Alois Sieben investigates how Jordan Abel’s Injun experiments—poetically, visually, digitally—with an anxiety-provoking limit to the settler-colonial gaze, rather than feeding this gaze a new representation of Indigeneity. Abel’s work is positioned within David Garneau’s history of Indigenous screen objects, in which something is held back from the settler-colonial gaze, a form of deprivation that exposes the blind hunger of this gaze, turning it back upon itself.
“What did Bushby see?” This is the question that Billy-Ray Belcourt poses in relation to the “deep visuality” of Anishinaabe woman Barbara Kentner’s 2017 murder by Brayden Bushby, in which Bushby threw a trailer hitch at Kentner from a moving vehicle, reportedly shouting “I got one!” (n. pag.). Belcourt perceives in this act “a sinister optic, where ‘optic’ is the lens or filter by which one looks and from this looking ropes what is seen into an encounter humming with all sorts of potential” (n. pag.). Against this optic, Belcourt emphasizes the necessity of “new ways of looking” and a “new mode of perception” (n. pag.) that could lead to different encounters. Among other Indigenous artists, Belcourt gestures to nehiyaw artist Joi T. Arcand’s inscription of Cree syllabics within Canadian public spaces (e.g. replacing the English on street signage) as forming part of this ongoing decolonization of Turtle Island’s visual sphere. This essay puts forward Nisga'a poet Jordan Abel’s Injun (2016)—the Canadian Winner of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize—as performing work in a parallel vein. Rather than flooding the settler-colonial visual field with new representations of Indigeneity, Injun confronts the dominant optic that mediates this field with something that it cannot see, interrupting its perpetual seeing with an image of itself being seen.
Analyzing Injun at a visual level, this essay expands on Métis scholar David Garneau’s (2016) identification of “screen objects” (26) as an enduring tradition of Indigenous art and political resistance. As an example, Garneau points to the “Haida who carved argillite to look like authentic ceremonial pipes, only the holes in the bowl and stem did not meet. Visitors bought signiﬁers of Haida culture but could not enjoy full use” (26). Like this Haida pipe, Abel carves the poetic object of Injun in ways that frustrate its usage by visitors, especially those schooled in settler modes of reading Indigenous texts. These modes of reading have been described recently as “poaching” (Daniel Heath Justice 236-7), “extracting” and “discovering” (@tuckeve), or “prodding” and “jotting” (Gregory Scofield qtd. in McKegney 45). Resisting these reading practices, Injun opens with a long poem, the eponymous “Injun,” in which wide spaces separate words, then letters from each other. Soon, the letters cease to form words, being turned upside down and spread across the page, detached from line and syntax. As the poem’s lyric mode steadily dissolves into concrete poetry, the blurring of genres in “Injun” complicates an easy transposition into settler-colonial modes of knowledge production, such as being quoted in an academic essay.
Near the midpoint of “Injun,” the book must be turned upside down in order to maintain some grasp on the poem’s lyrical thread, as the words are all upside down. Subsequently, the pages must be turned in reverse, from right to left. Like struggling to light a fake Haida pipe, Andreae Callanan describes the reading experience as being “almost slapstick; the upside-down book is like some kind of dunce-cap, announcing that I don’t know which way is up. I may be an experienced reader of poetry, but I look like a buffoon” (n. pag.). Compounding matters, a series of footnote markers upon certain words like “whitest1” and “frontier2” (3) direct the poem’s reader to the proceeding “Notes” section in order to conceivably gain greater clarity on their usage. Yet, the holes in the bowl and the stem do not meet; the “Notes” section does little to clarify the word’s significance, but instead layers on the ambiguity. For each footnoted term, “Notes” displays a list of its occurrences within Injun’s source text, a corpus of 91 western dime novels mined freely from the website Project Gutenberg (including authors like B.M. Bower, Max Brand, and Zane Grey), from which all the sections of Injun are constructed. The results of this data mining are more earthy than purified: “Notes” does not uncover shining golden nuggets of meaning for its reader. Instead, the reader’s eye must sift through the syntactical context of each term in the source text as if it were silt and clay, until they obtain some geological sense of the territory within which they are treading.
