Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

“…in the late 19th century, a British naval officer discovered the extraordinarily remote community in the Andaman Sea. Fascinated, the officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, essentially kidnapped several islanders, according to the New York Times.

He took them to a British-run prison on a larger island where he watched the adults grow sick and die. After that, he returned the children to their home and ended his experiment, calling it a failure.

Over the next few centuries, few outsiders ever returned and the islanders were left to deal with the traumatic experience.

“We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers,” Mr Portman admitted in his 1899 book. Centuries later, in the 1960s, anthropologists succeeded in exchanging gifts and conducting field visits but abandoned their efforts some 25 years ago in the face of renewed hostility.

No one really knows why they are deeply suspicious of outsiders but perhaps it could stem from the trauma of the original kidnapping. [Epidemic disease] could be another traumatising factor behind the aggressive hostility of the Sentinelese.

When the British first made attempts to colonise these islands in the 19th century, their population was estimated to be some 8000. Now, their current population is believed to be 150, although a national census based on photos taken from afar put their numbers as low as 15.

Veteran anthropologist T.N. Pandit, who visited North Sentinel 50 years ago, believes there should be no rush to make contact with the Sentinelese.

Of the four Andaman tribal communities, we have seen that those in close contact with the outside world have suffered the most. They have declined demographically and culturally,” he told Down To Earth magazine in a recent interview. […] Survival International, an organisation that works for the rights of tribal people, said Mr Chau may have been encouraged by recent changes to Indian rules about visiting.

While special permissions are still required, visits are now theoretically allowed in some parts of the Andamans where they used to be entirely forbidden.

The authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event,” the group said in a statement.”

– Julia Corderoy, “Traumatic history of isolated tribe who killed American missionary.” News Corp Australia Network, November 25, 2018.

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“The Sentinelese are not “Stone Age” people. They live in the 21st century and, like all cultures, have changed and adapted, so are not somehow frozen in time. They use modern tools because they live now, and modern doesn’t have to mean industrialized.

When we call people “prehistoric” or “Stone Age” or “pre-literate” we assume (often without meaning to!) that other cultures have to catch up with the rest of us, and we miss that there are lots of perfectly valid ways to live in the world. The Three-Age System is useful for some European and Mediterranean archaeology, but it doesn’t even generally fit well outside of this region.

The language of the Capitalocene makes it hard for us to talk about groups of people anywhere without presuming 1. An inherent right to have our curiosity satisfied and 2. An assumption that the idea of “human progress” is linear and industrial.

These are all things that have been used to justify colonialism and “civilizing” projects. They also experience the Capitalocene, even to the extent that they’ve had to adapt to the constant threats industrialized societies pose to them.

Even if there weren’t the issue of lack of immunity to diseases of the industrialized world, they would still deserve their privacy and independence because the very least we can do as part of industrialized cultures is not to wreck everyone else’s lives by thinking we know better.

The protection of their space shouldn’t be paternalistic or infantilizing. They aren’t simple or more “natural”, they’re complex like all humans are. The problem isn’t that a guy wanted to tell them about Jesus, it’s that we mostly carry an unchallenged belief that dominant cultures have a right to access anything we want.

It’s colonialism and capitalism, and missionary work is a vector, but so is a lot of adventure travel, development work, and even academic research. We don’t have a right to know stuff about people without their consent. (This is how we got digital colonialism, too.)”

– Jane Ruffino, November 25, 2018.

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“Population became a new kind of experimental concern in the work
of Raymond Pearl, the prominent and prolific American biologist who
claimed that his 1920s experiments with fruit flies in bottles captured a law

of “population” that governed “how things grow,” and that could further
be graphed as what he called “the logistic curve,” today more commonly
called the growth curve or the S-curve. Pearl claimed this curve captured
a law of life found in any aggregate of living-beings at any scale: bacteria in
a petri dish, Drosophila in a bottle, and humans too, in a city, nation, class,
or planet. The population growth curve, as a line tracing the balance of life
and death in a finite container, was abstracted as a universal tendency, repeatable
for all life, everywhere.

