Maya Mikdashi, “What Is Settler Colonialism?” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37:2 (2013)
Sherene Seikaly, “Return to the Present,” Elisabeth Weber, editor, Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write these pieces?
Maya Mikdashi (MM): I had visited my mother`s family in Michigan and gone to the reservation for a holiday. Prior to this trip and to reading through my deceased grandfather`s piles and piles of papers documenting his family`s history, I felt very uneasy with my own interest in settler colonialism in the United States (an interest I came to through my activism for Palestine). I was, and am still very tentative and anxious about my own place in this ongoing history. I think I wanted to write about these anxieties and ambivalences in order to not feel so lonely with them.
I don`t really remember writing the initial piece. I was at a friend`s house after returning from Michigan. One morning I sat on her couch with a sentence that kept rattling around in my head. I wrote it down and two days later I published something on Jadaliyya. Weeks afterwards, Patrick Wolfe asked me if I would revisit and submit the article to a journal edition he was guest editing. I was reticent, but also very excited to continue to think through parts of the piece that I was still unsatisfied with. I ended up re-writing most if not all of it and the article doubled in size. The article we are discussing today, which will be published in June, is more theoretically robust and engages with literature in the field, and it explores more explicitly themes of inheritance and loss, a critical comparative approach to Israel and the United States, and the scalar regimes of racial, economic, gendered and spatial privilege and regulation through which settler colonies operate.
The process of transforming a Jadaliyya article into an academic one was not easy or painless, and the decision to publish such a personal piece—one told through a deeply personal narrative—in an academic journal made for many sleepless nights!
Sherene Seikaly (SRS): Elisabeth Weber approached me to contribute to a volume that centered around Derrida’s last public lecture in the United States titled, “Avowing—The Impossible: ‘Returns,’ Repentance and Reconciliation,” which was first presented in French in 1998. Its English translation, by Gil Anidjar, appears for the first time in this volume. Derrida’s piece reflected on Palestine and Israel and the paradox of living together.
The invitation proved to be a rich opportunity to read and think in new ways. Drawing on Derrida’s lessons of the alterity of past and future, mourning and hope, and the fractured self, I reflect in this piece on the experience of asynchronous time in the city of Haifa. I read Derrida’s lesson on avowal from the shore of a Palestinian diasporic experience of “returning” to my city of origin—where both sides of my family resided before 1948—through both research and my marriage to a Palestinian-Israeli (yet another shore of experience that I tentatively, partly, share). I reflect on the web of wounds, memory, and forgetfulness of Palestinians operating against the constraints of Israeli settler colonialism. And I ponder the aparthood of living in Haifa.
J: How do you define catastrophe? What does it mean in this piece?
MM: The word “catastrophe” operates on and through many registers, including the temporal and the conceptual. For our purposes, catastrophe is a rupture—an event that is definitive in a peoples’ history. Of course, the ‘Janus face’ of catastrophe is creation. This is law-making violence, as Walter Benjamin has taught us. In the cases of settler colonialism, the catastrophe of colonial contact is a moment of beginnings, of creation, for settlers—those that come to take the place of the natives. Thus the United States, Israel, Australia, Canada—these are states that are what they are today precisely due to the continuing catastrophe wrought on indigenous peoples—and the continued and active forgetting and/or rewriting of this catastrophe.
Often, we think that a catastrophe is something that “happens”—as an event that is temporally bounded and has a clear beginning and end point. I think I am in good company when I say that I am very influenced by Wolfe`s formulation of catastrophe in relation to the temporality of settler colonialism: [that] invasion is a structure not an event. As he and others have suggested, the temporality of the catastrophe of settler colonialism is ongoing—and it is precisely the definition of settlement as temporally bounded that enables it to continue with ease in the United States, as Scott Morgensen recently argued. Once relegated to the past, the catastrophe of settlement is tamed and we appear helpless before it. In this framework the settlement of the United States is not our problem, it is the problem of our ancestors.
You hear a similar sentiment in Israel, that those new generations that have been born as Israeli citizens are not settlers because they did not travel to Israel from elsewhere. But as many scholars have argued (see Wolfe, Piterberg, Smith, Kauanui, Morgensen, Barker, and Shafir to name but a few) being a settler does not require consent to the colonial project, it merely requires birth (or immigration) into a settler colonial structure that privileges the new indigene (the citizen) at the expense of native peoples.
