Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review: Tortured People

[Howard Adams. Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization, The Revised Edition. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books Ltd., 1999.]

I believe that the point of reading is the transformation of the reader. There are other kinds of experience that are more powerfully transformative, certainly, but few that give as useful a window into what is not here, what is not now. This means that there are ways you can be changed by a good book that nothing else could offer; however, it also means that reading in ways to resist or undermine that potential for liberatory movement in self in that "self + text" moment is really, really easy.

Some of the most politically important books for such change are also the hardest -- I'm speaking of my own past experience but also in general. Whether through their directly presented content or in a more situated way based in where you're reading from, they rub your nose in contradictions. They force you to acknowledge that something in who you are, what you think, what you do, what you desire, who you aspire to become, cannot hold. It is not just that it brings to the surface internal inconsistency -- I'm not convinced such inconsistency per se is always a bad thing -- but it forces you to confront inconsistency that matters, that is a source of anguish, but that is deeply enough embedded in some social contradiction or sedimented self that no easy path to resolution is apparent.

Those of us who by and large benefit from the way things are, at least at the most obvious level, tend to enter adulthood with a whole range of delusionary configurations-in-self -- thoughts, narratives, beliefs, feelings, or however you want to chop self up to be able to talk about it -- that, in a bunch of different ways, reconcile us to the way things are. Undoing that is the work of a lifetime, and can only go so far unless change is social and not just at the level of consciousness. Nonetheless, reading can be a vital tool on this journey.

Tortured People is the final book by radical Métis scholar Howard Adams. Its bluntness and frankly revolutionary politics mean that many, particularly among those of us who have never experienced traumas of racism and colonization, would be unlikely to let it in far enough to do much changing. But if it can get by that gatekeeping mechanism, its seventeen short, plainly written essays are rich in the raw materials for evoking painful but potentially edifying contradictions in consciousness.

Many of the book's themes are quite similar to those in Prison of Grass. It includes painful moments from Adams' own experiences as a colonized man, an analysis of the control of the colonized via forced internalization of ideology, and in a briefer and smoother form than his earlier book a crucial retelling of elements of pre-20th century indigenous, particularly Métis, histories of oppression and resistance. He offers short, incisive critiques of pillars of relations of white supremacy such as ideologies of eurocentrism and covnentional history. Of particular interest, he provides one of the only written accounts I've ever come across of radical indigenous struggle in Canada in the '60s and '70s, with a particular focus on Saskatchewan, where he himself was involved. Different readers will encounter in different essays moments of challenge to cherished illusions, particularly if the idea of the Canadian state and its attached nation as anything other than benevolent is a novel one for them.

One of the most important ideas that Adams makes central to both books is the quite explicit argument that decolonization on Turtle Island simply cannot happen without radical social change that goes far beyond indigenous people. Or, put another way, that indigenous anti-colonial struggle must be understood as autonomous but that those engaged in it will, at a certain point, need to build links to those struggling for social transformation in other ways. I like the fact that this point is made overtly, because I think in many different contexts and for some very different reasons it is often underemphasized. However, I think there is still plenty of room to debate about what that broader social change might look like. Particularly when discussing "the National Question," Adams draws quite explicitly on Lenin. While my sense is that the particular essay where he does this was aimed at the white socialist left, to make the twin points that revolutionary transformation is necessary and that indigenous peoples engaging in radical nationalist struggle is not some betrayal of class struggle, I have some serious reservations about relating to Lenin in this relatively uncritical way. This ties into other places in the book where it implies, though often does not state quite so directly, a particular kind of marxist vision for social transformation. I certainly don't want to just dismiss the traditions that draws on, but I also think it is important to emphasize that the details of how change will happen must emerge in the course of dialogue, questioning, and struggle.

For me, though, the toughest part of Adams' analysis is his unrelenting attack on the neocolonial forms of settler domination that have become so much more central since the uprisings of the '60s and '70s. He repeatedly calls out indigenous elites as collaborators and state-funded indigenous organizations as participating in the oppression of their peoples. He welcomes indigenous cultural revival as essential to creating both a framework and unity for the necessary political struggle, but warns that much of what happens today under the banner of Aboriginal culture ends up being a kind of distracting indulgence in symbols detached from their former material basis and from the needs of struggle -- a kind of impotent cultural nationalism supported by the state because it neutralizes the real political threat represented by indigeneity even as it seems to give expression to difference.

I think that analysis is crucial, but it is hard for me to know exactly what to do with it. For instance, witnessing puritanical denunciation in the context of the white-dominated left, often of people who are actually getting much more done than the denouncers ever have, made me wary of categorically writing off the contradictory but subversive potential for critical, strategic engagement with state funding or other supposedly "impure" choices. There are often important opportunities for resistance and subversion mixed in with the very real problems. And looking at the choices of indigenous activists I respect very much who are doing what they can to meet devastating need in their urban communities with the only resources that are out there, who on earth am I to do anything other than support them? Yet Adams is quite firm that seeing the struggles of his people as anything less than a struggle for national liberation (in the context of broader revolutionary class struggle) is a betrayal (and you didn't, for instance, see the ANC applying for grants from the South African apartheid government). And beyond the even larger dose of "who on earth am I" that applies to that position, I agree -- in my own way, and from where I sit -- that it is imperative never to lose focus on the fact that indigenous struggles with the Canadian settler state are national liberation struggles requiring broad and fundamental social transformation.

Adam's analysis forces me to confront how the social contradictions imposed on indigenous peoples by neocolonialism create all sorts of dangerous opportunities for a white leftist version of colonial arrogance at one extreme or a functional support for neocolonialism that claims to be supporting liberation at the other. This is not some intellectual problem that can be easily transcended with new and creative thinking; it is a product of the material conditions under which indigenous peoples struggle, and the awful choices forced upon them by colonization. Adams has made his choices, as an indigenous revolutionary caught up in these contradictions, about how to navigate them. Knowing his choices makes the problems clearer to me, but doesn't necessarily make my own choices, given my own experiences of privilege and my politics, any clearer. However, I have the sense that an important ingredient for moving forward for white radicals wishing to support indigenous struggle involves challenging some of our most basic assumptions and ways of work when it comes to social change.

That is, when confronted with contradictions evoked for me by this book (though certainly not only by this book) it became clear that certain things cannot hold. And that is the most acute challenge that my particular reading of Tortured People evoked -- a forceful reminder of the way in which meaningful political work is, by definition, messy, painful, and impure, and how it is a conceit of privilege to imagine that it can be anything else. That's what challenged me. But part of what is useful about this book, I think, is that it provides the raw material and the clear vision to evoke different sorts of challenges for people approaching it from other places.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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