Pearl promoted his work redefining “population” at the inaugural World
Population Conference of 1927 held in Geneva, an event designed to propel
a new international focus on problems of population that was distinct from
eugenics. Organized behind the scenes by feminist birth control advocate
Margaret Sanger under Pearl’s supervision, the conference invited a select,
mostly male, mostly American and European cohort of biologists and social
scientists, along with a smattering of participants from Japan, China,

Siam, India, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil. The event promoted an expert,
quantitative, and experimentalist approach to questions of “population”
that critically diverged from the era’s more popular eugenic orientation.
Such eugenics work sought to redirect racialized heredity within
evolutionary logics. In the early twentieth century, eugenics had spread
across the globe in projects to govern life and death toward breeding better
racial futures—more fit, more pure, more evolved, more uplifted races—
projects variously embraced by progressives, fascists, socialists, racists and
antiracists, feminists, scientists, and political reformers. Eugenics sought
to manage evolutionary futures by virtue of encouraging or preventing the
heredity of desirable and undesirable traits in a given population. Selective
eugenic methods of directing racial futures ranged from voluntary birth
control and coerced sterilization, to incarceration and segregation, to pronatalist
policies and racial uplift projects, to euthanasia and mass murder.
Eugenics plotted bodies, races, classes, and regions of the world on an evolutionary
tree in which some bodies were more biologically progressed and
forward in time (white bodies, elite bodies, male bodies, thinking bodies,
able bodies), while other bodies were more primitive and pathological, and
thus threatened to pull future evolution backward (colored bodies, female
bodies, colonized bodies, working bodies, disabled bodies). Eugenics
rested on racist claims of differential life worth based on biological difference
and sought selective methods, often violent, to redirect racial futures. In contrast to eugenics, at stake for Pearl in how fruit flies changed over
time were not racial evolutionary futures but economic futures — how to balance
quantitative population with national production, bringing biology
and state planning together through economy.

Pearl’s work marks a historic shift in the status of “population” as a problematic.
Pearl was trained in biometrics at the Galton Laboratory at University
College London, a pivotal crossroads for both statistics and eugenics as
disciplines. His work signaled a distancing from questions of racial fitness
and Darwinian logics (and hence concerns with the hereditary quality of
life) to an embrace of questions of quantity and especially the rates of birth
and death within populations relative to economic conditions. Thus, Pearl
was innovating as a biologist within a Malthusian tradition that had long
tied population to political economy. Importantly, his work turned “population”
into an experimental object that could be tested and probed with the 

aid of fruit flies, bacteria, or chickens. Laboratory experiments could be
done to populations of organisms in controlled settings. Experiments not
only charted population dynamics but also sought to find ways of intervening
in population’s tendencies over time. Moving beyond the lab, Pearl
mobilized state-produced data from censuses, as well as then emergent
measures of agricultural and manufacturing production, into the project
of modeling human population as yet another iteration of experiment. In doing so, Pearl helped to transform “population” into a problem that
needed to be both represented and intervened in at the intersection of economics
and biology.


In Pearl’s translation from Drosophila to human, the physical limits
of the glass “bottle” stood in for the larger unseeable scale of “national
economic production,” a measure that was rapidly developing in early
twentieth-century state social science. Drawing too on racialized anthropological
visions of staged human progress, the purported economic container
for human populations was broadly delineated as their national
“stage” of economic productivity—primitive, agrarian, or mercantile, with
industrial, mass-consumption capitalism as a pinnacle. In contrast, the old
eighteenth-century Malthusian model of population had insisted on predetermined
rates of food production (the arithmetic increase of 1, 2, 3) and
population growth (the geometric increase of 2, 4, 8), such that population
growth would inevitably become overpopulation, unrelentingly leading
to war, famine, disease, and death. Unlike Malthus, Pearl’s model held
that production rates were variable and adjustable depending on levels of
civilization. Population was also adjustable as both death and birth rates
could be altered with technologies and state policies. Contrary to the inevitable
thrust toward crisis that concluded Malthus’s law of population,
Pearl’s model was rife with possibilities for management.

