Friday, February 09, 2018

Review: As We Have Always Done


[Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.]

How to read from somewhere – and from where I am in particular – is an ongoing preoccupation in the reviews on this site. It's always a relevant question, but I feel it particularly keenly in instances like this book, where it's 100% clear that the book is not in any way addressed to me. Not that this book discourages anyone from reading who is willing to approach it in a spirit of respectful engagement, but it is also very clear about who it is written to and for. So given that, how do I read? What can I learn? How should I listen?

This book is written by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. It builds from her earlier book Dancing On Our Turtle's Back – which I read and reviewed last year – and outlines a comprehensive vision, grounded in Nishnaabeg thought but relevant to other Indigenous nations as well, for radical resurgence.

The premise for this work, at least as far as I am able to understand it from my external vantage, is the persistence of the integrated material cluster of lifeways, land, stories, logics, relationships, ceremonies, systems of perception and meaning and knowledge, and ways of organizing communities and lives that constitute, in a very practical and bottom-up sense, Indigenous nations. Centuries of colonial violence and, in the case of the author's territories in Ontario, massive and growing settler intervention in the landscape mean that it cannot be lived in quite the same way as in years gone by. But the seeds of the whole, the core, the basis for living otherwise, for theorizing the world in an Indigenous way and for refusing colonization in an Indigenous way, remain vital and alive. They key to resurgence, the book argues, lies in "the brilliance and complexity of Nishnaabeg embodied thought" learned from Elders and the land through traditional pedagogies, and that must be the emphasis of Indigenous resurgence. Simpson argues, "the intellectual and theoretical home of resurgence had to come from within Indigenous thought systems, intelligence systems that are continually generated in relationship to place" (16). As understood in this book, resurgence "is a flight out of the structure of settler colonialism and into the processes and relationships of freedom and self-determination encoded and practiced within Nishnaabewin or grounded normativity" (17).

The bulk of the book works through the author's understanding of what this flight from settler colonialism into Nishnaabewin looks like along different axes, including how it happens in practice and what key elements of that thought/practice consist of. It is assertively internationalist and anti-capitalist. It centres bodily sovereignty and ways of living that refuse the heteropatriarchal domination that has been so integral to settler colonialism. It involves (following Glen Coulthard) a stepping away from politics that see recognition from the settler state or settlers themselves as central, and instead a centering of Indigenous reciprocal recognition. It is premised on an idea of flight from but in recognition that, in the current state of things, amplifying the scope for autonomous Indigenous grounded normativities will inevitably come into conflict with the colonial violence of the settler state, so the kinds of resistance that implies will be part of the way forward as well. It is very clear about naming anti-Blackness and about prioritizing alliance with Black and other racialized communities as part of Indigenous resurgence, while seeing little direct role in resurgence for white settler allies. It advocates cohereing into small collectives as a useful, radical starting point, and offers some interesting cautions about online mobilization based on the author's involvement in the peak moment of Idle No More.

There are probably many ways that I could read this book usefully from where I am. Certainly there are the generic strategies for reading/listening across differences in experience that I first started to think about while doing my oral history project years ago: Using that listening to learn about areas of the social world beyond one's direct experience, and then engaging in the work to extend that into understanding how that experience and one's own are connected and are products of the same social world. There's always value in that, I think.

In particular, this book has helped me develop a richer understanding of the ways in which the collective, material context, and therefore the political possibilities and responsibilities, are different across the Indigenous/settler divide. To put it starkly, Indigenous people have at least the possibility of deep connection with the still-extant, place-based grounded normativities that Simpson writes about – the very real, material persistence of lifeways and episetemologies and logics that are substantially different from the colonial capitalist patriarchal totality that dominates most of social life. And white settlers don't.

This goes beyond a simplistic anti-oppression reading of the colonial axis of domination, i.e. who benefits and who is harmed, and begins to think about how the practical differences in positioning impose different starting points for engagement with struggle and therefore different political responsibilities.

So I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but I still find a great deal that's useful in heterodox marxist theorist John Holloway's way of talking about our resistance as cracks in the oppressive social order of which we are a part (which he would name simply "capitalism" but which I would quibble needs to be named more expansively and variously.) Part of what I like about the metaphor of the crack is the way it shows the necessary continuity between the tiny acts of everyday resistance that all of us engage in, the larger collective cracks that can be nurtured when we work to collectivize our everyday resistance, and the broad system-threatening ruptures that occasionally become possible.