The analysis of the relationship between the United States and Israel is only deepened through thinking of the complex ways that ontologies and grammars of settler colonialism saturate the histories and nationalisms of both states. Again, this is a point that scholars have been making for years now. It is no accident that both Israel and the United States embrace national mythologies such as the brave pioneer (the settler) or agricultural redemption through Euro-American expertise. Part of what I wanted to do with this article was think about the ways in which these shared national mythologies produce an affective relationship between the United States and Israel. I also wanted to continue to think through the relationship between anti-settler colonial activism between these two locations and others.
The Nakba is not a temporally bound event that “happened” in 1948. The Nakba is ongoing, as it is the continued catastrophe wrought upon Palestinian life-worlds in the name of the continued settlement of historic Palestine. Similarly, the catastrophic destruction of indigenous life worlds in the United States is ongoing, and recognition of this fact makes us, even the progressives among us, radically uncomfortable—perhaps because we realize that we are complicit in this ongoing Nakba. Thinking critically about our implications in settler colonialism can seem paralyzing. But as in all alliance based political action, we – critical settlers—should take our cues from indigenous peoples’ ongoing activism. It is not our place to determine what these politics should be; rather it is our job to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples in the United States, just as we stand in solidarity with Palestinians against the colonial machinations of Israel.
Solidarity and activism look different in each context because the United States and Israel are at different stages of settlement and genocide. In the context of the United states, for example, we could respond to the call to “save Wounded Knee”—the site of a massacre of indigenous peoples by the federal government in 1890, and again in 1973, and a site of deep historic and spiritual importance— from being sold by a private [white] owner to the highest bidder on the “free market.” Similarly, we could support the Lakota peoples in one of the longest running and still ongoing lawsuits in US history— the unlawful taking and settling of the Black Hills. It should not be a surprise to students of the Palestinian Nakba to know that upon taking the Black Hills from Lakotas, the US federal government built a national monument – Mount Rushmore – in order to establish facts on the ground. One could continue to list ways to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples as critical settlers (Idle No More would stand out at this moment).
SRS: The Nakba is a struggle that contains two battes taking place at once: one for what Edward Said called a “remembered presence”[i] and another to remain in the present. The layered and heterogeneous character of the “epistemological achievement” of the Nakba fuels the historical myths that underlie Israeli culture.
The Nakba is that formative event in Palestinian history when the majority of the people living in historic Palestine were expelled or fled from their ancestral lands. It is the event that often stands in Palestinian historiography as the beginning and the end of the story. But in Derrida’s text “Avowing—The Impossible” the Nakba only appears as “the conditions in which the modern state of Israel established itself” and “certain founding violences” (29).
These founding conditions and violences that took place in the space of the “nonlegal,” that is, “not illegal but nonlegal, otherwise put, unjustifiable with regard to an existing law” (“Avowing,” 29), emerge in Derrida’s text as temporally distinct from the policies of the current Israeli government and those that preceded it. That the violence of the Nakba remains unnamed in Derrida’s text is itself significant of an erasure. This unnaming and erasure is what allows for the problematic distinction between the “founding” and the policies of governments as temporally distant and independent from one another. Indeed, separating “certain founding violences” from “the politics of the current Israeli government and a great number of those that preceded it” will not suffice.
Israel’s founding violences were a result of the formation of an exclusively Jewish state. That imperative did not begin in 1948, nor did it end there. The process of partitioning land and labor into Jewish and non-Jewish categories began with the onset of European Jewish settlement. The anxieties about the Jewish state’s “demographic integrity” continue today, as do the relentless policies and machinations of separation. Thus separation, indeed aparthood, appears in Israel and Palestine as in other contexts, “less as a discrete event than as interminable condition.” The tremendous rupture of the Nakba and its significance in making Palestinian “living together” impossible is not a founding or originary event but a heterogeneous and continuous experience.