Before delving too deeply into Injun, it is useful to flesh out Garneau’s theory of the screen object and how Abel’s project relates to its model. In formulating the Indigenous screen object, Garneau adapts Sigmund Freud’s metaphor of a screen that stands between the conscious and unconscious, mediating the visual representation of disavowed desires or past traumas in dreams, fantasies and memories. In transposing Freud’s metaphor from the psychic to the aesthetic field, Garneau follows a long scholarly tradition. As art historian Rachel Furnari explains, “Freud's discussion of screen memory within the psychoanalytic model is an important touchstone because it engendered a modern trajectory of theorizing the screen as a site of mediation” (n. pag.). According to Furnari, the multiple senses of the term screen can be separated into two dominant groups over time, establishing a founding “dialectic [for] many of the debates over ‘screen’ technology and theorization” (n. pag.). In the first group, the screen is “opaque” and “obscure[s] and conceal[s]” (n. pag.) something lying behind it. In the second, “light may pass through the screen, sometimes maintaining [its] integrity, sometimes [being] violated or mediated” (n. pag.). To screen an image can mean both to show and hide simultaneously. Freud’s “Screen Memories” and The Interpretation of Dreams harness this linguistic ambivalence of the screen as metaphor, outlining multiple possible relations a visual representation—whether found in a dream, fantasy or memory—can hold to its “suppressed material” (“Screen Memories” 319), from total repression (opaqueness) to faint elucidation (translucency).1Jacques Lacan explains that for Freud the model of the unconscious is “optical” not “spatial” or “anatomical,” as it “represents a number of layers, permeable to something analogous to light whose refraction changes from layer to layer” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis 45).
In the case study recounted in “Screen Memories,” in which the patient is Freud himself, Freud’s unconscious conceals the desire to deflower a past love interest in a recollected image from childhood of bright yellow flowers. In his analysis, Freud relates how this image’s visual properties are intensified in “hallucinatory fashion” (“Screen Memories” 311), due to the unconscious converting the deeply denied past “into a shape capable of visual representation” (316). Paradoxically, visuality offers the best hiding spot for what otherwise cannot be brought to light. Along these lines, Indigenous artworks are forcefully figured as the yellow flowers of settler-colonial memory, being consumed for their presumed primitive beauty, while simultaneously enabling a disavowal of the past. As Garneau (2014) contends, “Haida totem poles and masks, Blackfoot teepee painting, Sioux and Métis quill and beadwork, Algonquin False Face masks, contemporary Woodland Cree style painting and Inuit carving… are essential to the post-colonial visual [brand]” of Canada (315). Due to the popularity of these sanitized representations, Indigenous artists must compete against “diluted and much cheaper copies of their own work” (Garneau 2014; 315). Their popularity stems from the settler-colonial unconscious repurposing these visuals in order to put the past to rest by securing it within an innocuous representational frame; settlers can look at a constructed past that secures their sense of identity, rather than the past gazing at them. The appropriation of these works into settler-colonialism’s visual field operates as a continual cathexis with illusory appearances of Indigeneity over the real substance of Indigenous peoples.
