“Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow”: Lecture by Audra Simpson – Response by Cyanne Topaum (English)

[On January 24, 2019, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Audra Simpson (Columbia University) entitled “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow.” Below is a response to the lecture by Cyanne Topaum (English).]

The Other Structures: Indigenous Scripts of Refusal in an Age of Reconciliation
Written by Cyanne Topaum (English)

Professor Audra Simpson (Mohawk) presented her lecture, “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow,” on January 24, 2019. She began by asking the question: “Is this business as usual?” The political state of affairs in the United States and Canada, the former characterized by a reactionary politics of race and xenophobia and the latter by policies of “reconciliation,” seems to indicate that we live in exceptional times on both sides of the International Boundary. In the American case, the Trump administration appears to represent an exceptionally harrowing intensification of ugly currents that have been active in American political life since the very beginning. Meanwhile in Canada, the young, photogenic prime minister Justin Trudeau has made numerous apologies, including to First Nations communities, and seems to embody the spirit of a kinder, gentler Canadian state.

Both leaders, in other words, seem exceptional for different reasons. Simpson, however, demurred from this assessment in her lecture by describing indigenous “conceptual frameworks” that make a seemingly anomalous figure like Trump comprehensible. For the Haudenosaunee, the Office of the President represents a “position of structural and historical violence.” While Trump might be personally and politically “distasteful,” he inhabits a position that is inextricably connected to “theft of land and theft of labour” irrespective of the personal distastefulness of its occupant. Simpson proceeded to delineate how the Haudenosaunee have described each president since George Washington as “Town Destroyer” or “Town Eater.” She noted that this appellation was seemingly earned by Washington when he ordered the Sullivan Expedition that led to the destruction of forty Haudenosaunee villages in 1779 before going on to clarify that the name actually goes back to Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, who massacred leaders of the Susquehannah and Piscataway. Simpson later described a similar familial connection in the case of Justin Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Trudeau, the 15th prime minister of Canada, proposed the White Paper in 1969 , an effort to eliminate Indian status and abolish the reserve system.


Justin Trudeau hugging a First Nations drummer. Source: The Star.

When examining the current Canadian prime minister, Simpson made frequent reference to a Rolling Stone profile from 2017 that describes him in “smitten” terms and seems to rhetorically construct him as “Town Lover” as opposed to Trump the “Town Destroyer.” Simpson was quick to note that Trudeau’s congeniality is belied by his defense of pipelines and his use of a politics of emotion that is, according to Simpson, straight from the “conservative American playbook.” Trudeau’s “production of good feelings” is part of an ongoing move in Canada toward reconciliation and a moving away from the “colonial past.”  A significant moment in the history of this process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established in 2008, which documented the history of Indian residential schools in Canada. Simpson spoke critically of the TRC, drawing upon interviews she conducted with First Nations peoples as part of the research for her current book project. According to one interviewee, the ultimate goal of reconciliation is to “get us to accept our own colonization.” This same woman was also quoted by Simpson as describing the First Nations peoples who participated in the TRC as being motivated by the desire to be accepted by white Canadians. She went on to say that any kind of “acceptance of ourselves” would have to come from within and not from the non-Indigenous community. The interviewee then referred to her mother’s belief that what “governs me is what I believe.” Simpson noted that this woman went on to tell her that, “I believe colonialism is bad, period.”

Logo for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   Source: Falconers.ca 

According to Simpson, this statement is a refusal of the myth of a “balanced ledger” and the illusion of parity promised by policies of reconciliation, but it is also something more. The interviewed woman’s statement on colonialism is an “unwavering belief in place, an internal structure of certainty.” It is a structure that, much like the “Town Destroyer” concept, enables the woman to look outward at national politics and critique the acts of contrition that obfuscate more than they efface the past wrongs of colonialism. Throughout the entirety of her lecture, Simpson frequently made reference to these Indigenous structures, structures that “persist alongside of and in antagonism” with the structure of settler colonialism. While making use of Patrick Wolfe’s well-known definition of settler colonialism as a “structure, not an event,” Simpson placed special emphasis on the persistence of these “other structures,” noting that they act as “internal scripts of refusal” in the face of colonialism. They are structures that, as Simpson noted in her 2016 essay “The State is a Man”, act not merely as a refusal, but also a reminder to settler governments that they are “not the only historical or political show in town.”

