Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Coulthard (review)
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Reviewed by
Glen Coulthard. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press 2014. 256. $22.50

In our current liberal North Atlantic political landscape, particularly in multicultural Canada, the politics of recognition has become ubiquitously associated with questions of inclusion and democratic justice. Glen Coulthard, on the other hand, offers a compelling alternative thesis. In Red Skin, White Mask – building on Frantz Fanon's revolutionary Black Skin, White Mask – Coulthard lucidly drives the point that there is something very (neo)colonial and gestural about the liberal politics of recognition. Centring on the Indigenous-settler case in Canada, Coulthard convincingly illustrates how recognition politics, in lieu of directly addressing or ameliorating structural issues of inequality, works rather simply to open up spaces for state curated symbolic conciliatory gestures. Consequently, it provides little in the way of catalyzing substantive shifts in the architecture of the settler state or in the status of First Nations peoples.

Coulthard's critique of the liberal politics of recognition centres on the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, citing it as the starting point from which much of the literature departs. In enumerating the liberal framework, Coulthard delves into a conversation on subject-formation and emancipation. He takes no direct issue with the intersubjective frame of subject-formation that accompanies recognition theory; however, he is concerned with the emancipatory claims placed on the process of intersubjective recognition, both at a conceptual and political level. Coulthard tackles this point of emancipation not necessarily by moving away from a Hegelian framework, but by offering a reoriented reading of the Hegelian dialectic. In his reading, following the likes of Fanon and Sartre, Coulthard emphasizes the condition of mutuality/equivalence in his engagement with the Hegelian conception of emancipation. For a dialectic intersubjective recognition process to have an emancipatory effect, the condition of mutuality stands as a prerequisite, the text argues. Coulthard's conceptual challenge directly feeds into a well-placed political critique of liberal recognition [End Page 230] politics. The author effectively lays out his argument by showing how social inequalities come to work as barriers in meeting the condition of mutuality, a condition he convincingly links to any potential for substantive subaltern emancipation. Conversely, Coulthard contends that brushing over the vitality of mutuality emancipation approached from the standpoint of the liberal politics of recognition essentially mutes issues of power asymmetry from the conversation.

From this outline Coulthard turns to illustrate the contours of an alternative politics of subaltern emancipation, one that does not necessarily centre its attention on the requirement of mutuality from above but rather is a type of politics of "self-recognition." Coulthard's self-recognition is a framework of emancipation that sits on a praxis which closely adapts Frantz Fanon's notion of struggle and Hegel's conception of labour as pivotal elements. Thus, in the text freedom cannot be given or passively attained but has to be laboured toward. Self-recognition demands the "labour" of "turning away" from asymmetrical relations, then proceeding with an active re-centring of the many horizontal intersubjective relations that produce the self. To my reading, the politics of "self-recognition" interestingly stands as a type of politics of de-centring the master-slave/colonizer-colonized relationship and a re-centring of the much more numerous horizontal mutual relations that surround the everyday of the subaltern subject, and thus strategically reorienting the intersubjective formation process of the subaltern self.

Coulthard's development and positioning of self-recognition as an emancipatory paradigm seems clear and intuitive from the standpoint of resistance politics. However, I was left unsure about the practicality of turning away in a substantive manner within the context of domination, considering the focus of the text is the positionality of the marginalized subject. And so, there also seems to be a tension in the text between a need to "turn away" while also placing an emphasis on a need to engage with the systems of power in a manner that disrupts and challenges the overarching structures. An interesting by-product/outgrowth of this tension is the notion of "interpolate without interpellation." The author speaks of the possibility of working as a well-versed subject...