In the local context of settler-colonialism from which I am writing (the province of British Columbia), there exists a long history of visual subterfuge. Tsimshian-Haida critic Marcia Crosby relates how during a time period in which particularly severe assimilationist violence was being committed upon Indigenous peoples, a large number of B.C. artists coincidentally produced a “smokescreen” (269) of supposedly authentic representations of Indigeneity.2Crosby explains how this settler-colonial artistic practice both influenced and reinforced governmental policy, with the two merging together through their mutual emphasis on Indigenous authenticity. For example, “local white officials” confirmed whether or not an Indigenous artistic or ethnographic practice was authentic (276), rather than the Indigenous peoples themselves. More significantly, there was the historical paralleling of “the scientific documentation of the last of ‘authentic’ Indian culture… with the formation of the Indian Act, whose mandate was to ‘get rid of the Indian problem’” (273), the problem being that real Indigenous people had persisted into the present. While the plight of Indigenous peoples was being overlooked, an Imaginary Indian was being looked at in excess. Coming under concentrated fire in Crosby’s essay are the paintings of Emily Carr, foundational to the settler narrative of B.C.’s past even to the present day. Crosby contends that Carr’s paintings of abandoned villages like Tanoo (1913)—a print of which hung in my childhood bedroom—“intimate that the authentic Indians who made them existed only in the past, and that all the changes that occurred afterwards provide evidence of racial contamination, and cultural and moral deterioration” (276). Crucially, Crosby does not make her argument against Carr simply at the level of her demonstrating malicious intent. Rather, she describes how these paintings operate as an unconscious defence of Carr’s own ego: “if [Carr] did forge a deep bond with an imaginary, homogenous heritage, it was something that acted as a container for her Eurocentric beliefs, her search for a Canadian identity and her artistic intentions” (278). Carr’s paintings protected her from a closer encounter with the Indigenous people who had brought her to abandoned villages like Tanoo aboard a gas boat, rather than a canoe, acting as a defence against “what [she] did not and perhaps could not see” (278). For Crosby, this inability to see involved Carr’s own entanglement in the scenes she painted, the stain of her brushstrokes on the land. At the level of the social, the widespread institutionalization of Carr’s paintings in B.C.’s most prominent museums functions like screen memories establishing an opaque relation to B.C.’s violent past, “a province where the majority of land is stolen, even by the standards of colonial law” (Knight 234).
Screen objects intervene within such practices of visual subterfuge. Combining the screen’s possibilities of both opacity and translucency, Garneau conceives an artwork representing Indigeneity that does not only repress or reveal, but rather represses and reveals simultaneously. Charting a global history of Indigenous screen objects, Garneau observes a tendency of settler-colonial eyes being drawn in by the “patina” of Indigenous authenticity, then being refracted away from the “essential” content (2016; 26). This content is most accessible through the knowing look of another Indigenous person from the same community as the artist. Mobilizing the screen as metaphor, these artworks harness—rather than being subjected to—the dual capacity of the visual to conceal and reveal. As an example, Garneau references the paintings of Alex Janvier, in which beneath the visual styling of non-objective Modernist art, there hid maps of the artist’s lived relations, along with good hunting and fishing spots. In other words, the artwork functions to manipulate its layers of visibility and invisibility, depending on the spectator involved. For some it is a dark screen, through which little can be seen; for others, meaning shines through. In this way, the work screens its audience, seeing its viewer and their position in relation to the work, rather than only being seen.
Addressing the continual failures of settler critics to grapple with the political implications of Indigenous art, Garneau suggests that what they fear is “that the former objects of their gaze have become self-aware critical agents” (2014; 312). In this characterization, Garneau’s screen objects follow Freud’s description in The Interpretation of Dreams of a “critical agency [that] stands like a screen between the [unconscious] and consciousness,” particularly in dreams, but also “directs our waking life and determines our voluntary, conscious actions” (542). Likewise, Garneau’s screen objects operate within a style of dream-like vision, but one with implications for the waking world as well. Significantly, some of these implications enact a return onto Freud’s own discourse. Rather than being the objects of the psychoanalytic optic as in problematic works like Freud’s Totem and Taboo in which the “subjugation of ‘primitives’ [is] the primary rhetorical tool used to advance the author's argument” (Gaertner 62), the political dynamism of Indigenous screen objects render psychoanalytic theory the lifeless object if it cannot keep up. As settler scholar David Gaertner argues, “there are better and stronger representations” of Freudian concepts like “‘the return of the repressed’ in communities that have been subject to the effects of their own repression in a colonial state” (50). Twisting Freud’s theory, Indigenous representations of the return of the repressed demonstrate that it need not amount to some traumatic eruption as imagined by Freud. Instead, these representations manifest what Gaertner calls “a return that comes back unto itself” meaning one that “is not destined or ordained only for the settler-repressor” (51), who needs to be continually reminded of their role in the violent past. What is revealed through the screen object is not only forgotten traumas or disavowed desires but often Indigenous beauty, culture and knowledge. In this way, the return of the repressed functions similarly to what Leanne Simpson calls Indigenous “resurgence” (qtd. in Gaertner 51).
