- The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism by Jodi A. Byrd
Centered at the intersection of postcolonial theory, indigenous critical theory, and literary studies, Jodi A. Byrd's book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism is an ambitious effort. The book desires to trace the spatial and conceptual movement of US empire via the conceptual framework of "Indianness" while simultaneously staging a critical intervention by identifying the traces of that same "Indianness" within postcolonial theorizing and liberal multiculturalism. Indigenous critical theory must be central in any understanding of US empire, she argues, "precisely because it is through the elisions, erasures, enjambments, and repetitions of Indianness that one might see the stakes in decolonial, restorative justice tied to land, life, and grievability" (xiii). Otherwise, postcolonial and multicultural theorizings continue the erasures of Indigenous peoples, leaving them without a past, future, or claim to sovereignty. As an alternative, Byrd proposes the Chickasaw/Choctaw concept [End Page 275] of haksuba-what she interprets as the creative and destructive "chaos" or "cacophony" along the edge of the meeting of the Upper and Lower Worlds of creation-as one indigenous way to read the meetings and clashings of identities under US empire. Rather than read identities in a vertical hierarchy of colonizer versus colonized that also places all colonized voices in competition for hegemony, Byrd wants to disrupt that reifying narrative by reading along the horizon of colonized voices and using that cacophony to seek relational kinships among those many voices.
Byrd employs what she calls a "mnemonic" methodology to accomplish this substantial task, and each chapter endeavors to track the transit of empire through a series of political events and cultural productions. Chapter 1, "Is and Was: Poststructural Indians without Ancestry," is an interrogation of poststructuralist theories in relationship to the 1769 journey of Venus across the face of the sun (which in part motivated Captain Cook's journeys into the Pacific) that reveals how the paradigm of "Indianness" has been built and deployed to justify imperial expansion. Byrd asserts that the constructed Indian was and is "a colonial, imperial referent that continues to produce knowledge about the indigenous as 'primitive' and 'savage' otherness within poststructuralist and postcolonial theory and philosophy" (19). Simultaneously, the phenomenon of planetary parallax and distortion becomes a reference point for colonialist representations of Indianness.
Chapter 2, "'This Island's Mine': The Parallax Logics of Caliban's Cacophony," juxtaposes readings of the character of Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest with Coco Fusco's analysis of her and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's widely misinterpreted performance piece Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit. . . . Byrd's purpose here is to demonstrate the way that "representational logics" of Indianness function through distortion and racialization and how even anticolonialist attempts at critique-such as Fusco and Gómez-Peña's museum/art piece-can recreate the distortions of Indianness when they lack indigenous critical theory as the "baseline from which to measure the violences produced as empire transits through the field of Indianness" (76).
Chapter 3, "The Masks of Conquest: Wilson Harris's Jonestown and the Thresholds of Grievability," addresses the question, "What does the activation of indigenous and tribal presences mean for interpretive strategies at the moment postcolonial multiculturalism fails?" (79). [End Page 276] To answer, she closely reads the colonial cacophony of both the historical event of the Jonestown mass suicide and William Harris's novel Jonestown. Harris's reproduction of Jonestown, though imperfect, provides an opportunity to understand how recognizing indigenous presence suggests how one might disrupt colonialist discourses and narrative and avoid supplanting indigenous peoples with settler and arrivant voices in the Caribbean.
Chapter 4, "'Been to the Nation, Lord, but I Couldn't Stay There': Cherokee Freedmen, Internal Colonialism, and the Racialization of Citizenship," configures the history of blues music as a relationship between southeastern US indigenous peoples and the African slaves who arrived in that space, then sets the Cherokee Freedmen controversy that began in 2007 in contrast with that history to discuss the concept of "internal colonialism...