June 13, 2024

On Enduring Borders And The Erasure Of Indigeneity, Part 2 (Roger Green)

The following is the second installment of Roger Green’s article.  The first installment can be found here.

In my previous post, I argued the necessity of a rigorous notion of Indigeneity if one is going to rethink the polis.  I made this claim in light of Thomas Nail’s impressive Theory of the Border, and I reassert that such a notion needs rigor because of the necessity of decolonizing practices among white academics like myself.

Indigenous people certainly do not need to be told who they are; but since ancient times, city boundaries have helped to create collective identities against “outsiders,” and such thinking persists. The best practices would of course be relational to Indigenous people, but trends within academic discourse continue to make any such relationality difficult. It is not just a matter of being more “inclusive”; it’s a matter of owning up to history and unthinking genocidal impulses.

Accounts of “neoliberalism” – a contested term in and of itself – that see crisis after crisis and widespread turns toward states of exception, how “we” are “becoming migrant,” “becoming animal,” etc. must be careful to avoid a continued rhetoric of domination of Indigenous people.  Even the perspective that sees “neoliberalism” as merely a slightly altered form of the capitalism Marx analyzed ought to appreciate the ways Indigenous practices are erased and made “ahistorical” in politics as the West knows it.

The binary concept of those “outside the polis” historically informed concepts of Indigenous peoples within Western hegemony, simultaneously producing a “transnational” concept of Indigeneity among various peoples oppressed by European colonial practices. But I’ve argued that a more rigorous conception of Indigeneity must move beyond such orienting and othering.

One turn must be toward the poetics at work in law. Perhaps one of the best books to deal with the subject of the colonial construction of Native identity is Robert A. Williams’s The American Indian in Western Legal Thought. Williams painstakingly traces the emergence of legal borders and theories of the “other” that precede both Giorgio Agamben’s now famous work on Homo sacer, with distinctions between “bare” and “qualified” life, as well as Silvia Federici’s exploration of primitive accumulation and women, Caliban and the Witch.

In the same vein as studies of primitive accumulation and Agamben’s archaeology of the political-theological glory, is Michael Taussig’s now classic work, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man.  But of course all of this is the dramatic fallout of euro-christian implementations of legal notions of “discovery,” as Indigenous scholars like Steven T. Newcomb’s Pagans in the Promised Land detail.  It is the superimposition of polyvalent euro-christian notions of khôraonto Indigenous peoples that continues to frame and colonize them.

Recent scholarship on Indigenous peoples give us a better material base to see primitive accumulation at work in the early modern period, as well as active influence of Indigenous peoples on Empire. These works especially confront the American ideology of Native disappearance and assimilation with notions like Gerald Vizenor’s term, ‘survivance.’

For Natives of Turtle Island, enduring survival has toiled beneath particularly Anglo-Saxon racial and legal notions.  More specific than the 1823 imbrication of Catholic papal bulls into American property law by John Marshall, Robert Williams notes in his reading of Thomas Jefferson’s Summary View that Jefferson interpreted the right to revolt through a rhetoric of Anglo-Saxon’s casting off the “Norman Yoke” put in place by the 1066 invasion.  This was an imagined identity.

While Henry VIII’s break from Catholicism, following his father’s funding of John Cabot, was in the Anglo-Saxon spirit, according to Jefferson it had not gone far enough.

The king had never formally conquered the Indians’ America, just as the Normans had never formally received surrender of all Saxon-held lands in England.  The Norman Yoke was as illegitimately applied in the New World as it had been in the Old. But unlike the situation in a corrupt England, it was not too late to throw off this yoke in America.(270)

Part of the social imaginary developed by the early Americans required imagining themselves as autochthonous to “North America.” This at times meant the appropriation of Indigenous legal rhetoric, such as the echoes of the Haudenosaunee / Iroquois Confederacy found in the U.S. Constitution and writings of founding fathers who witnessed but did not understand Native diplomacy. Thus, appropriation and inclusion did the work of erasure, and that is where notions of the camp and exceptionalism ought to be situated – in the very “miraculous” work of political death-spaces.

