Blog post

Forum on Patrick Wolfe

The following is a comment on a forum held earlier this year engaging with the works of the late Patrick Wolfe, leading theorist on settler colonialism and author of Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Racism.

Verso Books11 October 2017

Forum on Patrick Wolfe

Patrick Wolfe's works are widely regarded as principal texts in mapping out the burgeoning field of settler colonial studies. His theorizations on race, and the 'logic of elimination' constitute a profoundly generative paradigm within which rich comparative studies have been produced. These case studies have traced and refined the framework outlined by Wolfe, while further accentuating the spatially and temporally specific manifestations of settler colonialism. Crucially, as embodied in the spirited resistance of the field's most prominent theorist, these studies impel us to dismantle settler colonialist structures in the daily practices of our lives. A forum held earlier this year reflects flourishing engagement with Wolfe's work, emphatically reasserting its continuing significance today. The following short account of contributions to the forum also stresses the inherent interdisciplinarity of Wolfe's approach.

Settler colonialism is a 'structure not an event' and 'Race is colonialism speaking'. Both phrases were recurrently cited in contributions to the forum, and in most writing referencing Wolfe. The combination of these two phrases conveys the ontological instability of race, which emerged as a regime, practice or technique of settler colonialism. In turn, settler colonialism while driven by the logic of elimination seeking to destroy and replace, encompasses dynamicity translatable across time and place. Settler colonial structure is reproduced in institutions such as legal codes, classifying and managing the process of colonialism. But, institutions themselves are not inert. They are tested, made, and remade. This testing and reconfiguration of settler colonialism takes consideration of global precedents while accommodating context specific political settlements. Empirical case studies illuminate the interaction between general internal drives of settler colonialism and local mechanisms of imposition.

The first two essays in the collection investigate the interaction of structure with living, agency-bearing, historical beings. Settler colonialist structures give rise to unintended tangible consequences, such consequences revealing spaces within which agency operates. Jean O'Brien investigates these issues through challenging Wolfe's description of assimilation as a technique of settler colonial domination. Stressing that strategies for survival based on agency and resistance are obscured when assimilation is synonymous with elimination, O'Brien traces the Choctaw preservation of identity despite accepting individual land allotments, and the use of the Reorganization Act by indigenous people in North America to push for more federally recognised tribes. J. Kehaulani Kauanui unpacks the ideas of agency and historical contingency by using Wolfe's framework to critique the static conception of Blackness rooted in the experience of slavery, as posited by Afro-Pessimists. Kehaulani Kauanui describes the fluidity of race and assertion of agency evidenced in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 against a British colonial governor. After the rebellion, racial segmentation and slavery were increasingly solidified, contrary to a trans-historical and ontologically fixed conceptions of race.

Robin D. G. Kelley's contribution to the collection questions the absence of Africa in the geographical scope of Wolfe's studies on settler colonialism. While upholding the contested and dynamic nature of race, Kelley critiques Wolfe's assertion that the colonisation of Africa primarily involved the exploitation of labour and that land centered settler colonialism did not bear as much on the experiences of the continent. Drawing on the work of Cedric Robinson, Kelley explains that this theoretical slip erases the landed indigeniety of Africans, their placement in the category of imperial colonial domination rather than settler colonialism obscuring insights that better explain the interaction of both. African land was coveted additionally to African labour, and the reduction of the continent's experience of colonialism to the exploitation of the latter plays down the role of settlers in Africa.

Saree Makdisi highlights the continuing importance of Wolfe's work by exploring the settler colonisation of Palestine. The eliminatory logic of settler colonialism lies at the heart of the 1950 Law of Return, codifying the replacement of the indigenous population with a settler one, and Wolfe's theorizations are disturbingly reflected in the practices of Zionism. Israel's continuing annexation of land and fixation with the 'demographic threat' posed by Palestinians has been discussed thoroughly in literature on the occupation. However, Makdisi emphasizes the internal contradictions and fraught nature of Israeli settler colonialism. The existence of Mizrahim or Arab Jews, and their position in unequal relations of power with Ashkenazi or European Jews, mean that the Palestinian 'other' is required to maintain the illusory homogeneity and unity of the Israeli state. As Wolfe's penetrative insight explains,

'Israel cannot survive without its Palestinians. Without the Palestinians - which is to say, when everyone is Jewish - the Mizrahim once again become Arabs...When everything is Jewish, difference itself becomes Jewish - a return to the precise condition that Zionism sought to suppress in order to build a nation out of groups of people whose differences from one another were greater than their commonalities'.

The inherent instability of the foundations of settler colonialism embodies opportunities for resistance movements seeking the survival of indigenous populations.

Finally, David Lloyd in his contribution discusses the arsenal of techniques settler colonialism provides to neoliberal modalities of commodification, appropriation and exploitation. He investigates the circulation of regimes of racialization amongst colonial sites, certain territories existing as laboratories and setting precedent for practices elsewhere. These regimes are 'not only discursive and technological; they are visceral, affective, and correspondingly capable of a viciousness that seems disproportionate to any practical requirement of colonial rule'. While settler colonialism and regimes of race are enacted collectively, indigenous presence on the land is experienced at a 'powerfully intimate level', explaining the rage that ensues as a reaction to even non-violent assertions of rights.

The importance of these contributions engaging with Wolfe's brilliant and prescient works not only lie in their amalgamation of insights from different disciplines in approaching a phenomenon that has marked and continues to shape our world. The significance of these engagements further lies in their 'usefulness', in their uncovering of the internally fraught techniques of settler colonialism, vulnerable to strategic indigenous resistance.

To encourage further engagement with Patrick's work, American Quarterly have very kindly allowed open access to the essays comprising the forum -