On Colonial Unknowing

Colonial unknowing endeavors to render unintelligible the entanglements of racialization and colonization, occluding the mutable historicity of colonial structures and attributing finality to conquest and dispossession. Colonial unknowing establishes what can count as evidence, proof, or possibility—aiming to secure the terms of reason and reasonableness—as much as it works to dissociate and ignore. This essay introduces the issue theme, analyzing epistemologies of unknowing by engaging critical indigenous thought, critical race theory, postcolonial feminist theory, critical disability studies, queer theory, and women of color feminism in order to trouble theorizations of settler colonialism as a stand-alone analytic.

How do we understand our locations in the colonial present as we contemplate and work toward the ongoing imperative of decolonization? In North America and the Caribbean, the predominant lack of acknowledgement or engagement with the histories and contemporary relations of colonialism—especially with regard to the specificities of Indigenous peoples and colonial entanglements of differential racialization—is not simply a matter of collective amnesia or omission. The magnitude of this disavowal is not primarily a matter of a forgotten or hidden past, at least to the extent that forgetting might be viewed as a passive relation or a concealed past might suspend culpability. Instead, this ignorance—this act of ignoring—is aggressively made and reproduced, affectively invested and effectively distributed in ways that conform the social relations and economies of the here and now. Colonial unknowing endeavors to render unintelligible the entanglements of racialization and colonization, occluding the mutable historicity of colonial structures and attributing finality to events of conquest and dispossession. As with Jodi Byrd’s theorizations in The Transit of Empire, we emphasize how colonialism requires a constitutive relation to Indigenous peoples and differential racialization for its claims to place, emplotment, and worldings that notions of forgetting, elimination, and absence tend to neglect.1 This introduction and the essays that comprise this special issue of Theory & Event seek to critically analyze and confront the ways in which epistemologies of unknowing are instantiated.

The essays that follow focus on the articulations, practices, and consequences of this colonial insistence on epistemic mastery and refusal of heterogeneous ways of knowing otherwise, as well as considering the co-constitutive dynamics and contingencies that appear to be unintelligible under such conditions. We are emphatically not arguing for making visible, rendering comprehensible, or restoring to presence as a response to forms of colonial unknowing and willful ignorance. The practices of refusing and rejecting colonial demands for intelligibility so forcefully theorized by critical indigenous studies scholars Joanne Barker, Brian Klopotek, Audra Simpson, and Glen Coulthard suggest some of the ways that making known, recognition, and visibility can replicate and reinscribe colonial regimes of knowledge/power.2

Throughout this introduction we examine colonial unknowing as an epistemological orientation that works to preempt relational modes of analysis.3 We begin by reflecting on colonial agnosia, agnotology, and epistemologies of ignorance as various manifestations of unknowing, and discuss postcolonial feminist theory, critical disability studies, queer theory, and women of color feminism as indispensable for critically engaging these forms of unknowing. We then suggest that settler colonialism as a discrete analytic and academic field formation is potentially itself a manner of colonial unknowing. Specifically, we consider the ways in which the generative work of Patrick Wolfe has been taken up reductively to occlude settler colonialism as constitutively entangled with broader imperial formations. We discuss Mamhood Mamdani’s critique of the settler/native binary, Kamau Brathwaite’s conception of the arrivant, and Sara Ahmed’s theorization of arrivals and migrant orientation as offering ways to trouble the schematic distinction between structure and event often attributed to Wolfe. We conclude with an analysis of how Leanne Simpson and Saidiya Hartman provide ways of knowing otherwise.

Obstinacies of Unknowing

Colonial unknowing takes many forms. For instance, borrowing from Jodi Byrd, the idea of colonial agnosia conveys how colonialism remains pervasive but not comprehended as an extensive and constitutive living formation by those situated in complicity with colonial occupation.4 Colonial agnosia provides a means of theorizing this condition and its practices, not to analogize its operations as a disability, but to indicate the particular ways in which these practices are cathected as unintelligible and rendered as discrete objects or instances without an identifiable relationship. We use agnosia to describe what in the colonial context is both resolutely “normal” and normative, rather than as an ascription of pathology, anomaly, or disorder. The apperceptive subset of agnosia is a neurological condition that entails trouble assembling elements of an image into an understandable whole, and difficulty in grasping the relationship of objects to one another. Agnosia, as a particular manifestation of colonial aporia, indexes how the disjuncture between colonialism as simultaneously everywhere and nowhere shapes the hegemonic terms of the contemporary United States and those places similarly shaped by the foundational and persistent violence of colonial displacement. At stake in colonial agnosia is the profound investment in maintaining the failure to comprehend the realities of colonialism by those people who might most benefit from these conditions. Colonial agnosia refuses relationality.

