Jodi Byrd – Transit of Empire

Citation: Byrd, Jodi A. Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.  

_________________________________________________________________ Argument

Byrd is interested in analyzing Indigeneity as a condition of possibility for Empire, with a particular focus on US imperialism. She frequently returns to the concept of Indianness as a construct that produces and is produced by political and social discourses, both in North America and globally: it is a “field through which structures have always already been produced” (xviii). Or, “Indianness as an injected contagion serves to erase the transnational distinctions of all the peoples who collapse under its sign and it is reified, the sign itself – which now bears indigeneity, sovereignty, and racial minority – becomes the site of contention as indigenous and occupied peoples throughout the empire struggle to resist U.S. hegemony” (157). Her approach has much in common with Indigenous scholars who see the colonializing force of attempting to reconcile problems of race through the ideals of multiculturalism and liberal inclusion.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

Preface & Introduction: Indigenous Critical Theory and the Diminishing Returns of Civilization 

This book “places seemingly disparate histories, temporalities, and geographies into conversation in the hopes that, through enjambment, it might be possible to perceive how Indianness functions as a transit within empire” (xii).  “[D]iscordant and competing representations of diasporic arrivals and native lived experiences” form what Byrd calls “cacophony” as they “vie for hegemony within” overriding “discursive, cultural, and political processes of representation and identity” (xiii).  Byrd cautions that, despite post-structuralism’s suspicion of the “originary,” there must be “the possibility of the originary in the new world,” in part because it is “located within the historical experiences of new world colonizations, genocides, and violences” (xiv) – a stance that privileges both Indigenous capacity for remembering and privileged knowledge, while also centreing place over the passage of time.

Byrd hopes to disrupt postructuralism, in part because in such theories “the Indian functions as a dense presence that cannot be disrupted by deconstruction or Deluzian lines of flight, because the Indian is the ontological prior through which postructuralism functions” (xxxv). Indeed, the Indian is a “field through which postructuralism makes its intervention, and as a result, this paradigmatic and pathological Indianness cannot be circumvented as a colonialist trace” (17). The Indian serves as “transit, the field through which presignifying polyvocality is re/introduced into the signifying regime, and signs begin to proliferate through a series of becomings – becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming Indian” (19).  It is necessary to discuss Indigeneity as a “field through which U.S. empire becomes possible at all” (xx). This has ramifications for discussions of identity. How is Indigeneity not so much an identity as a field of possibility?

Chapter 1: Is and Was: Poststructual Indians without Ancestry 

Cook’s Pacific voyages revealed a new world where Indians “would figure across Atlantic and Pacific worlds and constrain and figure how race, colonialism, and imperialism become the primary distinguishing features of settler imperialisms born out of and invested in multicultural liberal democracy” (3). At the same time, the pastness of the Indian clashes with “the very present and ongoing colonization of indigenous lands, resources, and lives” (6).

“Cacophony” accounts for how colonialism in North America has always worked through process, negotiation, and perhaps most of all, meaning making; not simply top-down exertions of power. Through “competing cacophonies of race, colonialism, and imperialism that enjamb settlers, arrivants, and natives into a competition for hegemonic signification” (12). Hence, the “Indian” is not fixed or static, but exists on “other planes and in other assemblages” within other “Indians” who have no actual claim on the present (16). Likewise, and speaking to the disjunction between signification and lived experience, “cacophony focuses on those moments where the representational logics of colonial discourses break down in the forced application of them in settler colonial localities that contain multiple colonial experiences grounded not only in race but gender, indigeneity, conquest, and sexuality as well” (53).  

Chapter 2: “This Island’s Mine”: The Parallax Logics of Caliban’s Cacophony

Byrd discusses The Tempest to show how a cacophony of representation and understanding encapsulates “parallax gaps,” which enact a “series of deferrals that facilitate the transit of empire” – interrelated affective, political, social, discursive, etc., vehicles of empire – “at the contesting site of indigeneity” (40).  Reading Caliban as “cacophonous” rather than definitive opens up anti-hegemonic potential (67).

First, she explores a piece of performance art, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit…, in which two performers present themselves as “real Indians” in museums, with various trappings that are meant to reveal their inauthenticity, invoke and undermine a particular master narrative about Indigeneity, as well as to satirize viewers’ concept of Indianness. In the performance – and the audiences’ incapacity to “get it,” Byrd notes that “the meanings and worldviews at odds are intricately dependent upon each other and that to engage one history runs the very great risk of obscuring another” (45). The “authority effect” of the museum is interesting, as “The museum and the academy in Europe and North America have traditionally shared an institutionalized faith in reason and method, not to mention as unavoidable intersection with governmental agencies” (49, note 24, Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony, Routledge, 1995. Pg 180). The Native is “a metaphor through which these institutions can confront their complicity in colonialist practices, and is never granted agency beyond its usefulness as sign in the cosmopole of the global North” (51).

Her assessment of Columbus’s famous “misnaming” of North American Indians is compelling. The misnaming is not simply an error or act of ignorance, but signals the place of the Indian in the “narratives of Orientalism that were circulating by the time Columbus set sail. It is an ‘Orientalism’ transplanted and remapped onto the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and it carries with it all the discursive attempts to control and to narrate the places of peoples into an already established world” (73).  

