Tracing traces is a spatial practice: Jean M. O’Brien, ‘Tracing Settler Colonialism’s Eliminatory Logic in Traces of History’, American Quarterly, 69, 2, 2017, pp. 249-255


Excerpt: No concept has reoriented the field of Indigenous studies recently more than the theoretical framework of settler colonialism. And although Patrick Wolfe would be the first to insist that he did not invent it, his 2006 article, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” offered a language for settler colonial studies that has been immensely influential. He places genocide in relation to what he calls “the logic of elimination,” concluding, “settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory but not invariably genocidal,” and that “invasion is a structure not an event,” meaning that it is an ongoing process rather than something accomplished at a single moment. As he states, “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” The elimination of Indigenous populations can be accomplished by deliberately genocidal projects, by the unrestrained homicidal actions of boots-on-the-ground settlers, or by assimilatory campaigns of infinite imagination. In the US context, Wolfe foregrounds the postemancipation racial regime dictated by the “one-drop rule” that relegated Black people to slavery, with the polar opposite fate for Indians, who were subjected to the harsh calculations of blood quantum. One of his masterful contributions is not just his incisive and broadly persuasive theorization of settler colonialism but also the elegant simplicity of the language others can deploy in their own work. His insights have become ubiquitous as countless scholars embrace the phrase “the logic of elimination” and point to the fact of invasion as “a structure not an event” that invokes his work without even needing to attach his name to this formulation.

This article deeply influenced his two chapters on the United States that I take up from his magisterial Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, a deeply provocative analysis of race over more than four hundred years. But his book goes much farther, offering a broad and sustained analysis of racialization that attends to settler colonialism. His book is ambitious and bold, stunning in its command of the vast literature it embraces, synthesizes, historicizes, and theorizes. He persuasively argues, “Races are traces of history,” with racial identities emerging out of their enactment, a diversity of unequal outcomes securing White supremacy in dialogue with particular racial regimes that in turn secured colonialism’s domination over time. Racialization for Wolfe is a spatial practice. It comes into being when colonizers must share space with those they seek to dominate, making other people’s homes their own. In the United States, Wolfe triangulates race, differentiating between emancipation for African Americans that produced Jim Crow and “territorial engulfment” of American Indians, in which their territorial exclusion maintained Indian sovereignty as separate from settler sovereignty. He asserts this as a regime that is actively produced through political domination although contested and inherently unstable, thus making it a process rather than an ontology, with an objective of securing White supremacy.

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