Recent scholarship on “epistemologies of ignorance” is also especially relevant for our theorization of colonial unknowing.5 As an at once defensive and dismissive measure, Charles Mills argues that “White ignorance has been able to flourish all these years because a white epistemology of ignorance has safeguarded it against the dangers of an illuminating blackness or redness, protecting those who for ‘racial’ reasons have needed not to know.”6 This needing not to know is requisite to the pretense of white innocence. It is both the privileged position of not being the target of racism and colonial dispossession and benefiting from circumstances that are themselves sustained through the disavowal of racism and colonial dispossession. As James Baldwin insisted in 1962 with regard to white people in the United States: “…they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it… But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”7 The study of ignorance, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology, questions “the naturalness of ignorance, its causes, and its distribution,” and thus points to “the historicity and artifactuality of non-knowing and the non-known—and the potential fruitfulness of studying such things.”8 Unknowing in this sense establishes what can count as evidence, proof, or possibility—aims to secure the terms of reason and reasonableness— as much as it works to dissociate and ignore. Even as colonialism as a constitutive and current condition is disavowed, the historical “fact” of colonization assumes an irrefutability that forecloses possibilities for futures otherwise. From this perspective, substantive decolonization—beyond UN-sanctioned protocols and the mid-twentieth century state-centered “era of decolonization”—is thus by definition unreasonable and unrealistic.

The theme of colonial unknowing likewise engages postcolonial feminist theorizing around different registers of epistemological aporia. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Ann Laura Stoler’s work on colonial aphasia as a means to signal a disassociation so profound that colonial history becomes unspeakable. As a corrective to the idea of historical amnesia, aphasia describes historical loss and dismembering as produced. Stoler is principally concerned with how colonial histories are rendered illegible in the present, looking at the example of the rise in French racial violence directed at Algerian youth.9 We share Stoler’s interest in examining colonial history as simultaneously known and unknown, resisting a method of apprehension and instead ruminating on the interstices between knowledge and ignorance, reflecting on the relationship between production, loss, and disassociation. At the same time, our framing of colonial unknowing is meant to consider the produced incomprehensibility between different forms of colonialism, such as the comparative and connective nature of settler colonialisms and franchise colonialisms, as well as differential and contingent racializations and racialized violences. In this regard, our formulation of unknowing closely aligns with Michel Foucault’s use of aphasia as a descriptive metaphor for his construction of heterotopia, a genealogy that Stoler traces in her own work on colonial aphasia. For Foucault, while utopias offer comfort, heterotopias disturb, “because they make it impossible to name this and that,” and evoke the ongoing fragmentation of resemblances represented by the aphasiac.10 The impossibility of relationality is core to Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, wherein “the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed. What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible.”11

Drawing from critical disability studies scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear, we conceptualize colonial agnosia as a social construction, formed and informed through racialized and gendered normativities.12 The cluster of terms that seek to examine colonial productions of illegibility through a framing of neurological disorder— including aphasia and agnosia—have come under recent fire from disability studies for their reliance on a metaphoric formula that equates impairment with a colonial or white supremacist condition, as an analogy of injustice.13 Indeed, Stoler’s use of aphasia provides her the means to declare that France’s disassociation with colonialism renders it a nation with a “disabling and disabled” history.14 While mindful of such ableist iterations, we also resist the wholesale jettisoning of these postcolonial frameworks because of their intervention in the idea that amnesia preconditions the normative and curative promise of discovery/recovery. Rather than foreclose a dialogue between scholars and activists concerned with colonialism and disability, we seek to engage productive and instructive tensions to stress what Shaun Grech and Karen Soldatic name as the “importance of disability as an ideological, epistemological, representational, and experiential (post)colonialism lived within and through postcolonial anxieties, tensions, discourses, and materialities.”15 Jasbir Puar’s speculative affinities between trans studies and disability studies, based “not on epistemological correctives but on ontological irreducibilities that transform the fantasy of discreteness of categories not through their disruption but, rather, through their dissolution via multiplicity,” also hold possibility for the critique of colonial unknowing.16

This idea of colonial unknowing as constructed intersectionally while simultaneously disavowing intersectionality aligns our engagement with women of color feminism. As Grace Kyungwon Hong argues, the longstanding work of women of color and indigenous feminists in forwarding theory and praxis on multiple and interdependent alterities exceeds the logics of neoliberal capitalism because women of color feminism is not incorporative but, in fact, differentiated.17 Women of color feminism poses an unruly challenge not only to global capital, but also to empire. In the foreword to the second edition to the foundational anthology This Bridge Called My Back, co-editor Cherríe Moraga implored U.S. women of color feminists to think through the seemingly contradictory relationship between identifying as “Third World feminists” while “[living] in the most imperialist nation on the globe.”18 This endeavor is not facile solidarity but instead employs affiliative and contestational methodologies that defy classificatory knowledge: Barbara Christian’s narrative theorizing, Gloria Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness, Chrystos’s poetic assertion, “I’m making you up.”19 Early women of color feminism charted a genealogy wherein critical race, indigenous sovereignty, and a nascent queer theory occupied close quarters and a generative, if sometimes uneven, dialogue.

Recent reiterations of women of color feminism particularly indispensable to our formulation of colonial unknowing come from black feminist theorizing of the racial and sexual economies of the Middle Passage, from scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, Stephanie Smallwood, Jacqui Alexander, and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley.20 Hartman emphasizes that the archival absence of the Middle Passage as well as the desire to recuperate presence is always a negotiation of colonial violence, that “it is a story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.”21 As with our opening question regarding the decolonial imperative, Hartman underscores the messy entanglements between knowing and unknowing, as well as how we are implicated in epistemologies of colonial agnosia even as we work to unravel them.

