At the Race & Sovereignty Symposium at UCLA, and in the writings of many different scholars (at least the ones that I have been reading while on fellowship this past year :> ), I am struck by the insistence within “settler colonial” studies of its specificity.
Crudely, “settler colonialism” is offered as the specific temporal-geographic kind of colonialism that has enacted western European, Canadian, and U.S. imperialism in such diverse places as Africa, the Pacific, and North America. This insistence on specificity produces an obvious question: In relation to what?
If settler colonialism is the specific kind of colonialism that enacts imperial processes in western Europe, Canada, and the United States, then what other kinds of colonialisms have occurred, are occurring, in these places? If they were/are not "settler," then what were/are they?
I have not heard or read an attempt to actually specify settler colonialism except by clarifications that it is not “old/past” and that there is no “neo” or “post.” So, are these our analytical options in understanding imperialism? Past, settler, neo, post colonialism? And are those different kinds of colonialism indeed temporal or geographic, monolithic or local....?
For instance, at the symposium, several presenters on the settler colonial plenary panel claimed that settler colonialism has a temporal-geographic specificity within the United States that has been, for all purposes, vacated in the 21st century: Laura Gómez (UNM School of Law) asserted that “settler colonialism” did not occur in the U.S. southwest until 1848 and ended in the early 20th century; Aziz Rana (Cornell School of Law) said that “settler colonialism” occurred in the U.S. about the time of the Revolution and concluded by 1920. Both made these arguments in the context of U.S. constitutional and treaty provisions for African enslavement and Native dispossession.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Anthropology/American Studies, Wesleyan University) pushed back during the Q&A on these claims of settler colonial temporality. Gómez and Rana qualified their remarks by explaining that, of course, settler colonialism is still around and always has been. (So now we -- the audience -- are all really confused.)
During his contributions at the symposium, Patrick Wolfe (Charles La Trobe Research Fellow, La Trobe University) attempted to clarify that settler colonialism was/is the permanent structure of “invasion” that has characterized Black-Native-Settler relations (broadly speaking) and Black enslavement, Native dispossession, and Settler privilege (specifically). These were useful contributions but are not necessarily “shared agreements” within the scholarship theorizing settler colonialism.
For instance, in her incredibly problematic book, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836 (2010), Lisa Ford argues that it is not territorial dispossession that characterizes settler claims to state sovereignty but settler assertions of jurisdiction over Native crimes that occasions its articulation. Ford theorizes that it is criminal jurisdiction and not territorial occupation and dispossession that characterizes the settler’s transition from mere colonial to state sovereign.
In the context of these various exchanges and theories, there is a pronounced confusion within settler colonial studies about what it is that “settler colonialism” specifies. Is it the specific series of events that lead to the ascension of statehood (revolution, constitution, occupation, expansion, overthrow)? Is it the structure that is defined and inherited from a decidedly colonial past in a decidedly colonial present (in the delineation of the property rights between settler, immigrant, and native)? How do various axes of differentiation and management – racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, class – inform these “–hoods” and their formations?
On their blog, Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini (both at the Institute of Social Research, Swinburne University Technology) offer the following definition:
Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present. There is no such thing as neo-settler colonialism or post-settler colonialism because settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; as Patrick Wolfe has noted, settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labor before they are made to disappear). Sometimes settler colonial forms operate within colonial ones, sometimes they subvert them, sometimes they replace them. But even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they co-define each other. (accessed April 9, 2011)
Cavanagh and Veracini attempt to provide for the specificity of the settler colonial “phenomenon” – not past, not neo, not post – but in so doing confuse it for everything that characterizes the formation of the "modern" nation-state. It stands only in relation to all other colonialism, co-defined but (it would seem) indiscriminate.
So I am back to the question I began with. Is “settler colonialism” specific, and what is that specificity, and in relation to what? Or is it a stand-in for defining the current nation-state, in a somewhat vague historical difference from past colonialism(s)? Is it the “everything” of the current legacies of African enslavement and Native dispossession and elimination (a.k.a. the interventions of Cheryl Harris)? And what does it mean to suggest a sameness in enslavement/dispossession when African "freedmen" participated in the territorial dispossession of Native peoples, and Native peoples participated in the enslavement of Africans?