Turning now to Injun’s particular variation on the Indigenous screen object, the book’s cover offers the first indication of the text’s politics, featuring a work from Anishinaabekwe artist Rebecca Belmore’s “Gone Indian” installation for Toronto’s 2009 Nuit Blanche. Julia Polyck-O’Neill describes the photograph as showing:
the lone figure of a plainclothes powwow dancer… wearing a cardboard half-
mask of a generic mimeographed headdress and face, punctuated by pierced
eyeholes. The figure appears to be both assessing and addressing the viewer—
there’s a casual playful aggression and self-assertion in the way they’re leaning
into the frame, bent at the waist, hands resting on knees. (270)
Belmore gazes back at the viewer from behind the screen of an authentic Indigenous person. The pierced eyeholes of Belmore’s mimeographed mask appear as dark spots, obscuring the precise position of Belmore’s eyes. The spectator senses something is looking at them, but they are not sure from whom or where the gaze comes. In an interview, Abel explains the selection of Belmore’s photograph in tandem with his publisher as a wish to find an image that “looks back at the reader” (Boan n. pag.). Crucially, it looks back at the reader from both a screened position of hypervisibility (the spectacle of stereotypical Indigeneity) and invisibility (the unknown presence lurking behind the mask).
Injun generates a comparable effect, particularly in its “Appendix” section. In this section, Abel displays the source text for Injun in its entirety: 26 pages of search results for the term “injun” within Abel’s dataset of 91 novels. Yet, “Appendix” does not merely present a data dump of racist images. Instead, there is a clear editorial mark, with the very term for which the source text was searched being erased. The effect of this omission is similar to that of Belmore’s photograph, in which holes are cut in a stereotypical image of Indigeneity and the artist gazes back at the spectator from a position of invisibility. Paradoxically, the search term of “injun” becomes both invisible—being erased—and simultaneously more visible, its prevalence in the source text perceptibly marked by blank spots in the wall of text. “Appendix” depicts what Unangax scholar Eve Tuck and Cree artist C. Ree’s co-written “A Glossary of Haunting” calls “settler colonialism [as] the management of… those that had been destroyed, but also those that are generated in every generation” (642), meaning the shapeshifting image of the Indigenous person within the historical trajectory of settler-colonialism. The shift that “Appendix” marks within this trajectory is merely the erasure of the obscene slur, with all the surrounding context, or conditions of representation, remaining intact, undisturbed. This censoring of the slur recalls the psychoanalytic theory in which “censorship keeps the [unconscious] complex at a distance as long as possible by a succession of fresh symbolic screens, displacements, innocent disguises, etc.” (Carl Jung qtd. in Freud 349). As to what might be the specific unconscious complex of settler-colonialism, Tuck and Ree describe the psychological “management… of the anxiety, the looming but never arriving guilt, the impossibility of forgiveness, the inescapability of retribution” (642) that they call settler horror. So that the settler state can continue to maintain its self-image, this horror—represented here in the obscene slur—must be continually repressed by all its participants.
There are further clues to Abel’s poetic methodology in this section’s naming. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “appendix” etymologically as “that which is attached as if by being hung on”—echoing Abel’s lines from the opening long poem, “injun s mu st hang / straight / bl ack arrows / o ff their / sh oulders” (17)—and, specifically within its print culture sense, as “an addition subjoined to a document or book, having some contributory value in connection with the subject matter of the work, but not essential to its completeness” (“appendix, n.”). Both senses appear slightly contradictory to the function of Injun’s appendix, for it contains the poem’s “source text” (83), opposing the connotations of the appendix being only supplementary, contributory, accompanying, etc. The semantic tension between source and appendix captures how the 91 western novels are both the necessary material of the creative work, but also a burden, a weight of limiting images. “Injun” works within this tension, transforming the source material into supplemental material, much like how a dream takes images from everyday life and renders them beautifully strange, making reality feel secondary to the dream.