Structures and Events

The theorization of “settler colonialism” is indicative of these tensions. Activists and academics have increasingly taken up settler colonialism as an analytic to address the particular ways in which colonialism operates and persists in places such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as well as Israel/Palestine. To a considerable extent, much of the work that has recently become associated with settler colonial studies has already been underway in Native American and Indigenous studies, as well as other fields including ethnic studies and colonial discourse studies. Our contention is that the particular ways in which settler colonialism has assumed predominance as an analytic risks obscuring or eliding as much as it does to distinguish significant features of the present conjuncture.22 Indeed, we suggest that when settler colonialism is deployed as a stand-alone analytic it potentially reproduces precisely the effects and enactments of colonial unknowing that we are theorizing in this introduction. Approaches to the analysis of settler colonialism, as isolated from imperialism and differential modes of racialization, are consequences of the institutionalization of this work as a distinct subfield, which is claimed and consolidated through analytic tendencies that foreclose or bracket out interconnections and relational possibilities. Settler colonial histories, conditions, practices, and logics of dispossession and power must necessarily be understood as relationally constituted to other modes of imperialism, racial capitalism, and historical formations of social difference.

The key insights of settler colonial studies into the particularity of settlement as a manner of colonial power have also led to a tendency to focus on this distinction as constituting a discrete and modular form or ensemble of practices— such as Patrick Wolfe’s often cited contention that “settler colonialism destroys to replace”23—that can be applied across differences of geography or time. As such, settler colonialism appears as a self-contained type rather than a situatedly specific formation that is co-constituted with other forms and histories of colonialism, counter-claims, and relations of power. For instance, in the U.S. context, settler colonialism as a singular manner of colonialism entirely misses the ways in which the abduction and enslavement of Africans and their descendants was a colonial practice that, while changing in its intensities and modes of organization over time, was co-constitutive of colonialism as a project of settlement rather than a supplement that demonstrates the taking of land and labor as distinct endeavors.

Wolfe’s description of settler colonialism as a structure, and not an event, has by now achieved the status of a truism in analyses of settler colonialism.24 Wolfe’s work has been crucial in bringing further attention to the fact that colonialism is an ongoing fact of life for indigenous peoples more than fifty years after the advent of the so-called era of decolonization. His scholarship insightfully underscored historical continuities in the shifting regimes and policies of settler states in relation to indigenous peoples, and challenged a certain produced ignorance about the “post” colonial character of societies like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.25 Yet drawing an absolute distinction between structure and event, and as a result, discarding a focus on the historicity of settler colonialism, neglects some of the ways Wolfe distinguishes between the binary terms structure/event in the service of further analysis. For example, Wolfe emphasizes how settler colonialism is a “complex social formation” with “structural complexity” that emerges through process.26

When taken up as a modular analytic that travels without regard to the specificities of location or social and material relations, a categorical event/structure binary banishes deeply engaged historical knowledge from the landscape, turning away from historical materialism, devolving into a scholastic debate over identities and standpoints that are reduced to structural essences and divorced from politics or contingency. Emphasizing structure over event also limits the analysis of settler colonialism itself into a descriptive typology, orienting our vision narrowly within the technical perspective of colonial power (in the white Commonwealth countries), away from geographies from below, such as a hemispheric perspective of the Americas, with their multiple and distinct modes of colonialism, thus replicating the conditions of unknowing.27 Foregrounding structure against event might also divert attention away from imperialism. This binary perpetuates taking what Lisa Lowe calls the “colonial divisions of humanity” as given. Situating this compartmentalization as a consequence of imperial formations calls attention to how, as Lowe writes, “The operations that pronounce colonial divisions of humanity—settler seizure and native removal, slavery and racial dispossession, and racialized expropriations of many kinds—are imbricated processes, not sequential events; they are ongoing and continuous in our contemporary moment, not temporally distinct now as yet concluded.”28 If the analytic project is reduced to naming and delimiting settler colonialism as a distinct structure of power that exists in specific places, primarily the settler peripheries of Anglo imperium, we lose focus on the Caribbean and the Americas as the grounds of modern imperialism, abdicating the hard-won horizon of anti-imperialism.

An emphasis on structure over event is symptomatic of the stabilization of colonial unknowing through binaries and schematic modes of thought. As Wolfe writes, “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.”29 However, Wolfe’s cartographic model is that of the frontier, in which “the primary social division was encompassed in the relation between natives and invaders.”30 The frontier is a linear model, a binary opposition between civilization and savagery, reflecting both a colonizing subjectivity and its state form. What socio-spatial imaginaries, and concomitant critical models, might become visible if we thought from other spatial forms, such as circles or spirals, spatial forms that are often more relevant to indigenous epistemologies than straight lines? If we remapped the colonial condition through circular or spiraling forms, what new insights might we gain on the decolonial imperative?