It is this function to remind that makes these structures so challenging for the politics of reconciliation. Directly quoting from the work of Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, Simpson referred to policies of reconciliation as an attempt to allocate “abuses of settler colonization to the dustbin of history” and to separate the process of reconciliation from larger issues pertaining to settler colonialism. In the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, the historical wrong in need of reconciliation was specifically intended to be Indian residential schools. While these schools were sites of horror and abuse, they were, nonetheless, one facet of a much larger issue. Simpson described how the TRC was supposed to provide a means to move on from a “sad chapter”–specifically that of residential schools. This gesture of reconciliation makes no reference, however, to the acts of violence that are still being perpetuated against First Nations peoples, particularly women, in Canada to this day. Drawing on Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark’s 2016 paper “Criminal Empire”, Simpson connected “spectacular forms of violence” perpetuated against Indigenous peoples to the “masking of a criminal state.” In a similar sense, the reconciliation process, what Simpson called “theatres of contrition,” acts as a means to mask the working of the settler colonial state and the violence it continues to perpetuate against Indigenous peoples today by taking the “pain of another” and ingesting it, transforming it into an exchangeable commodity that can be used to make settlers “feel good” and to help them move on and forget abuses that are conveniently localized entirely in the past.
Simpson concluded her talk by returning to the Rolling Stone profile of Justin Trudeau as representing a “kind but muscular Canada,” noting that the kindness under discussion is a “killing kind of kindness.” It masks the construction of pipelines and the disappearance of First Nations women with the spectacle of public apology. It is ultimately up to Indigenous forms of self-governance and ways of knowing, the “other structures” that persist and resist, to act as a source of critique against the settler colonial state, a state which, as Simpson emphasized, remains a killing state, regardless of whether it is led by a Donald Trump or a Justin Trudeau.


“Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow”: Lecture by Audra Simpson – Response by Jodi Byrd

[On January 24th, 2019 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow” by Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar Audra Simpson (Columbia). Below is a response to the lecture by Professor Jodi Byrd (English/Gender and Women’s Studies).]

Response to Audra Simpson’s lecture “Savage States: Settler Governance in an Age of Sorrow”
Written by Jodi Byrd (English/Gender and Women’s Studies)

This weekend, and as I was reading Audra Simpson’s paper and thinking about how I might begin to frame my response, I was also watching how that now iconic moment of confrontation between Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic high school student in a MAGA hat unfolded on my social media feeds to the shock and horror of many. From the initial videos that seemed to tell a story of white supremacist antagonism to the full-length videos that, the media now insists, tells a story of white innocence aggrieved by a handful of Native and Black men, I found myself thinking with and through Simpson’s talk as a way to hold the tectonic shifts she is asking us to make with her analysis of business as usual within the savage states of North America. Why is that moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial circulating as iconic at all and why was it even shocking? Does it really tell us anything new or different about the state of the settler nation that now surrounds us?

In her talk, Simpson asks us to consider, among many things, what exactly are the stakes of participation in electoral politics at this particular juncture and for indigenous peoples especially, and why do it at all “if you can stand in full recognition of what has been done to you?” These are the questions that unfold a number of the key interventions that Simpson makes to Patrick Wolfe’s now axiomatic truism that “settler colonialism destroys to replace,” that its pure goal is to eliminate the native and that elimination is the structuring logic beyond any event of invasion. To that, Simpson posits a counter by affirming “that there are other structures that comingle, assert, push and survive outside of invasion or settlement.” Indigenous resistance and refusal, of knowing politics, governance, and sovereignty, and doing them differently, sustains life and presence outside the circuits of settler recognition by remaining, Simpson tells us, “in the way” as a failure to be eliminated or refusing to go away. The questions that she poses center on the quality of the world that we exist in and what we hope for and are worth extending further: What does it mean to invest in institutions, to hold up respect for service in this country’s military, to fight for normativity, recognition, legibility, or respect in the context of “dispossession of land from people that also intersects with alienated labour from bodies,” or what Simpson refers to as the “double helix of resourcing settlement?” But how might refusal stand in counter to recognition when it is too often dismissed as a not a failure to be eliminated but as a failure to succeed? Or, more bluntly, what happens when refusal to participate or being “in the way” is recast as illiberal, selfish, too emotional, or just bad faith, bad behavior, or bad politics? With our focus always on the animosities of race and savagery—and the contrapuntal civility we are told moments like these demand if we expect to have a voice—we can lose sight of how it is the taking of territory, waters, and peoples that we must refuse.

What has been lost in the noise of the multitude mocking a native drum in prayer this past weekend is the meaning of settler colonialism for the United States. Reduced to the minoritization of race and confronted with political agendas that seek to “make America great again,” to “build that wall” against unwanted intruders, and to prevent all women from having freedom over their bodies, stolen Indigenous lands become the unknowable ground that binds the figurations of subjectivity, race, and civility all together in the political theater of public emotions and opinion. In other words, lost is the very core of what Simpson gives us in her talk, that there is always a long view of such moments of structural and historical violence and that there is no amount of electoral participation that will change the fundamental truth of Haudenosaunee political thought, for instance, that recognizes the U.S. president, no matter what form they might take through time, as “Town Destroyer,” or town eater. The full context for what happened last Friday is not a two-hour video posted to YouTube that shows another angle of white male high schoolers forming a mob to confront five Black Hebrew Israelites; the context is conquest, the doctrine of discovery, the Papal questions over who has a soul to save, and the structures of settlement that recursively transform land into property and bodies into labor to be stolen to birth nations.

