A Response to “On Colonial Unknowing”
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A Response to “On Colonial Unknowing”

This response to the editors of “On Colonial Unknowing” both acknowledges the vital intervention of their special issue and contests their characterization of settler colonial studies as an “academic field formation” marked by dogmatic and hermetic methodological tendencies. Settler colonial studies, we argue, is a still emergent subfield marked by a dynamic interchange with related fields and disciplinary formations. Settler colonial studies and its critique of a specific and contingent structure of violence has continuing utility, we suggest, not as a hegemonic discourse (a condition the field never aspired to), but rather as a supplement to adjacent field formations engaged in the critique of racialization and empire.

In the original posting of this article, there was a mispelling of Kēhaulani Kauanui's name. The article has since been corrected.

The essays assembled in Issue 19.4 of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” make vital contributions to the understanding of “settler colonial histories, conditions, practices, and logics of dispossession and power […] as relationally constituted to other modes of imperialism, racial capitalism, and historical formations of social difference.”1 Developing analytics for understanding these interconnections in the service of decolonization is a goal that the editors of Settler Colonial Studies share.2 Our journal was founded with the goal of focusing on settler colonialism in order to better understand the relations between different forms of imperial domination.3 The efforts made in “On Colonial Unknowing” to unpack the relationship between decolonization and Black liberation (and, conversely, settler colonialism and anti-Blackness) in the US—a topic that admittedly has not received the urgent attention that it deserved from settler colonial studies scholars—are especially valuable.

In their introduction, however, Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues, and Alyosha Goldstein suggest that the “institutionalization of [settler colonial studies] as a subfield” has inhibited efforts to understand different forms of empire as co-constitutive.4 This argument is a misrepresentation of the contemporary practice and institutional positionality of settler colonial studies.

To evaluate this claim, we should first define what we are speaking of when we speak of settler colonial studies as “an academic field formation,” [End Page 1035] a construction the editors of “On Colonial Unknowing” take as a given.5 While it has a genealogy extending into multiple traditions of the critique of empire, the use of the compound settler colonialism to name a specific form of imperial domination emerged into common academic usage in Australia in the mid-1990s.6 Since that time, there has been a growing body of transnational scholarship across in the humanities and social sciences focused on settler colonialism. But there was no attempt to consolidate studies of settler colonialism across the disciplines into a distinct field of inquiry until our journal was founded by Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini in 2010. Seven years later, settler colonial studies as an analytic continues to flourish, and settler colonialism has been established as a keyword in multiple disciplines and interdisciplinary fields.

The success of settler colonial studies as an analytic has not been accompanied by a comparable institutionalization. There are no settler colonial studies programs, research centers, or endowed professorships. We point this out not to state a grievance (genuine interdisciplinarity is one of settler colonial studies’ greatest strengths), but to highlight the fact that to be an academic engaged in settler colonial studies is necessarily to be engaged in broader field and disciplinary conversations. The number of scholars involved in settler colonial studies who would identify it as their primary or even secondary field is, we believe (claims about this type of identification are difficult to verify), exceptionally small. Settler Colonial Studies remains the only institution (such that it is) directly associated with its eponymous field.7

For this reason, Vimalassery et. al.’s claims regarding the supposedly dogmatic and hermetic tendencies of the field ought to be judged in relation to the work published in our journal. Even a brief survey of the work published in Settler Colonial Studies reveals that the field has enabled discussion and collaboration between Indigenous and non-native scholars of remarkable and global diversity engaged in rigorous and anti-dogmatic debate...