For one, we might be able to better grasp colonial, racial, and imperial simultaneities, as well as positions that do not easily fit into a settler/native binary. As Wolfe writes, “Settler-colonists came to stay. In the main, they did not send their children back to British schools or retire ‘home’ before old age could spoil the illusion of their superhumanity. National independence did not entail their departure.”31 Moreover, to inflect these insights through the lens of negritude produces a considerably more complex set of possibilities, where the verbs come and stay do not carry any simple or easily recoverable trace of agency or consent.32 As Iyko Day writes, “the logic of antiblackness complicates a settler colonial binary framed around a central Indigenous/settler opposition.”33

It may be useful to dissolve the implied divide between structure and event. How would our critical perspective open up if we began to understand (settler) colonialism as a structuring event, an ongoing elaboration of a structure, a suspension of time, tense, and timeliness? In order to interrogate settler colonialism as a unique structuring event or events in a structure of power, close attention to process and relationship, to structures of power as they transform in specific places and times, seems to be a useful approach for clarifying the stakes of decolonial possibility. Marx’s insights on the need for capital (and for individual capitalists) to perpetually reproduce the social relations of capitalism (on an expanding scale) and the vulnerable never given-in-advance character of that reproduction, could be relevant for contemplating settler colonialism as it constantly thwarts and undoes its own internal governing logics. To consider settler colonialism as a structure of failure seems a useful starting point for an intellectual project that proceeds from the impulse of decolonization.34 To bring the critique of imperialism back to the foreground in indigenous-centered critiques of colonialism is to bring back basic questions about the definitions of these terms, and their relation to each other. This is not about discarding analysis of settler colonialism for analysis of imperialism, but instead about entangling them in order to specify historically particular processes and structures.35 To the extent that a settler colonial analytic disavows relationships between settler and congruent modes of colonization, imperialism, and race, the field formation of settler colonial studies runs a risk of capture, breathing further life into shifting and mutable colonial sovereignty claims.

Imperial Relationalities

We are not proposing the discarding of settler colonial analytics, but instead a return to geographic imaginaries and citational practices that are able to sustain focus on its relationships with Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and the centrality of those relations to anything we might understand as “modernity.” Which is to say, to refocus the question of imperialism (and living traditions of anti-imperialist thought and action) as we work to more fully understand the invasion and ongoing occupation of indigenous lands. Part of our concern with conceptions of settler colonialism that emphasize structure to the exclusion of history/event is how this turns critical attention away from imperialism. In addition to the turn away from imperialism, we potentially lose a sense of the historicity of settler colonial formations, as they are situated within or as modern imperial state formations.

In Define and Rule, Mahmood Mamdani charts a shift in mid-nineteenth century imperial rule, a set of changes that emerged, in his analysis, after the bloody British suppression of the 1857 Indian uprising. According to Mamdani, what emerged in this period, across the British Empire, but also in Dutch colonies, was indirect rule, governing through the reproduction of difference as custom, focusing on the mass of the people, not just elites among colonized population. In this era, Mamdani argues, colonial officials defined difference in order to manage it.36 Managing difference among the colonized entailed defining and remaking colonial subjectivities. “This was no longer just divide and rule. It was define and rule.”37 In this period, the colonial state separated populations into different streams of law, politics, and administration, through the politicized identities of race and tribe, a distinction which, Mamdani argues, shaped group life in post-Berlin Conference African colonies.38 Likewise, a structure/event binary reinforces a settler/native binary that obscures a necessary focus on the ways that indigeneity and race were articulated distinctly, but together, as central techniques of imperial state formation. It reinforces exceptionalist tendencies in our models of analysis, and draws critical attention away from the ways that “racial dynamics are internal rather than external to the logic of settler colonialism in North America.”39

A too-neat structure/event binary often works in tandem with an overly reductive binary of “settler” and “native.” On the one hand, this binary has contributed to a simplified opposition that assumes the self-evidence of “indigeneity” and the singular category of “settler,” rather than querying the analytic coherence of these categories, of how the distinctions themselves are bound up with the colonial definition and management of difference, in the interest of perpetuating a semblance of coherence for colonial declarations of sovereignty. The problem, as Patrick Wolfe has pointed out, is not in binaries, in and of themselves. Where we depart with Wolfe’s formulation is in the power relations and decolonial possibilities that are elided with a settler/native binary. We want to heed Joanne Barker’s insistence on anti-imperial solidarities marked by “fierce rejection of liberal universalism and all its modernist clichés—from the binaries of the savage and the civil to the celebrated public and national restoration of Native-nation relations via apology.” Barker points out that liberal universalism and modernism are constitutive to the regeneration of imperial social formations.40