These tensions between the book’s various sections (“Injun,” “Notes,” “Appendix,” “Sources,” and “Process”) recall the bibliographic complications of Tuck and Ree’s essay. Relevantly, Tuck and C. Ree frame their own writing as a screen, dictating what can be seen and what cannot by their reader: “I care about you understanding, but I care more about concealing parts of myself from you… I am using my arm to determine the length of the gaze” (640). Further into their text, Tuck and Ree present a glossary of terms “without its host—perhaps because it has gone missing or it has been buried alive, or because it is still being written,” thus granting the missing host “an appendix, a remnant, which is its own form of haunting, its own lingering” (640). Tuck and Ree’s metaphor of bibliographic haunting is useful for understanding Abel’s organization of Injun. The poem is both haunted by its source text—a burden that must be dragged around—but simultaneously, the poem haunts the source text, possessing its lifeless images of Indigeneity with an uncanny vitality. It is with good reason then that the final term that the “Notes” section examines is “possession” (58), with Injun amounting to a repossession of the images of Indigeneity found in the novels.
To track this haunting, what exactly is the source of the source text? The answer is two-fold here, split between the analogue and digital versions of the 91 novels under examination in Injun. To examine the analogue first, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States analyzes the western novel as a collective fantasy structure, with its illusory visuals covering up gaps in the American narrative. Dunbar-Ortiz relates how in crafting the national mythology required by America’s bid for independence, the values of democracy and equality that America wished to inaugurate itself with did “not fit well with dominance of one race by another, much less with genocide, settler colonialism, and empire” (103). Thus, an imaginary reconciliation was required, between “rhetoric and reality” (Dunbar-Ortiz 103), or alternately, between “empire and liberty” (106). Enter early 18th century novelist James Fenimore Cooper and his series of five novels called the Leatherstocking Tales, including well-known titles like The Last of the Mohicans. Each novel revolves around the character of settler frontiersman Natty Bumppo, a prototype for future heroes of the western genre. As Dunbar-Ortiz argues, these stories established an origin myth in which America became the “merger of the best of both worlds, the Native and the European” simultaneously featuring “the dissolving of the Indian [who] died off nature” (107). For Dunbar-Ortiz, this contradiction and its impossible resolution constitute a “convenient fantasy [which] could be seen as quaint at best if it were not for its deadly staying power” (107). Instead, for the young, white, male readers consuming these novels in the nineteenth century, their narratives “became perceived fact, not fiction, and the basis for the coalescence of US American nationalism” (106). In other words an aesthetic practice was established for concealing the impossibilities of settler-colonial ideology.
This practice continues today. Christina Turner describes Abel’s “base materials [as] texts that we now tend to view as outdated (and inaccurate) portraits of Indigenous peoples, works that have not aged well and yet were vastly influential in their time” (n. pag.). Yet the advent of open access and digitization grants these texts a second life. To give some impression of their revitalization, I compiled a dataset consisting of the Goodreads reviews of Abel’s source texts, amounting to a total of 285 pages in Microsoft Word. These pages include twenty-four mentions of Kindle, twenty-three mentions of Project Gutenberg, nineteen mentions of LibriVox, twelve mentions of ebook, and seven mentions combined of GoogleBooks, the Internet Archive, and manybooks.net. More anecdotally, many reviewers expressed having read Abel’s source texts largely because they were free and accessible, e.g. one reviewer speaking of author Max Brand: “I will probably read more of his books in the future since they are mostly available for free for the Kindle” (Jody). Regardless of how outdated these western dime novels are, they are still active in the public’s envisioning of Indigeneity and settler-colonialism, re-activated in part by their passing out of copyright and into openly accessible online archives.