Elegantly and forcefully, then, Simpson’s talk asks us to not only reflect on the affective investments of settler states that stage the structural management of lands into property but she gives us the tools to begin to understand how the management and containment of history at play here in North America depends upon emotions as they coalesce into narratives, stances, and politics to be repeated, digested, and like land, stolen. Through the affective attachments of settler governance—specifically, “the angry, vitriolic, fact-rejecting, hamburger loving current US President” or the “loving and yoga posing, telegenic pro-pipeline Prime Minister of Canada,” Simpson discusses how things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada and calls for more sensitivity training and more education here in the US perhaps perpetuate pain and dispossession under another form. “It is crazy-making some might say to expect Indigenous people to play this game of pain for healing of a sublimation of legitimate anger so that things are not disturbed.” What Audra calls “the dangerous sense of insignificance” that accompanies any discussion of Indigenous peoples “within the very place of their belonging” is part of that crazy-making, and emotions, she tells us, “serve the place of those rocky hard facts, they appear to smooth them over, but they also can dis-serve the facts.” In this past week, we have seen exactly how it is that, in the US, we disappear. Rendered and remaindered to the ground that is stolen, even the act of a native Elder can become the will of a smirking white boy who claims it was he, after all, who was the one trying to diffuse things as his friends around him laughed and jeered as they evoked school spirit as tomahawk chops, hakas, and other forms of native mascotry. It is in this moment of a national spin to innocence that Illinois chose to open its public survey on the intent of Chief Illiniwek and the impact of Illinois spirit on communities. Business as usual.

Simpson ends her talk with a beginning credo, and a place to start: “I believe that colonialism is bad, period.” That is met very succinctly by the antagonism of the settler, and in the words of an Owensboro Catholic High School student from this past Friday, “Land gets stolen, that’s how it works. It’s the way of the world.” Until we can get closer to the first and refuse outright the white supremacist alibi of the second, towns will continue being destroyed and Indigenous peoples will continue to be “in the way.”

“Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself”: Nicholas Estes (Kul Wicasa) on Indigenous Studies- Response by Helen Makhdoumian

[On October 30, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Nicholas Estes ( University of New Mexico) entitled “”Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Helen Makhdoumian (English). ]

“Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself”: Nicholas Estes (Kul Wicasa) on Indigenous Studies.” 

“Witnessing Indigenous Studies as Ever Radical, Global, and Inter/national: On Professor Nick Estes’s Talk for the Unit”
Written by Helen Makhdoumian (English)

On October 30th, 2018, Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa), an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, delivered a lecture on Indigenous Studies for the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Estes’s talk, titled “Indigenous Studies: As Radical as Reality Itself,” advanced a reading of “US history as a branch of the tree of Indigenous history and not the other way around.” In so doing, Estes conceptualized Indigenous Studies as developing and thriving in the face of imposed colonial definitions of nationhood, borders, systems of governance and relationalities, and of racialized discourses that serve the US nation-state’s interests.

This attention to the locations of Indigenous Studies manifested throughout the evening, including in Professor Susan Koshy’s introduction of Professor Estes. Koshy began with a land acknowledgement statement that situated the University of Illinois’s founding as a land grant institution in the territorial dispossession of Native peoples. Citing the works of Joanne Barker (Lenape) , Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw) , and Jodi Melamed, Professor Koshy invited the audience to reflect upon our relationship to the land upon which this and other universities have been built. Reminding audience members that although there were no longer Indigenous nations within the state of Illinois, as Byrd and Melamed have emphasized, “the Native peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years before us are still our hosts.”

In his talk, Estes modeled how to keep the local and the global in mind when narrating the history of Indigenous Studies. Estes underscored the important role social movements have had on the development of this interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Indigenous Studies emerged alongside and through the spaces of the Red Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Such social movements informed Indigenous scholarship in the academy. Furthermore, Estes argued, that the colonizers were disqualified from narrating Indigenous peoples’ practices of making and maintaining relations with land and other life forms, human or otherwise. Indigenous Studies foregrounded Indigenous perspectives and interpretations as a decolonial method, and in this way it continues to decenter colonial knowledge and counter racist histories. Lastly, Estes underscored that Settler Colonial Studies, a field that overlaps with but that can differ in focus from Indigenous Studies, offers a limited model for thinking comparatively or globally. In its attention to death and destruction, such as Patrick Wolfe’s oft-cited “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Settler Colonial Studies has tended not to bear witness to Indigenous life, social reproduction, and futurity. Indigenous Studies counters this potential pitfall of Settler Colonial Studies by making clear that, to adapt Estes’s words here, the emancipation of the Native is indeed work being done by the Native herself.

From this discussion of the relationship between Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies and the local histories of connected liberation movements, Estes turned to Steven Salaita’s theoretical framework of “inter/nationalism” to interpret Indigenous solidarities on a global scale. As Salaita argues, “‘Inter/nationalism’ describes a certain type of decolonial thought and practice—not a new type of decolonialism, but one renewed vigorously in different strata of American Indian and Palestinian communities. At its most basic, inter/nationalism demands commitment to mutual liberation based on the proposition that colonial power must be rendered diffuse across multiple hemispheres through reciprocal struggle” (ix). Bringing Salaita’s work into conversation with Indigenous thought systems regarding the Big Dipper, Estes posited “constellations of co-existence” and “constellations of Indigenous solidarity” as a means to understand the relationship between liberation movements and Indigenous notions of co-existence. Estes envisions Indigenous Studies as an ever global and interconnected project and its work as having important lived repercussions. This notion of constellations and its implications of possibility and futurity held particular resonance with the campus audience. Estes indicated that the U of I’s “unhiring” of Professor Salaita ) all but gutted the American Indian Studies (AIS) program which faculty had previously built into a center for global Indigenous Studies. 

