Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation

Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation

by Mark Rifkin

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In Fictions of Land and Flesh Mark Rifkin explores the impasses that arise in seeking to connect Black and Indigenous movements, turning to speculative fiction to understand those difficulties and envision productive ways of addressing them. Against efforts to subsume varied forms of resistance into a single framework in the name of solidarity, Rifkin argues that Black and Indigenous political struggles are oriented in distinct ways, following their own lines of development and contestation. Rifkin suggests how movement between the two can be approached as something of a speculative leap in which the terms and dynamics of one are disoriented in the encounter with the other. Futurist fiction provides a compelling site for exploring such disjunctions. Through analyses of works by Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, and others, the book illustrates how ideas about fungibility, fugitivity, carcerality, marronage, sovereignty, placemaking, and governance shape the ways Black and Indigenous intellectuals narrate the past, present, and future. In turning to speculative fiction, Rifkin illustrates how speculation as a process provides conceptual and ethical resources for recognizing difference while engaging across it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478005285
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/23/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Mark Rifkin is Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and is the author of six books, most recently Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination, also published by Duke University Press.

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How can Black and Indigenous struggles be put into relation with each other? Both have been crucial to the history of the United States and the Americas more broadly, and trying to address one without a sense of the importance of the other can produce deeply problematic historical and political blindnesses, as well as generate dismissive and demeaning forms of exceptionalism. However, a range of difficulties arise in trying to hold them both in the same conceptual or analytical frame. One prominent strategy for doing so has been to situate settler colonialism and enslavement within a single system, explaining antiblackness and anti-indigeneity as mutually participating within an overarching power structure. Doing so aims to think together the uneven distributions of power, resources, and life chances for a range of oppressed racialized populations while suggesting that these groups share a set of objectives in the dismantling and transformation of that larger matrix of ideologies, institutions, and coercions. While the goal may be to provide a basis for solidarity predicated on a common analysis of the forces that shape what seem like varied vectors of domination, that very theoretical unification can short-circuit the process of relation by relying on the analytical structure itself to resolve prominent differences and discrepancies among these movements. Doing so also de facto can privilege a particular political analysis (in terms of both the character of oppression and ways of envisioning desired change) and thereby subordinate or delegitimize other formulations. That process of unification further can entail presenting alternative forms of political imagination as merely reproducing dominant logics, discounting them by casting them as surrogating for the forms of state identification under critique. As against such totalizing or foundationalizing gestures, a critical praxis organized around translation starts from the premise that these movements are not so much inherently commensurable or incommensurable as simply nonidentical; that they are shaped and given momentum by nonequivalent sets of concerns, emphases, and self-understandings. Articulating them to each other, then, requires engaging the ways the terms and models generated within one (set of) movement(s) cannot simply encompass those of another, or be incorporated into a supposedly neutral supervening framework, without producing profound shifts in meaning and orientation.

Enchattelment and settlement operate as differentiable backgrounds in ways that engender varied trajectories for Black and Indigenous political and intellectual formations. Native peoples also were subject to enslavement, and Black people have been subject to territorial expropriation and dispossession, but one might approach, in Sara Ahmed's terms, as discussed in the Introduction, the predominating "what" that "surfaces" in histories of Black and Indigenous struggles as divergent. My aim, then, lies less in suggesting that Black and Native people(s) have not been subject to similar or interdependent forms of state and popular violence than that those potentially cross-cutting parallels and intersections come to signify in relation to disparate historical and experiential trajectories. Those experiences that might be understood as shared or interwoven are contextualized and oriented differently depending on the political imaginary of which they become part, the background against which they gain meaning. Conversely, this nonequivalence between varied struggles and movements affects how they relate to each other, as each transposes events, dynamics, figurations, articulations in ways that align them within a given movement's own particular conceptual and historical orientations. As Ahmed suggests, "[a] 'we' emerges as an effect of a shared direction toward an object," and she adds, "Groups are formed through their shared orientation toward an object. Of course, a paradox is already evident here in that to have 'something' that can be recognized as 'the same object' is an effect of the repetition of the orientation toward 'it,' just as the orientation seems directed toward the object that exists 'before' us. In a way, 'what' is faced by a collective is also what brings it into existence." Blackness and indigeneity as ongoing processes of group formation can be understood as differentiated by the objects by which they are oriented (such as the terms of law and policy, collective memories, shared social dynamics and frames of reference) and the "what" toward which they turn (horizons of futurity, possibility, freedom, liberation).

