Born in Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), Zoe Todd (Métis) travelled to Scotland to get a PhD, an experience that amplified her awareness of the all too-pervasive colonial systems permeating life today. Like Canada, Scotland was founded by the British Empire. Unlike Canada, Scotland’s awareness of its violent foundation has been smoothed out and marginalized by academic discourses. In a 2014, Todd wrote, “By the end of my time in Scotland in November 2014, a gnawing frustration at the erasure of Scottish complicity in colonialism haunted my days in the country” (1). After that polarizing experience, Todd returned to Canada, where she maps similarly colonial and imperial habits, particularly around environmental imagination and local indigenous histories. Todd’s vision emerged in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin’s Art in the Anthropocene (interviewed earlier this month):
To be at the margins, be they aesthetic, intellectual, or physical, is a shared experience for Indigenous people in Canada. What shape this marginalization takes is different for each person, and each Nation or People. But it occurs again and again, in slightly different forms: gentrification (or colonialism in the form of gentrification) appears as a shape-shifter.(2) When spaces are gentrified, which intellectual buildings are Indigenous and/or People of Colour allowed to occupy?(3)
The pressurized term “Anthropocene” can easily push for a unified vision of the planet; as such, it is imperative to slow down and acknowledge the many forms of multiplicity at hand. Todd currently teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Carlton.
Caroline Picard: More and more Anthropocene-related conversations attribute environmental devastation to colonialist, capitalist, and imperialist mind sets. I’m relieved to see that connection articulated, but also worry that the “Anthropocene” term—as a call-to-arms that elides immense pluralities under a single, umbrella—might actually encourage colonial behaviors, as nation states might suddenly assume a mantle of responsibility and try to “save the world.” I’ve heard you mention state fishing laws, for example, which impinge indigenous fishing without addressing the industrial fishing practices that actually cause so much environmental devastation.
Zoe Todd: I think that the danger in any universal narrative or epoch or principle is exactly that it can itself become a colonizing force. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I’m suspicious of the Anthropocene as concept for the very reason that it subsumes so many peoples, nations, histories, geographies, political orders. For that reason, I think ideas like the Anthropocene can be a useful short-hand for a cluster of tangible things going on with the Earth at the moment, but we have to be very careful about how fluid and dynamic ideas become concretized into hegemonic principles in the hands of researchers, policymakers, and politicians. There’s so much diversity in histories and experiences and environmental realities even between relatively linked geographies here in Canada that you cannot apply knowledge from one region to another without erasing really vital local contexts. Imagine what happens when we try to do that on a global scale—and a lot of euro-western Anthropocene, climate change and resilience research risks doing that—eliding local specificities and appropriating knowledge to serve a broader euro-western narrative without attending to the inherent colonial and imperial realities of science and policy processes, or even attending to the ways that colonial capitalist expansion has created these environmental crises to begin with. While we, as a collective humanity, are struggling with the realities of the Anthropocene, it is dangerous to erase the specific histories, power-relations, political orders that created the crisis to begin with. So, I’m glad that a robust critique of the Anthropocene as a concept is emerging. At the end of the day, we need to stop erasing local self-determination, local legal orders, philosophies, stories, histories praxis. Place matters. History matters. Stories matter. Nuance and resistance and context and complexity matter. The critical stuff that is being written by Donna Haraway, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and so many others about the Anthropocene is really important. To counter the hegemonic way, the term and idea is being deployed across disciplines and institutions right now.
CP: How do we, as a species, amplify and collectivize around ecological consciousness without diminishing various local pluralities?
ZT: I think we start attending to the knowledge systems, philosophies, legal orders that have been subsumed by white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism. We start making strident efforts to pay attention to scholars and thinkers and activists who are not privileged in the “leading” journals and academic spaces. We look beyond the horizons we are conditioned to listen to, we stop privileging the same one hundred scholars (mostly white, mostly men) in our hot takes on the Anthropocene and other current issues. We enthusiastically embrace Sara Ahmed’s call for a citational rebellion. We ask ourselves: what do I know about the places I live in and who I share territory with? What do I know about the more-than-human beings that I owe my life to, here, right now, in this place? We turn towards each other and acknowledge that we can only survive as a collective if we radically embrace principles of reciprocity, care, kindness and gentleness—these are things that are deeply embedded in nehiyaw (Cree) legal orders in the Territory I grew up in (Treaty Six territory in Alberta, Canada). I am sure that we can find similar principles of reciprocity and collective, relational accountability across lots of territories, geographies, and histories. We really really need this work to happen right now.
CP: I feel like the whole notion of the Anthropocene compresses massive swaths of time—geologic time and human time—while pinching the future into a tiny compressed and ever diminishing point. What does reparation look like within that scale? How do we walk this line between devastation, hope, and care?
