This Ship We’re In

In Fall 2019, I spoke at a workshop in my department on “Decolonization in the Classroom,” where I was asked to discuss how one approaches the teaching of eighteenth-century British literature through a “decolonizing” methodology. Since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, Canadian universities among other institutions have been called upon to acknowledge the truth of colonial genocide and to implement ways of “reconciling” with the Indigenous communities who have been the targets of colonial violence. With the necessary caveats about using the term “decolonization” to describe any activity pursued in a North American university classroom short of razing the building to the ground—given that, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang insist, decolonization is not a metaphor—I talked about my efforts to rethink what scholars of eighteenth-century literature consider the foundations of our field and the work we do within it. I was trained to think of the foundations of my scholarly work in terms of a canon of texts, both literary and critical. But lately I’ve been thinking about the foundations of my scholarly work much more literally, in terms of the land on which I’m located, how I arrived here historically, and what the implications and possibilities are of my teaching this text, or this idea, in this place. If I considered the colonization of this place as the premise of all the teaching and research I do here, not just the “context” or “background,” how does that shape my scholarly work?

Anticolonial scholarship must do much more than revise the canon. For example, I’ve been trying to begin my teaching with an acknowledgment and consideration of where and how the learning is located, to bring our modes of inquiry in accordance with the treaties and modes of governance and relationality that ought to be observed in the places we’re in. My home institution, McMaster University, is located on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas and the Haudenosaunee, lands protected by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek. This is a treaty that affirms peoples’ responsibility to care for the land and to share its resources peaceably and sustainably with others—to take what you need in a way that leaves what others may need, now and in the future. It’s not just about portioning and fairness; it’s about living in such a way that you perceive your own needs as connected to the needs of a place, and of a wider collective of beings who all deserve to live well in this place, because they are of it and it lives through them.

While the Dish With One Spoon articulates a covenant among peoples native to this region, another treaty, the Two Row Wampum-Covenant Chain treaty, models peaceful co-existence between the Haudenosaunee and newcomers to the land. The Two Row is the earliest treaty between Onkwehonweh (original people) and Europeans on this land, made between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch in 1613, and then taken up and painstakingly elaborated between British diplomats and Haudenosaunee Confederacy leaders after the British took over governance of the New Netherlands settlements in 1664.The wampum belt’s two rows of purple represent the parallel paths of the ship and the canoe, figures for the European and Haudenosaunee cultures and modes of governance; the three rows of white beads that separate them symbolize peace, friendship, and respect. The agreement is that the ship and the canoe will proceed forever alongside one another, on the same river, in a peaceful and respectful way, without encroaching on one another’s ways of living or systems of governance. It proposes the distance between the ship and the canoe as a source of mutual strength, if we can practice our responsibilities to one another across that space—recognizing one another and learning ways of being present to one another without violation or appropriation.

What the historical record clearly shows is that the ship did not stay in its lane. And every colonial institution is a ship, including the university and the field of eighteenth-century studies. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action requires of those of us in these ships is that we bring them back on course, in sustained, conscientious relation to the Indigenous lifeways that North American institutions have overwhelmingly failed to share space with, materially and epistemologically. The difficulty of this task after several centuries of colonization is enormous, but that’s how I understand the obligation of “reconciliation.” Nothing less than decolonization itself can recreate the conditions for the friendly relations imagined in the Two Row. We’re not starting from how things were when the wampum was first made. The ship has wrecked things, and its sailors have a lot of work to do before the vessel can be considered close to seaworthy again—to demonstrate its fitness to proceed respectfully in these waters.