On the one hand, the memory and the remnants of the Nakba and Palestine, in Israel, constitute Israel as its always-already absent-present. On the other hand, the Nakba also stands for the ongoing, uninterrupted process of separating Palestinians from one another. Thus, to “remain radically critical . . . without implying from it any threatening or disrespectful consequences for the present, the future, and the existence of Israel” (“Avowing,” 29) is impossible. Remaining radically critical of Israel requires stepping away from that decidedly identitarian, totalized, “self-identical” figure that Derrida so vigilantly guarded against and so rigorously deconstructed but that nevertheless makes a startling appearance in “Avowing—The Impossible,” in the formulation of the Israeli “authentic patriots” (29). A radical stance necessarily and explicitly means consequences for Israel’s present and its future. As long as the right to a remembered presence is denied, the living together will continue to be based on an aparthood that can allow for only a shallow performance of conviviality with Palestinians in Israel and requires an armed cohabitation in the West Bank and Gaza.
J: What does return meant to you? How do you talk about it here?
MM: This question is much better answered by Sherene! I was born, raised and educated in Lebanon, so I know very well the importance of the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed off their land. This is not a theoretical argument. Any visit to a Palestinian refugee camp will shatter any attempt to academically articulate the necessity of the right of return for generations that have been ethnically cleansed of their lands and are now illegally barred from exercising their international right to return “home” to them. Of course, the “facts on the ground” established by illegal practices of settler colonialism mean that there is often no home to return to. Villages and homes have been razed, re-named and rebuilt in order to indigenize the relationship of non-Palestinian Israelis to the land. Again, this is a process we see across the United States. But indigenous peoples of the US do not have the legal right of return to the lands from which they were forcibly removed. So the physical trip I describe in this article is a strange return of sorts, it is a return to a reservation—a space where forcibly removed and contained people were—and are—kept under colonial conditions.
The arc of this article traces a different form of return: a return to whatever remains of memory to a family history that has been whitewashed almost as much as the history of the United States. I find it strange that I could only write this article in the presence of my grandfather`s death. In some ways, it is a return to him. A longing for family, for intimacy, a way out of these questions that I have—about what it means to live in the most successful settler colony the world has ever seen, the United States. It is about understanding that the recognition of the US as a settler colony obligates us to form an ethic of critical engagement—and yet simultaneously it is about being weighed down by my own ambivalent relationship to my family’s history with genocide and settlement. How does one inherit history, and what do we do with that inheritance? Is it possible to ever understand, be cognizant of, or explain all the different registers of settler colonialism—particularly if we live, love and work in (or about) one? How does one act under the imminent sign of failure, and why is it still important to act even under that sign? That is what I was trying to grasp at through writing this piece.
SRS: As Elias Khoury put it: “One does not return to Palestine, one should simply go.” My relationship to Haifa crystallizes the impossibility of “return” and again asynchronous time, which is linked to the proximity of the other in the present. This other in the present is the alterity of past and future, the experiences of memory (of a younger self) and promise (of an older self), of mourning and hope. One lives with the other (the dead, the not yet born) and the other in the self (the younger, older, larger self). Holding U.S. citizenship, and standing as outsider-insider, I do not return to the past in Haifa, for it rarely leaves me, offering instead a web of experiences of debt and death.
For the descendant of two families expelled from the city, now scattered over three continents, living in Haifa entails living with the dead, mourning both their death and their past presence in this city. Recalling the memories of my elders’ favorite haunts and corners in pre-1948 Arab Haifa is an act of debt, an act of mourning, and at times an act of betrayal. A measure of trepidation lingers around mundane acts of the everyday. A sense of betraying “my own” overtakes me as I drive by what is now the Haifa Museum of Art and what was once my grandmother’s school; its name still engraved in the wall teases my memory of her memory. My grandmother May was not one to ask about the city’s present. Uprooted from her home with her husband and children in 1948, her commitment to forging life anew despite instability and displacement required active forgetting. Simon, my uncle, was a different case. Born in 1935 in Haifa, and expelled in 1948, he carried the city with him everywhere—its shores, its staircases, its cinema houses. Simon held in the spaces of his memory the twists and turns of the city’s hilly streets. I thought the city never left him, but I came to understand that he had never left it.
He often asked about a particular cinema house: “Is it still there? We loved that place. Its roof opened and shut. Does it still?” We were confused about the exact location of the theater, thinking it was the old building with the battered billboard near the vegetable market. Later we realized it was another location: the mini mall, where we go to the pharmacy and the bank. With the car double-parked in rush hour and a list of items to buy, I recently stole a few minutes in the crevices of the mundane to walk around and imagine. Looking up, I found the roof was indeed exposed.