To build upon this inter/national way of conceptualizing Indigenous Studies and to elucidate these constellations already at play, Estes turned to a few case studies. His first example was the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by American Indian Movement activists, many of whom referred to Palestinians as relatives and identified Palestinian and American Indian peoples as simultaneously resisting occupation.

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Indigenous delegates, including IITC’s founders, enter the Palais de Nations, United Nations in Geneva for the 1st UN Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples in the Americans in 1977. 

Estes also highlighted the work of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), “an organization of Indigenous Peoples from North, Central, South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific working for the Sovereignty and Self Determination of Indigenous Peoples and the recognition and protection of Indigenous Rights, Treaties, Traditional Cultures and Sacred Lands.” Founded in 1974 at the Standing Rock Reservation, the IITC played a key role in peacefully ending the Iran Hostage crisis from 1979-1981. Estes showed how over the course of more than thirty years, persistent efforts by Indigenous communities and their allies at and beyond international meetings and conventions made possible the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) , a legally non-binding declaration that the General Assembly adopted in 2007.

For his final case study, Estes referenced the 2016 #NoDAPL movement at and beyond the Standing Rock Reservation which represents, “growing anticolonial flashpoints of struggle and resistance” that “connected disparate communities of the dispossessed.” The protest camps at Standing Rock engendered a way to not just envision but embody a “radically different way to relate to others and the nonhuman world” and to witness the assertion of “Indigenous freedom.” These spaces, he continued, “welcomed the excluded and centered Indigenous lifeways.” Although Eurocentric processes of writing history would situate a social movement like #NoDAPL on a timeline, narrating a beginning and end to these resistance efforts, Estes’s lecture ultimately asked the audience to see the ongoing global, inter/national, and multiply-connected work of these Indigenous revolutionaries.

“This is the Preamble to the Red Nation’s Principles of Unity ratified by the first General Assembly of Freedom Councils in Albuquerque on August 10, 2018 – Pueblo Revolt Day. In the spirit of Popay!” From the website of the Red Nation (co-founded by Estes)

It was precisely this message that Estes carried into the question and answer session, where he responded to inquiries about possible future work in Indigenous Studies, his own methodologies in finding and pursuing these histories, avenues to study African American and American Indian histories together, and strategies used at #NoDAPL protest sites for teaching one another and cultivating kinships. Conversations continue, Estes reminded the audience, even if such events are not so present in the news. Furthermore, there are ripple effects and radical transformations that stem from such social movements, even if the media does not document these legacies. Like the movements he described, Estes’s lecture will undoubtedly have ripple effects on this campus.

“Postcolonial Theory, Sort of, Not Really, Maybe Not at All”: Shona Jackson on Postcolonial Theory and Indigenous Labor in the Caribbean – Response by Md Alamgir Hossain

[On October 16, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Shona Jackson (Texas A&M) entitled “Postcolonial Theory, Sort of, Not Really, Maybe Not at All” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Md Alamgir Hossain (English).]

“Postcolonial Theory, Sort of, Not Really, Maybe Not at All”: Shona Jackson on Postcolonial Theory and Indigenous Labor in the Caribbean

Written by Md Alamgir Hossain (English)

Professor Shona Jackson began her lecture by dissociating herself from postcolonial studies and explaining that the lecture was not going to be about postcolonial theory per se. She noted, however, that because of the region she works with–the Caribbean–her work is largely understood as being postcolonial. Her lecture was divided into two parts: the postcolonial and the non-postcolonial. The first part of the talk addressed issues such as the waning status of postcolonial studies in Western academia, the limitations of postcolonial theory, the critical role of postcolonial theory in developing her own research focus, and the still unexhausted possibilities of the field. The second part, which centered on work from her current book project, focused on questions of Indigenous labor in the Caribbean. Specifically, her research uncovers the erasure of Indigenous labor from mainstream history and seeks to re-write the labor history of the Caribbean so that Indigenous labor figures centrally rather than marginally.

Jackson holds that the status of postcolonial studies is waning in academia and she attributes this decline to “the add-on function of intersectionality and the politics of inclusion, as well as the prominence of other fields such as Environmental Studies, Disability Studies, and Latinx Studies.”  She also finds problems with postcolonial theory’s hybrid methodology, which is based partly on post-structuralism and partly on Marxism. For her, postcolonial theory’s central flaw is its methodological tension between structural Marxism and post-structuralism. Even though Jackson does not locate her own work in the field of postcolonial studies, she acknowledges that without postcolonial theory, her work might not have emerged in its present form.