The process of moving among these formations, then, might be understood as one of translation. We can approach Black and Indigenous imaginaries as, in Marisol de la Cadena's terms, varied "ways of making worlds," ways of articulating and mapping present sociopolitical dynamics while connecting forces from the past to the emergence of future potentials. She suggests of her own relation to Indigenous Andean intellectuals, "Our worlds were not necessarily commensurable, but this did not mean we could not communicate. Indeed, we could, insofar as I accepted that I was going to leave something behind, as with any translation — or even better, that our mutual understanding was also going to be full of gaps that would be different for each of us, and would constantly show up, interrupting but not preventing our communication," adding, "[O]ur communication did not depend on sharing single, cleanly identical notions — theirs, mine, or a third new one. We shared conversations across onto-epistemic formations." She later observes, "I learned to identify radical difference as a relation, ... the condition between us that made us aware of our mutual misunderstandings but did not fully inform us about 'the stuff' that composed those misunderstandings." When not conceptualized as a project of generating equivalence, of finding correlations ("cleanly identical notions"), translation draws attention to the existence of semiotic gaps — forms of relational difference — that "leave something behind" and that function less as obstructions to communication than as a crucial part of being-in-relation.

The figure of translation, though, also suggests a methodological problem with respect to defining what constitute Black and Indigenous formations. Translation can imply a movement between different languages in ways that attribute an inherent coherence to the formations in question, but any given language itself is not a stable, easily delineated entity. Rather, all languages are internally multiple and heteroglossic while also having porous boundaries with other languages: the standardization of a particular version of a language as paradigmatic allows other versions to be cast as dialects, degraded improprieties, creolizations, and pidgins. Similarly, employing the trope of translation raises the question of what gets to count as "Black" and "Indigenous" within my own analytic framing. What versions of these identities, movements, political visionings provide the baseline through which to conceptualize horizons and thresholds of relation, difference, translation? As Grace Kyungwon Hong notes of conceptualizations of blackness within Audre Lorde's work, "Black communities are not homogenously unified but are themselves made up of diverse and heterogeneous entities," and as such, "they are themselves always already coalitional." Reciprocally, the category of Indigenous itself emerges through a series of transnational movements over decades and has been taken up in uneven and shifting ways around the world. Even if one were to use "Native American" or "American Indian" instead, those rubrics can perform a homogenizing agglomeration that displaces the very idea of distinct, self-determining peoples toward which such naming usually seeks to gesture. Moreover, I should underline that Black and Indigenous are not inherently separate categories, that there are many Black Native people in at least two different senses: people of African descent who can trace their lineage to non-Afro-descended Native people; and Black people who are citizens of Native nations, by adoption, treaty, or other means. Efforts to speak about differences between "Black" and "Indigenous" formations or modes of "we"-ness, then, run the risk of occluding Black Native people. Conversely, though, I am wary of positioning Black Native people as the necessary bridge between what otherwise may function as nonidentical groups, even as I seek to formulate accounts of "we"-ness that would not exclude, delegitimize, or erase Black Native histories and experiences and the effects of those histories and experiences on understandings of what blackness and indigeneity were, are, and might be.

As opposed to seeking to stabilize Black and Indigenous as categories in order clearly to delineate their separation, to map the frontier that constitutes their difference, my aim lies in sketching the processes through which these modes of groupness gain cohesion as identities and movements that tend not to follow the same intellectual and political trajectories. While neither blackness nor indigeneity is singular, they still might be understood as occupying discrepant problem-spaces. In Conscripts of Modernity, David Scott describes a problem-space as "an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hangs," adding that differences among problem-spaces can be registered in the variance in their "tropes, modes, and rhetoric" and the "horizon in relation to which [a given problem-space] is constructed." Broadly stated, if the histories of enchattelment and settlement produce differently configured kinds of problem-spaces with their own horizons and stakes, then the framings, narrative strategies, governing tropes, and forms of analysis at play in Indigenous and Black struggles will unfold in ways that give rise to discrepant ensembles — in Ahmed's terms discussed earlier, varied formations of "we"-ness that take shape through repeated and ongoing dynamics of turning toward different objects/objectives. This chapter begins by critically engaging the effort to generate singularizing accounts that either foundationalize a particular framework (organized around blackness or indigeneity) or that seek to encompass varied frameworks into a kind of meta-structure treated as having greater explanatory power. After exploring the conceptual and political problems generated by this impulse toward unification, I turn to addressing two keywords — sovereignty and settler — that generate impasses in thinking about differences between Black and Indigenous formations/movements, thereby also illustrating the varied orientations of such movements. The chapter closes by turning to the concept of speculation to explore the possibilities it offers for understanding and negotiating those impasses, foregrounding the potential for an ethics of multiplicity that might guide movement among apparently mutually exclusive truth claims.


