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  • I Remember YouPostironic Belief and Settler Colonialism in Stephen Graham Jones’s Ledfeather
  • Joseph Gaudet (bio)

When James Cameron’s Avatar was released in 2009 to record-setting sales, scores of fans and critics praised the film not merely for its ground-breaking cinematography but also for its prescient political critiques. As Duke scholar Michael Carmichael observed, Avatar was a “‘hyper-political film’ with a simple message: ‘The American Military-Industrial Complex will utterly destroy the known universe. . . . [T]he evil demons set loose to destroy humanity are—us—the US of A. The evil Usses are, indeed, Us.’” In an age of veiled imperialism, Carmichael contended, Avatar provided the jolt needed to wake the public from their political stupor.

But not everyone was so willing to go along with this activist assessment. While some noted the patent influences of Dances with Wolves and other “white savior” films, cultural scholar Lorenzo Veracini interpreted the picture as neither politically left nor right but instead as a markedly settler colonial story.1 In the movie, “the aliens’ main role—like that of indigenous peoples in other settler colonial settings—is to be an obstacle, not to be exploited” (Veracini, “District” 364). Even though the film’s protagonist, an American army veteran and amputee named Jake, fights alongside the planet’s indigenous peoples, Veracini contends that he enacts a settler fantasy: he declares his independence from the federal government and subsequently stakes a claim to indigenous lands. Responding to Cameron’s claim that the film was not un-American but merely political, then, Veracini wholeheartedly agrees, but with a crucial caveat: “Avatar is not ‘un-American.’ . . . On the contrary, it is the most (settler, nonindigenous) American story one can tell” (364). Millions of viewers may have enjoyed the unsurpassed cinematography, but as they did so they unconsciously imbibed an uncannily familiar settler colonial narrative.2 [End Page 21]

Although much of Veracini’s scholarship has revolved around Palestinian-Israeli relations, it should come as no surprise that his settler colonial analyses have found their way into film: over the last fifteen years the once little known field has flourished to the point that it now dominates journals, conferences, and publications spanning numerous fields.3 Perhaps the easiest explanation of this transformation is that settler colonialism proffers a compelling resolution to postcolonial theory’s most glaring contradiction: in many locales there is simply no post. In contrast, settler colonialism’s explicit focus on continuity, structural violence, and logics of elimination enables scholars to effectively analyze a host of diverse eras and regions across the globe. A few years ago this theoretical approach was hardly known, a peripheral discourse at the borders of cultural studies. Now one can hardly avoid it.

And while these merits are hard to counter, the wholesale adaptation of settler colonialism has not been without its problems. Part of this stems from the fact that, as Patrick Wolfe has declared, settler colonialism is a “zero-sum contest over land on which conflicting modes of production could not ultimately coexist” (“Land” 868).4 As such, that which defines settler colonialism—that it is an ongoing process that is never complete—can simultaneously be interpreted as a declension narrative of inevitable land loss or “elimination.” Settler colonial theory is, at its core, structural and thereby perpetuates an environment that is “highly stable and relatively impervious to regime change” (Macoun and Strakosch 437). By switching the focus to the settlers and placing historical events within what amounts to a teleological framework, it seemingly naturalizes the inevitable disappearance of Native peoples, leaving little room for the capacity and contingency that these peoples and histories undoubtedly possessed.5 Just as in Veracini’s settler colonial reading of Avatar, Native peoples can be transformed into passive pawns of settler politics.

Many scholars have, rather unfortunately, overlooked these impediments in the rush to embrace settler colonialism as the critical theory du jour. But as the dust settles, two intellectuals—Alissa Macoun and Elizabeth Strakosch—have raised the obligatory red flag and offered an escape from the ensuing bind: settler colonial theory should, in their view, not be applied as an all-encompassing worldview but instead must emphasize...


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