So what does this work of decolonizing look like? I’ve been thinking about what the ships that arrived in the lands we now call the Americas in the first waves of colonization were looking for, namely wealth, which took the forms of gold, silver, fur, enslaved people, and stolen land, among others. Europeans fought wars with one another in their attempts to take the most from ancient lands they cunningly named the “New World,” and they negotiated treaties with First Nations as strategic measures in these wars—for example, the 1760 British-Huron Treaty that recognizes the Huron-Wendat Nation’s territorial rights in Nionwensïo, where I first drafted this essay in a hotel room in Quebec City during the 2019 meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies; that treaty gave the British purchase in their competition with the French over fur trade profits. Recently, the Huron-Wendat have made efforts to renew Canada’s recognition of the Treaty and to insist that Canada act in compliance with Indigenous land stewardship in its laws and economic developments, particularly with regard to the Navigation Protection Act. That treaties made strategically in the eighteenth century to facilitate the colonial extraction and hoarding of wealth should subsequently be ignored by the colonial state in its ongoing pursuit of more wealth is, perhaps, not a surprise.

The ship of academia must consider how the gathering of this ill-begotten wealth created the material foundations of the institutions and spaces in which we now work—from universities and scholarly societies to the rooms of transnational hotel chains and, for many of us now more than ever, our own homes on colonized lands. This is a literal, pragmatic responsibility: when you go to, say, Quebec to present a paper on, say, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), your preparations ought to prioritize learning the traditional name of the territory and its peoples and languages, the treaties in place there, and the lines of relation and accountability that run between the place, the communities who belong to it, and you and your work when you arrive there to do it. We are accustomed to swooping in like (we hope) elegant cosmopolitans, immersing ourselves in the discourses we bring to the seminar tables and breakout rooms, and returning home enriched by these conversations. Yet these intellectual riches were materially generated not only between people but also in a particular place that activated us. We ought to be able to recognize these placements as inseparable from the ideas and experiences we reap from them; we should consider how we draw on, and how we can give back to, the places that literally held us as they gave us space to think.

We must learn, in other words, to situate our work in its place, recognizing place not merely as location but as a system of relations defined by mutual obligation among all living entities in proximity to one another. My colleague Vanessa Watts explains that “Place-Thought” based in Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies “is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated. Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts.” The thinking you do in a place is the place doing the thinking, through your exertions. As my colleague Kaitlin Debicki, who teaches place-based learning here at McMaster, has explained it, “this is not an automatic occurrence, this thinking. It takes work, effort, connection, relationship, offerings.” Place thinks through you at the same time that it is thinking through everyone and everything else placed there. And how are you participating in these processes—what does your thinking make present? How are you contributing—or not—to a collective peace of mind and state of mutual well-being, the Haudenosaunee practice of the Good Mind?

Such questions require academics to confront our inherited understanding of the value of our work and how we pursue it. Instead of taking a side in the long-running professional debates over method and professional yield, academics should recognize how such “culture wars” are direct extensions of colonial trade wars in how they frame knowledge as the product of conquest and conflict, as an extractable resource made valuable through refinement and circulation within the ambit of the “knowledge economy.” Instead of merely historicizing our positions and comparing our modes of arrival, academics should take responsibility for the ship we’re in, now. It’s not a matter of how good our ideas are, but of what, and whom, they are good for.

Most employees of the university (including its swelling ranks of abjected labor) will tell you that, right now, the ship of the academy is a truly wretched place to work whatever labors you’ve been assigned (or denied) and regardless of the brilliance and best intentions of many of the people in it (for now). The hulk of Euro-Western scholarship remains true to the mission of the earliest colonizing vessels—in its sustained reliance on stolen land and extracted labor, in its commitment to epistemicide as a method of promoting the interests of particular knowledge communities, and in its structural propagation of values that make any other way of proceeding seem unimaginable. Measures of academic achievement remain tethered to competition for resources. Professional “success” remains fastened to forms of prestige that make one less, rather than more, accountable to those whose less prestigious labors made one’s own work possible. The cliché of the “ivory tower” has always laid bare the conceit that scholarly privilege is materially enabled by colonial plunder, and the privilege consists in placing oneself above and apart from the world so plundered. But in the twenty-first century, those of us supposedly in the ivory tower reach more often for the metaphor of the sinking ship to describe the state of the profession as we understand and experience it. We have arrived at this sense of crisis not because the mission is failing, but because we have failed to recognize what the mission actually was. In a recent piece exposing why, under the economic pressure of the COVID-19 outbreak, the wealthiest universities are firing employees and pillaging retirement funds rather than using their gargantuan endowments to bail themselves out, François Furstenberg observes that we live in a world “where, instead of having an endowment to support a university, the university serves as a tax shelter for the endowment.” The academic mission was always, on some level, to plunder and hoard the spoils of empire.