Pearl’s “proof” that the S-curve applied to humans relied on colonial data
collection: the so-called natural experiment of colonized Algeria, where
French colonial machinery had kept impeccable records that supposedly
recorded a full growth curve. According to Pearl, the “civilizing” of Algeria,
and the purported improvement to agricultural productivity created by
the “white man’s burden” of French colonization, sparked a new “swarm”
of babies, a rapidly growing aggregate of Algerians. Paralleling aggregate
humans with experimental insects, Pearl cited a colonial official to describe

the middle phase of rapid population growth, when “the natives positively
pullulate under our rule” and “babies swarm among them like cockchafers
under a chestnut tree in the spring.” Seeing Algeria as a natural petri dish,
Pearl argued that as the population grew it hit a new upper limit resulting
in a “process akin to natural selection [in which a] good many natives had
to be eliminated before the survivors were reasonably unanimous in their
belief that the old days were gone forever.” For Pearl, the “business of conquest”
in colonized Algeria wrought the S-curve in the births and deaths of
Algerians. Here, the effect of the economic and colonial milieu on shaping
human futures supplanted other “natural” processes.

This version of population crystallized in the period of the Cold War and
decolonization into what I am calling the economization of life. The economization
of life, I argue, was and is a historically specific regime of valuation hinged to the macrological figure of national “economy.” It names the
practices that differentially value and govern life in terms of their ability to
foster the macroeconomy of the nation-state, such as life’s ability to contribute
to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation. It is distinct
from commodifying life or biocapital, or from the broader history of using
quantification to monetize practices. It was not a mode that generated surplus
value through labor but instead designated and managed surplus aggregate
life. In this mode, value could be generated by optimizing aggregate
life chances—including the reduction of future life quantity—relative
to the horizon of the economy. The economization of life was performed
through social science practices that continued the project of racializing
life—that is, dividing life into categories of more and less worthy of living,
reproducing, and being human—and reinscribed race as the problem of
“population” hinged to the fostering of the economy. Thus, the history of
the economization of life is part of the history of racism and the technoscientific
practices of demarcating human worth and exploiting life chances.
Traced in this book through “population control,” the economization of life
was, and remains, a historically specific regime of valuation created with
technoscientific practices (rather than markets) that used quantification
and social science methods to calibrate and then exploit the differential
worth of human life for the sake of the macrological figure of “economy.”

These epistemic infrastructures were assemblages
of practices of quantification and intervention conducted by multidisciplinary
and multisited experts that became consolidated as extensive arrangements
of research and governance within state, transnational, and
nonprofit organizations. I call them infrastructural to underline the ways
knowledge-making can install material supports into the world—such as
buildings, bureaucracies, standards, forms, technologies, funding flows, affective
orientations, and power relations. By attending to epistemic infrastructures,
this book tracks how the experimental practices for quantifying
and intervening in aggregate life consolidated into the pervasive twentiethcentury
infrastructures of family planning, development projects, global
health, NGOs, and imperialism that were built in the name of monitoring
and governing “economy” and “population.” Attending to the epistemic… “population” became a problem during a historical moment when neoliberalism was unfolding and the primary purpose of states
was increasingly understood to be the fostering of “the economy,” itself a
historicizable twentieth-century problematic. Attending to the affective,
the book queries how imaginaries, feelings, futures, and phantasma are part
of the work of quantification. Population and economy became massive
material-semiotic-affective-infrastructural presences that can now be hard
to imagine the world without. They became a way for capitalism to imagine
and organize its own milieu, to conjure its own conditions of possibility. 

Harnessed to the enhancement of the national economy, this new era
of calculative practices designated both valuable and unvaluable human
lives: lives worth living, lives worth not dying, lives worthy of investment,
and lives not worth being born. The history of such designations is vital for
understanding how the continued racialized and sexed devaluation of life
inhabits ubiquitous policies, indices, calculations, and orientations that perform
new kinds of racialization even as they reject biological race as such.
Moreover, this history puts questions of reproduction at the center of how
capitalism summons its world.”

– Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life. Duke University Press, 2017. pp. 1-7.          

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“When myths prove inadequate as keys to interpreting and controlling the changing world, systematic ideologies are developed to reestablish the lost coherence between facts and values. […] Ideology is the product of “discontent” with a world defined by myth; but the end of ideology is to reintegrate the cultural system, to generate a new narrative or myth that will account for and give value to reality, and so to create the basis for a new cultural consensus. Since even a shattered mythology preserves elements of the cultural past, the new mythology will inevitably find connection with the old; indeed, the readiest way to renew the force of a weakened mythology is to link new ideology to the traditional imagery of existing myth. Thus discontent born of experience creates a cognitive dissonance that disrupts the “harmonious display of essences,” degrading sacred myth to secular ideology; and ideology in the hands of a class seeking to establish and justify its hegemony reaches out to coopt myth. This process of mythogenesis, breakdown, cooptation, and mythic renewal informs the history of culture.

The weakness of the archetypal approach is that it must scant the historical particular in the search for the universal structure. […] Moreover, an archetypal approach cannot tell us why a given version of the archetype has such unvarying success over time. […] The fundamental flaw in the archetypal approach is its mystification of the processes of mythmaking which it is designed to explain. The making of myths is seen as proceeding from some transcendent suprahuman entity – a “collective mind” or “collective unconscious” – or as something “generated” by the operations of a disembodied and abstract “grammar” of literary tropes and structural rules. In this interpretation the making of myths ceases to appear as human work, in a material world and through historical time, and becomes instead the result of a communion with the Ineffable. In effect, the archetypalist affirms the most important fiction that a myth contains – the implication that its sources are a part of the natural order of things, an expression of some law or rule that shapes a plastic and passive humanity.”

– Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890. New York: Atheneum. 1985, pp. 25, 27-28

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Royal Navy landing party complete with Brodie helmets and Enfield rifles head for shore at Hong Kong from the Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable to guard key points as British forces move in to conduct surrender of Japanese. 13 Sept 1945.

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“Colonialism tried to control the memory of the colonized;
or, rather, in the words of Caribbean thinker Sylvia Wynter,
it tried to subject the colonized to its memory, to make the
colonized see themselves through the hegemonic memory of
the colonizing center. Put another way, the colonizing presence
sought to induce a historical amnesia on the colonized
by mutilating the memory of the colonized; and where that
failed, it dismembered it, and then tried to re-member it to
the colonizer’s memory—to his way of defining the world, including
his take on the nature of the relations between colonizer
and colonized.

This relation was primarily economic. The colonized as
worker, as peasant, produces for another. His land and his labor
benefit another. This arrangement was, of course, effected
through power, political power, but it was also accomplished
through cultural subjugation—for instance, through control
of the education system. The ultimate goal was to establish
psychic dominance on the part of the colonizer and
psychic subservience on the part of the colonized.
The acts and consequences of economic and political
subjugation are obvious, for you cannot persuade a person
who has lost her land to forget the loss, the person who goes
hungry to forget the hunger, and the person who bears the
whiplashes of an unjust system to forget the pain. But cultural
subjugation is more dangerous, because it is more subtle
and its effects longer lasting. Moreover, it can cause a person
who has lost her land, who feels the pangs of hunger, who carries
flagellated flesh, to look at those experiences differently.
It can lead to a pessimism that fails to see in her history any
positive lessons in dealings with the present. Such a person
has been drained of the historical memory of a different
world. The prophet who once warned “Fear not those who
kill the body but those who kill the spirit” was right on the
mark; certainly Steve Biko, with his black consciousness,
was working within that prophetic warning.”

– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance. New York: Basic Books, 2009.  pp. 108-109.