Of course, in order for the romantic mystification to work, as Marx could see, actual Natives who could dispel the myth needed to die, and so the popular narratives of the dying noble savage would manifest in Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper.  The appropriation of Native diplomacy was simultaneously a spiritual appropriation in order to justify the importation of Anglo-Saxon approaches to feudal property enclosure that they would eventually modify for Indian Removal.

Such spiritual appropriation continues to persist today in New Age appropriations of Native resources, from dream-catchers to ayahuasca tourism.  Defenders of such processes will point to the influence of tomatoes, chilis, potatoes and other “new world” products on the global economy, but they will conveniently ignore that this was the primitive accumulation of the capital that lends them there universalizing cognitive structures.

Similarly in politics, differing degrees and forms of indigenismounderwrite many forms of Central and “Latin” American nationalisms’ affective assemblages.  Indeed, the work of the Mexican War for Independence and the “Great Liberator,” Simón Bolívar drew on both Enlightenment and Indigenous identity formations to break from Europe.

But it was in part the way that Mexico’s Declaration of Independence doubly “blackened” the territory, first as part of the economically-collapsed New Spain and then as Indigenous, that fueled the Anglo-American impulse to claim the territory (and Texas too).  The “Black Legend” had long been employed among the English, since at least the tensions leading to the conflict with the Spanish Armada.

The English drew on translations of Bartolomé de las Casas’s eye-witness accounts of the horrors Indians suffered under Columbus and Spain.  Las Casas had argued that even under Christian Law, the Indians would have had cause to fight a just war against the conquistadors.  American rhetoric could both indict England for not having fully broken free from the “Norman Yoke” while simultaneously playing Pollyanna to the “duty” of the U.S. to “civilize” the Native “Savages.”

Discussions of neoliberalism that ignore deep structures of racism by poo-pooing them as part of the marketing agenda of neoliberalism itself mask a larger historical process of erasure in which the very discussion is complicit.

In Aztlan and Arcadia, Roberto Ramón Lint Sagrena notes the Romantic underwriting of neo-Aztecism:

It is important to recognize that both the romanticism central to the idea of an Arcadian Spanish colonial past and the neo-Aztecism that gives shape to the concept of Aztlán rely upon useful fictions that are inculcated and perpetuated within social fields constituted within relations of power.  Much like the religious narratives they make use of, these nationalist narratives gain strength through repetition, the definition of place, and public rituals that enact commonly held beliefs. (163)

Sagrena’s book helpfully shows how the American impulses to nostalgically ghost the opponents of American Empire move seamlessly from Native Americans to Colonial Spanish architecture in California.  This of course contributes to the contradictory spaces that produce the “religious poetics” that Luis León has described as La Llorona’s Children and that Desirée Martín has described with Santa Muerte cults in Borderlands Saints.

Scholars of Indigenous Peoples such as Jace Weaver, in The Red Atlantic and Cole Thrush in Indigenous London,actively give lie to the attempts to ghost Indigenous Peoples, not just through the accounts of contemporary Indigenous survivors, but also through the ways Indigenous peoples are actively present yet rhetorically erased in the historical record of empire.

Thrush poignantly cites a speech given by Queen Victoria in at the spectacle of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the “Red Indians,” including the famous Lakota, Black Elk.  It could have come right out of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan:

I have heard of some people that were in America and I heard they called them American Indians.  Now I have seen them today. America is a good country and I have seen all kinds of people, but today I have seen the best looking people – the Indians.  I am very glad to see them, If I owned you Indians, you good-looking people, I would never take you around in a show like this.  You have a Grandfather over there who takes care of you . . . but he shouldn’t allow this, for he owns you, for the white people the white people to take you around as best to show the people. (197)

As Thrush notes, because “the city served as the ultimate avatar of civilization, while Indigenous peoples were its foil, whether noble or savage in their difference,” this “narrative estrangement” is “perhaps the most unchallenged aspect of the ways in which history, from local to global, has been articulated by the West” (13).