What good are ideas, any ideas at all, when they function primarily to legitimate colonial financial schemes? Without a complete transformation of the conquest-based economics of the university as we know it, this ship can’t be trusted to proceed at all in good conscience or alongside anyone in peaceful relation.

But what does any of this mean for the viability, and future prospects, of the ship of eighteenth-century studies? Before we simply set it on fire, I propose we attempt another tried-and-true eighteenth-century method of collective action: namely, mutiny. We need to refuse familiar forms of authority and radically redefine what expertise in the colonizing cultures of the “long eighteenth century” looks like. Despite the relatively successful enfranchisement, since the 1990s, of scholarly projects focused on race and empire in our field, BIPOC scholars remain starkly underrepresented in tenure-track professorships, on executive boards, and as editors of our major publications. Yet no one else knows just how long the “eighteenth century” has been in quite the same way as Indigenous and Black communities in the settler colonial nation states established in that period. It’s a century that refuses to stop. At the same time, Indigenous temporality also shows us how tiny this protracted era of the so-called Enlightenment is from the perspective of cultures practiced since time immemorial—it’s a nightmarish blip in the human histories of these lands. It can and will end; the question is whether our scholarly field has anything to contribute to seeing it out, and seeing something better into its place.

An eighteenth-century studies worthy of sailing alongside the canoe toward a decolonized future would have to begin by acknowledging the field’s legacy as a colonial construct designed to legitimate one set of cultural values and ideologies at the expense of others—and committing to reinventing the field as a site of anticolonial refusal. “Diversifying” the field and making it more epistemologically “inclusive” clearly have not been sufficient to transform the original colonial mission. In fact, as Rinaldo Walcott has argued, institutional diversity initiatives tend to function as an extension of the institutional consolidation of white authority, not as a challenge to it. It’s now past time to overhaul institutional leadership in structure as well as substance and radically to reimagine the communities to whom we consider our scholarship both useful and accountable. If we are meaningfully to consider the ship of eighteenth-century studies from the vantage point of the canoe to which it is bound in treaty, and in the fullness of its connection to the wake and the hold of racial capitalism, as Christina Sharpe insists, then we must center the expertise of Indigenous and Black knowledge communities in our approach to any and all eighteenth-century sites of knowledge. Reinventing the ship of eighteenth-century studies cannot be done without ensuring that more Indigenous and Black scholars are plotting the course of our collective endeavors.

Our reading practices, too, can and must be part of reinventing the ship. For one, we must continue and intensify the work of dismantling canons in favor of recognizing the diffuse forms of knowledge carried in and among a much wider field of texts and things, sounds and stories, languages and lexicons. The aim is not to “include” more voices for the same kind of critical consideration but rather to redefine critical literacy itself in terms of place-thought. Before we are prepared to read any text in English from the years in which England was bound to Haudenosaunee place and life in and through the Two Row Wampum—and enriched immeasurably by the material reverberations of those bonds—shouldn’t we at the very least have some sense of how to read the wampum? What diversity of literacies is mandated by the placement of a British text and its readership in Indigenous territory, if we aim to read closely, carefully, and fully in and of this place? How would the place read the text with, through (and possibly against) us?