Jackson refers to three moments of reading with and against postcolonial theory that open up the space for her current work on Indigeneity. These three moments relate to postcolonial notions of nation, subjectivity, and capital. Postcolonial theory perceives the nation as a cultural sphere that can be apprehended in terms of its modes of writing and representation, even if it was an uneasy composition of fragments. This conception of the nation is based on the assumption that all postcolonial cultures wrote or articulated themselves in terms that can always be apprehended.  Jackson finds this view problematic because “this incessant legibility function obscures the settler state and its relation to Indigenity.” She is also critical of postcolonial understandings of subjectivity, which see subjectivity only in terms of a positive or negative relationship to the market. The postcolonial critique of capital, which portrays the subaltern as “always already the would-be liberal subject of global capital” also appears flawed to her and inspires her to explore the postcolonial subject’s proper relation to capital. Pointing to these limitations of postcolonial theory, Jackson asserts that postcolonial theory cannot apprehend “our capacity to rewrite ourselves” because it is not “a repetition but an inscription.” This inability of postcolonial theory leads her to the second part of her talk, where she rewrites the labor history of Indigenous people in Guyana or more broadly in the Caribbean.

At the beginning of the second part of the talk, Jackson refers to Guyana as an example to show the different attitudes and claims of Creoles and Indigenous people to the postcolonial nation-state based on their past labor. While Creoles claim belonging and rights in the state by the fact that their progenitors performed modern labor upon the land, Indigenous people do not have any such claim because in the official history they did not do formative work to any real degree. Even in the 21st century, she argued, we do not have any real way to talk about the actual work that Indigenous people have done in the Caribbean. Jackson examines how and why Indigenous people’s labor disappeared from mainstream history and how we can recover their histories of work in regional labor history.

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Fig. 1. Taíno: Indigenous Caribbeans. (Source)

The standard narrative attributes the disappearance of Indigenous labor to the arrival of Blacks in the Caribbean as if Black people replaced the natives. This view explains the impossibility of envisioning these two groups’ co-existence within the same time frame. But Jackson attempts to read together these two labors that, according to the mainstream narrative, cannot operate in the same time period. In her attempt to read dominant labor history against the grain, she returns to a crucial historical moment, the moment of conversion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when both Black and Indigenous people first linked up. She also draws on Hannah Arendt’s distinction between labor and work to develop her argument. Arendt sees labor as life itself, as something that we need to do to reproduce ourselves, while she frames work as that which “‘provides an artificial world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings”. This distinction between labor and work creates space for Jackson to think about the action or labor that Indigenous people do.

Analyzing Columbus’s first letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, and Las Casas’s writings, Jackson shows that Indigenous labor is always seen through the lens of the European economy and in relation to the scarcity of Europe. Whenever Indigenous people’s labor is referenced, it is converted either to excess/surplus or to work for the Europeans. This misreading of Indigenous labor by the Europeans transforms it into what Arendt categorizes as “not work,” and thus having no value at all. On the other hand, when enslaved Blacks are imported, they come to be associated with needs rather than scarcity or abundance, and hence their physical labor is seen as something that produces material gain. In other words, slave labor is converted to “work” having value within the European economic system. These different conversions and articulations of Indigenous and Black labors by European discourses relegate Indigenous labor to the margin of Caribbean labor history and ultimately cause its complete erasure.

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Fig. 2. The Middle Passage. (Source)

Jackson also reads the history of Indigenous labor in relation to the Middle Passage to recover this lost history and give native labor its proper place. She observes that while the Middle Passage converts Blacks into valuable labor, it does not add any value to the persons of Indigenous people although, like the Blacks, a large number of Indigenous people were forcibly relocated and sold into slavery. She argues that the forcible relocation of Indigenous peoples to work for the physical and the metaphysical is not only a Middle Passage in the Caribbean, but also a “prior or foundational Middle Passage” that links Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, and shapes the future economies and demography of these territories. She urges that we should recognize the participation of both Blacks and Indigenous peoples “in the process of adding and subtracting value just as both were involved in the Middle Passages that oriented around the conversion.” Recognizing this fact makes us aware of Indigenous labor being as foundational for European modernity as the African Middle Passage and enables us to read Indigenous labor back into Caribbean history.

Geoffrey Bennington “Politics in Deconstruction” – Response by Robin Sudanan Turner

[On October 2, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Geoffrey Bennington (Emory) entitled “Politics in Deconstruction” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Robin Sudanan Turner (French & Italian).]

“If it worked, we wouldn’t need it”: On the Politics of Deconstruction
Written by Robin Sudanan Turner (French & Italian)

Prof. Geoffrey Bennington, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School and Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought at Emory University, returned for his second consecutive year to the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series on October 2, 2018.  He began his talk “Politics in Deconstruction” with citations of Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) which described the intrinsic failure of sovereignty in the political system. If the sovereign could be sovereign and self-same, he explained, politics would fall away because we would not need it. Politics exists because sovereignty is bound to fail. For instance, the existence of laws is indicative of the absence of justice. Moreover, the figure of the lawgiver, who symbolizes the creation of the legal system, is a foreign body. Therefore, the laws that are administered upon us are impossible to fully understand, given that they originate from a foreign body. Similarly, the executive body inevitably ends up supplanting the sovereign power, which it originally served, again resulting in the failure of the sovereign system. Sovereignty – its structure, implementation, and continued necessity in society – follows what Bennington phrases as the concept of “If it worked, we wouldn’t need it.”