As the older generations that remember living together in Haifa before 1948 pass under the weight of time, the city crystallizes even more as a site of mourning, a place to recall the other who is gone and the time that has passed.
What “living together” means for Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the diaspora, is living separate from other Palestinians. This relentless separation of Palestinians continues today through war, occupation, the separation wall, and less noted legal machinations such as the racialized ban on family unification passed in 2003. It is this condition of perpetual separation that makes return both impossible and necessary.
J: How do these pieces relate to your previous and ongoing work and in what ways do they speak to each other?
MM: This article is really my first attempt to think in a sustained manner about settler colonialism. At this very moment in my academic trajectory, the experience of writing and re-writing this article has had a strong impact on my pedagogy. It has forced me to think critically about how to teach the Middle East and issues related to that region from the geographic location of a settler colony that happens to be the world’s strongest state and a state that is locked in an imperial relationship with the contemporary Middle East.
I am teaching a graduate seminar next semester on comparative settler colonialism in order to continue to think about the impasses and intersections between settlement, normalization, appropriation, legal frameworks of settler colonies, colonialism and settler colonialism, and nativity. In terms of pedagogy, I also think it is important to continue to underscore the ties between the birth of liberalism and capitalist understandings of land ownership on the one hand, and the settling of North and South America and its attendant genocides on the other. Robert A. Williams’ work has been instructive on this point. This is not to somehow write off liberalism and capitalism as foundationally racist and built on dispossession (which clearly they are) but rather to understand and sit with how what we call “civilization,” and the ways that our very grounded and quotidian attachment to liberal modernity, is built upon and sustained through barbarity towards others and through intervention and regulation of what we call “nature.”
I think that both my article and Sherene’s speak to each other on many levels. The most obvious being that Sherene and I literally speak several times a week and we try to read everything the other writes. Sherene has been a very special interlocutor and has pushed my thinking and writing in many ways, including on Palestine and on the affective registers of writing itself. Both “What is Settler Colonialism” and “Return to the Present,” are about impossibilities, the impossibility of satisfactorily defining settler colonialism and the impossibility of return to Haifa—even as she lives in Haifa. I think that writing and living that impossibility produces anxieties, ambivalences, and failures –themes that are prominent in both of our articles.
When I read Sherene’s article I wrote to her that “as you read your throat gets tighter, and the article begins with your head and ends with your heavy heavy heart.” I think that that journey from your head to your heart (the affective experience of reading Sherene’s article) is in and of itself very political, and very politically efficacious.
SRS: This piece has helped me with something I struggle with often in my work on Palestinian history, and that is the question of exceptionalism. As an interlocutor and a co-writer, Maya’s voice has been a crucial one for me on this and many other questions. Maya’s piece “What is Settler Colonialism?” helps us overcome exceptionalism, while still attending to historical specificities. Her work speaks to and summons catastrophes in the plural, and particularly, the catastrophe of Native Americans, that Palestinian-Americans must listen and speak to. The echoes are too powerful; ignoring them is dangerous. As an eleven year old in California, I remember looking through the four hundred pages of my US history textbook to find two lone paragraphs on Native Americans. The resonance of settler colonialism’s sanitization and silencing of history was brash but somehow comforting. On a recent trip to the Northwest, I was struck once again by the beauty of the broad expanse of land that testified at every turn to the violence of dispossession and the depths of the Native American catastrophe.
Writing this piece has also been a way to name the impossibility of return, it has helped me see and live Haifa as a palimpsest. In my city of origin, I experience various layers of history and memory; these layers are ironic, they appear and vanish spontaneously, they haunt and abandon me. I choose at different points to see them and overlook them. In speaking these experiences out loud, the choices of when to remember and when to forget, when to avow and when to betray, as Maya says above, feel less lonely.
Excerpts from “Return to the Present” and “What is Settler Colonialism?”
In January 2009, as Israeli drones rained indiscriminate and brutal death on the Palestinians of the embattled Gaza Strip, Simon passed away. When I heard my father cry for the first time, I felt the sting of the still-open wound. The burial of my uncle shone a harsh light on the depths of dispersal. The widely scattered family of seven that began in Haifa would bury their dead far from each other and from their city. As they bid their eldest brother adieu across three continents, they also buried a memory of togetherness. Simon’s last resting place in the United States, many miles from Haifa, brought the issue of land, and its lack, starkly and once again to the surface. Dispersal would continue in death; who would remember togetherness?