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“Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery,
which could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation.
In many respects, the very structure of the plantation system and its aftermath
manifests the emblematic and paradoxical figure of the state of exception. This figure is paradoxical here for two reasons. First, in the context of the plantation,
the humanity of the slave appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed,
the slave condition results from a triple loss: loss of a “home,” loss of rights over
his or her body, and loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute
domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether).
To be sure, as a political-juridical structure, the plantation is a space where the
slave belongs to a master. It is not a community if only because by definition, a
community implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought. As Paul
Gilroy says, “The extreme patterns of communication defined by the institution
of plantation slavery dictate that we recognize the anti-discursive and extralinguistic
ramifications of power at work in shaping communicative acts. There
may, after all, be no reciprocity on the plantation outside of the possibilities of
rebellion and suicide, flight and silent mourning, and there is certainly no grammatical
unity of speech to mediate communicative reason. In many respects, the
plantation inhabitants live non-synchronously.” As an instrument of labor, the
slave has a price. As a property, he or she has a value. His or her labor is needed
and used. The slave is therefore kept alive but in a state of injury, in a phantomlike
world of horrors and intense cruelty and profanity. The violent tenor of the
slave’s life is manifested through the overseer’s disposition to behave in a cruel
and intemperate manner and in the spectacle of pain inflicted on the slave’s

Violence, here, becomes an element in manners, like whipping or taking
of the slave’s life itself: an act of caprice and pure destruction aimed at instilling
terror. Slave life, in many ways, is a form of death-in-life. As Susan Buck
Morss has suggested, the slave condition produces a contradiction between freedom
of property and freedom of person. An unequal relationship is established
along with the inequality of the power over life. This power over the life of
another takes the form of commerce: a person’s humanity is dissolved to the point
where it becomes possible to say that the slave’s life is possessed by the master. Because the slave’s life is like a “thing,” possessed by another person, the slave
existence appears as a perfect figure of a shadow. 

In spite of the terror and the symbolic sealing off of the slave, he or she maintains
alternative perspectives toward time, work, and self. This is the second
paradoxical element of the plantation world as a manifestation of the state of
exception. Treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and
instrument of production, the slave nevertheless is able to draw almost any object,
instrument, language, or gesture into a performance and then stylize it. Breaking
with uprootedness and the pure world of things of which he or she is but a fragment,
the slave is able to demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond
through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another. 

If the relations between life and death, the politics of cruelty, and the symbolics
of profanity are blurred in the plantation system, it is notably in the colony
and under the apartheid regime that there comes into being a peculiar terror formation
I will now turn to. The most original feature of this terror formation is
its concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege. Crucial
to this concatenation is, once again, race. In fact, in most instances, the selection of races, the prohibition of mixed marriages, forced sterilization, even
the extermination of vanquished peoples are to find their first testing ground in
the colonial world. Here we see the first syntheses between massacre and bureaucracy,
that incarnation of Western rationality. Arendt develops the thesis that
there is a link between national-socialism and traditional imperialism. According
to her, the colonial conquest revealed a potential for violence previously unknown.
What one witnesses in World War II is the extension to the “civilized” peoples of
Europe of the methods previously reserved for the “savages.” 

That the technologies which ended up producing Nazism should have originated
in the plantation or in the colony or that, on the contrary—Foucault’s thesis—Nazism
and Stalinism did no more than amplify a series of mechanisms that
already existed in Western European social and political formations (subjugation
of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medico-legal theories
on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. A fact remains,
though: in modern philosophical thought and European political practice and
imaginary, the colony represents the site where sovereignty consists fundamentally
in the exercise of a power outside the law (ab legibus solutus) and where
“peace” is more likely to take on the face of a “war without end.” 

