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wicazo sa review: A Journal of Native American Studies 15.2 (2000) 27-61

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Joy Harjo and Her Poetics as Praxis: A "Postcolonial" Political Economy of the Body, Land, Labor, and Language

Azfar Hussain

Labor is the substance, and the immanent measure of value, but has itself no value.

--Karl Marx, Capital

For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread, and above all, dignity.

--Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Introduction: "We Must Say What Reading We Are Guilty Of"

My purpose in this essay is not to offer a comprehensive critical evaluation of the entire oeuvre of the contemporary Native American poet Joy Harjo (1951-). Nor do I pretend to produce coherent knowledges of her world and her work. I would rather argue that her work tends to resist the production of an organically and ontologically coherent episteme 1 that might enable one to know the author's "world-as-a-whole." Indeed, attempts to epistemologize and ontologize the world-as-a-whole have meanwhile had notorious consequences in various Eurocentric discursive-cognitive mappings. For instance, Hegel--usually [End Page 27] noted and even celebrated for his encyclopedic range of interrogations and interventions--produces his "universal history," which only ends up centering Europe while perpetrating epistemic violence on the history and the location of Africa--an Africa eventually rendered by him as a massive "blank." 2 A number of contemporary Third World creative activists and theorists--among others--therefore resist the kind of discursive production that makes grand claims about encompassing and enunciating the whole, while resulting in violent elisions and erasures of numerous other parts that are supposedly constitutive of that very whole itself. Ibne Ashraf--a Third World Marxist poet-activist writing in Bengali--raises an unsettling but politically significant question in his poem instructively called "Hegel Construction Co. Limited, Inc.": "How do you dare to know me all? / I only produce moments beyond your reach." 3 Also, Chandra Mohanty--a theorist of Third World feminism--asks equally instructive questions in her introduction to Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism: "Who produces knowledge about colonized peoples and from what space/location? What are the politics of the production of this particular knowledge?" 4

Joy Harjo certainly resists any critical evaluation--or what I wish to call an "imperial hermeneutic"--invested in the production of the Hegelian whole as such. She herself renders this very point explicit on more occasions than one. She writes in her essay "Ordinary Spirit," "I walk in and out of many worlds." 5 Later in an interview, she similarly observes: "I know I walk in and out of several worlds everyday. Some overlap, some never will, or at least not harmoniously." 6 Harjo's movements in and out of "many worlds" tend to bring her close, in a certain sense, to a host of writers now characterized as postcolonial--writers like Derek Walcott and Salman Rushdie, for instance. But Harjo's modes of interaction and engagement with her "many worlds"--as I hope to show--cannot be simply conflated with the semiological and tropological playfulness of Homi Bhabha's postcolonial "hybridity." For such hybridity declares the birth of subject-(non)positions that are merely "a play of difference that cannot completely be comprehended" 7 and that can therefore even free-float out of history or situatedness. Nor should Harjo's modes of engagement be confused with the kind of liberal pluralism or neoliberal multiculturalism that continues to draw energy and inspiration from certain, if not all, postmodernist and poststructuralist theories. For hybridity, pluralism, and multiculturalism, as Victor Villanueva justly argues, tend to dehistoricize, occult, and even erase the sites and structures of power and production in the name of de-essentializing the "One" and embracing the "Many." 8 The mixed-blood Cherokee painter, poet, and activist Jimmie Durham even goes to the extent of stating categorically that "Institutions...


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