- Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance by Mark Rifkin
Mark Rifkin’s enterprising and absorbing book takes “Indigenous survival and self-determination as the ethical horizon toward which we all may move” (38). It is an exercise in the ethical reading of its chosen texts, which are themselves central to the canon of what the book accepts, in a tactical concession to traditional criticism, as the American Renaissance: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852). What will make Rifkin’s study of special interest to readers of this journal is its engagement with queer studies, for this is a book that stages an agon between conflicting methods of reading, a struggle rooted in the double task Rifkin assigns himself: to establish, first of all, that The House of the Seven Gables, Walden, and Pierre articulate robust queer critiques of the nineteenth-century United States; and second, that this mode of critique remains in thrall to the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous people. In Rifkin’s reading, the queer work of these texts “is counterhegemonic while also recirculating settlement as a constant through which the challenges, deviations, qualifications, [End Page 540] and/or contestations offered by the texts gain meaning” (26). The compensatory italics in that phrase (“is counterhegemonic”) tell much of the tale. Queer reading is presented as, in effect, the second most radical mode of critique—where by “radical” I mean concerned with fundamental and systemic criticism of the order of things. For Rifkin, queer reading must be superseded by an Indigenous decolonizing and a reorientation of priorities. So readers will find here an insistence—resonant with a number of other recent works—that decolonization remains the absolute limit of critical, political reading.1
The result is an elaborate exercise in negative interpretation, in reading for the structuring absence of Indigeneity to capture settler colonialism as an always incomplete process. “Settler jurisdiction” must be understood in these terms as “an open-ended and continuously fraught project” (31). Rifkin’s ambition is nothing less than to recast our understanding of all US literary texts through a style of reading that “does not center on the representation of Native sovereignty, but [seeks] to demonstrate methodologically what it might mean to proliferate a commitment to Indigenous self-determination, exceeding figurations of Indianness in favor of the difficult work of attending to how nonnative modes of being-in-the-world realize settler colonialism as their animating condition of possibility” (194). Rifkin’s engaging introduction prepares the conceptual ground for this argument, leaning on the phenomenological tradition (particularly that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and on Bruno Latour’s notion of assembling the social. Phenomenology gives Rifkin a language for describing the embodied nature of quotidian life; Latour supplies terms for blocking premature claims about colonization as completed rather than in process. Yet by relying on what are in effect metaphorical uses of phenomenology and Latour, Rifkin forecloses the possibility of reading his three core texts in a more dialectical fashion, considering (for example) the historical function of those texts in their original moments of circulation. If settler colonialism is a matter of constant, high-velocity cycles of iteration and reiteration, dependent (like all social formations) on a continuing and contingent reproduction of its basic social relations—and surely it is—then one might be at least as interested in the ideological work of literary texts as one is in their immanent structures of feeling.
Each of Rifkin’s chapters delivers a thorough, close, and historically rich reading of its text. Students of Hawthorne will be as impressed by Rifkin’s recovery of the queer politics of Seven Gables (never has the novel’s critique of the normative order of family been so clearly rendered) as they will by the chapter’s deft coordination of the marginalization of Native people within that novel and their pressuring presence on Hawthorne’s understanding...