Indeed, such a view corresponds to Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty at
the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the power to decide on the state of
exception. To properly assess the efficacy of the colony as a formation of terror,
we need to take a detour into the European imaginary itself as it relates to the critical
issue of the domestication of war and the creation of a European juridical
order (Jus publicum Europaeum). At the basis of this order were two key principles.
The first postulated the juridical equality of all states. This equality was
notably applied to the right to wage war (the taking of life). The right to war meant
two things. On the one hand, to kill or to conclude peace was recognized as one of
the preeminent functions of any state. It went hand in hand with the recognition
of the fact that no state could make claims to rule outside of its borders. But conversely,
the state could recognize no authority above it within its own borders. On
the other hand, the state, for its part, undertook to “civilize” the ways of killing
and to attribute rational objectives to the very act of killing.
The second principle related to the territorialization of the sovereign state, that
is, to the determination of its frontiers within the context of a newly imposed
global order. In this context, the Jus publicum rapidly assumed the form of a distinction
between, on the one hand, those parts of the globe available for colonial appropriation and, on the other, Europe itself (where the Jus publicum was to
hold sway). This distinction, as we will see, is crucial in terms of assessing the
efficacy of the colony as a terror formation. Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war
is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely,
a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus
of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle
of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a
moral sign.

In the same context, colonies are similar to the frontiers. They are inhabited by
“savages.” The colonies are not organized in a state form and have not created a
human world. Their armies do not form a distinct entity, and their wars are not
wars between regular armies. They do not imply the mobilization of sovereign
subjects (citizens) who respect each other as enemies. They do not establish a distinction
between combatants and noncombatants, or again between an “enemy”
and a “criminal.” It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum,
colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the
political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are
the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order
can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is
deemed to operate in the service of “civilization.” 

That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the
racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the
eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying
experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension. In fact, according
to Arendt, what makes the savages different from other human beings is less
the color of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature, that
they treat nature as their undisputed master. Nature thus remains, in all its majesty,
an overwhelming reality compared to which they appear to be phantoms, unreal
and ghostlike. The savages are, as it were, “natural” human beings who lack the
specifically human character, the specifically human reality, “so that when European
men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed

For all the above reasons, the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule
in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any
manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules. It is not a
legally codified activity. Instead, colonial terror constantly intertwines with colonially
generated fantasies of wilderness and death and fictions to create the effect
of the real. Peace is not necessarily the natural outcome of a colonial war. In
fact, the distinction between war and peace does not avail. Colonial wars are conceived
of as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against
an absolute enemy. All manifestations of war and hostility that had been marginalized
by a European legal imaginary find a place to reemerge in the colonies.
Here, the fiction of a distinction between “the ends of war” and the “means of
war” collapses; so does the fiction that war functions as a rule-governed contest,
as opposed to pure slaughter without risk or instrumental justification. It becomes
futile, therefore, to attempt to resolve one of the intractable paradoxes of war
well captured by Alexandre Kojève in his reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology
of the Spirit
: its simultaneous idealism and apparent inhumanity.”

– Achille Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 21-25.

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RAT RAPIDS DEVELOPMENT – ALBANY RIVER: A Source of power for Northern Ontario – Wing dam and power house intake

 – from the “Twenty Seventh Annual Report of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of the Province of Ontario,” Sessional Papers of the Legislature of Ontario, Vol. LXVII, Part IV, 1934-1935. Toronto: King’s Printer, 1935. p. 89.

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“Trans-Canada Highway – Mattawa-North Bay Section – Third Sink Hole After 9 Box Charge.”

– from the “Department of Northern Development,” No. 34, Sessional Papers of the Legislature of Ontario, Vol. LXVII, Part IV, 1934-1935. Toronto: King’s Printer, 1935. p. 10.

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“Though it is the subtext of savagery (ascribed to both Indigenous and African-descendent peoples in the Americas) that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play. The turn to witchcraft as a trend (rather than a practice) is conditioned by white women’s desire to obfuscate the power begotten by their whiteness. The occult is after all definitionally about power that obscures its origin. In the current fashion and fashioning of witches, the historical connections between witches and racialized savages, however sublimated, continues to magnetize the appeal. I am sympathetic to this appeal even as I am suspicious of it; it marks a desire to be contrary to the colonial project, even if it does not always enact it.

The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.

That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).

Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.

The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.

These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.”

– Lou Cornum, “White Magic.” The New Inquiry, Feb. 5, 2018.

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“…around the time of the Russian Revolution, the prospects of Communism and Islam joining forces seemed very bright. They were perhaps no brighter than in the Indonesian archipelago, then under Dutch rule: In 1918-21, left-wing labor organizers working hand in glove with Islamic scholars and pious Muslim merchants built the biggest mass movement in Southeast Asia.