Arriving and Surviving

In Transit of Empire, Jodi Byrd uses the term “arrivant” in order to “signify those people forced into the Americas through the violence of European and Anglo-American colonialism and imperialism around the globe…”41 Arrivant, which invokes the title of a collection of poems by Kamau Brathwaite, provides another way to conceptualize the landscape of colonialism and indigenous presence, overlaid in complicated ways with the practice of diaspora.42 The category is rooted in a Black-Caribbean poetics of being in place, gesturing to the multiple, fundamentally unsettled and unsettling relations to place that manifest, specifically, in black geographies.43 In her careful attention to “practices of belonging and becoming that have provided a new material, symbolic, and discursive relationship to the land for blacks, Indo-Guyanese, and Indigenous Peoples,” Shona Jackson’s work provides an important guide for contemplating the terms of indigeneity and race relationally in a way that does not ossify into schematic modes of thought, and of capture, but instead emphasizes relationship and relationality.44

In a poem from the collection, Brathwaite writes of the site of arrival, the “chained and welcoming port,” where, the previous lines tell us, wind and water, flesh and flies, and whips combine into a “fixed fear.”45 The arrival of captive Africans to New World places was a worlding, but the agentive position of “settler” seems both inadequate and somehow monstrously wrong in such a context. Instead, here are the questions Brathwaite poses in this “new world of want”:

who will build the new ways,

the new ships?46

Blackness does not destroy to replace. The point is not to build New Worlds, but instead new ways to live in this world, points of departure. Still later, Brathwaite writes

After this breach of the sea’s balanced treaty, how will new maps be drafted? Who will suggest a new tentative frontier? How will the sky dawn now?47

What is at stake is not a new world, but new ways of charting the world, new understandings of border and boundaries, necessary for saltwater slaves and their children to right the earth’s rotation, the currents that wash ships, with bodies in the hold, in to shore.

On these shores, home and belonging are not necessary equivalent. In the Americas, both are about bodies, lands, and the relations between them, and from the perspectives of blackness and indigeneity, neither home nor belonging is authorized by colonial power. What we see, instead, is a radical destabilization of the idea of home, in the (un)realized notion of belonging. In the poem “Postlude/Home,” Brathwaite suggests that part of the pain of the arrivant condition is the loss of an ability to hear the land, and its ancestral voices, filtered through vulnerability, and the “shock of dispossession.” Here are the lines:

What we

can’t touch

will never

be enough for us to shout

about, who live with God-

less rock the shock of dis- possession.48

We do not read Byrd’s invocation of arrivant as a third position somehow located between settler and native, but instead, we understand arrivant to destabilize the settler/native binary, helping us move through “those moments where the representational logics of colonial discourses break down” in settler colonial situations containing “multiple colonial experiences grounded not only in race but gender, indigeneity, conquest, and sexuality as well.”49 This moves us from schematic to relational modes of analysis. Arrivant, understood in this way, can productively destabilize a clear division between social location and claim to place, drawing attention to the interactivity of distinct bodily and territorial logics of dispossession and recognition. Read in this way, the category of arrivant can emphasize relationality, and disrupt received (imperial) management of populations and politics that track out and separate labor and land, and bodies from lands. This is, fundamentally, about centering a critique of imperialism in contemplating the possibility and necessity of decolonizing North America, which, as Byrd argues, “asks that settler, native, and arrivant each acknowledge their own positions within empire and then reconceptualize space and history to make visible what imperialism and its resultant settler colonialisms and diasporas have sought to obscure.”50 In this sense, we want to acknowledge the crucial intervention made by Wolfe and others in the analysis of settler colonialism while resituating and expanding on this intervention by noting the complex and constitutive entanglements of imperial formations in relation to which settler colonialism takes shape.

Our critique of particular binaries, such as settler/native, arises from a commitment to feminist and queer modes of contemplation and habitation, acknowledging the importance of queer of color critique and disability studies that ask after the simultaneous ontological and epistemological stakes in (non)normativity and belonging. To further reflect on the category of arrivant, for example, we might turn to Sara Ahmed’s reflections on arrival in Queer Phenomenology. Ahmed provides us a way to think about a mind apprehending an object through a process of arrival: through the category of the arrivant. Ahmed writes: “To say the object is an arrivant is to signal not only that it is nearby but also that its nearness is not simply given.”51 In its proximity, the arrivant is potentially disruptive of the smooth functioning of the process and relations of invasion, even as it bears out, in particular ways, the dynamics of invasion.

Ahmed reflects on “arrival that is at once the way in which objects are binding and how they assume a social form. So objects… are ‘transplanted.’ They take the shape of a social action, which is forgotten in the givenness of the object. The temporality of ‘what comes before’ is erased in the experience of the object as ‘what is before’ in the spatial sense.”52 Although she does not name it as such, perhaps did not see it clearly, the “social action,” which she describes, in which arrival manifests as “transplantation,” might be understood as (settler) colonialism. That is, Ahmed seems to be tracing out a process of arrival to indigenous places, where “before” can be understood in both temporal and spatial terms. That is, as structure and event. Such arrival would be no arrival, except in relation to the indigenous.

