Excerpt from Mohawk Interruptus (Audra Simpson)

Citation: Simpson, Audra. “Ethnographic Refusal: Anthropological Need.” Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.96 – 114.

_________________________________________________________________Argument  

Anthropological analysis of Indigenous peoples has predetermined how knowledge gets formed and how people assert subjectivity in Canada. To counter the essentializing, destructive effects of fact-gathering and truth-deciding – of which the setting-up of “difference” as “culture” is a sort – Simpson recommends types of refusal that support Indigenous sovereignty and allow for new forms of knowledge production and assertions of Indigeneity.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: “Ethnographic Refusal and Anthropological Need.”                      Throughout the colonization of North America, “protoethnographic” accounts of Indigeneity conveyed to settler readers – often via “captivity narratives” – the essential difference of Indigenous peoples. “Like ‘race’ in other contexts, ‘culture’ was (and still is in some quarters) the conceptual and necessarily essentialized space standing in for complicated bodily and exchange-based relationships that enabled and marks colonial situations in Empire: warfare, commerce, sex, trade, missionization” (96).                      Culture, in a way, is a stand-in term for essential difference, and served to make sense of, order and possess space (97). Simpson wants to play around with cultural analysis without using difference as  a “unit of analysis,” noting that “when the people we speak of speak for themselves, their sovereignty interrupts anthropological portraits of timelessness, procedure, and function that dominate representations of their past and, sometimes, their present” (97).

Simpson argues that Mohawk traditions, practiced in the present run counter to “evidence” that anthropologists have tended to find; rather than reflecting “actual” culture, they say more about discourses of the doomed Indian that accompany anthropological inquiry. The notion of “an imminent cultural death” made things matter that looked precise, regular, and documentable “in the ethnological and ethnographic eye” (98). Notion of culture as tradition “disavows or pushes away its context of articulation: the political project of dispossession and containment, as it actually works to contain, to fetishize and entrap and distill Indigenous discourses into memorizable, repeatable rituals for preservation against a social and political death that was foretold but did not happen” (99). This is a problem for recognition, as only certain forms of being are perceptible to the colonial eye. As with land that was colonized based on principles of terra nullius, “categorical forms of recognition and misrecognition are indebted to deep philosophical histories of seeing and knowing; tied to legal fiat, they may enable disproportionately empowered political forms […] to come into being in a very short time. Without that category of knowing and its concomitant form, land could not be wrested from those who belong to it and to whom it rightfully belongs” (100).                     As in John Locke’s Of Property ([1797] 2003), land that does not appear to be claimed through labour is alienable. On one hand, Indigenous people’s labour is often unrecognized as such; on the other, “of equal import for Indigenous peoples is the conflation of property with a larger economy of social and political rank and value,” which is critical given colonial ideals about the relationship between property and civility, and how settling the land involved assigning Indigenous peoples to workable plots of land and sedentary lifestyles (101).  

Culture is meant to denote difference so that it does not refer to “its sovereignty, its right to govern, to own, or to (101) labor” (102).

The overriding idea that “the anthropological and historical project” encapsulated in studies of Iroquois peoples in the 19th century “may be characterized as one that seeks to authenticate (and then adjudicate) cultural forms rather than analyze them.” Such studies matter because they “perform analysis for others to think with and to learn from” and “enact certain possibilities for the people they purport to represent, as well as for those who read and engage with these representations as students, as the curious, as subjects, as those who might or might not govern” (104).

Simpson turns to Taiaiake Alfred, who argues that sovereignty is an inadequate and false term for characterizing Indigenous philosophies and modes of being, but Simpson contends that such terminology matters because such language underpins the “structural condition of ongoing Indigenous dispossession and disavowal of that dispossession and structure.” An analysis that considers the “juridic and the textual at once” is needed to “link the notion of jurisdiction over texts to writing” (105). Her concept of ethnographic refusal does two things: asserts jurisdiction over ethnographic data, while refusing to present everything. “This is for the express purpose of protecting the concerns of the community. It acknowledges the asymmetrical power relations that inform the research and writing about native lives and politics, and it does not presume that they are on equal footing with anyone” (105).

Refusal allows for assorted types of recognition, not simply a double consciousness an “endless play” of consciousness: “I am me, I am what you think I am, and I am who this person to the right of me thinks I am, and you are all full of shit, and then maybe I will tell you to your face” (107). Ha HA! “There was something that seemed to reveal itself at the point of refusal – a stance, a principle, a historical narrative, and an enjoyment in the reveal” (107).

She closes the chapter by talking about Kahnawake’s membership debates, and uses an interview to demonstrate how jurisdiction over representation, practices and knowledge can subvert anthropological desires for a pure and static account (110). Moreover, the limit of representation marks an awareness of and responsibility to sovereignty: The limit of conversation comes “when the representation would bite all of us and compromise the representational territory that has been gained in the past hundred years, in small but deeply influential ways” (111-12). “Rather than stops, or impediments to knowing, those limits may be expansive in their ethnographic nonrendering and in what they do not tell us” (113).

Points of Importance/Interest: ·

  • Simpson has some great terminology, i.e. “materially and symbolically shaped spaces of discernment that distill into ‘representations’ or renderings of difference that govern the way that we know things” (102).
  • The overriding idea that “the anthropological and historical project” encapsulated in studies of Iroquois peoples in the 19th century “may be characterized as one that seeks to authenticate (and then adjudicate) cultural forms rather than analyze them.” Such studies matter because they “perform analysis for others to think with and to learn from” and “enact certain possibilities for the people they purport to represent, as well as for those who read and engage with these representations as students, as the curious, as subjects, as those who might or might not govern” (104).
  • Jurisdiction over Indigenous texts can perform authority and agency while not relying on false notions of equality (105).
  • Privileging “simply refusing the gaze” and “disengagement” is interesting for considering how any engagement with the settler state is automatically a problem (106).
  • Simpson’s exploration of other forms of citizenship through speaking and writing (110) is akin to Emilie Cameron’s notes about Inuk storytellers and the limits that they impose on their versions of things.

 

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