Speaking to this contemporary relevance of the source text in an interview, Abel describes how: “these novels… put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives” (Abel qtd. in Rooney). Abel speaks more of what his mode of return consists of: “I work with appropriated text because it brings me closest to the subject matter. There is a barrier there between me and what I really want to talk about, which is the primary document” (Abel qtd. in Rooney). In Abel’s poetics, the wall of these texts becomes more ambiguous, being both a site of restriction, blocking him from what he wants, but also one of productive encounter, in bringing him closest to that with which he wants to work. Thinking with the metaphor of the wall, Abel’s artistic methodology can be compared to the classical tale of a painting competition in Ancient Greece between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, related by Jacques Lacan. As Zeuxis’s entry into the painting duel, he paints upon a wall a bowl of fruit in which grapes are so deceptively produced that “even the eye [of] birds was taken in by them” (Lacan 103). In the tale, a bird flies into the wall upon which the fresco is painted, dazzling the competition’s audience. Parrhasios, by contrast, covers his own painting with a veil, so that an impatient audience and Zeuxis finally demand of him: “Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it” (Lacan 103). Yet, Parrhasios insists that he cannot, until both Zeuxis and the audience realize that the veil upon the wall is the painting. Through this greater trickery, Parrhasios wins the competition by drawing attention to the structure of his audience’s gaze.
Placing this tale in dialogue with Abel’s work, the 91 novels present an Imaginary Indian through which settler eyes are willingly deceived, operating in the visual mode of Zeuxis. By comparison, Injun’s “Appendix” presents a veil or screen of Indigeneity in the form of its textual blank spots, operating in the visual mode of Parrhasios. The audience of Injun may expect the curtain of the source text to be pulled back to reveal a real image of Indigeneity behind it. Yet the veil being the final image is more troubling. It interrupts the overly probing gaze, imposing a period of reflection on the structure of one’s own gaze, rather than on some novel image of Indigeneity. For this novel image can easily succumb to what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “imperial eyes [which] passively look out and possess” (9) fundamental to early narratives of conquest. Like a powerful technology, Pratt expands on how “the (lettered, male, European) eye… could familiarize (‘naturalize’) new sites/sights immediately upon contact” (31) thus supporting the spread of imperialism across the globe. Through the barrier of the veil, Injun reveals this gaze to itself.
Nevertheless, a tale of painting does not sufficiently address the digital methodologies that Abel employs to create Injun, adapted from the academic field of the digital humanities. Therein, expansive corpuses of texts are scoured with various digital tools, as academics with the help of computers search for relations between words, texts, authors, and genres, previously hidden to the human eye. Just as Injun chooses to address the western genre not by looking at just one novel in particular but 91, digital humanities institutes like the Stanford Literary Lab address genres like the gothic not by looking at only The Castle of Otranto but instead a corpus of 250 gothic novels. For the Stanford Literary Lab, the increasing digitization of literary texts produces the “euphoria [of] having a telescope that makes you see entirely new galaxies” (Algee-Hewitt et al. 1). Frequently, this increasing availability of digitized text has been figured as a terra nullius for the extraction of insights pertaining to the literary record of Western civilization. In Macroanalysis, Matthew Jockers deploys an unfortunate metaphor in describing:
the sudden motivation for scholars to engage in digital humanities [as] more than
likely a direct by-product of having such a wealth of digital material with which
to engage… with apologies to the indigenous, I must acknowledge here that the
streets of this ‘new’ world are paved with gold and the colonizers have arrived (11-12)
Within this new textual landscape, historical modes of settler-colonial looking are often reproduced. Along these lines, digital humanities practitioners like Roopika Risam point to how the “digital humanities [have] contributed to the epistemic violence of colonialism and neo-colonialism” (80). Rather than offering a new sort of vision (as the novelty of the computational suggests), the digital humanities bear the potential to reify instead a very old sort of vision.