Event and structure, both, inform such arrivals. Ahmed continues, “What arrives not only depends on time, but is shaped by the conditions of its arrival, by how it came to get there.”53 The context of arrivals, for instance, settler colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism, condition the ways a mind apprehends the things that populate its world. The reduction of arrival to one position in a binary relation (settler, as opposed to native) comes at a cost of complexity, but also reinscribes normative positions to both the settler and the native, at the cost of a potential for all manner of queer disruptions. The analytic usefulness of the settler/native binary might be framed as whether this “‘usefulness’ is not merely instrument but is about capacities that are open to the future.”54

We might, however, turn the question back on Ahmed, who describes what she calls a “migrant orientation”: “The disorientation of the sense of home, as the ‘out of place’ or ‘out of line’ effect of unsettling arrivals, involves what we could call a migrant orientation. This orientation might be described as the lived experience of facing at least two directions: toward a home that has been lost, and to a place that is not yet home.”55 We might reconsider this through the question of the impact of arrival. For those who are not indigenous, the idea of home is charged and renewed with native removals (historical and ongoing).56 Is Ahmed presuming the migrant position to be the queer position? Is she enunciating Gayatri Gopinath’s formulation of a queer diaspora that “recuperates those desires, practices, and subjectivities that are rendered impossible and unimaginable within conventional diasporic and nationalist imaginaries”?57 How can we simultaneously think about queer indigenous phenomenologies, of disorientations in the sense of home, the effect of unsettling arrivals? Byrd cautions that “indigenous strategies should not be just a return push that demonstrates difference-- that move is anticipated and already silenced.”58 Arrivant and indigenous positions alike certainly speak to “lost homes,” but neither seems to inhabit home in the mode of “not yet.” More like, “before,” or “never the same.” A too-neat settler/native binary begs a question of blackness in the world, of black liberation, as it might productively articulate in relationship with indigenous decolonization, that is, of the dismantling of the New World, not necessarily as restoration, certainly not as reconstitution, but instead some other kind of “capacities that are open to the future.”

Brathwaite may give us a way to begin thinking about queer indigenous phenomenologies. In his epigraph, he quotes Kumina Queen:

Well, muh ol’ arrivance… is from Africa… That’s muh ol’ arrivants family

In this move, from arrivance to arrivants, we might connect Brathwaite to Gerald Vizenor’s idea of survivance, which names indigeneity as an active presence and continuation, rather than as loss alone. Survivance suggests a way to apprehend ongoing native presence that is not merely a binary opposition to settler positions.59 What if we move from survivance to survivant, as a way to think, in a destabilizing, defamiliarizing, that is, in a queer way, about indigenous modes of contemplation and habitation? What new insights might we gain about the decolonial imperative?

Thinking With

Even where the ongoing nature of colonialism as it structures the shared present is grasped, colonial unknowing manifests in ways that foreclose upon future possibilities, and decolonization is named as either impossible or unreasonable. Settler colonialism as structure alone does not provide a way to address generations-long dynamics of anti-colonial survival and resistance. Decolonization as prescriptive or programmatic, teleological or normative, reinscribes the colonial forms of power/knowledge it claims to undo. Colonialism cannot be dismantled through acts of recovery, remembering, reconciliation, or more inclusive regimes of colonial knowing. Rather, we learn from indigenous feminists that decolonization is necessarily a process of questioning, contemplation, play, and study, specifically, indigenous study.60 We understand indigenous study as a practice of thinking with, not as a process of overcoming or mastery (especially in an academic field sense), but instead as a process in perpetuity, a process of becoming that is also an unbecoming, always entangled in the shaping and relational violences of imperialism.61

Rather than a utopian project with imagined solutions in an indigenous elsewhere (or nowhere), indigenous study recalls what Leanne Simpson has so strongly articulated as indigenous resurgence: longstanding practices of learning, reflecting on, and transforming indigenous relationships (collective and individual) with indigenous places.62 Centuries-long histories of indigenous self-governance, in all their variety, are indispensable to decolonization in practice, and to challenging the presumptions of liberal political form and the unremitting ecological and social crisis that is capitalism.

Linking the survivant with decolonization unmoors stable and received, schematic and programmatic visions of decolonization, moving past the possibility of an endpoint, or a historical or finished process (whether achieved already, or at some future date). Decolonization as becoming and unraveling is not about moving past or healing historical violences. Saidiya Hartman’s writing on the loss and unintelligibility specific to the gendered and sexual economies of the Middle Passage has much to teach us on the possibilities of black study in relation to indigenous resurgence. 63 Are we capable of registering such specificities in productive (which is to say, in disruptive) relationship with indigenous study for decolonization? As decolonization in practice, as North American indigenous study grapples

with black liberation without washing over specificity, falling into schematic methods that assume strict borders, or lapsing into analogy, we will learn to more fully refuse the framing of either liberation or decolonization, to the exclusion of the other. These lands and waters must be decolonized, but that cannot occur on the basis of ownership claims, claims of relationship that are irrecoverably polluted with the stain of dominion over the enslaved. To take this step is to seek the disruptive potential of uncertainty, to glance at the horizon (whether we name it decolonization or liberation) slantwise. As Hartman writes, of those we encounter in the archive, “Given the condition in which we find them, the only certainty is that we will lose them again, that they will expire or elude our grasp or collapse under the pressure of inquiry.”64