The assertion that Indigenous identities truly enact difference (and not just repetition) too facilely lends itself to the romanticized aesthetics that make ghosts of Indigenous perspectives and lead nauseatingly to “archaic revivals” in the vacuum cleaner of the spiritualized colonial imagination.  This kind of thinking is rampant among “neo-shamanisms.”

Beyond parochial debates about “authenticity,” which inherently rely on Western legal notions of being caught “red-handed,” and arguments in favor of some concept of the “Anthropocene,” which in turn impose universalizing and rape-driven impulses of euro-christianity as a social movement (not a “religion”) – a movement that seeks a translational “cypher,” the codex to the scroll – I think more attention must be given to Indigeneity without merely “including” them within a larger frame of Homo sapiens as essentially migratory (I’m thinking of the language in Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant here basically stating: “we are all becoming migrants”).

Decolonization, I believe, must accompany attempts at analysis, and yes, in this instance my “whiteness” matters, and identifying it as such is not the same as retreating into neoliberal market categories or, on the flipside, essentializing and romanticizing the Indigenous “other.”    

 A more rigorous conception of what I’m after occurs in Marisol De La Cadena’s brilliant book, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds.  In the book, she details her “co-laboring” with a father and son of the Quechua-speaking, Andean runakuna.  De La Cadena focuses her analysis using the Amerindian Perspectivism of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, particularly his conception of “equivocation.”

In the tradition of classic Western thought, ‘equivocation’ is a logical fallacy, a kind of hedging by which, through ambiguous language, the interrogated “refuse truth” as a process of unconcealing. Rather than a flaw in thinking, Viveiros de Castro articulates this rather as “a type of communicative disjuncture in which, while using the same words, interlocutors are not talking about the same thing and do not know this” (in De La Cadena 27).

Such language conjures the lamentations of Thomas Hobbes in the opening chapters of Leviathan as he longs for fixed signifiers in language while also asserting that, in this respect, Hobbes was wrong.  As De La Cadena patiently demonstrates throughout her book, the process is not a matter of translation (and one could implicate Habermas’s longing for “translators” of the “religious” into “secular politics” in Dialectics of Secularization here), but one of equivocation.

Both classic liberalism and neoliberalism assert a political space in which one might occupy a utopic and neutral position. Such a utopic position comes to be determined in all its validity through a kind of casuistry.  In fact, pushed to the extreme, inductive logic is a kind of casuistry in which the same criteria and information may be plugged into a system that constructs sensibility itself.  Her ethnography of Mariano and Nazario Turpo tells a different story.

De La Cadena traces the undermining of the traditional in-ayllu relationships over two generations.  She tracks a notion of radical difference in relation to Indigenous groups which cannot be condensed into essential qualities:

Radical difference is not to be understood as a quality of isolated indigeneity, for there is nothing as such: as historical formation, indigeneity exists with Latin American nation-state institutions.  Thus, rather than something that “indigenous peoples have,” radical difference is a relational condition emerging when (or if) all or some of the parties involved in the enactment of a reality are equivocal – in the sense of Viveiros de Castro’s notion of equivocation – about what is being enacted.  Not unusually in the Andes, radical difference emerges as a relationship of excess with state institutions. (275)

If equivocal relationships point to incommensurable, “partial connections,” it is not necessarily out of an active form of resistance that would manifest as intentional ambiguity.  As De La Cadena and Viveiros De Castro explain, it is precisely because interlocutors use the same terms without sharing the same significations that Indigenous “excessive” meanings exceed the possible realities of Western-formed mindsets.

Advocating for a positive notion of equivocation – rather than a negative condemnation of equivocation as inherently fallacious – De La Cadena begins to describe an “alter-politics,” “with no other guarantee than the absence of ontological sameness” (281).  The very sameness by which Western logic reduces autochthonous experience to the experiential equivalent of a universal human nature is in question.  Clearly, an “alter-politics” would be a recovery project for the very qualities that exceed “traditional” politics.

But we are still left with this conundrum as a challenge.  It cannot be a matter of anthropocentrism vs. animality, nor can it be a line of flight to a desert or jungle.  It must be, as Viveiros de Castro notes, treating Amerindian Perspectivism as seriously as Hegel(488).

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.








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