Jodi A. Byrd. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism.
Centered at the intersection of postcolonial theory, indigenous critical theory, and literary studies, Jodi A. Byrd's book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism is an ambitious effort. The book desires to trace the spatial and conceptual movement of US empire via the conceptual framework of "Indianness" while simultaneously staging a critical intervention by identifying the traces of that same "Indianness" within postcolonial theorizing and liberal multiculturalism. Indigenous critical theory must be central in any understanding of US empire, she argues, "precisely because it is through the elisions, erasures, enjambments, and repetitions of Indianness that one might see the stakes in decolonial, restorative justice tied to land, life, and grievability" (xiii). Otherwise, postcolonial and multicultural theorizings continue the erasures of Indigenous peoples, leaving them without a past, future, or claim to sovereignty. As an alternative, Byrd proposes the Chickasaw/Choctaw concept of haksuba--what she interprets as the creative and destructive "chaos" or "cacophony" along the edge of the meeting of the Upper and Lower Worlds of creation--as one indigenous way to read the meetings and clashings of identities under US empire. Rather than read identities in a vertical hierarchy of colonizer versus colonized that also places all colonized voices in competition for hegemony, Byrd wants to disrupt that reifying narrative by reading along the horizon of colonized voices and using that cacophony to seek relational kinships among those many voices.
Byrd employs what she calls a "mnemonic" methodology to accomplish this substantial task, and each chapter endeavors to track the transit of empire through a series of political events and cultural productions. Chapter 1, "Is and Was: Poststructural Indians without Ancestry," is an interrogation of poststructuralist theories in relationship to the 1769 journey of Venus across the face of the sun (which in part motivated Captain Cook's journeys into the Pacific) that reveals how the paradigm of "Indianness" has been built and deployed to justify imperial expansion. Byrd asserts that the constructed Indian was and is "a colonial, imperial referent that continues to produce knowledge about the indigenous as 'primitive' and 'savage' otherness within poststructuralist and postcolonial theory and philosophy" (19). Simultaneously, the phenomenon of planetary parallax and distortion becomes a reference point for colonialist representations of Indianness.
Chapter 2, "'This Island's Mine': The Parallax Logics of Caliban's Cacophony" juxtaposes readings of the character of Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest with Coco Fusco's analysis of her and Guillermo Gomez-Pena's widely misinterpreted performance piece Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit.... Byrd's purpose here is to demonstrate the way that "representational logics" of Indianness function through distortion and racialization and how even anticolonialist attempts at critique--such as Fusco and Gomez-Pena's museum/art piece--can recreate the distortions of Indianness when they lack indigenous critical theory as the "baseline from which to measure the violences produced as empire transits through the field of Indianness" (76).
Chapter 3, "The Masks of Conquest: Wilson Harris's Jonestown and the Thresholds of Grievability" addresses the question, "What does the activation of indigenous and tribal presences mean for interpretive strategies at the moment postcolonial multiculturalism fails?" (79) To answer, she closely reads the colonial cacophony of both the historical event of the Jonestown mass suicide and William Harris's novel Jonestown. Harris's reproduction of Jonestown, though imperfect, provides an opportunity to understand how recognizing indigenous presence suggests how one might disrupt colonialist discourses and narrative and avoid supplanting indigenous peoples with settler and arrivant voices in the Caribbean.
Chapter 4, "'Been to the Nation, Lord, but I Couldn't Stay There': Cherokee Freedmen, Internal Colonialism, and the Racialization of Citizenship," configures the history of blues music as a relationship between southeastern US indigenous peoples and the African slaves who arrived in that space, then sets the Cherokee Freedmen controversy that began in 2007 in contrast with that history to discuss the concept of "internal colonialism." To label the disenfranchisement a matter of internal colonialism, Byrd contends, is to confirm a colonial understanding of sovereignty and race; the more decolonial tactic might be to enact "kinship sovereignties" that are more a part of southeastern indigenous structures of governance and are echoed in the blues.
Chapter 5, "Satisfied with Stones: Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization and the Discourses of Resistance" revisits the problem of competing, cacophonic discourses again, only here Byrd frames the transit of imperial Indianness through the discourses surrounding the proposed Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2007. Though supportive of the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement, Byrd is emphatic in her desire to "find ways for activists and scholars to resist the processes through which the U.S. government pits indigenous and Hawaiian struggles against each other in ... 'the politics of distraction'" (150). This chapter is a series of scenes, both historical and contemporary, that trace how this competition-in-distraction between Native Americans and Native Hawaiians has occurred and how it might be defused.
Chapter 6, "Killing States: Removals, Other Americans, and the 'Pale Promise of Democracy,'" draws on the forced encampment of Japanese Americans on American Indian reservations during World War II and a close reading of Gerald Vizenor's Hiroshima Bugi to critique liberal multiculturalism as the solution to colonialism. Byrd reexamines the Japanese American internment as a similar process of distortion to that which denies indigenous sovereignty and uses Hiroshima Bugi to strategize survivance in the face of a "conviviality within the transits of empire" that smoothes over cacophony and the destruction of indigenous sovereignties the world over (189-90).
Though often dense in language and sometimes seemingly fragmented in its choice of subjects for analysis, Byrd's accomplishment is bringing indigenous critical theory to bear on poststructural and postcolonial theorizing through a number of historical moments and literary texts and establishing how the transit of empire may be halted when we read the many voices affected by colonialism in relationship, not competition, with one another. In reading along the horizon of cacophony, Byrd reclaims indigenous intellectual and epistemological space in an act of theoretical decolonization that begins to "[restore] life and allows settler, arrivant, and native to apprehend and grieve together the violences of U.S. empire" (229).
Lisa King, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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