A lot of my work of late is inspired by native American, especially Siouan, thought and language. It is a tricky place to tread because the dangers of appropriation are all too real and devastating to those with whom I have worked on and off now for nearly twenty years. For me, indigenous stories, lifeways, material culture, and the lessons relayed by them are tools to think with. The solutions to the problems I hope to address are not found within the ways of others. Rather, these ways point me back to European traditions and suggest ways in which those might be more fruitfully revised to achieve the dreams not just of Europeans, but of a wider humanity and an expansive ecology.
I think this important to state explicitly and up front lest what I write be misinterpreted as another iteration of “plastic shamanism,” cultural theft, or a turning away from the pressing needs of indigenous people in a global-capitalist world blind to their suffering and silent on their influence. Take, for example, Zoe Todd’s critique of Bruno Latour and new materialisms, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism” (2017). Todd’s point is that Latour and others have not acknowledged the similarities between the philosophical structures of indigenous people and recent attempts by European and American scholars to refigure the nature-culture division. Todd traces the “subtle but pervasive power afforded to white scholarship” (12) often manifested in “the silences” where such scholarship does “not currently live up to the promises” it makes (17).
This puts “Eurowestern” scholars (her term) in a bit of a pickle, though this is not an insurmountable one at all. On the one hand, do not appropriate the intellectual or material traditions of others, lest ye be judged. On the other, do not not reference the intellectual or material traditions of others, lest ye be judged. While simplified, this is often how I, as a Eurowestern person trained in its history and traditions, have felt and I imagine others feel similarly. Rather than risk offense, it has been easier in my case to often not produce work regarding indigenous rhetorics and rely, instead, on the safer rhetorics of ecology, landscape, and place.
Perhaps, then, after many years of being thick, I can finally see through such a self-imposed contradiction as I articulated it above. If I understand Todd and other indigenous scholars correctly, Eurowestern scholarship can revise its own traditions while simultaneously acknowledging indigenous influence. After all, how difficult is it to drop reference to Gerald Vizenor, Paul Gunn Allen, Vine Deloria, or Elizabeth Cook-Lynn? And why should Eurowestern scholarship look only to itself? Why can’t the research being done also consciously include voices from people of color, not to mention from varying genders, gender-orientations, cultural affiliations, labor positions, places, and ecological networks? After all, aren’t we supposed to discover some truth, even provisionally? If Eurowestern scholars are working for a more inclusive and tolerance, isn’t the onus on them to use some cultural capital to help achieve that?
I think some of the difficulties lie in the rhetoric surrounding such politics. That is, the problems are largely rhetorical in a very traditional sense, if not in the more complicated, contemporary, and expansive sense of “big rhetorics” closely tied to, if not concomitant with, modern epistemology. What scholars of color are asking is not at all out of line. In fact, on this point I think Walter Mignolo is rather correct: the very edifice of Eurowestern thought, as it has processed from the Renaissance and into its colonial projects, has yet to fully realize its own dreams. To get there, it needs help. And yet, to confront the very edifice of a tradition is a dangerous thing, easier said than done. Foucouldian analyses of power certainly point out such dangers. Moreover, these dangers are often induced in those otherwise amenable to the project on highly reasonable processural grounds of intellectual participation and rigor. We cannot just break with the past into an unknown “that which is to come.”
Thus, scholars of the Eurowestern tradition may be loathe to break much ground if that breaking also means a break with procedure, with the very close and precise tracing of an idea within its context and historical genealogy, relatively undistorted by translation, misreading, or situation understood within alien differences. Put more simply, to posit a solution, one must first diagnose the problem; yet a diagnosis out of context can be catastrophic, so one must rely on methods that stay within accepted parameters, two of which are 1) to cite already accepted scholars of the tradition because we must 2) beware miscegenation of ideas.
Of course, part of the Eurowestern traditions have not been so prudish as #2. Still, even those traditions are exposed to a critique from more conservative elements (#1) and risk their policing when attempted. This is part of the rhetorical problem for it presents us with very real internal brakes on invention as well as the very real external ones of appropriation. Such inventions that might attempt a synthesis between indigenous and Eurowestern concepts or ideas are seen as half-baked on both side. Hybrids are often rejected by both filiations.
Yet, the core of the debate is the methodological problems of relation. That is, the burden of proof placed upon non-Eurowestern traditions to prove their relevance. Take, for example, Jane Bennett’s words on her vital materiality in her Preface to Vibrant Matter (2010). She describes her project as worrying terms until they become strange and thereby open up a space for vital materiality. This is, however, a re-opening, for, as she writes “a version of this idea already found expression in childhood experiences of a world populated by animate things rather than passive objects”(vi). Her path from “childhood experiences” stretches then to Bergson and his “latent belief in the spontaneity of nature” and on toward “serious” and “adult” references of weighty philosophers, “the concepts and claims of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and the early twentieth century vitalisms of Bergson and Hans Driesch” (vii). So while her content is not wrong at all, much as Todd described Eurowestern scholars like Latour, we see an interesting pattern in the relations outlined: in Bennett’s juxtaposition of childhood fancies and adult philosophies, in the implicit justification for valuing childhood experience, and the recitation of proper names to complete that justification and build her own proper ethos as a scholar of serious, if vibrant, matter.
That Bennett moves so effortlessly between these things is a testament to her scholarly acumen. Such are requisite rhetorical moves. Her audience is scholars of the Eurowestern tradition, especially those who wish to hear how their own traditions can be read anew in order to address climate change, industrialization, and other problems generally considered as resultant from an anthropocentric bias. Why would Bennett cite indigenous people at all? Even while they may be inspirational, citing them would only weaken her argument in the estimation of her audience, casting it as more “innocent” and “sentimental” rather than “experienced” and “rational.” Of course these binaries are doubly dangerous as they apply to both Eurowestern stereotypes of indigenous philosophy as well as to stereotypes about Bennett’s own gender. Yet, we can see the rhetorical problem Bennett had to navigate and understand her choices in their complexity, even see the choices as rooted in rhetorical exigency. Such exigencies might be silent on indigenous philosophies in the short term, yet beneficial for them in the longer term.
Of course, we might be tempted to shout, “Exactly!” Down with the Eurowestern patriarchal phallogocentrism! All must fight against racism and sexism and classism and bias in any form anywhere and in everything! All who do not are also complicit in their perpetuation! Even Zoe Todd isn’t so strident in the initial blog post that formed the basis for her article. Revolution might seem the easiest path, but it is fraught with dangers, unintended consequences, and potential for blowback. Some pragmatic accession to the status quo may be necessary to change it.
But we can at least see the impasse brewing between new materialist investigations into agency of objects and indigenous scholars who labor to not just add their voices to the conversation, but who feel this avenue of scholarship is crowding them out (again), like their territory of naturecultures has been discovered anew and is settled by new colonists from Europe, only it’s not physical but intellectual territory we are dealing with and comfort in knowing a broader, collective research agenda. Before we arrive at another Metacomet Rebellion, might we stop and think about how we relate to each other through our rhetorical exigencies? Perhaps we can better align those exigencies and situations, collaborate in this intellectual territory and thereby face the edifice of Eurowestern scholarship and knowledge jointly in order to refashion it together? We might look to the moon and understand each other in our own phases as we orbit and move past one another, both invisibly bound and undeniably separate within our spheres.