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Translating geontologies to conceptualize and combat settler colonialism


In The Avery Review, Shela Sheikh, who teaches postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths, explores how Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s concept of “geontopower” can be used to illuminate indigenous struggles in the US, such as the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as the settler-colonialist nature of Trump-fueled nationalism. Elaborated in Povinelli’s recent book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, geontopower is "a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife” (p. 4). The concept is offered as a supplement or update to the concept of biopower, whose exercise, argues Povinelli, is more and more being replaced by the exercise of geontopower. Sheikh writes that by “translating” Povinelli’s idea of geontopower to a North American context, we can gain insights and tools not only for understanding US settler colonialism today, but also for struggling against it. Read an excerpt from Sheikh’s piece below, or the full text here. (An excerpt from Povinelli’s book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism appeared in the December 2016 issue of e-flux journal.)

The work of “postcolonial ecology” is already well under way, and it is becoming all too clear that this must be supplemented by decolonial, indigenous, and feminist critiques of Anthropocene discourse, as well as of the attendant posthumanism that seeks to counter the Anthropocene industry’s prevailing anthropocentrism. But even beyond this, as William E. Connolly articulates in his forthcoming Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming, additional borders require dismantling: the aggregate of “postcolonial ecology” in and of itself is not enough. Rather, this must dialogue more forcefully than ever before with eco-movements and with new practitioners of earth sciences. In other words, the lessons learned from the anti-colonial or anti-imperial ecological struggles that have taken place outside the old capitalist centers and in depressed urban areas within them demand to be translated into what Connolly names “a cross-regional pluralist assemblage,” one that “presses states, corporations, churches, universities, and the like from inside and outside simultaneously.” Furthermore, for such lessons to be effective in our contemporary climate, attention must be paid to the geological. While a partial response to this can be located in something like geographer Kathryn Yusoff’s theorizations of “geologic life” within the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, the recent work of anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli is particularly useful here. Though she may not explicitly use the term postcolonial ecology, Povinelli implicitly offers much for a necessarily postcolonial conceptualization of eco-movements and eco-activism (above all where each is concerned with aesthetic strategies and creative practices), precisely in her foregrounding of the relationship between Life and Nonlife, the biological and the geological, biopower and geontopower, under the conditions of settler late liberalism.

Povinelli’s latest book, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, was published in September 2016, simultaneous to the growing mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recapitulating earlier presentations on the same topic, Geontologies at once forms the third part of Povinelli’s trilogy on late liberalism (which includes the Empire of Love [2006] and Economies of Abandonment [2011]) and also revisits her reflections on governance in settler late liberalism begun in her 1993 book Labor’s Lot. Geontologies is a dense work that resists being described in telegraphic terms, based as it is in dazzling and far-reaching theoretical and philosophical readings. But Povinelli’s key concepts of “geontology” and “geontopower” are an invaluable contribution to our much-needed critical lexicon, evoked above, and reading her work from this perspective suggests that the concepts and modes of engagement presented in Geontologies, though firmly rooted in the experience and particular governance of Australian settler late liberalism, demand to be taken up and translated in other contexts. When Povinelli speaks of “late liberalism” in Geontologies, she is specifically referring to the strategies of power that took shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s that exposed the emerging “politics of recognition” and open markets as methods of conserving liberal governance and “the accumulation of value for dominant classes and social groups” rather than as means to ameliorate social and economic injustices (169). In her earlier Economies of Abandonment, she elucidates the way that late liberalism refers to a strategy for “governing the challenge of postcolonial and new social movements,” with Geontologies demonstrating how this governing takes place precisely through the management of the perceived relationship between the biological and the geological. Despite this specificity, the offerings of Geontologies call to be translated, both geographically and conceptually, and provide a lens through which to read the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline or other instances in North America where the residues of settler colonialism persist, even if—crucially—this persistence is often denied.

Image: Sitting Bull with protectors in Canon Ball, ND. Via Avery Review.