Machinic Worlds, Indian Ghosts and the Existential Suturing of Settler Society

In a continuing of my recent trends of sharing here draft portions of academic and other writings I am engaging in elsewhere, the following is a short snippet from a dissertation chapter I am currently writing. In this chapter I am trying to wrangle with the question of Native damage narratives and why they are so readily consumed by settlers within what I have called, later in the chapter, the imaginarium of late capitalist/colonialist storytelling. I will likely be sharing other draft sections of this work in the coming weeks, while I also attempt to do a bit more original writing for here as well, when I have the time to do so.

As I sit here at this keyboard, mulling my thoughts on what exactly it means to be an Indian, and the how and why of the roles our damage narratives play within the domain of capitalist/colonialist academia, it is a warm, clear June day. To be specific, it is what this country, Canada, has recently decided is to be called Indigenous Peoples Day. This is my second one, 2019, but so far today, at quarter to 2 in the afternoon I have not attended any of the multiple events that are being held across this slowly growing necropolis of a southern Ontario city. To be quite honest, I do not really care to, and I am asking myself the same question I did in 2018: what the fuck is the point of this?

Crude, yes, I know, but it sums up my feelings on this day. What exactly is the point of Indigenous Peoples Day? To paraphrase the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas, I might ask: what is Indigenous Peoples Day to Indigenous people?

I have to admit that I am pretty credulous to the socio-political content of Indigenous Peoples Day. I am, for better or worse, a U.S. citizen and direct, immediate blood kin to an “american” Indian nation. I have also been involved in some manner of left-wing politics, specifically what one might euphemistically call ‘far-left’ or ‘hard left’ politics more or less since I was 19 years old, when I first joined the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party USA. I do not adhere really to that sort of politics of any more, though not because I have abandoned the cause, but because I have given-up on those sorts of organizations. Still, those things, and my ties to an american political scene, even without being a resident of that country, taught me many moons ago that if there was to be something we were going to call ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’, then it should be on or around October 12th, to mark the first day proper of the invasion that began in 1492 and changed the course of not only our collective historical development as a myriad of Indigenous nations, but also the course of global history. Indeed, across much of the so-called ‘Americas’ October 12th, which the americans call Columbus Day, is marked in some way as Indigenous Peoples Day.

Canada does not have Columbus Day, as any resident of this country should know. It has what I still call most of the time canadian Thanksgiving. So, while for much of the rest of this hemisphere Indigenous Peoples Day, or whatever its regional or national variant may be called, is a direct disruption or inversion of the Colombian legacy of invasion-based sociological catastrophe, it would not quite have the same effect in this country. Or at least that is the argued that has at times been tossed back at me when I have attempted to make the point that I believe that Indigenous Peoples Day should be in October, rather than midsummer.

Of course, in the United States Thanksgiving has also often been marked by Indigenous people as a day of mourning, set aside to remember the true history of the slaughter of my Algonkian kin in New England that is now nightmarishly (from an Indian point of view) rendered as a moment when we and the invader sat down for a hearty home-cooked meal to celebrate friendship, brotherhood etc. Yes, canadian Thanksgiving does not come quite as replete with direct violent colonial history as its five-weeks-later american cousin, but still. Thanks-taking, as many folks I know call it, is the same nevertheless. While the canadian long weekend may be more rooted in older european harvest festivals, it is still perhaps one of this country’s three major days used to mark its national narrative, alongside Canada Day and Remembrance Day.

And that brings me around to the point of why I have always felt it is so much stronger to have Indigenous Peoples Day on or around October 12th: it is a day in which Indigenous people can gather, in whatever way they might imagine too, and undermine a pillar of the settler-colonial narrative of this country. Indigenous Peoples Day as it stands in this country does not, in my opinion, do this even remotely. It is proximal to Canada Day, being a mere ten days before it, and many Indigenous people I do know locally have chosen in the past couple of years to remove themselves from participation in officially sanctioned Canada Day events in order to give their times and energy to Indigenous Peoples Day instead, but it is not like Indigenous Peoples Day is a day that subversively coincides with the exact timing of Canada Day.