In a quick recap of his lecture from last year, Bennington reviewed the three “threads” or ways into understanding the general structure of the trace as Derrida outlines it: “The general structure of the unmotivated trace has communicate within the same possibility, and without one’s being able to separate them except by abstraction, the structure of the relation to the other, the movement of temporalization, and language qua writing” (Of Grammatology, 47). Bennington explained that at the core of Derrida’s thought from 1991 until his death in 2004 were three key strands: writing, temporalization, and the relation to the other (described by the term différance, coined by Derrida in his 1963 “Cogito et histoire de la folie”). In his lecture last year, he had focused on language qua writing, so this year he would look at the relation to the other. With respect to the latter, by using the example of ‘x’, Bennington shows that this letter derives its definition – either as a letter of the alphabet, an algebraic symbol that stands for another element, etc. –from its differentiation from others and its relationship with other system elements. This type of distinction refers back to the Derridian concept of hauntology, developed in Spectres of Marx (1993). Hauntology describes how the origin or, linguistically, the etymology of the word – or ‘x’ – depends on an exterior, already existent set of factors.

Hauntology can be further extended to demonstrate the Derridian idea of the “necessary structural possibility.” The concept is best demonstrated by the example of the personal signature. The act of assigning a signature to mark the individual’s consent, acknowledgement, or presence, for example, can only function in the context that by some token, the signature contains the potential for it to be forged or imitated by another party. The ‘threat’ of imitation gives the value of the signature: there is never an absolute certainty that the signature is authentic, that it is produced in the same identical way, or that it is produced by the same individual. In other words, the signature is ‘haunted’ by this necessary structural possibility. The conditions of this relationship between the possible and the impossible can be thought of using the model of the relationship described by Aristotle as the accident and the essence. The connection between the accident and the essence is unnecessary and the state of accidental properties does not affect the essence. Similarly, the form of the signature may change, but the essence of the signature continuously relies on the set of conditions that it may not be an authentic signature but rather, an imitation.

Bennington ended his lecture with a discussion regarding the trace of politics. Represented by ‘x’, politics becomes ‘digne de son nom’ or ‘worthy of its name’. Humans inherit the capacity or the methodology of thinking; ‘to be is to inherit’, according to Derrida. Names and concepts never come alone. They come into conceptualization with established definitions and conditions. ‘X’ – in this case democracy – is left to interpretation in individual reading. The concept of democracy as practiced involves multiplicity and dispersion and goes against the sovereignty described in classical philosophy. Democracy is never realized; it is a part of ‘avenir’ – the French word for future –, which can be also deconstructed into the phrase ‘a venir’ indicating ‘what is to come.’  The present form of the democracy is what society can achieve, not the vision of democracy in the future. The end of ‘x’ – the endgame of democracy – cannot be realized by a society.

Jana Sawicki on “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living” – Response by Patrick Kimutis

[On October 9, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Jana Sawicki (Williams) entitled “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Patrick Kimutis (English).]

Jana Sawicki on “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living”

Written by Patrick Kimutis (English)

Reading Foucault as a scholar-activist can be an experience as frustrating as it is eye-opening. If we accept his insight that power is not merely a repressive tool exerted downwards from the top, but rather is a force that characterizes all social relations and interactions, the path to a more liberatory society appears before us not as a straight line but a winding road fraught with detours, dead-ends, and backtracking. Even if the long-awaited revolution were to come, Foucault asks, aren’t we likely to create as many new problems and injustices as we solve?

Fig. 1. Foucault and Chomsky debate in 1971. If you’re frustrated with Foucault, you’re at least in good company. Source.

For this reason, Foucault’s writings may feel vexing, even counterproductive, to activists—Noam Chomsky once said that for all his concern about power, Foucault actually ended up reinforcing it more than undermining it. Foucault, we might conclude, is great at pointing out problems, but has much less to say when it comes to what to do about them. In her lecture, “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living,” however, Professor Sawicki provided a different understanding of Foucault, someone she claims was “concerned with ethics from the beginning.” Foucault, Professor Sawicki argues, may not provide us with answers, but he does lay out a method by which we may undertake our own “experiments of living” in search of the good—or at least better—life.

This Foucauldian method begins when we suspend a taken-for-granted concept, like madness or sexuality, and turn to the archive to see how it emerges and what dispositifs are brought to bear on it. A dispositif, often translated as “apparatus,” is a “heterogeneous ensemble” of discourses, laws, norms, and so forth that afford certain attitudes and behaviors while limiting others. The lecture hall, to use one of Professor Sawicki’s examples, makes it easier for a large group of people to listen to one individual at the same time it makes multiple small-group discussions more difficult. What Foucault finds in the archive, then, is that things that we take as a given are historically contingent, and thus not fixed—we can change them in order to emphasize or eliminate certain affordances or constraints.

Fig. 2. Foucault confronts the police during a protest in 1972. Source.