Over the preceding decade, Indonesian labor activists had already established a strong union representing workers on the extensive railroad network servicing the vast plantation economy of Java and Sumatra. By 1914, the Indische Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging, or Indies Social-Democratic Union, had expanded from labor organizing among railroad workers into broader forms of social activism and political action against colonial rule.

In particular, members began to join the Sarekat Islam, an organization founded in 1912 as a Muslim batik traders’ association that had morphed into a broader popular movement and was staging mass rallies and strikes across Java. Socialist influence within the Sarekat Islam was already evident at the movement’s congress in 1916, where the Prophet Muhammad was proclaimed to be “the father of Socialism and the pioneer of democracy” and “the Socialist par excellence.”

The Russian Revolution further inspired the Sarekat Islam. By late 1917, activists from the Indies Social-Democratic Union had begun agitating and organizing among the lower ranks of the Dutch armed forces in the Indies. Borrowing the successful tactics of the Bolsheviks in Russia, hundreds of sailors and soldiers were recruited in the hope of staging mutinies and uprisings. The Dutch colonial authorities promptly arrested and imprisoned the activists and ordered their expulsion from the Indies.

But by 1920, the Indies Social-Democratic Union had renamed itself the Communist Union of the Indies, becoming the first Communist party in Asia to join the Comintern. New unions were formed on Java and Sumatra. Peasant villagers mobilized against landowners. A railway strike briefly paralyzed the plantation belt in eastern Sumatra.

It was in this context that the legendary figure of Tan Malaka first appeared. The scion of an aristocratic family from western Sumatra, Tan Malaka had spent World War I as a student in the Netherlands. He came into contact with Socialist activists and ideas, and witnessed the short-lived Troelstra Revolution of late 1918, during which Dutch social-democrats briefly tried to emulate an ongoing revolutionary uprising in Germany. In early 1919, Tan Malaka returned to Indonesia, where he was soon drawn into labor organizing. He joined the embryonic local Communist Party, quickly ascending to its leadership — before the colonial government forced him into exile, and back to the Netherlands, in early 1922.

And so it was with early experience of the revolutionary potential of combining Communism and Islam that Tan Malaka made an appearance at the Fourth Comintern Congress in Moscow and Petrograd in 1922. There, he delivered a memorable speech about the similarities between Pan-Islamism and Communism. Pan-Islamism was not religious per se, he argued, but rather “the brotherhood of all Muslim peoples, and the liberation struggle not only of the Arab but also of the Indian, the Javanese and all the oppressed Muslim peoples.”

“This brotherhood,” he added, “means the practical liberation struggle not only against Dutch but also against English, French and Italian capitalism, therefore against world capitalism as a whole.”

The official record of the proceedings notes that Tan Malaka’s impassioned plea for an alliance between Communism and Pan-Islamism was met with “lively applause.” But his memoirs recall that after three days of heated debate following his speech, he was formally prohibited from further contributing to the proceedings. The official conclusions of the Fourth Comintern Congress, including the “Theses on the Eastern Question,” are notably ambiguous on the question of Pan-Islamism and strikingly silent on Indonesia, even though the movement there was far more successful than any other Communist mobilization in the so-called East at the time.”


John T. Sidel, “What Killed the Promise of Muslim Communism?The New York Times, October 9, 207.

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“Pikangikum — which has one fire truck, but no water to make it useful — is in a state of shock, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, and “trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy” that occurred Tuesday night in the fly-in reserve about 500 miles northwest of Thunder Bay.

While police have not released the exact number of victims, Robert Nault, a local member of parliament, told the media the death toll on one family had reached nine. Three of the victims were children.

The deaths are devastating for the already embattled community, which has made headlines over the past few years because of its high youth suicide rate.

Politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered their condolences to the community on Wednesday.”

– Tamara Khandaker, “A Fire Killed Nine People on a Canadian Reserve With One Fire Truck, But No Water,” Vice News, March 30, 2016

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