Chapter 3: The Masks of Conquest: Wilson Harris’s Jonestown and the Thresholds of Grievability 

This chapter is an examination of the Jonestown suicides – an American tragedy that played out on Guyanese soil. There are “competing Jonestowns” which “circulate around a traumatic core in search of meaning within the planetary parallax of distortive effects: the ‘truth’ touches and stretches between them both but neither encapsulates nor reduces to that truth even through the U.S. and Guyanese Jonestowns signify simultaneously the violent and excess capitalistic accretion of imperialism that exports death and grief to other nations and the colonialist violations of borders and boundaries that overwrite and disrupt state sovereignties” (79).

In terms of its displaced American Imperialism, Indianness functions “as an anticipated genocidal outcome of a failed militant idealism” (82). Perhaps productively, Harris’s novel creates a “memory theatre” to disrupt the linear narrative of Jonestown.  

Chapter 4: Cherokee Freedman, Internal Colonialism, and the Racialization of Citizenship 

How we remember the past is itself a location. Byrd gives the blues as an example of this, particularly as dominant accounts of music history empty the Mississippi Delta of Indigenous presences (122). The 7th Calvary now in Iraq, and once used to evict American Indians also speaks to the  wide of scope of such rememberings playing out in the present (123).

Byrd looks at the Cherokee’s attempt to disenfranchise Native Freedmen in order to show how assertions of sovereignty activate notions of racial minoritization and constrain anti-colonial struggle. The notion of “internal colonization” naturalizes Indigenous nations as minorities within empire (135): “American Indians have existed in a space of liminality, where what was external was repeatedly and violently reimagined and remade as internal in order to disavow the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples that is necessary for the United States to exist” (136).  

Chapter 5: Satisfied with Stones; Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization and the Discourses of Resistance 

Byrd argues that Hawai’i’s anti-colonial struggles have evoked the spectre of the Indian by rejecting what they saw as the possibility that the US would constitutionally construct Native Hawai’ians as “Indians.” Here, Indianness “functions as imperial sign and infection” within the various sites that make up US indigeneity (148). This emanates from a bill proposed by Hawai’ian senators asking for Hawai’i to have the same dependent status as Native Americans (153).

At the same time, “understandings of these concurrent historical oppressions through an awareness of how the United States depends upon a paradigmatic Indianness to underwrite its oppressive policies may provide us with new avenues for anticolonial resistances across and beyond the reach of the United States and may help us resist the tendency towards rivalry in the decolonial process” (176-7). She has some important points regarding solidarity across difference, such as her use of Hau’ofa’s “sea of islands” metaphor: “there is a world of difference between seeing American Indian nations as islands of reservations within and belonging to the United States and understanding the ways in which our nations articulate a network of relations that provide the basis for kinship sovereignties and diplomacies as traditional governance” (177).  

Chapter 6: Killing States: Removals, Other Americans, and the “Pale Promise of Democracy” 

This chapter draws parallels between US inclusion of the Indian, and exclusion of Asian bodies, in part by focusing on how reserve space was used to imprison Japanese Americans in the 1940s (193), through the lens of Schmitt and Agamben’s state of exception (199).

 Conclusion: Zombie Imperialism                    “Indigenous critical theory stands in the parallax gap created when U.S. empire transits itself in the stretch between perceptions of the real to interpret and will against the signifying systems that render ‘Indianness’ as the radical alterity of the real laid bare” (222) – work that Byrd clearly sees this book doing. This is perhaps why she closes with a turn to zombies in order to push back against the “necropolitics” of US imperialism (229).  

Key Point – Opposition to Liberal Recognition and Inclusion This is a concept that Byrd returns to throughout.  Byrd is attuned to how social justice struggles run roughshod over anti-colonial struggles: “That cocophony of competing struggles for hegemony within and outside institutions of power, no matter how those struggles might challenge the state through loci of race, class, gender, and sexuality, serves to misdirect and cloud attention from the underlying structures of settler colonialism that made the United States possible as oppressor in the first place” (xvii).

Key Point – Colonialism as Racialization

“When the remediation of the colonization of American Indians is framed through discourses of racialization that can be redressed by further inclusion into the nation-state, there is a significant failure to grapple with the fact that such discourses further reinscribe the original colonial injury” (xxiii).

In terms of the land, “the larger concern is that this conflation” – the state offering assimilation as a balm for genocide and land theft – “masks the territoriality of conquest by assigning colonization to the racialized body, which is then policed in its degrees from whiteness” (xxiv).

She uses Mark Twain writing about Hawai’i as an example of how America uses constructions of race to “reimagine itself as an inclusive democracy in which all are created equal” (24). At the same time, in his satire of Cook’s arrival to Hawai’i, he makes inevitable the death of Kanakas – an account that is “necessarily sanitized of any violent intent” (25).  The U.S.’s “momentary recognition of American Indian sovereignty and external national status serves to systematize inclusion / exclusion as the site through which liberalism encodes colonization as racialization” (170).

Points of Importance/Interest:·

  • Her various definitions of recognition; racialization / minoritization·
  • Concept of the Indian as imperial transit is helpful for thinking through things like factionalism and what might look like troublesome banners for Indigenous nations to rally under.
  • She has some important points regarding solidarity across difference, such as her use of Hau’ofa’s “sea of islands” metaphor to foreground the transnational: “there is a world of difference between seeing American Indian nations as islands of reservations within and belonging to the United States and understanding the ways in which our nations articulate a network of relations that provide the basis for kinship sovereignties and diplomacies as traditional governance” (177) – perhaps a form of “generative kinship” (183), with an emphasis on counter-hegemonic and imaginative productivity.
  • Her use of consubstantiation in conversation with Povinelli points to “generative kinships” between Indigenous nations, but perhaps also between arrivants and Indigenous peoples (211).



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