And this extends not just to the external forces we encounter in the world but to ourselves, our very subjectivity. For Foucault, ethics are primarily a self-relation, so not only can we change ourselves, if we want to change the world we ought to start by doing so. “The role of Foucault,” Professor Sawicki said, “is to teach us that we are freer than we feel.” The frustration that I identified early, then, may stem from the fact that Foucault proves unwilling to tell us what to do with that freedom. The onus is on us to  be, as Professor Sawicki put it, inventors, constantly trying out new experiments in living and forming “communities of resistance” which seek to identify and remove unnecessary constraints on what people may choose as a good life. These experiments will necessarily always be incomplete, demanding constant revision, as we will find that in attempting to do away with some constraints we may inadvertently create others. But then again, as Professor Sawicki noted, that is exactly how Foucault conceived of his own work. “I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word,” he said, “I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.” Indeed, the way his work has been taken up and taken in new directions by feminist and postcolonial theorists, such as Penelope Deutscher and Ann Stoler, as well as Professor Sawicki herself, is evidence that the incompleteness of our experiments need not be seen as something to regret, but rather celebrated. To paraphrase Beckett, our experiments in creating a better life and a better society will fail—but if we keep trying, we may at least hope to fail better.

Experiments in Collaboration: A Conversation with Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis – Response by Angela Baldus

[On September 15, 2018 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the School of Art + Design hosted a conversation between Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis (Art + Design) as a part of the symposium Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable. Below is a response by Angela Baldus (Art Education).]

Experiments in Collaboration: A Conversation with Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis
Written by Angela Baldus (Art Education)

There is something happening in the conversations between difference. Take the prefix co and sit with it for a moment. Feel, in this moment, something happening – coexisting, conspiring, conversing, collecting, and collaborating. Consider this text, counter expectations of what it will be, and the materiality of its becoming. In the basement of the Krannert Art Museum there is a technology enhanced classroom known as KAM62. Here, situated in this place, I will attempt to convey an experience of the conversation between Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis on Saturday, September 15th, 2018 and all that contributed — human and nonhuman.

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Figure 1 : KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds. Digital collage.

The image above pictures KAM 62 uninhabited by an audience or presenters. Pay attention to the screen. This screen places us in a landscape, on land granted to the university in 1862 with the signing of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. The land grant eventually lead to the opening of the University of Illinois in 1868 making it the second oldest land grant public university in the state. The image on the screen documents a site specific public artwork by indigenous artist and scholar Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds. The exhibit “Beyond the Chief”, which ran from February 2009 to December of 2009 at various locations around the University of Illinois campus, featured signs naming the Peoria, Piankesaw, Kaskaskiam, Wea, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Odawa, Myaamia, Quapaw, Meskwaki, Sac, and Kickapoo peoples. The university occupies the land of these peoples. The artwork names these peoples, who lived here before and who continue to live, learn, and work on campus. What has and has not changed since is a curious consideration we should critically engage.

Ryan Griffis, associate professor and chair of new media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, continues to present grounds for conversation through the intimate telling of a story. As an artist, scholar, writer, and activist Griffis has worked alone and collaboratively on different projects which explore the political ecology of the midwest. With the artist and activist Sarah Ross, he co-founded Regional Relationshipswhich encourages artists, writers, and thinkers to engage in projects like their collaborative documentary “A Great Green Desert.” When Griffis begins the story, the screen changes to operate more like a silver screen featuring footage from one the artists’ collaborative projects. Reading aloud to the audience, Griffis provides a narrative to the silent moving image. The place predominantly occupying the screen is Beardstown, Illinois. Images provide evidence that the industrial production of soy is continually creating new landscapes. Griffis explains that the effects have regionally lead to land consolidation, skyrocketing rents, generative means for hog farming, and extract mining.

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Figure 2: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Still from collaboration between artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis. Digital collage.

While (on screen) a lone buffalo slowly traverses the landscape, Griffis recounts an early European settlers’ description of being, “lost in an inland sea” rooting this settlers’ individual experience, one of awe and frustration, a response to the land which situates this settler’s position apart from the things which make and made the landscape before his arrival. By also situating himself as a migrant to the region, Griffis acknowledges his own relationship to these histories. This acknowledgement challenges us to consider the whole process of the land’s becoming. What sits both in and outside of this process? Griffis connects the laboring of the land to the process of collaboration. The soil so fertile for farming became this way by nonhuman collaborators. The major nonhuman collaborator Griffis refers to is the Wisconsin Glacial Period — the most recent glacial period. What happened in these thousands of years is what is largely responsible for the geography of the midwestern states, especially the formation of the flatlands and rivers. Key nonhuman collaborators here are glaciers, flatlands, rivers, soil, soybeans, and pesticides.

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Figure 3: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Still from collaboration between artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis #2. Digital Collage.

