Monday, September 01, 2014

Review: Therapeutic Nations

[Dian Million. Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. Tuscon AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2013.]

This fascinating book brings together indigenous feminism, Foucault, and affect theory. As book-as-object it may not be the most easily accessible in the world -- it's from a US-based university press that I personally haven't encountered much, and it's not a cheap book -- but as book-as-text I think it's a great example of making use of the tools of the academy in ways that illuminate questions that are very relevant to peoples' struggles on the ground. In the book, Million talks about both that part of the continent currently called "Canada" and that part currently called "the United States," but with more focus on the former.

The book's argument is pretty nuanced, and I'm sure I won't do it justice in going over it quickly, but I'll do my best. She begins from the centrality of gendered and sexual colonial violence to how colonization happened (and continues to happen) on Turtle Island, through its impact on kinship, gender, and sexual practices in diverse indigenous nations and through its role in imposing European patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. This isn't a new-to-me idea, but I definitely encountered new angles to this awful history and present-day reality that I hadn't thought about before. In addition, she also talks about how this process instilled a deep well of shame (and other painful, negative affect) in many people, communities, and peoples thus targeted.

In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Jewish Holocaust, a set of practices and discourses and institutions came together under the banner of "international human rights." This has always been a highly contested field, and no doubt there are ways in which the powerful states of the West use it as a screen to pursue imperial agendas around the world as well as to respond to domestic exclusions in ways that manage to at least sometimes combine significant substance with a refusal to really deal with the root of the exclusions in question. But it also was a field which included space for the emergence of (and was pushed to shift and change by) indigenism, and the various forms of struggle against colonization that erupted into such powerful visibility in the middle of the 20th century.

Part of human rights discourse that coincided with the experiences of colonized people was the centrality of speaking one's emotional truth of pain and hurt and oppression -- of trauma. Million traces some of the earliest textual examples of such speaking by indigenous women from various parts of Turtle Island, which included not just analysis but the affective weight of acknowledged and shared experiences of colonial trauma. This was part of the emergence of a potent, complicated mix of personal healing and struggles for collective self-determination that erupted in reserve and urban communities starting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Million argues that this process was absolutely essential. However, the growing shift towards neoliberalism beginning in the 1970s meant that the tight connection between personal healing and national self-determination as articulated by many indigenous women and by many communities, particularly earlier in this period, was taken up by more mainstream institutions that emphasized healing but torqued that in a way that erased the context of national self-determination. The recognition of trauma and the importance of healing have been crucial, and have been part of mobilizing indigenous resurgence and in pushing a recognition of injustice and various kinds of grudging responses from the settler mainstream and from the settler state, but they have also been taken up by that mainstream and state in neoliberal and colonial ways. Settlers get to feel good about ourselves for seeing and responding, while completely missing that the ways in which the majority of that response is happening in a mode that refuses to engage with questions of collective indigenous self-determination whose answers would require us (settlers) to change in much more than token ways.

Today, Million identifies a tension within indigenous nations between a truly holistic version of healing that sees how indigenous nations function at the everyday level and how they are governed as absolutely crucial and that foregrounds a non-state understanding of national self-determination, versus a neoliberal version of healing that emphasizes human capital, human development, neoliberal self-management, and shallowly culturally-specific integration into capitalist development. It is important that this is a tension -- that the former remains alive in the actions and lives of many grassroots indigenous people across the continent, particularly women. Nonetheless, Million argues that the various techniques of self that have been incorporated into many indigenous communities since the 1970s have on the one hand been useful tools in responding to colonial trauma but have also often become a part of neoliberal biopolitical governance that seeks to reconstruct indigenous people in ways amenable to capitalism and the settler state. As such, there are very real ways in which concern with historical trauma and with gendered violence experienced by indigenous women are being mobilized by the settler state to serve colonial ends through the implementation of such techniques of biopolitical governance in the name of "healing." The book argues not against healing per se, of course, but rather in favour of seeing the tension that exists and of pushing for a focus on strengthening (the often women-led) rich, thick, embodied indigenous epistemologies and lifeways, and an understanding of culture as encompassing all everyday practices, to lead towards a resurgence that is grounded in tradition as living, future-oriented possibility rather than as dead, rigid, or only symbolic.

I'm obviously limited in my capacity to assess certain key elements of the book, as someone who benefits from settler colonialism and white supremacy. To the extent that I am able to assess it, it feels like it is capturing something really important about the trajectories of settler colonialism and white supremacist patriarchal capitalism over the last few decades. In addition, I appreciate its recognition that we make hard choices from within the moments we are in, and that those often have complicated and unintended consequences. I appreciate how it manages to both be hopeful but also unflinching in its analysis of how the colonial violence of the settler state is being continually reconfigured. I really appreciate the conversations of epistemology at the beginning and end of the book, which I haven't described in this review but which feed into one of my most consistent ongoing preoccupations: How can we know the world? Also, I think the book speaks to some things that I have sensed for awhile in the progressive side of the settler response to indigenous struggles -- a reservoir of sympathy that I think is deeply felt and genuine but that is also often pretty clueless, particularly as to what a politically sufficient response to indigenous resurgence would really look like in terms of reconfiguring settler society. And I think the trajectories traced in this book, and the ways in which the affective power mobilized by shared truths of colonial trauma get divorced from collective political demands in how they are taken up by mainstream settler discourses and institutions explain a lot of that.

In any case, an important and very interesting book.

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent review of a key, but not easy to read, book: thank you!