In fact, it is my opinion, somewhat cynically informed by trying to survive the post-apocalypse of settler colonialism for the better part of my adult life, that the June date for holding Indigenous Peoples Day seems to be a cynical plot to celebrate the day in such a way precisely so that it does not happen to undermine one of Canada’s major settler-colonial narrative chapter markers. I cannot prove that of course. It is just my jaded Indian opinion on the day.

However, I also feel that by holding Indigenous Peoples Day on a different day than essentially the rest of the continent, we also sever ourselves from the celebration of continent-wide survival and resistance of Indigenous peoples to five centuries of invasion, genocide and so much more. And that to me is important. Perhaps it is my old Marxist inklings towards internationalism, but it is certainly also because to me as an Indigenous person, the imaginary settler-colonial border, whether the Medicine Line or the Rio Grande, is just that: an illusory line drawn in the sand by a set of invasive colonial powers across lands they seized in the most insidiously legal and illegal ways. But by virtue of their being illusory means that does not mean that they have no less force in our daily lives, even today in 2019. The U.S.-Canada border directly divides our peoples from one another, even when many of us were close kin before the coming of Canada or the United States and the borders their separate their nominally differentiated settler-colonial fiefdoms of stolen land.

As Indigenous people concerned with our own liberation, I find quite often that there is an effectively standardized recognition of this, of the artificiality and illusory nature of the colonial border. Indeed, our activist and organizational history has long demonstrated this in terms of actual praxis. Indians from both sides of the U.S. and Canada showed up for Wounded Knee, Oka and Standing Rock. I know many Indigenous people who got in cars, pickups, minivans, and buses or even walked to Standing Rock. Our resistance against the expansion of the Black Snake across our lands is inherently trans-border in its methodological and praxiological implementations and theorizations (Estes 2019).

Beyond that, in our everyday lives, many of us demonstrate that border between these two halves of the northern bloc means little to us. Many times, over the past few years have I been in conversation with an Anishinaabe person in this country and they have remarked, upon hearing of my Menomineeness that they have travelled to our reservation in Wisconsin either for ceremony or for the pow wow. Of course, this does not surprise me, we are old kin, and we are close with several of the Anishinaabe communities in Wisconsin. The point is that for ceremony or the pow wow trail, the border means little.

Yet having Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21st actually, in my thoughts, breaks with that ancient tradition. Rather than standing with our kin across the United States and so-called Latin America, by having Indigenous Peoples Day on this day we corral ourselves to Canada and restrict ourselves to these borders. Intentionally or not it shirks our internationalist duties to Indigenous people’s south of the Medicine Line. It cannot even domestically function to undermine one of this country’s chief narrative artefacts celebrated as holidays.

Colonial Holidays & the Myths We Celebrate

More than that though is that Indigenous Peoples Day, specifically the formalized, official Indigenous Peoples Day and associated gatherings, circle dances, drumming, film showings, concerts etc. that happen on this university campus, or are sanctioned to happen by the city’s political and civil societal apparatuses to happen elsewhere in town, are always taken up under what has become so much the watchword for Indigenous-Settler relations in this country over the past half-decade or so: reconciliation. And this again returns us to my question: what the fuck is that?

What is reconciliation? Discursively, reconciliation is an outgrowth of recognition frameworks, which Juris et de jure emerged in this country following the 1982 constitution and its inclusion of discourse that claimed to have “recognized and affirmed” so-called Aboriginal Rights, and before them a series of other governmental and legal outcomes in the 1970s, in particular the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Calder et al. v. Attorney-General of British Columbia, in 1973, and the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement of 1975, though in fact this particular form of liberal recognition rhetoric can be philosophically traced even further back to roots in a Hegelian dialectic.

In this vein, I agree with Mark Antaki and Coel Kirkby (2009) that canadian state recognition of Indigenous peoples is actually a practice and policy of settler-colonial state lethality. At its most basic level reconciliation is a discursive ruse, an ideological feint that promises the reconciliation of nonindigenous and Indigenous canadians, but without real movement on any policy or issue of import. Reconciliation is never about returning land, stopping the never-ending assault on Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirits, or about anything really.

