- Transparency, Spectatorship, Accountability: Indigenous Families in Settler-State “Postdemocracies”
“Take the picture! Take the picture if vanishing is so beautiful!” These words are spoken by a Métis journalist toward the end of Marie Clements’s new play, The Edward Curtis Project. She is looking up from her prone position at a distressed Edward S. Curtis, the nineteenth-century photographer of North American Indigenous peoples who saw himself as a documentarian capturing images of waning peoples for posterity. His appearance in Angeline’s present-day world is in the form of a living trace. He is the ghostly originator of a vein of representations that exerts power through its claims to transparency and that continues to do its work in Angeline’s twenty-first-century world where the effects of her intimate experience of the ongoing production of spectacles of Indigenous waning is diagnosed as clinical depression.1 Clements’s play stages a complex unraveling of that ahistorical diagnosis through encounters with Curtis in which Angeline and other Indigenous characters speak back to the photographer and speak out from his fatalistic frames, which are themselves reframed by projections [End Page 299] from the contemporary Indigenous characters’ family photograph albums, asserting another conception of the beautiful.
The event that is the ostensible catalyst for Angeline’s descent into depression is the freezing death of three Indigenous children, which she has dutifully reported in her job as an Aboriginal affairs reporter, providing the facts that—she realizes too late—do not so much speak for themselves as trigger a set of narrative codes and discursive positions. These produce a socially distanciated but empathetic spectatorship of Indigenous tragedy read as pathology: an alcoholic father has neglected his children. Never mind the father’s having to struggle to raise children under conditions rendered unviable. Angeline knows these preconditions for tragedy, but up to this point she has not really noticed that her métier does not render them speakable. Nor has she noticed in herself the accumulated somatic strain of continually being a spectator to such freeze-frames of tragedy or the violence that their conception of a beautiful “vanishing” does to her. These journalistic freeze-frames, like Curtis’s photographs, never imagine the Indigenous witness who, living on, may struggle to identify somehow, across the objectification, a subject position beyond the representation’s ordering of “the perceptible” (Rancière 55). In Clements’s play, this strain accumulates and settles in as a feeling of being cold and tired, a feeling that links Angeline metonymically to the frozen children.
Clements’s play draws a parallel between the violence of decontextualized fact in journalistic coverage and the “notion of indexicality” from which Curtis’s nineteenth-century photographs derived their power: as Wanda Nanibush has put it, this indexical code seems to assert that “because the camera was really there recording ‘reality,’ its products point to reality” (np). When the twenty-first-century Angeline challenges Curtis to capture her own suffering for the sake of its beauty—“Take the picture if vanishing is so beautiful!”—the audience of Clements’s play is invited to consider what it means to be moved by a genre that requires some actual person’s suffering. If Curtis’s photographs, as Nanibush argues, offer a kind of aesthetically orchestrated affective relief through their transformation of settler-colonial guilt into nostalgia, what kind of affect, and what kind of spectator, is involved in the contemporary circulation of spectacles of broken Indigenous families?
The play’s densely textured reflection on modes of making Indigenous lives visible condenses the issues that concern me in this article: interrelated technologies of transparency, renderings of spectacle and spectatorship around Indigenous families, “moral-affective publicness” (Berlant, “Epistemology” 49) and its place in contexts of impoverished [End Page 300] political engagement. In Canada in 2013, a play about the history and politics of claiming to represent Indigenous lives transparently resonates with a peculiar charge, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in the wake of media coverage of the 2011 crisis in living conditions in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. That coverage included the attempt by national newspaper columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, to dismiss the “rhetoric surrounding...