Systemic analysis can be used to model and explain the relation among a range of sociopolitical processes, highlighting the significance of the structural dynamic(s) in question across seemingly disparate phenomena while also situating disparate populations affected by those phenomena in a determinate set of relations to each other and, thereby, providing the basis for shared understanding and organizing. However, such system building also can have the effect of interpellating populations in ways that defer or disavow their own analyses of how they are situated with respect to other groups as well as the sociopolitical formations in and against which they struggle. Speaking about the insertion of human social formations into a developmental narrative in which they all can be understood as undergoing an inevitable "transition" to Euro-American political economy, Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, "This transition is also a process of translation of diverse life-worlds and conceptual horizons about being human into the categories of Enlightenment thought." In the place of such a universal narrative of time's unfolding, he argues for the importance of "translations [among such diverse life worlds] that do not take a universal middle term for granted." While contemporary analyses that seek to put Black and Indigenous histories and struggles into the same frame usually do not endorse the kinds of universalizing history Chakrabarty critiques, they do have a propensity for collating varied collective experiences into a singular account. The terms and categories of that account's intellectual structure appear as a neutral matrix in which all manner of events, oppressions, and movements can be securely situated and explained. Thus, the complicated and potentially fraught processes of translation through which various lifeworlds, political imaginations, problem-spaces, backgrounds, orientations, and conceptual horizons are brought into relation with each other can be displaced by the apparently immanent coherence and explanatory reach of the analytical structure itself. In contrast to this kind of framework, which can have exceptionalizing effects by presenting one group's experiences as paradigmatic of how the system works, I would like to draw on Black feminist conceptions of difference as a means of holding on to the conceptual, political, and ethical significance of not resolving forms of oppression and resistance into encompassing structural narratives.

In order to explore the dynamics and stakes of this kind of system modeling, I turn to two theorists whose work has been increasingly important in current scholarly conversations: Sylvia Wynter and Glen Coulthard. They each offer powerful accounts that explain broad patterns of structural violence; they have been quite influential; and they each illustrate some prominent tendencies within Black studies and Indigenous studies. In particular, both scholars generate differently configured kinds of what might characterized as "in the last instance" effects. By this phrase, I mean that even as these models may posit the existence of varied kinds of institutional formations, modes of collective identification, and vectors of institutional power and oppression, they suggest that there is an underlying or overriding structure that has a particular character that ultimately shapes or overdetermines the terms, dynamics, and possibilities for change for what is understood as the system as a whole (call it coloniality, racial capitalism, modernity, the world-system, etc.).

Wynter argues that a specific Eurocentric way of envisioning what it means to be human, a "genre of the human" that she refers to as "Man," has come to dominate global political economy. In "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom," Wynter suggests that "the struggle of our new millennium will be one between the ongoing imperative of securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e., Western bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself." In casting nonwestern populations as evolutionarily backward due to their racial impediments, this framework legitimizes "the large-scale accumulation of unpaid land, unpaid labor, and overall wealth expropriated by Western Europe from non-European peoples ... from the fifteenth century onwards." Globalizing discourses of race from the early-modern period onward, then, generate the conditions for a process of humanization/dehumanization that undergirds both the conquest of the New World and the African slave trade. European settlement in the Americas gave rise to "the modern phenomenon of race, as a new extrahumanly determined classificatory principle and mechanism of domination. ... For the indigenous peoples of the New World, together with the mass-enslaved peoples of Africa, were now to be reclassified as 'irrational' because 'savage' Indians, and as 'subrational' Negroes" — "the new idea of order was now to be defined in terms of degrees of rational perfection/imperfection." This notion of rationality enacts a process of degodding or secularization by which relations of rule are organized along physical rather than spiritual principles — later to be supplemented or perhaps superseded, Wynter suggests, by an evolutionary conception of those who are "selected" and those who are "deselected." In being consigned to the "space of Otherness," "Indians" and "Negroes" serve as examples of irrational/subrational backwardness against which to define "human" progress and, thereby, position Europe and its descendants as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, legitimizing enslavement and colonial dominance/expropriation.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction  1
1. On the Impasse  15
2. Fungible Becoming  73
3. Carceral Space and Fugitive Motion  117
4. The Maroon Matrix  168
Coda: Diplomacy in the Undercommons  220
Notes  233
Bibliography  287
Index  313

What People are Saying About This

Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature - Beth H. Piatote

“Anchored in the contemporary movements of #NoDAPL and Black Lives Matter, Fictions of Land and Flesh is a welcome and expert guide to thinking through the resonances and impasses that attend Black and Indigenous articulations of justice. Essential reading in American studies.”

One-Dimensional Queer - Roderick A. Ferguson

Fictions of Land and Flesh considers the points at which Black and Indigenous studies might relate across histories and struggles. It does so with an eye toward the necessity of that engagement and the danger of conflating the urgencies that constitute those histories and struggles. With characteristic brilliance and creativity, Mark Rifkin turns to Black and Indigenous futurist work as a way to produce that difficult but necessary dialogue.”

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