As far as Indigenous Peoples Day is reconciliation transmogrified into a semi-holiday, it is one that instead evokes a pure liberal, humanist multiculturalism that promises to “celebrate Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada.” What are we even saying here when we talk about both Indigenous and settler peoples gathering across this country to celebrate Indigenous peoples’ contributions to it? I am reminded here of Roland Barthes examination of a cover of Paris-Match magazine which featured on its cover a young, Black, colonial soldier saluting the French flag. He says of this

On the cover, a young [Black person] in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [Black person] in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier (1972:115).

I think that in many ways this is the design of Canada’s iteration of Indigenous Peoples Day. We celebrate that Canada is a liberal, humanist multicultural society. We celebrate that Canada has moved on from its settler-colonial past, or at the very least it is sorry for the wrongs it committed and is working towards rectification and accountability. We celebrate that today in Canada, this society is no place for racists and racism. In other words, to borrow the title of the work by Barthes from which the above quote is taken, we work to create mythologies. Specifically, here colonial-national mythologies. We mythologize about Canada’s past, and we mythologize about the current aims and policies of the Canadian government.

Figure 1: The Cover of Paris-March Discussed by Barthes. Source: Rowland Barthes: Mythologies, Jeanne Willette (2013).

This collective mythmaking, in which settlers and Natives join together (well, not all of us, I want no part in it) is a collective praxis of historical evisceration, however. It splits open history and guts it of its actual content, renders it meaningless, an empty signifier which can be transposed onto a new signified. It appropriates colonial-national history across multiple planes. Of course, as should be expected, this mythologizing smothers over that the biggest contribution that Indigenous people provided to this corporate entity we now call Canada is the land which the settler appropriated, a process euphemized away from its fullness as an act of colonial brigandage by way of discursive recourse to the legalized apparatus of crown relations and treaty-making. Secondly, that initial act of materialist land appropriation is in turn appropriated by the myth-making apparatus of the settler-colonial state, re-shaped and re-signified as part of Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada.

Indeed, reconciliation of this order inherently relies on invasion and settlement being a mere onto-historical event, or series of onto-historical events, but which is nonetheless something that happened, and which might have troubling and lingering echoes in ‘our’ (who is this collective?) society, but which is not happening today, and most certainly is not something that should, or even could be undone. And why would Canada choose to recognize that? I am not so deluded about the promises of liberal, humanist multiculturalism and the parliamentary democracy of an imperialist genocide state to believe that Canada, or the United States also for that matter, would ever seriously move in any direction that would undermine its own existence. In fact, that is why I do not even particularly care about voting in said democratic process, not that I can vote in this country, non-citizen that I am, and that is also a different story for another time.

pow wow
Figure 2: Dancers and Attendees Stand for Pow Wow Flag Entrance. Visible are U.S. federal & armed forces flags, as well as the flag of Canada. Source: 2019 White Earth Pow Wow & Celebration, Crazy Crow Trading Post (2019).

Contra the core beliefs of the liberal, humanist multicultural project, settler colonialism is not merely a legacy from some dark national past; it is something that is ongoing right now, and which affects Indigenous peoples towards shorter lifespans, often Third World living conditions, greater rates of interpersonal violence, suicide, deteriorated mental health, water on reserves that is undrinkable if not at times actually flammable, and all manner of other negative sociological markers. What is reconciliation to us then when the final report of the inquiry into the horrific rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, which was released during this writing, specifically, clearly and unflinchingly stated this cultural, sociological and criminological phenomena in this country “amount to nothing less than the deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide” against these of our kin (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls 2019:5)?

What does reconciliation mean when this country’s Prime Minister one day declares a climate emergency only to seemingly turn right around and approve one of the primary arms of the Black Snake within these borders, one which the domestic armed wing of the settler-colonial state was sent in to enforce the construction of mere months ago?