How do we respond to this certainty? Leanne Simpson distinguishes Nishnaabeg cultural teachings and modes of study from the modes of moralistic judgement, control over social behaviors, and formalized hierarchies of knowledge. Against this, she writes, individual Nishnaabe “had the responsibility of interpreting the teachings for themselves within a broader shared collective set of values that placed great importance on self-actualization, the suspension of judgment, fluidity, emergence, careful deliberation and an embodied respect for diversity.”65 These personal responsibilities, she elaborates, are key to indigenous resurgence and indigenous flourishing. We might take this as a starting point of indigenous study as a relational approach to decolonization. As Simpson writes, “the personal is always embedded intrinsically into our thought ways and theories; and it is always broadly interpreted within the nest of the collective.”66

The essays in this special issue elaborate decolonial exigencies across a number of different locations and political investments. Indigenous persistence and resistance to colonialism holds a central concern, taken up in conversation with the history and afterlife of slavery, economies of racial capitalism, imperial circuits of immigration, and gendered and sexual difference. Readers interested in specific field formations will find explicit engagement with indigenous studies, black studies, postcolonial studies (especially as concerns the postcolonial Caribbean), and Asian American studies. The essays also span a number of disciplinary methods, employing historical, juridical, sociological, cultural, and literary lenses. The authors here contest the construction and reproduction of colonial unknowing, yet we stress that this collective enterprise is not prescriptive or even pedagogical—that is, we are not urging for a model of recovery or remembering that might solve or “cure” colonial agnosia from an epistemological position of expertise. For colonial unknowing presents itself as a form of mastery, as a normative proficiency enunciated through modernity’s statecraft and liberal humanism. The essays presented here question and disassemble this agnotological naturalization, asking us to reckon with colonialism’s multiple, uneven yet interlocking, violences through an extended contemplation that does not forsake contradiction and complexity for facile and overdetermined paradigms.

We might consider this special issue as a constellation, forming different patterns and meaning depending on the night sky, where we stand, and the stories that shape our histories and communities. Essays are placed in proximity because of general points of connection but we are not suggesting (and actively refute) a progressive order. Again, we invoke the spiral over the straight line, to ask after that which resonates, overlaps, converses across spatial and historical specificities. Just as contributors frustrate structures and expand relationalities, we further view these essays in ongoing exchange. As with a constellation, optics and meaning making shift depending on vantage point, and we extend an invitation to read capaciously for multivalent configurations. Instead of knowledge as antidote to colonial unknowing, these essays proffer reading practice—reading illegibility, reading impasse, reading the incitement that comes after grief, reading the night stars to lead fugitive movements. Ultimately, the essays that comprise this special issue push back against the unilateral preemptions instantiated by colonial unknowing and seek to amplify an unsettling relational politics of entanglement and possibility.

Manu Vimalassery

Manu Vimalassery is a Term Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College. His work focuses on the politics of social reproduction within the capital relation itself, drawing out the co-constitution of racial capitalism and imperialism in North America. He is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013), and he is currently completing a manuscript, Empire's Tracks: Plains Indians, Chinese Migrants, and the Transcontinental Railroad, which rethinks the development of industrial capitalism through Plains Indian and Chinese migrant histories. Manu’s email address is

Juliana Hu Pegues

Juliana Hu Pegues is Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also an affiliate faculty in the Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality (RIGS) Initiative. Her teaching and research focus on 19th and 20th century history and literature, with methodological and pedagogical investments in women of color feminism and queer of color critique. Her current book project, Settler Space and Time, analyzes Native and Asian relations in Alaska to critically interrogate the gendered and racial formations of settler colonialism and empire. Juliana is also a poet and playwright. Her email address is

Alyosha Goldstein

Alyosha Goldstein is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Duke University Press, 2012), the co-editor (with Alex Lubin) of the “Settler Colonialism” special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (2008), and the editor of Formations of United States Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2014). His current book project is a study of the entanglements of U.S. colonialism, racial capitalism, and economies of dispossession and conciliation in the historical present. Alyosha’s email address is


Thanks to Shona Jackson, Cynthia Wu, Kennan Ferguson, and the anonymous readers for Theory & Event for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this essay.


1. Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

2. Joanne Barker, “The Specters of Recognition,” in Formations of United States Colonialism, ed. Alyosha Goldstein (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Joanne Barker, Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Brian Klopotek, Recognition Odysseys: Indignity, Race, and Federal Recognition in Three Louisiana Indian Communities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Also see Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien, eds., Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States: A Sourcebook (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

3. Our analysis of colonial unknowing is indebted to the critical literature on colonial regimes of knowledge. Significant contributions to the vast and varied scholarship on colonial knowledge include: Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978); V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Robert A. Williams Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Rev. ed. (1995; Boston, MA: Beacon, 2015); Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

4. Jodi A. Byrd, “Fracturing Futurity: Colonial Agnosia and the Untimely Indigenous Present.” Lecture presented at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM. October 25, 2012.

5. Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, eds., Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007). Also see Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Alexis Shotwell, Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2011); and Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

6. Charles W. Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, 247. Also see Linda Martín Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015).

7. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1962; New York: Dell, 1988), 15–16.