The story continues in relation to a similar occupation and use of land in Brazil. Griffis draws comparisons between the changing landscapes in the United States and Brazil. The industrialization of farming links both countries to the desired tropical soybean developed to supply crops to China and expand the use of biodiesel. Introducing these bioengineered crops to the landscape introduces new pesticides and nutrients which change and alter what was, threatening indigenous species. Connecting collaboration between industry, land, peoples, art, and science, Griffis offers a context in which to view our possible futures in relation to the past and present. Futures that things nonhuman and human collectively make. Snickers are heard from the audience at the naming of one of these sites where science, food, and resources are capitalized – Ingredion Incorporated. Griffis jokes this place, “sounds like a name for a science fiction evil corporation” which seems opportunely appropriate as these ideas situate the conversation within the possible disasters and mysteries which these things warrant.

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Figure 4: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Screenshot of Bach, “Great” Fugue in G minor YouTube video. Digital collage.

After Griffis’s brief presentation, Anna Tsing enters the conversation by saying that if you are going to be in a collaboration, you should take it very seriously. Tsing, is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Niels Bohrs Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. Author of books including The Mushroom at the End of the World, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, and co-editor of several groundbreaking anthologies, Anna Tsing came to campus as a Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar and the honored and celebrated keynote speaker for the Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable conference. As a prelude to the conversation between research practices, artists, social scientists, scientists, and the things we study and make, Tsing criticized the science model of collaboration as being not really about collaboration at all, but rather about doing things jointly in a top-down style. In saying this Tsing is not implying that collaboration is impossible between scientists, or scientists and artists, or scientists and social scientists, but rather that it is only possible through dedication to knowing that, “you are going to be changed in the process.”

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Figure 5: KAM 62 What’s on the Screen? Anna Tsing & Elain Gan collaborate with “How Things Hold”. Digital collage.

Anna Tsing discussed her collaborative piece “How Things Hold,” an article written by Tsing and artist Elian Gan. This work studies participants in an anthropocentric forest in Japan and considers how humans and nonhumans work together in the landscape. As part of their collaborative effort, Tsing proposed using the fugue as an analogy  to describe a type of co-composing happening on and with this landscape. This musical composition illustrates the coming together of things, combining one melody and then the next: sometimes there are moments of harmony and at other times, moments of distance. Tsing explains that Gan was not convinced by this analogy and yet that did not lead them to discontinue their work together. The work of collaboration can be done only through an agreement to stay with and struggle through things. Their work resulted from several years of struggling together and figuring out what part of the collaboration is “the thing that cannot be done by the other.” In this becoming, Tsing explains, “the art is in this way functioning differently and together.”  Relationally, Tsing shared experiences of teaching graduate students who were brought together by common interests in a subject. Yet, they had completely different expectations for how the class should be and function. These differences call us to question which spaces and methods should be shared. The size of the questions being asked influences the feasible collaborative relationship; and the seeming impossibility of the differences in the size of these questions is what Tsing suggests is the major reason why we have to try and keep on trying when we collaborate.

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Figure 6: KAM 62 What’s on the Screen? Same faces. Digital collage.

The conversation continued with questions from attendees such as “How do you get farmers to invite you to ride with them on the tractor?” “What methods are used to address the question of objectivity within collaboration?” “What does it mean to push past the sciences and start fixing the world?” and “How do we address the gap between those conversations that happen in academia but are not heard by those making government policies?” Griffis described the process of getting to know the land as being linked to a sort of radical openness and curiosity which his collaborator Sarah Ross comes to with ease. In the same sense that Ross and Griffis were open to sharing the intentions of the project with the people they were interacting with, Tsing expresses the importance of working across and with difference to appreciate the confusing and interesting ways that collaboration can surprise you and prove fruitful. Referencing both her work with Feral Atlas and Leslie Green’s work with chemists and students who with the help of local kayakers took water samples off a desalination plant to discover the water was full of pharmaceuticals, Tsing reminds us of success stories – projects which call for change. In these references, Tsing expresses our need for scientists and social scientists who refuse to go off into philosophy about disaster. Criticism alone does not begin processes of action towards solution. However, Tsing also emphasizes the patchy nature of things. This patchiness is important to the solutions and recognition of the areas where we can make a difference. To Tsing, different kinds of work can be interconnected to recognize similarities between environmental concerns and social justice as exemplified by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which caused a huge shift in the political conversation about pesticides. It is impossible to know when these shifts will occur, but according to Tsing, “we cannot afford to not find out!”.

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Figure 7: KAM 62 What’s on the screen? Seen. Digital collage.

While this text does not attempt cover the entirety of the conversation which happened, it does strive to synthesize a feeling of being, hearing, and seeing what unfolded. It is important to note the conversation turned to consider how these ideas can be heard beyond KAM 62. How do we echo these ideas in different ways both inside and outside of academia? How do we become a fugue of sorts? In the gap between this place and the next, Tsing and Griffis both express an interest in and a call for making things newsworthy as an important part of creating new imaginaries. These new imaginaries require engagement, reworking, and possibly a certain jutting of narratives, methods, languages, and representations. How does excitement caused by disaster, entangled in both fear and the possible solutions to their happenings, create openings for different fields to collaborate, converse, and reconsider ideas of labor, audience, and action? We need to collaborate within and across the fields.

Angela Inez Baldus is an MA candidate in Art Education at the University of Illinois and founder of the collaborative mobile gallery spaced called The Confessional.
Digital collages function as text written by Baldus.