What does reconciliation mean when our lands, and quite often our very lives, remain stolen? In short, coming to survey this situation through the lens of my own life, it seems rather a lot like what my sister would call ‘colonial bullshit.’ In essence then reconciliation seems to have little to do with any kind of meaningful practice of decolonization, as much as that word is increasingly metaphorically deployed in everyday discourse, and more to do with ideologically shoring up the foundations of the colonial regime by ensuring that they are not challenged by any kind of emergent Native decolonial militancy.

Indigenous Peoples Day functions within this context. It is a superficial demonstration and celebration of what are often spoken of as “Indigenous people’s contributions to Canada” and seems to have more in common with a kind of country-wide pow wow than with anything else. It is a day where Indigenous people gather to sing, dance, drum, sell their “traditional” cultural crafts, paint chalk murals and share elder teachings more often it seems for the enlightenment of curious white onlookers than for any kind of real benefit for us who are the collectivity we call Indigenous peoples. It is non-invasive, unobtrusive and most certainly does not function to undermine the ongoing political and narrative fact of settler colonialism.

It does not seek, so it seems to me, to reconcile nonindigenous peoples, specifically the white settler population, with the continued survivance, resistance and quest for genuine freedom for Indigenous peoples. No, most certainly not. Rather, again to follow Antaki and Kirkby (2009), this discursive ruse is one in which reconciliation is something that is inflicted upon Indigenous peoples in order to reconcile us to ongoing invasion and crown sovereignty, and the inherent foreclosure that has of any kind of decolonial future for Indigenous peoples, in which we will be able to say that we have become decolonized, because so long as the northern bloc persists in its existence that cannot ever be.

In that way, the ideological purposes of a formalized, and this always-already neutralized, Indigenous Peoples Day lays itself bare. And in that, in my ways, it is a specific day that seems to contain within it so much of what it is that this dissertation is actually about.

Cohering Settler Colonialism

In this narrative aside about Indigenous Peoples Day, brought on by the day of this writing, I mention a point that is salient for my quest to uncover the Indianophagic qualities of the imaginarium of late capitalist/colonialist storytelling when it comes to the telling of our damage narratives.  And that is the point I made that settler-colonial states always need to enact a programmatic regime of national forgetting. Forget Indians. Forget the land. Forget the past, kill it even if you must, to paraphrase a certain Star Wars character.  Settler colonialism must engender such regimes of forgetting, which lies cross-purposes with their nominal commitment to liberal, humanist, multicultural policies of reconciliation, because to remember, really remember, risks a ruptural event within the discursive and symbolic setting of the current colonial order of things. Towards that, forgetting rather than remembering must always be the order of the day. And more to the point, when remembering does happen, because of the bounds of settler-colonial space-time can longer contain its ghosts, and the spirits of the dead must be let loose to roam free, the regime of forgetting must always be there to remind you that what you are seeing is not actually of the present-now, of the distant-then, and, sad as it might be, there is nothing we can do got the spectral damné.

So, to begin to articulate this something-of-first-piece-of-an-answer to our question of the consumption of Native damage narratives, I want to briefly zoom out from the level of the auto-ethnographic and auto/biographic and return to the level of the structural and the national.  By doing this I hope to link my thoughts on this question of why—why are these narratives of damage so readily consumed—to thoughts that have already been articulated at the macro-level concerning the necessity of Indigenous dispossession and death (not only in the physical sense, but also in the sense of culture, politics, sovereignty and territoriality) and the stability and futurity of the settler state in the post-frontier period.

It is well established within the cannon of current-day Settler Colonial Studies and Native Studies that, at a structural level, “invasion is a structure, not an event” and that settler colonialism is a project that “destroys to replace” (Wolfe 2006:388).  However beyond this, or rather as a consequence because of this, the fact of the continuing structuring nature of settler-colonial invasion, which is taken as a given throughout my writing in this dissertation, has necessitated an entire cultural industry and civil society focused on the constant assertion of invasion as merely an onto-historical event, locking it, and the Native sovereignties and territorialities that it smothered and erased, consistently in the realm of the past.