ZT: This is a good question. Here is where I think folks need to pay attention to and acknowledge the amazing work on Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurisms that is being produced! One of the coolest projects I’ve seen this year here in Canada is a project that Eve Tuck produced with her students at the University of Toronto—it’s a podcast called ‘the Henceforward’ (the description on their website is: “the Henceforward is a podcast that considers relationships between Indigenous peoples and Black Peoples on Turtle Island. We reconsider the past and reimagine the future, the henceforward,” link here: http://www.indianandcowboy.com/the-henceforward/). I think that re-examining the past, as Eve and her students are doing, and reconsidering what kinds of futures we want, and examining what kinds of relationships we need to build to get us there, is really important. In fact, I’d say it may be one of the only ways to navigate our way out of our current nightmarish situations. The future is elastic but it depends on the past and present, and so we have to do the work to address these in tension (and here I think of how Cree scholar Dwayne Donald discusses what he calls ‘an ethic of historical consciousness’ (Donald 2009: 7). He describes this as: “This ethic holds that the past occurs simultaneously in the present and influences how we conceptualize the future. It requires that we see ourselves related to, and implicated in, the lives of those who have gone before us and those yet to come. It is an ethical imperative to recognize the significance of the relationships we have with others, how our histories and experiences are layered and position us in relation to each other, and how our futures as people similarly are tied together. It is also an ethical imperative to see that, despite our varied place-based cultures and knowledge systems, we live in the world together with others and must constantly think and act with reference to these relationships. Any knowledge we gain about the world interweaves us more deeply with these relationships and gives us life.” (Donald 2009: 7). (Article can be accessed here: http://mfnerc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/004_Donald.pdf)
I like this principle that he describes. It reminds us that we are inter-connected and that we have to attend to past, present and future simultaneously.
CP: I’ve heard you say that fish have a sense of humor. How does that humor tie in with the simultaneous plurality of fish?
ZT: Well, fish have agency. And so fish can tease us. I like to think of fish as having rich lives far beyond what we’ve been taught, in euro-western narratives and thought, to imagine for them. So, I think that fish can provoke and challenge us, and one tool through which to do that is humor. And, as someone from the prairies, I imagine them to have the good-natured sense of humor that I grew up with in my large Métis family. Trust me, I’ve learned many lessons through teasing. And it makes me a more accountable person today.
CP: In a recent talk at the University of Toronto, you describe eating a summer trout when your host explains that every bone of a fish has a different story. She tells you that the stories, however, are not for you as an anthropologist, which I take to mean they aren’t to be shared in academic settings, and then systematized by the public context of, the colonial academy. Your anecdote struck me as especially significant, in that the regime of global capital seems flatten different types of knowledge; the privilege of accessibility is fostered through systems of education and expense, rather than privileging intimacy. Going to back to your point about new, local systems of knowledge, I wondered if this was an example of an alternative strategy for learning?
ZT: I think folks need to realize that not all knowledge is for their consumption. Knowledge is produced through relationships—relationships to space, time, people, other beings. And those relationships create responsibilities. It’s not my place to learn something if I do not have robust and ongoing relationships to a specific place or person or history. And if I cannot tend to place, people or history in the ways that those who hold the knowledge deem to be necessary/adequate/robust, I have no business extracting that story. In that sense, knowledge is also deeply shaped by a kinship of sorts—and it requires labor to continue to tend to those relationships between ourselves and the stories we are gifted or granted through our connections to others. This is something my colleague Damien Lee and I have been discussing over the last little while—the labor and renewal of relationships really matters. Kinship isn’t just about blood relations, it is about a constant tending-to, and a tenderness towards, those who give us life through stories and relationships through time and space. Being given a story, or co-creating a story involves concomitant responsibilities to that story and the relationships it encapsulates and also creates through the telling and re-telling of it. And for this reason, when someone tells me that a piece of knowledge isn’t for sharing, I respect that as an act of self-determination.
CP: I’d love to hear more about your idea of refraction as mode of resistance and operation within restrictive power structures that try to regulate who is same and who is other. When I first heard you mention it, the idea of hacking came to mind as well; hacking might be a parallel activity for asserting direction and influence over a network of—say—bureaucratic agendas. And yet hacking has so many other political associations, the fact that you chose “refraction” seemed particularly significant. What made you you choose that word?
ZT: Well, I realized that the visual in my mind as I was talking to Inuvialuit interlocutors in my research in Paulatuuq, in the Northwest Territories, was one of Indigenous legal orders, kinship, and relationships to space and time literally bending and diffusing the colonial efforts of the State, the church, and corporate/capitalist institutions. Through this bending and diffusion, Indigenous peoples assert local knowledge, local praxis in creative ways to maintain local self-determination in the face of often very violent colonial incursions into local life (see, for example, the legacy of the Indian Residential School system in northern Canada). But I also see it as something related to fish, too. The way fish see us, up here in our “air world” is refracted by the water. And the way we see fish is also refracted by the water—things are not always what they seem. We have to adapt our actions to the water interface in order to actually catch a fish—to actually physically interact with a fish. So, refraction, as a physical imperative, creates conditions that are complex and require care and skill to navigate the boundaries between interfaces, and I see this as an apt metaphor to also query and understand the complex and dynamic interface between Indigenous legal orders and the State. For me, refraction is an active process—conscious, creative labor is required to shift, distort the efforts of the State to subsume, control, erase Indigenous laws and stories. I see refraction and diffusion as pretty badass processes. And, diffusion, well it’s that process we get when a prism scatters a ray of white light and reveals all the constituent wavelengths. In Canada, we’ve been sold a story about the country as a particular “good”—but when these stories of Canada as a human rights champion are refracted and diffused through Indigenous legal orders (and through the stories and histories of diverse marginalized communities in the country), you get the full spectrum of our history. You hear more than just the white-washed history of this place. So. That’s why I have been using these metaphors of refraction and diffusion in my work. And I am continuing to flesh them out as I write more work!
1. “Decolonial Dreams: unsettling the academy through the namewak,” The New [New] Corpse, Green Lantern Press, 2014.
2.Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel, “Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism,” Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics 40, no. 4 (2005): 597–614.
3. Zoe Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” Art in The Anthropocene, Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (Ed.s), Open Humanities Press 2015.
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