8. Robert N. Proctor, “Agnotology: A Missing Term to Describe the Cultural Production of Ignorance (and Its Study),” in Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance ed. Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 3, 27.

9. Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France,” Public Culture 23, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 121–156.

10. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), xviii.

11. Ibid., xvi.

12. Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear, “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2 (2010): 127–145.

13. See for instance, Shaun Grech and Karen Soldatic, eds., “Disability and Colonialism: (Dis)encounters and Anxious Intersectionalities,” a special issue of Social Identities 21, no. 1 (2015).

14. Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia,” 122, 153.

15. Grech and Soldatic, “Disability and Colonialism,” 2.

16. Jasbir K. Puar, “Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled,” Social Text 124 (September 2015), 47.

17. Grace Kyungwon Hong, The Ruptures of American Capital: Women of Color Feminism and the Culture of Immigrant Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). For more on Hong’s conception of the relationship between difference and disavowal see Grace Kyungwon Hong, Death beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

18. Cherríe Moraga, “Refugees of a World on Fire,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 4th ed. (1981; Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), 257.

19. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 67–79; Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987); Chrystos, “I’m Making You Up,” Not Vanishing (Vancouver, BC: Press Gang, 1988), 30.

20. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008):1–14; Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” GLQ 14, nos. 2–3(2008): 191–215; Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

21. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 2–3.

22. For insightful critical discussion of this dilemma see: Corey Snelgrove, Rita Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel, “Unsettling Settler Colonialism: The Discourse and Politics of Settlers, and Solidarity with Indigenous Nations,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3, no. 2 (2014); Iyko Day, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and Settler Colonial Critique,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 2 (Fall 2015); Audra Simpson, “Whither Settler Colonialism?,” Settler Colonial Studies 6, no. 4 (2016).

23. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006), 388.

24. Patrick Wolfe, “Nation and MiscegeNation: Discursive Continuity in the post-Mabo Era,” Social Analysis, 36 (October 1994), 93–152, 96.

25. Wolfe, “Nation and MiscegeNation,” 93, 97.

26. Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 390, 392.

27. On these questions in relation to the Americas see María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). Also see M. Bianet Castellanos, Lourdes Gutiérrez Najera, and Arturo J. Aldama, eds., Comparative Indigeneities of the Américas: Toward a Hemispheric Approach (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); Jean Muteba Rahier, ed., Black Social Movements in Latin America: From Monocultural Mestizaje to Multiculturalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

28. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 7.

29. Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 388.

30. Wolfe, “Nation and MiscegeNation,” 98; Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 402.

31. Wolfe, “Nation and MiscegeNation,” 100.

32. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (1955; New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001); Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.” Also consider, as distinct but related, Vijay Prashad’s conception of immigritude in Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New York: The New Press, 2012).

33. Day, “Being or Nothingness,” 103.

34. Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus, 7–8, 33.

35. Joanne Barker, “Settler Analytics,” Tequila Sovereign, May 11, 2011.

36. Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 44.

37. Ibid., 42.

38. Ibid., 3, 46, 49.

39. Day, “Being or Nothingness,” 107. Engaging this idea, Dean Itsuji Saranillio, in his study of Asian settler colonialism in the context of Hawai‘i, argues “an analysis of White supremacy is thus critical to a settler of color critique of US Empire” (282). In formulating “settler of color,” Saranillio and Hawaiian scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask argue there is not a sole Native/settler binary, but multiple binaries. See Dean Itsuji Saranillio, “Why Asian Settler Colonialism Matters: A Thought Piece on Critiques, Debates, and Indigenous Difference, Settler Colonial Studies 3, nos. 3–4 (2013): 280–294; Haunani-Kay Trask, “The Color of Violence,” in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2006), 82. Also see Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura, eds, Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008).

40. Joanne Barker, “Reply to Wolfe (and Rifkin) and Some Questions,” Tequila Sovereign, April 29, 2011.

41. Byrd, The Transit of Empire, xix.

42. See, for instance, Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) and Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

43. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, eds., Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2007).

44. Shona N. Jackson, Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 64.

45. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy—Rights of Passage / Islands / Masks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 11.

46. Ibid., 122.

47. Ibid., 148.

48. Ibid., 78.

49. Byrd, The Transit of Empire, 53.

50. Ibid., xxx.

51. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 40.

52. Ibid., 41.

53. Ibid., 40.

54. Ibid., 46.

55. Ibid., 10.

56. Byrd, The Transit of Empire, xxxix.

57. Gopinath, Impossible Desires, 11. Though Gopinath’s work insightfully troubles the heteronormative logics of nationalism and destabilizes a nation/diaspora binary, it also depends upon a disavowal of indigeneity and indigenous dispossession in its formulation of immigrant movement.

58. Ibid., 38.

59. Gerald Vizenor, ed., Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

60. Joy Harjo, A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000); Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1981).

61. Here we also find strong resonances with queer studies and disability studies, as Jasbir Puar stresses that, “Becoming trans… must highlight this impossibility of linearity, permanence, and end points” (Puar, “Bodies with New Organs,” 63).

62. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3, no. 3 (2014).

63. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.”

64. Ibid., 6.

65. Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg, MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011), 20.

66. Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, 51.