This is necessary for the ongoing instantiation and cohesion of settler society.  The late theorist of Settler Colonial Studies Patrick Wolfe makes the following argument in his text Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race:

Thus the salient question to arise from the territorial dispossession of Native peoples is not that of whether or not it happened, since there can be no doubting that.  Rather, it is the question of the subsequent career of Native ownership, which mere dispossession does not compromise.  The question in other words, is one of strategy analysis: How do settler societies deal with autonomous systems of ownership that are not susceptible to forcible seizure?  This question acquires particular urgency in the context of settler society’s need to establish a rule of law with sufficient legitimacy to secure a viable level of consent to a recently promulgated set of social norms among an ever-aggregating and often diversely recruited immigrant populace.

For their own internal purposes, there, quite apart from international consideration, settler societies seek to neutralize the extraneous sovereignties that conquered Natives continue to instantiate.  …

So far as conquest remains incomplete, the settler state rests—or, more to the point, fails to rest—on incomplete foundations.  For the settler state, therefore, the struggle to neutralise Indigenous externality is a struggle for its own integrity (2016b:35-37).

I agree with Wolfe.  However, while his focus here is broadly on the questions of the continuance of Native sovereignty and territoriality in the ongoing face of the institutional and structural elements of settler invasion, what is essential in this argument that I want to draw out for my purposes here is that the continued existence of Native people poses a fundamental existential quandary for the settler state and its own claims to sovereignty and territoriality. While the juridical order of the settler state was created exceptionally (Agamben 2005; Schmitt 1985) through the homicidal and dispossessing violence of the frontier period, even once the frontier is cleared and its borders closed, the continued existence of the Native, as the Native, casts into doubt the legitimacy of the current settler-colonial order and its political claims.

A similar sentiment is expressed in the writings of the Osage theologian George E. Tinker.  He writes in American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, arguing against the reduction of Native struggles purely to class analysis and class struggle:

Our oppression and the resulting poverty are not primarily due to any class analysis at all.  Rather, they are rooted in the economic need of the colonizer to quiet our claims to the land and to mute our moral judgement on the United States’ long history of violence and conquest in north America [emphasis mine] (2008:23).[1]

In Tinker, as with Wolfe, the fundamental issue at hand here is the need of the settler-colonial state to silence the continued existence of Native nations.  For both of them, the central pressing question is that of the settler state’s ability to continually instantiate itself as legitimate through concretizing its own grammar of sovereignty and territoriality.  This by necessity equates with the development of a political order that must silence any other competing claim to sovereignty or territoriality within the geographic and physical mapping of the northern bloc.  Especially when such competing sovereignties and territorialities are not only alternative, but prior, as Wolfe notes (2016b:15).

One can see this at play vis-à-vis competing imperial and colonial interests within the European world in the instance of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States asserted the entirety of the so-called western hemisphere as its corporate domain, locking out, or attempting to, the competing claims to access from the imperial powers of the Old World. More keenly, however, it is the persistence of alternative and prior Native claims to sovereignty and territoriality that present the most internal and pressing threat to the political order of the northern bloc.  While this is certainly not the case in balancing the abacus of military force (or lack thereof) when compared to the rivalry between the dual states of the north bloc and the European old world, or even the emergent inter-imperialist rivalry with the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China (a rivalry that in my most pessimistic and apocalyptic of nightmares, as I am sure for many others, seems to be inching this world ever further away from the post-World War II order of inter-imperialist cooperation and towards a renewal of direct inter-imperialist conflict), the prior, yet also continuously alternative sovereignties and territories of the multitude of Native nations not engulfed within the corpus of the northern bloc are those competing political orders which are most deeply tied to the symbolic ordering of settler power.

Native existence rests at the intersections of political economy and the juridical order of things, to which Tinker also adds a moral direction (no doubt due to his training and vocation as a decolonizing Lutheran theologian), and to which I would add the condition that it is also essentially psychic and existential, reaching into the symbolic order of settler coloniality. That is, it relates more fundamentally to the ability, or rather the drive, of the settler state to cohere its own being psychically.  In the reigning épistémè of the settler colony, so long as the Native persists, given the unstable terrain that that persistence always-already generates, the state and civil society will always be at an ideological, ontological, symbolic, and libidinal impasse with regards to how it will mediate and concretize its ongoing existence qua itself.