It is into this dangerous territory that Injun treads, not out of curiosity but out of necessity. Abel’s digital methodologies comprise a variation on contemporary conditions of visibility for a number of phenomena, including race and racism. Due to today’s availability of digital text, Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell describe how “representations of data derived from analytic processes of digital texts have become normalized… they are not the preserve of an obscure branch of the humanities or computer science” (276). Sinclair and Rockwell’s essay opens with a relevant example: a visualization carried out by the sports website Deadspin in 2014 depicting the racism hidden within a large textual corpus of NFL Draft scouting reports. Deadspin’s investigation follows a larger trend of “transformations of text that tend to reduce the amount of information presented, but in service of drawing attention to some significant aspect” (Sinclair & Rockwell 276). Injun similarly reduces its corpus to draw attention to the textual abundance of the titular slur, but Abel does not simply re-present this racism, instead interpreting it through various poetic techniques. In other words, Injun is not simply concerned with revealing the levels of racism in these novels, but rather reconfiguring the very conditions of visibility and invisibility manifested by these texts.
With this approach, Injun indirectly follows Johanna Drucker’s challenge to the representational methodologies of the digital humanities with what she calls “a non-representational approach” to data visualization (248). Rather than massive textual corpora simply being reduced into revealing visualizations, Drucker advocates for the digital humanities to illuminate what she describes as the agential interface between textual data and representation, or alternately, “the screen [as] as a primary site of work [where] interpretation is enacted” (252). Of further relevance to Abel’s overarching poetic project, Drucker explains how she reconfigures textual visualization through the fields of “critical cartography and non-representational geography [in which] the term non-representational is used to suggest that a map may not precede experience or a phenomenological engagement with landscape and its features, but instead may be made as an inscription of experience” (251). In a similar vein, Abel’s poetics show a sustained interest in critical cartography. The preceding work to Injun, Un/inhabited (2014) employs the same source text as Injun, which is visually converted in the former into map-like shapes. Likewise, Abel’s art installation “Cartography (12)” at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver rearranges the same source text into a map of Burrard Inlet on whose shores the gallery is located. In this latter work, two modes of settler-colonial visual representation intersect: cartography and the western novel. Nevertheless, the particularities of the representations are difficult to reconcile into an easy convergence: how do American western novels relate exactly to a map of Vancouver’s space? The answer is that the representations do not so much converge at a positive level, as merge in their mutual inability to represent Turtle Island.
Taken together, “Cartography (12),” Un/inhabited and Injun do not just challenge representations of Indigeneity, but instead challenge the promise of new representations of Indigeneity to remedy the settler-colonial system of visibility. If the western genre is a fantasy, as Dunbar-Ortiz contends, then it is also like a dream; both psychic structures operate at the level of the unconscious. Consequently, if the western genre is still influential in shaping the settler-colonial system of visibility then it cannot be combatted at the level of conscious vision, but only at the level of the unconscious. In commentating on Freud’s theory of dream vision outlined in The Interpretation of Dreams, Lacan writes how Freud focuses on the “counterpart” (60) of representation, meaning vision as it is experienced in the dream, where “the subject does not see where it is leading” (75) but rather only follows. Adapting Freud’s theory to artistic practice, Lacan pushes forward an aesthetic theory that involves the artist generating a state of dreamlike vision, based on a certain not seeing, rather than seeing. As Lacan writes, the “function of the [artist] is something quite different from the organization of the field of representation” (110). Taking as an example the painting of Paul Cézanne, Lacan describes how his brushstrokes “fall like rain” (110) in a manner similar to how a bird lets “fall its feathers, a snake [casts] off its scales, a tree [lets fall] its leaves” (114), operating in line with the “remote control” (115) of a dream. In Injun’s “Process” section, Abel details a similar artistic practice in which he cuts up the search results “without looking,” “rearranges the pieces until something sounded right,” or “just writes down how the pieces fell together” (83). These methodologies each mark a visual response to something unseeable in the scene of the search results, with varying degrees of conscious control allowed to the poet. Accordingly, the poetic subjectivity of the work becomes slightly dream-like.