Living together, or more accurately, living apart, in Haifa is best understood as an extended experience of asynchronous time, the past in the present, despite the nakba and because of it. For this reason it is as important to draw political consequences from a return to the present as it is from Derrida’s counsel to “return to the past” (“Avowing,” 29).
What “living together” means for Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the diaspora, is living separate from other Palestinians. This relentless separation of Palestinians continues today through war, occupation, the separation wall, and less noted legal machinations such as the racialized ban on family unification passed in 2003.[ii] It is this condition of perpetual separation that makes any “living together” premised on the erasure of a remembered presence.
The layered and heterogeneous character of what Edward Said called the “epistemological achievement”[iii] of erasure fuels the historical myths that underlie Israeli culture. The historian and critic Gabi Piterberg analyzes this erasure in his discussion of the “negation of exile” as a myth that cemented “continuity between an ancient past, in which there existed Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel, and a present that renews it in the resettlement of the land of Palestine.”[iv] The “return to the land of Israel” thus recovered the land, which itself was condemned to exile as long as it lacked Jewish sovereignty, and functioned as a normalization of Jewish existence, no longer docile, passive, and de-territorialized in exile, now normal, complete, and authentic on the land. This normalization continues to be intricately dependent on the heterogeneity of erasure “of the historical experience both of the Jews in exile, and of Palestine without Jewish sovereignty.”[v]
Israel’s function as normalizing—indeed, its status as a normal state as opposed to the promise of exceptionalism—is a recurring question. Joseph Massad reminds us of the antagonism between the Zionists’ slogan: “We are not a people like any other” and the Palestinian cry: “We are a people like all others.”[vi]
The question of the exceptional versus the normal finds unique resonance in “Avowing—The Impossible” as part of the broader reflections on the impossibility of living together with the self, the other, and the ensemble that drive the piece. For Derrida, the adverb “together” in living together does not refer to the totality of a natural, biological, or genetic ensemble. Therefore, living together “supposes . . . an interrupting excess both with regard to statutory convention, to law and with regard to symbiosis.” Living together is not reducible to organic symbiosis or the juridico-political contract. Indeed, “if it were possible,” living together would test the “the old couple physis/nomos, physis/thesis, nature/convention, biological life/law [droit].” Derrida distinguishes this law, “more than ever, from justice” (“Avowing,” 27). To live together requires transporting oneself beyond “almost everything” that founds itself on this opposition between nature and culture. And here Derrida reflects on “declaring oneself Jewish,” law, justice, and exceptionalism.
One will never think the “living together” . . . unless one transports oneself beyond everything that is founded on this opposition of nature and culture. That is to say, beyond everything, more or less everything. This excess with regard to the laws of nature, as well as to the laws of culture, is always an excess with regard to the whole [ensemble], and I do not take the difficulty lightly. . . This excess does not signify that law, a nonlegal law or a nonjuridical justice, does not continue to command sense and the “must” of “one must well live together.” Which law? And can “declaring oneself Jewish,” in whatever mode (and there are so many) grant a privileged access to this justice, to this law beyond laws [cette loi au-dessus des lois]?” (“Avowing,” 27)
Derrida moves from these remarks to revisit the child he was in Algeria; he recounts the “conditions in which the modern state of Israel established itself” that drove him to insomnia.
But the child of whom I speak asked himself whether the founding of the modern state of Israel—with all the politics and policies that have followed and confirmed it—could be no more than an example among others of this originary violence from which no state can escape, or whether, because this modern state intended not to be a state like others, it had to appear before another law and appeal to another justice. (“Avowing,” 30)
These very remarks, Massad points out, assimilate Israel’s founding violence as “normative and normal.”[vii] They also take a particular approach to temporality, an approach that resonates with the figure of the child who continued “to interrogate himself . . . regarding the conditions which the modern state of Israel established itself.”