Digital Representations of the Indian Ghost

The essential consequence of this is the casting of echoes outwards rhizomatically, penetrating into multiple layers of the settler state and civil society.  This is most readily visible (and audible, and readable) in the various multiplicities of settler popular media and culture: films, literature, music, comic books, and videogames.  It is hard to not feel, for example, with the release of such highly anticipated, and later award-winning, a videogame as Rockstar’s late-2018 Western action-adventure property Red Dead Redemption 2, that as an Indian I live engulfed within a symbolic culture and machinic artistic production in which the Indian must be killed, and the “west won,” over and over and over again. I am not a film, literary or media theorist or scholar, nor do I pretend to be, but to live as an Indian in this era of late-colonialism, the era of the Trumps and Trudeau 2.0, it is hard not to conceive of the continued persistence of the Western form in film, video games and literature, as more than a simple re-enactment on a plane of escapism of the past glories of the settler, of the taming of the land and the making of a fully modern, colonial, capitalist and imperial nation.

This is especially so as the tropes of the Western find their manifestations in more than just the straight-forward Western, but also in such genres as science fiction, fantasy, space opera and many others.  Jodi Byrd (2018) for example discusses how in another AAA video game release, in this instance Irrational Games’ 2013 steampunk themed Bioshock Infinite, the successful closure of the frontier and settler victory in the Indian wars is the essential narrative precondition.  She notes how during the run-up to the title’s release “the ads for Bioshock Infinite were full of the bombastic, adrenalin-rush swagger that celebrates frontier violence and first-person shooter aesthetics with a full arsenal of weapons” [emphasis mine] (602-603).  She writes:

In keeping with the period justifications for the gamification of imperial racism within the Bioshock Infinite multiverse, designers populated the world with casual, overt, and extreme forms of racial violence.  From the Fraternal Order of the Raven with its Ku Klux Klan overtones to the Hall of Heroes with its celebration of victories in the Boxer Rebellion and at Wounded Knee, the game circulates racialized caricatures of “foreign hordes” to world the game (609).

Eventually, within these games machinic and algorithmic worlds, the player is invited, via the heavily armed avatar of the central character DeWitt, to take up arms and enact violent and righteous vengeance against all of the imperial white supremacy that they have witnessed throughout the story thus far.  Bleeding together the game world and the world of the real, this invitation and the violences that follow, work to enact a kind of temporal distancing between the player, situated in the colonial present, and the alternative early Twentieth-Century history setting in which the game world plays out.  However, this logic of the game world fails at the level of settler colonialism.  Byrd continues:

in the case of Wounded Knee, the game’s mode of temporal distancing with no remediation possible places the event in stasis as forever primitively fixed within the colonial archive.  The game designers also fail spectacularly at history.  First of all, Wounded Knee was not a battle, as it is constantly referred to throughout the game script.  It was in fact a brutal massacre of three hundred unarmed Lakota men, women, and children who were in Big Foot’s band and were already in custody of the US Seventh Calvary when the shooting started on December 29, 1890.  Throughout the entirety of Bioshock Infinite, Wounded Knee is implied to be an unfortunate, if violent, mistake on the part of the US military … Wounded Knee is an uninterpretable event surrounded by generic nineteenth-century Indianness.  It is evoked, as it often is within standardized history books, as a mnemonic for the supposed colonial break, the moment when the Indian Wars end, the frontier closes, and twentieth-century modernity begins.  Its presence in the game is a relic, a marker of a flattened historicity that continues to evoke Indians as lamentable, but not grievable (609-610).

The ghost of the lamentable, but not grievable, dead, but not murdered, Indian is the foundational ontological precondition for this fantastic machinic world, much as it is for Red Dead Redemption 2.  In so much of settler popular culture the ghosts of Indians past and present lurk at the margins, just out of sight, waiting to break in and rupture the hypersurface of the settler-colonial present.  Indeed, it is a common, half-serious, half-joking occurrence for my Anishinaabe nekōqsemaw[2] to assert that most films we watch together are in some way about settler colonialism, and in particular about settlers and others from white imperial nations attempting to work through their collective pasts, and the moral injuries accrued in the acts that populate them, by re-imagining these violences with themselves taking the positionality of the victim.

