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  • The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism
  • Mark Rifkin (bio)
Jodi A. Byrd. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8166-7641-5. 294 pp.

Recently I attended two conferences that focused on varied modes of racialization in the United States and their relationship to dynamics of law, jurisdiction, and sovereignty, and at both, a number of participants sought to cast all populations of color in the United States as occupying a similar horizon in relation to the white supremacist investments of the state. I wish I already had read Jodi A. Byrd’s The [End Page 138] Transit of Empire so that I simply could have referred people to it. It offers a thoroughgoing and often breathtaking critique of the collapsing of indigeneity into racial Indianness. Broadly stated, Byrd analyzes the dynamics and cross-referencing of two different modes of Indianization: the remaking of indigeneity as a racial identity and the coding of other populations subjected to US authority as Indians. She observes, “racialization in the United States now often evokes colonization as a metonym,” and “this conflation masks the territoriality of conquest by assigning colonization to the racialized body” (xxiii–xxiv). Recasting polities with distinct territorialities as a single, racially defined population—as Indians—displaces discussion of the ways the existence of the United States depends upon the remaking of Native lands as its “domestic” space while renarrating this legacy of foundational violence as the potential for antiracist inclusion of Indians into the nation as citizens. Reciprocally, she argues that “through continual reiterations of pioneer logics,” the United States “make[s] ‘Indian’ those peoples and nations who stand in the way of US military and economic desires” (xx). Thus, not only does “Indian” erase Indigenous polities as such, but it also enables the re-making of others as proper subjects of national invasion, discipline, tutelage, and violence. To engage with the ongoing legacy of settlement, then, involves understanding the ways the “cacophony” created by US imperialisms and racisms was and is predicated on the dispossession of Native peoples and the traducing of their preexisting sovereignties, and in order to do so, white settlers and nonwhite “arrivants” need to be situated within a geography centered on the continuing denial, deferral, and dismembering of the geopolitics of indigeneity.

The book is organized around a somewhat episodic collection of six case studies, each of which illustrates different ways that Indigenous identity is effaced, racialized, or transferred. The first chapter lays out the book’s title concept, exploring the roles that citations of Indianness play in contemporary critical theory. Alluding to the transit of Venus, the passage of the planet Venus past the sun once every 120 years (an astronomical event that Byrd notes helped inspire the journey of Captain Cook, among others), the “transit of [End Page 139] empire” refers to the ways, like the stretching of Venus as it passes across the sun, that “colonialist discourse functions as a distortive effect within critical theory as it apprehends ‘Indianness’” (30). In this vein, she offers surprising and trenchant readings of a range of prominent thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, and Amy Kaplan, indicating how Indianness operates as a “present absence” and a “supplemental gap” in their work (8). Chapter 2 takes up the figure of Caliban, particularly his iconic and paradigmatic position in post-colonial and Caribbean studies. Tracing the perennial displacement of Ariel as the island’s only indigenous inhabitant in favor of Caliban, Byrd addresses how those cast as a nonwhite, alien presence within the nation seize upon indigeneity as an antiracist strategy: “How do arrivants and other peoples forced to move through empire use indigeneity as a transit to redress, grieve, and fill the fractures and ruptures created through diaspora and exclusion?” (39). In this vein she interprets Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s quincentennial performance piece, in which they played members of a fictional South American tribe on display in museum spaces, as an effort to occupy Indian subjectivity as an oppositional figure in ways that further empty out and defer indigeneity...


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pp. 138-142
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