The not seeing fundamental to Injun echoes the visual repression of Indigeneity within the settler-colonial system of visibility. Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson contends in Mohawk Interruptus that the politics of recognition figured by GWF Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic—“I see you; you see me; this is reciprocal; this reciprocity signals justice” (23)—are fundamentally distorted by the optics of the settler-colonial state, producing a “not seeing that is so profound that mutuality cannot be achieved” (23). Nevertheless, more seeing of Indigeneity by settler eyes does not exactly promise a solution to the issue, nor does merely bringing to light the atrocities of the settler-colonial past and stopping there. Dene scholar Glen Coulthard emphasizes this point in the landmark Red Skin, White Masks,advocating that Indigenous peoples “turn away” from the settler state’s politics of recognition (43). Due to decades of hard-fought Indigenous resistance, the settler-colonial state cannot reproduce itself any longer solely through the material extraction, exclusion or elimination of Indigenous peoples. Instead, it survives by a newfound mode of reproduction at the more visual level of recognition. Rather than a significant improvement, this “politics of recognition in its contemporary liberal form promises to reproduce the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend” (Coulthard 3). Complicating Hegel’s famous dialectic via the theory of Frantz Fanon, Coulthard contends that presently there is no possible looking relation in the settler-colonial visual field between oppressed and oppressor. There is only a repetitive non-relationship, due to the settler-colonial state controlling the visual sphere.
To conclude on a political note, how does Injun as screen object interact with Coulthard’s rejection of the politics of recognition? In his own critique of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic of recognition, Coulthard focuses not on reconfiguring the subjectivity of “the master (the colonizing state and society)” but rather the subjectivity of the slave (the colonized), with his call for Indigenous peoples to “turn away” from the “the objectifying gaze and assimilative lure of colonial recognition” (43). To a significant degree, Coulthard achieves this position through a return to the theory of Fanon, centering Fanon’s argument for the “self-recognition” of the colonized, along with Fanon’s attachment to the negritude tradition despite its at times “essentialist character” (43). In doing so, Coulthard reckons with a key element of Fanon’s challenge to the Hegelian slave-master dialectic, precisely that violent, material struggle constitutes its “perfect mediation” (Fanon qtd. in Coulthard 47). It is significant that though Coulthard reluctantly rejects this Fanonian idea, the concept of mediation largely drops out of Red Skin, White Masks thereafter, likely due to Coulthard’s justified focus on exploring the complexities of Indigenous subjectivity, rather than settler subjectivity.
This essay contends that Indigenous screen objects like Injun productively bring the concept of mediation back into the struggle at the visual level, which is a powerful one indeed. It is important to note that unlike the negritude movement’s aforementioned potential for essentialism, Injun emerges out of settler-colonial sources, as opposed to imagining a pre-contact Indigeneity. In this sense, Injun is necessarily mediatory, operating at the threshold of Indigenous and settler modes of vision, rather than completely in one camp or the other. It is a screen object, having differential effects on Indigenous and settler audiences. As to the latter, this essay suggests that the repressed horror of the settler-colonial subject lies in the visual concealment of Indigeneity, a long-lasting historical process. The opening lines of “Injun” evoke the concealment of Indigeneity: “he played injun in gods country / where boys proved themselves clean” (4); later, the poem reads, “you can see it for yourself / let’s play injun/ and clean ourselves / off the land (14). Here, Abel references the new mode of settler-colonial concealment, described by Robyn Taylor-Neu as “a popularly lauded Indigenous artistic ‘renaissance’” in Canada that “rests in part on the capacity of Indigenous authors, visual artists, and performers to ‘play Indian’ in ways that are legible under the rubric of liberal multiculturalism” (121). In Taylor-Neu’s estimation, this artistic renaissance is mobilized by the Canadian media in order to prop up a “liberal multicultural fantasy of reconciliation, which operates through an ideal of difference incorporated” (121). Yet, as Injun shows and as Garneau’s theory of the screen object promises, this “play[ing] injun”—though it inhabits both a traumatic history and present—can also be a tool of resistance. Rather than turning away from settler society, Injun harnesses and redirects the objectifying gaze of settler-colonialism, turning its violence back on the original perpetrators and their descendants. Under this gaze, it is the settler who potentially becomes trapped in what Fanon—under the racist gaze of a white child—describes as “crushing objecthood” being marked like “a chemical solution is fixed by a dye” (qtd. in Coulthard 32). The Indigenous screen object ultimately threatens the settler-colonial audience with another way of seeing the world, and themselves.
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