This is I feel the case in even the most counter-western videogames that I have experienced.  Here my mind drifts immediately to the long-running production by French and french-canadian studio Ubisoft of the Assassin’s Creed series.  Taking as its plot device the exploring of fictional submerged histories of real-world events via the use of the genetic memories of characters in the present day, in many ways the Assassin’s Creed series has been subversive—at least in so far as a major contemporary AAA game produced by a large capitalist game creation firm is capable of being genuinely subversive—at least up until its eighth mainline instalment, Assassin’s Creed Unity, which took place during the French Revolution, and which I believed, in all my leftism, to portray the proto-proletarian movements that burst forth at that time as the villains. Before that however, in the mini-game side-quests of the third mainline entry, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, the players could even uncover an image of protestors from the Revolutionary Communist Party-Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire, the major canadian Maoist organization, at a May Day rally accompanied by the slogan “with each passing day, the people get stronger, freedom ascends, heralding a revolution.”

Between that, I imagine jokingly, hidden slogan about protracted people’s war, and the more reactionary eighth iteration there was perhaps what has been for me one of the more personally videogames I have played, Assassin’s Creed III. Or more specifically, Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, and the spin-off title Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry.  All of these games take place in the Americas, unlike the previous Italian and Levantine settings, with Black Flag and Freedom Cry featuring the 18th century Caribbean, my second home, and often took the time to directly address the racial tensions and colonial histories that still deeply scare the region to this day.  But it is really Assassin’s Creed III that always struck me, and for one simple reason, the principle player character is Indigenous[3].  He is the son of an english settler, and primary antagonist of the title, and a Mohawk mother, and it is his mission over the course of the game to undo the works of his father in the midst of the so-called “American Revolution.” Indeed, quite often the game did not shy away from telling it like it is, about settler colonialism and what it means for Indigenous people.  I will always remember the lines of the game’s fictionalized rendition of Sir William Johnson, who says to your character just before his death:

Do you think that good King George lies awake at night hoping that no harm comes to his native subjects?  Or that the people of the city care one whit about them?  Oh, sure, the colonists are happy to trade when they need food or shelter or a bit of extra padding for their armies.  But when the walls of the city constrict—when there’s crops that need soil— when there’s… when there’s no enemy to fight—we’ll see how kind the people are then.

But even in this game, ultimately this is the realm of the past.  In the end, your player avatar Ratonhnhaké:ton, while successful in tearing down the fictional mystical conspiracy of the Knights Templar to disrupt society and define the American Revolution to its own ends, he is unable to stop the forceful displacement of his nation from their lands.  In the end he is just an Indian, and no matter how powerful he may be, no matter how many white/settler/master soldiers and villains he lays low, that is all he will ever be.  A ghost of what could have been, and a signpost to what is, a past that can never be done.  In any iteration, in any nearby possible world the Indian will always be fated to fade into the night.

This assemblage that is current settler society, in all of its dystopic, accelerated and accelerating, deterritorializing capitalist realist glory is in reality not as detached from modernity as some theorists have attempted to posit, such as the late Mark Fisher (2009).  While I agree with much of Fisher’s diagnosis of capitalist realism as an extension of Frederic Jameson’s critique of the postmodern condition (1991), from the temporal and spatial geography of the Indian, it comes into view more of a critique of the internal cultural and political logic of decaying settler-colonial, imperial, white capitalist society that is staring down the barrel of its own demise as the world it has created inches closer and closer to one apocalypse or another, whether technological or ecological. While for Fisher the pastiche and revivalism which Jameson first foresaw as coming to consume more and more of late-capitalist cultural production is founded on the notion that society has unlearned how to invent the future, in light of Berardi’s slow cancellation of the future (2011), and thus it must constantly return to the past in order to mine it for lost visions of the future, even as technological growth and development increases at an ever greater pace, this cannot the whole of it.