Using this metaphor, to have the possibility of becoming part of an existing Indigenous grounded normativity is to be already in relation with a pretty substantial crack in colonial capitalism – which in fact isn't exactly a crack so much as a space that has, despite the past five centuries, never been wholly subsumed. That crack, as I said above, contains at least the seeds of an entirely different social logic that requires and is cast into resistance – inevitably – by the pressures of continuing to exist within, against, and beyond heteropatriarchal capitalist colonialism. Which is not to suggest that having that possibility dictates any particular choice about what to do with it. That is, after all, part of the point of the book: to outline the author's understanding of the value of choosing active immersion in the grounded normativity with which one is in relation. But obviously for that to be a meaningful possibility, you have to exist within material circumstances that make it possible to actively embrace the flight out of settler colonialism and into an Indigenous grounded normativity.

We – meaning white settlers – do not exist in relation to anything similar. Our range of possibilities looks much more like what Holloway describes. We, too, must make choices about how to relate to heteropatriarchal capitalist colonial social world in which we exist, but in making those choices we don't have that kind of larger crack that we can choose to orient our existence towards. We have only the flickers of our own everyday resistance and those of the people around us, and whatever we can weave together collectively from those flickers. So, for instance, the metaphor of "flight" really makes no sense for me and for others like me – we have nothing to flee to, and the only possible way to understand flight in the absence of some connection to grounded normativity is flight into quiescence, which is a very different thing. So I don't know exactly what all of the implications are, but it does point to a very different kind of political work that is required of us.

And yet I see moments of overlap, too. Simpson looks at the existing practices of small collectives of Indigenous people oriented towards grounded normativity, particularly but not exclusively artist collectives, and suggests a broader practice of using small collectives "for instantiating microcommunal forms of grounded normativity and Indigenous intelligence" and acting as

doorways out of the enclosure of settler colonialism and into Indigenous worlds. They can be small collectives of like-minded people working and living together, amplifying the renewal of Indigenous place-based practices. They can be larger Indigenous nations working within their own grounded normativity yet in a linked and international way. When these constellations work in international relationship to other constellations, the fabric of the night sky changes: movements are built, particularly if constellations of coresistance create mechanisms for communication, strategic movement, accountability to each other, and shared decision-making practices. (217-8)

And yet when it comes to beginning from the tiny cracks of everyday resistance, even with no grounded normativity to orient towards and to work to strengthen, it seems obvious that a major part of what is needed remains cultivating collectivity. It isn't done with the same purpose, with the same basis, or with the same resources – starting from flickers is an impoverished place to be. As well, I think there is value to experimenting in the context of settler society with lots of different organizational forms. But I think small collectives as building blocks remain one important element.

As for the larger question of how to read books that are not addressed to you, while the specifics in any given instance may not be clear, the general shape of the answer has to include a mix of working to understand the text on its own terms, including appreciating that there are elements of the world and of political practice that are just not about you and never will be, while also putting in the work to figure out how the text can inform your understanding of your own political responsibilities.

In the case of this book, I am keenly aware that I would be able to get more out of it on both scores if I was reading it with other people, so we could talk about it. At a bare minimum, though, I think it makes it very clear that there will be moments, as Indigenous people pursue the strategy that it outlines, when repression by the settler state and in a more populist vein by violent settler individuals will need to be opposed. And there will also be moments when resurgent Indigenous nations force the land question unavoidably onto settler agendas. In both of those cases, and probably many more, we have a responsibility to act in solidarity, which includes ongoing efforts to figure out what solidarity looks like. It most definitely doesn't mean trying to insert ourselves into the middle of struggles that should not centre us, of course – we have more than enough work on the settler side of things trying to figure our own stuff out. And the more effective we are at doing that, the more effective we are in growing the cracks in colonial heteropatriarchal capitalism as it surrounds and shapes us, the more we will be able to bring to struggling against the injustices that we face ourselves and that shape our communities in all kinds of ways, and the more we will have to offer in solidarity.

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