These founding conditions and certain violences that took place in the space of the “nonlegal,” that is, “not illegal but nonlegal, otherwise put, unjustifiable with regard to an existing law” (“Avowing,” 29), emerge as temporally distinct from the policies of the current Israeli government and those that preceded it. That the violence of the nakba remains unnamed in the text, as noted above, is itself significant of an erasure. This unnaming and erasure is what allows for the problematic distinction between the “founding” and the policies of governments as temporally distant and independent from one another.
Indeed, separating “certain founding violences” from “the politics of the current Israeli government and a great number of those that preceded it” will not suffice.
Israel’s founding violences were a result of the formation of an exclusively Jewish state. That imperative did not begin in 1948, nor did it end there. The process of partitioning land and labor into Jewish and non-Jewish categories began with the onset of European Jewish settlement. The anxieties about the Jewish state’s “demographic integrity” continue today, as do the relentless policies and machinations of separation. Thus separation, indeed aparthood, appears in Israel and Palestine as in other contexts, “less as a discrete event than as interminable condition.”[viii]
The tremendous rupture of the nakba and its significance in making Palestinian “living together” impossible is not, then, a founding or originary event but a heterogeneous and continuous experience. On the one hand, the memory and the remnants of the nakba and Palestine, in Israel, constitute Israel as its always-already absent-present. On the other hand, the nakba also stands for the ongoing, uninterrupted process of separating Palestinians from one another. Thus, to “remain radically critical . . . without implying from it any threatening or disrespectful consequences for the present, the future, and the existence of Israel” (“Avowing,” 29) is impossible. Remaining radically critical of Israel requires stepping away from that decidedly identitarian, totalized, “self-identical”[ix] figure that Derrida so vigilantly guarded against and so rigorously deconstructed but that nevertheless makes a startling appearance in “Avowing—The Impossible,” in the formulation of the Israeli “authentic patriots” (29). A radical stance necessarily and explicitly means consequences for Israel’s present and its future. As long as the right to a remembered presence is denied, the living together will continue to be based on an aparthood that can allow for only a shallow performance of conviviality with Palestinians in Israel and requires an armed cohabitation in the West Bank and Gaza.
To better explore living together in Israel and Palestine, we must regard the “conditions in which the modern state of Israel established itself,” through the very prism of asynchronous temporality. A temporality that avows the nakba, a temporality that names the conditions that constituted Israel, and denounces the conditions this state continues to require as long as its present and future remain by juridical definition an exclusively Jewish territory.
Almost every year, for the week of the Fourth of July, my family makes the twelve-hour drive from their homes in Michigan to what they call their “farm.” The land has been in my family since the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe between the Ojibwe and the United States. That treaty created the Bad River Tribe Reservation on Lake Superior. My family has papers “proving” their rights to land that borders Bear Creek. These documents include lists of names, maps, kinship charts, and blood arithmetic. They are all authorized by the stamps and seals and signatures of the Office, and later the Bureau, for Indian Affairs and the US federal government. According to the treaty, federal government retains ultimate ownership over the land, which has been “leased” to Native Americans and their heirs “forever.”
Thus, land ownership and inheritance constitute a legal relationship to the earth that indexes the near annihilation of Indigenous philosophies and ways of life. Indeed, the project of making White men out of Native Americans was to a large extent predicated on the injunction to “own” property individually.[x] More than three hundred years ago, John Locke commenced a history of liberalism by putting forth theories and practices of labor, land, individuality, and ownership. Progress and private property came together. By linking one’s relation to the land to one’s civilizational status, the birth of liberalism was also a turning point in the legality of dispossession and genocide.[xi] Today, this process continues. With the passing of generations, reservation land is continually fragmented and parceled into smaller pieces, effectively diluting the collective bargaining rights of Indigenous peoples. Each time reservation land comes to be inherited, the US federal government has the right to perform an “audit” of the new generation. Many people sell. Others are subject to the federal government’s determination of being ineligible for Indian inheritance.