Indeed, if the cultural production of game worlds such as those of Red Dead Redemption 2 and Bioshock Infinite demonstrate anything to us, it is that the capitalist realist present is the logical telos of the frontier.  The anti-Indian violence of the frontier period has undeniably never stopped; it has merely been transformed and reconfigured itself.  From a Bahamian beach in October, 1492 through the Indian Wars to Residential and Indian Boarding Schools, to the ongoing sterilization of Native women, to #MMIWGTS, Oka, Ipperwash, Wounded Knee II, Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en, from blood quantum to the Indian Act, eliminative and dispossessive anti-Indian violence continues to be a necessary animus for the world in which we live.

Rather than escaping the frontier, leaving in the dust bin of a long distant history, settler colonialism and its violence continues to haunt the present of capitalist realism.  This is why the Indian must be defeated, murdered, and pushed back again and again at all levels of the settler-colonial symbolic order.  It is precisely this that ultimately destabilizes the ontological and symbolic worlds of the white/settler/master, creating a world in which, straddle the globe as they might in a predator’s pose always ready to strike, they are never able to be fully secure.

In this sense, the moment of settler-colonial capitalist realism is doubly hauntological.  It is haunted not just by the lost futures of cultural formations past which continue to echo within the imaginations of the settler who is unable to dream of a world beyond the capitalist event horizon, but also by the present-yet-absent whispering of the ghosts of massacred Indians and enslaved Africans.  These spectral entities are always there, always watching, always waiting.

The settler must continuously defeat these ghosts so as to sustain their own instantiation and sense of self-legitimacy.  To repeat Wolfe’s maxim: “invasion is a structure not an event” (2006:388).  The murder, conquest and casting out of the Native is not only the fundamental ontological precondition for the project of settlement, it remains the fundamental ontological and symbolic pre-condition for its persistence in the era of capitalist realism.  Various strands of nominally critical thought birthed at the heart of modernity/coloniality, such as Marxism and poststructuralism, may attempt to dislodge or deconstruct this, to posit something else in its place, yet it, like the shadow figures of some waking nightmare, remains.


[1] Tinker’s arguments in this work regarding the theoretical tendency of Eurocentric Marxists to reduce Native struggles against settler colonialism to class analysis—and even more so to justify the continued the dispossession of Native territory under the guise of a proletarian socialist movement and state—also find their reflection in the more recent work of the Dené Marxian and Fanonian scholar Glen Coulthard in his book Red Skin White Masks (2014), who comes to similar insights regarding the primitive accumulation thesis forward by Marx. However, while the work of Coulthard is in many ways influential on my own conception of a politics of refusal, it is not my intention here to take up space illuminating the ways in which Tinker and Coulthard’s analysis on the question of Marxism, historical materialism and class analysis converge. I have however written regarding this subject elsewhere in my publicly accessible, more “activist” writings for a general, if decidedly political, audience (Robinson 2019; 2018; 2016).

[2] Sister.

[3] There is something to be said of the problematics of non-Native videogame developers (both AAA and others) using Indigenous characters and attempting Indigenous representation in the medium. Most recently there has been a small uproar over the game This is My Land, which has you play as a generically Plains Indian character who is defending their land against the encroachment of white american settlers. The game, currently in an early access phase, is developed by Ukrainian developer Game-Labs. A number of Indigenous friends of mine raised the issue on social media about a non-Indigenous developer, in particular a european one, attempting to represent the Indigenous experience in the game. I understand this, as I likewise understand people’s trepidation of Indigenous representation in Assassin’s Creed III. However, as a diasporic/displaced Indigenous person, who grew up overseas, I must say that these representations have always meant something to me. As problematic as they are, it would be a lie to say that I did not jump at the opportunity to play as an Indigenous character, and more so, play as an Indigenous character who fights against the tide of colonial settlement. I know I am not the only person who feels this way. This is My Land came to attention because my younger brother quite excitedly sent me information about the game during summer 2019. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. While it may sound pithy, and perhaps even liberal, I think these issues are nothing if not complicated.


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