Sunera Thobani – Exalted Subjects

Citation: Thobani, Sunera. Exalted Subjects: Studying the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Argument   What Thobani terms “nationals” – her “exalted subjects” – are recipients of privilege, the imagined beneficiaries and members of the nation, who are constructed as exhibiting the ideal characteristics of the nation. Nationals exist in a triad with their Others, as well as the nation-state; characteristics are ascribed to nationals just as the nationals’ presentation of those characteristics naturalize them as emblematic of the nation.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:

Introduction- “On Exaltation.” Those who are “strangers” to exalted subjects of the nation represent “the potential for the very negation of nationality within modernity” (4 my emphasis).

Thobani argues that exaltation sets groups of humans as “ontologically and existentially distinct” (5) (a statement that naturalizes commonality and doesn’t leave much room for actual differences). Narratives that exalt certain subjects “are inscribed into the juridical order and shape state policies and practices, the national subject is not only existentially but also institutionally and systematically defined in direct relation to the outsider” (5). She disputes the idea that some humans have “an excess of certain traits while others suffer a dearth of the same” (7) (while not considering that the differences between different peoples in Canada matter).

Enlightenment accounts that naturalize colonization imagine “human beings as distinct from other species in their capacity to reason, a capacity which is integral to their very nature. Such hegemonic accounts of the modern subject have been strongly contested by a number of theoretical traditions” (7). This is clearly an important statement, but in the endnote meant to point readers to these other theoretical traditions, rather than cite Indigenous scholars, she includes only Foucault, Stuart Hall, and Fanon (7 n 11). Later, too, she contends that, “[a]fter Foucault, no neat division can be drawn between state and civil society, between state power and the individual, between state and nation” (23), not leaving much room for non-European societies.

The State fosters nationals, in part by treating certain traits as inherent to individuals rather than the product of “colonial violence, political, racial, and ethnic dominations” or classist and sexist formations that undergird the formation of the nation. “The qualities that are said to be shared by nationals bring them directly into the orbit of the state” (11). This might be useful for my topic paper: it’s interesting to consider how viewing art gets constructed as a practice of the national, the discerning subject.

Thobani notes that Indigenous peoples have been theorized through a necropolitics, in anticipation of their supposedly inevitable demise. The advent of recognition politics – and even the way that Inuit have been treated by Canada all along – contradicts Thobani’s claim here somewhat.  Here she does turn to Bonita Lawrence, who describes how the Indian Act invented the Indian as a “lawless political identity” (14), but this seems more like a way to simply summarize the effect of state policy rather than developing any serious engagement. On the other hand, she does distinguish between ‘actual’ Indigenous peoples and the Indian, much in the same way that Jodi Byrd does: “the Indian has remained an enduring mark against which national identity is delineated” (14). Importantly, she acknowledges that exaltation allows for “proprietorial access to land, citizenship, mobility, employment, social entitlements (21).

In a later chapter, “Founding a Lawful Nation,” Thobani observes that Agamben failed to identify the reserve as the ultimate state of the “quintessential zone of exception” (37), and states that the “suppression of Native peoples, and of their socio-political orders, remains the necessary condition of Canadian sovereignty” (39), which relates to Patrick Macklem’s argument that Canada needs “Aboriginal difference.”

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • Thobani mentions “strangers” as representing uncertainty and instability – the potential of future exclusions, which resonates with Mackey and Mitchell’s investigations (especially Mackey’s).
  • The discussion is curiously absent of land, although economics and material stability make appearances (if only by implication).
  • In many ways, this book is a great example of a discussion of Indigeneity that does not turn to Indigenous theory at the very least, and that exhibits a postcolonial arrogance at worst.
  • Important for discussing the absence of Indigenous knowledge in Eurocentric postcolonial analysis, and problems with supplementing that absence.
  • What is the purpose of her argument that is not being fulfilled because of her lack of attention to Indigenous theory? Is her argument merely that society is more ‘made up’ than it initially appears, socially and political constructed through a complicated dialectical formation?



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