The question that titles this article is deceptively simple. It invites answers that do not, and cannot, exist. One can only address the remainder of a settler-colonial project, particularly one as successful as the United States. To write and think on these continuously dividing remainders is, as Gayatri Spivak calls “Ghostwriting,” an:
attempt to establish the ethical relation with history as such, ancestors real or imagined. The ethical is not a problem of knowledge but a problem of relation . . . You crave to let history haunt you as a ghost or ghosts, with the ungraspable incorporation of a ghostly body, and the uncontrollable, sporadic, and unanticipatable periodicity of haunting, in the impossible frame of the absolute chance of the gift of time, if there is any.[xii]
It is impossible to write about that which cannot be known, and yet there is an ethical imperative to do so. In looking for answers to the question of settler colonialism, I have only a narrative, one that tries to resist the seduction of identity-based claims and yet writes through and pauses on identity’s shadows, reversals, and ambivalences. The intimacy and obligation of ghostwriting, and the expectation of failure entailed within it, animates this piece of writing. The ghosts here are not only my grandfather, his mother, or my Native American and Palestinian comrades, family members, and loved ones. The ghosts are everything that happens in the act of writing itself, the affective registers of documenting, living, dying, and struggling with the question and the successes of settler colonialism.
How, and why, does one write about the remainder?
[i]. Edward Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry 26 no.2 (2000):184.
[ii]. The Knesset passed the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order) on July 31, 2003. It prohibits granting residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the 1967 occupied territories who are married to Israeli citizens. The Knesset has renewed and extended this emergency regulation, originally enacted for one year, for the last nine years. On March 21, 2007, the Knesset expanded the ban on family unification when a spouse resides in or is a citizen of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, or Iraq. This law deliberately targets Palestinians in Israel and separates them from their families in the occupied territories and the Arab world. See the work of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel for more information: http://www.adalah.org/eng/famunif.php.
This ban on family unification is one among many painful ironies, given Derrida’s point about questions “to which Jews are particularly sensitive: the question of hospitality to foreigners, immigrants with or without permits, the questions of civil union and of marriage, the question of national memory” (“Avowing,” 12).
[iii]. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 23: “The full irony of this remarkable epistemological achievement––and I use the philosophical term because there is no other one adequate to expressing the sheer blotting out from knowledge of almost a million natives––is enhanced when we remember that in 1948, at the moment that Israel declared itself a state, it legally owned a little more than 6 percent of the land of Palestine and its population of Jews consisted of a fraction of the total population.”
[iv]. Gabriel Piterberg, “Erasures,” New Left Review 10 (July–August 2001): 31.
[v]. Ibid., 32.
[vi]. Massad is citing Gilles Deleuze here. Joseph Massad, “The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre,” Al Ahram Weekly, January 30, 2005.
[vii]. Joseph A. Massad, “Forget Semitism!” this volume, 112-113.
[viii]. Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 6.
[ix]. Derrida’s words, quoted above, are important reminders: “The adverb ‘together’ in the expression ‘living together’ does not refer to the totality of a natural, biological, or genetic ensemble, to the cohesiveness of an organism or of some social body (family, ethnic group, nation) that would be measured with this organic metaphor.” (“Avowing,” 16). Additionally:
God is the name and the element of that which makes possible an absolutely pure and absolutely self-present self-knowledge. From Descartes to Hegel and in spite of all the differences that separate the different places and moments in the structure of that epoch, God’s infinite understanding is the other name for the logos as self-presence. The logos can be infinite and self-present, it can be produced as auto-affection, only through the voice: an order of the signifier by which the subject takes from itself into itself, does not borrow outside of itself the signifier that it emits and that affects it at the same time. Such is at least the experience––or consciousness––of the voice: of hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak [s’entendre-parler]. That experience lives and proclaims itself as the exclusion of writing, that is to say of the invoking of an “exterior,” “sensible,” “spatial” signifier interrupting self-presence. (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 98)
Jack Reynolds (Merleau-Ponty and Derrida: Intertwining Embodiment and Alterity [Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004], 36) provides a cogent discussion of Derrida’s critique of Ferdinand de Saussure’s argument that language and writing are two distinct systems, the second existing for the purpose of representing the first.
Derrida vehemently disagrees with this type of hierarchy and instead argues that all that can be claimed of writing––for instance, that it is derivative and merely refers to other signs––is equally true of speech. But as well as criticizing such a position for certain unjustifiable presuppositions, including the idea that we are self-identical with ourselves in “hearing” ourselves think, Derrida makes explicit the manner in which such a hierarchy is rendered untenable from within Saussure’s own text.
[x] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 397.
[xi] James Tully, “Rediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights,” in An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[xii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Ghostwriting,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (1995): 70.