neurosurgery] can become a sort of folie à deux, where both doctor and patient cannot bear reality.

Why? Because – as Gawande’s book also suggests – contemporary medicine is shrouded in the myth of the technical fix, creating situations in which doctors and patients cannot bare the longterm prognosis and so end up pursuing (immediate) surgical interventions over quality of life. Marsh’s stance could easily be dismissed as ‘abandoning hope’ – and he tells of how he has been sued for declining to perform surgery on certain patients – though this would be too easy and implicitly techno-optimistic. Needless to say, there are some crossovers here for how we think about natural hazard events and the tendency, in the aftermath of crisis, to prefer technical responses above sociocultural ones.

More soon, honest.


Dangar Island, Hawkesbury River (January 2016)