We must build infrastructure to cultivate the bonds of intellectual community and kinship that enable the cultivations and practice of such literacies. For example, the “Two Row Research Partnership” seminar at Deyohahá:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic was formed in 2007 to host conversations on Six Nations territory between people of both Haudenosaunee and Western academic knowledge traditions about how to organize research partnerships in accordance with treaty principles and to the benefit of all participants. I have begun participating in this seminar in the capacity of a listener as a first step in trying to imagine how a center for eighteenth-century studies might situate itself alongside, and in partnership with, sites of Indigenous knowledge. Nikki Hessell is already undertaking this work in Aotearoa where she is convening a range of knowledges to think about the relationships, both historical and potential, between Romantic poetry and Indigenous diplomacy—I am grateful to be a participant in this project.

And I am endlessly grateful to the place in which I now write, the Dish With One Spoon, for bringing me into friendship with my colleague Kaitlin Debicki whose scholarship on Okwire’shon:’a, the trees of the forest, as mentors to human reading practices has helped me listen better not only to the place I’m in but also to the texts I study, attending to the ways they themselves are listening and the modes of conversation they imagine are possible. Anne Finch’s 1713 poem “The Tree” resonates powerfully with Haudenosaunee understanding of the human relationship to trees: “Fair Tree!,” it opens, “for thy delightful Shade / ’Tis just that some Return be made: / Sure, some Return is due from me / To thy cool Shadows, and to thee.” The tree is a peer, and a protector, and a friend, and the poet asks it directly how she can reciprocate these forms of care. What she offers is the poem itself, which expresses her hope that the tree will be allowed to live its full life, felled only by nature itself, never “the Axe.” We know that English poetry has the killing capacity to colonize, that it can be held responsible for the strategic eradication of other poetics, other cultural logics. But a poem like “The Tree” shows that it is equally capable of embodying different modes of relation, holding its own in the complex, vibrant world of reciprocal recognition and care.

Scholars of eighteenth-century literature have already done a beautiful job of showing that eighteenth-century Britons were enthralled by the possibility that non-human things have consciousness, perspectives—a capacity for experience and a capacity to narrate that experience. Our work to date on it-narratives, and our attunement to what Elaine Freedgood calls the “fugitive meaning” of non-human things bound up in human lifeways, places us in an excellent position to imagine the conditions under which the texts we care about would be able to move forward with us, as active entities contributing to the Good Mind of the place. We already understand and respect the agency of eighteenth-century texts. We have accounted for what they have done in the world to date. Now it’s time to imagine what they might yet do. We who claim expertise in them are the stewards of them, and place-thought teaches us that this is not simply a matter of guiding how people understand them; it is a matter of being responsible for what they do in the ongoing encounter between people and text.

We are by now used to thinking about the future of our field and our profession in terms of survival. But any world in which mere survival is the horizon of hope is not, in fact, worth saving. For “reconciliation” in the wake of eighteenth-century colonization to be meaningful, it must be attached to future-oriented modes of reparation. Those of us who have benefitted from settler colonialism in North America must commit to learning how the cruelties of colonialism are sustained in our own ways of knowing, our ways of pursuing our own well-being. Even more crucially, we must commit to countering the legacies of colonialism by changing ourselves and how we live and work with others, by attending to how we are placed, and by learning to understand placement in terms of responsibility rather than opportunity. We’ve been called upon to transform our understanding of “how things are” as well as how they might be, to transform our institutions and practices and expectations and desires and hopes, in order to unmoor them finally from colonialism’s death drives and bring them alongside Indigenous people’s flourishing. For eighteenth-century studies, the question is not how can we make our work “better” or “relevant” going forward, but how can we make sure our work is not an obstacle to Indigenous life and Indigenous futures. I want us to create a version of eighteenth-century studies that looks not to “save itself” in the midst of perpetual crisis and conflict, but instead to give something meaningful to the myriad worlds that have given thought and energy and sustenance to us. “’Tis just that some Return be made,” Finch teaches us. The ship can become a site of just returns.

Eugenia Zuroski is Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Editor of the journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction. She is author of the monograph A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the poetry chapbook Hovering, Seen (Anstruther, 2019), and is an organizing member of the #Bigger6 and #BIPOC18 collectives.

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