Self-determination, Resistance, and the Dissentient Body: Sovereignty in the Aftermath of Colonization

Edited by Aris M. Clemons and Xuan An Ho

Last night, a friend called. A Black man of Caribbean descent, one who rarely displays emotions if he can help it, through tears he said the words: “My father has COVID, and they are telling me he only has fifteen minutes of life left.” Immediately questioning the level of care given based on his father’s status as elderly, Black, and poor, his words cried out against the institutionalized systems of inequality inscribed on his father’s body. He understood that his father had heightened precarity due to the aforementioned embodied factors; and while the fact of racism and classism cannot be underestimated, it is also true that his father was actually hospitalized, a tragic reminder that deaths like his father’s point to the overwhelming deficiencies in our privatized healthcare system, and our ability and/or desire to care for our vulnerable. We grieve this loss, and the losses of the future. 

If there is anything this experience and the last few months have taught us, it is that the body is still the battleground where skirmishes over geopolitics, nationalism, borders, trade, and science and medicine, play out to devastating effect. We use the word “devastate” in its original meaning—to lay waste. As we write this introduction now, a wasteland grows; globally, almost two million people are infected by COVID-19, over a hundred thousand have died, and an innumerable amount are reeling as entire social and economic infrastructures have frozen or fallen in the virus’s wake. A pandemic of this magnitude has not occurred since the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Looking at the current administration’s response to the crisis, we can see a version of Achille Mbembe’s “banality of power” at work—power that arises from formations of memory, will, fantasy, and desire; power that is chaotic, pluralistic, and at times, arbitrary; power that controls lives. 

While the virus reminds us, all too emphatically, that all humans are susceptible to disease and death, it also clarifies that systemic inequalities lead to an unequal dissemination of bodily injury. In the United States, the vulnerable—Indigenous, Black, Latinx, poor, elderly, the unhomed, and the immunocompromised—suffer disproportionately from the virus. Microbes do not discriminate, but we do; our institutions, our discourses, and our epistemologies lay bare the architectures of domination and oppression that determine and decide which lives matter, which should be protected, and conversely those that can be expended, those that can be exposed to death in the dual name of nationalism and capitalism. And of course, the virus also reminds us that we are nothing but human; a whole other world of animate life looks and lives on. 

Emerging from quarantine, a nightmarish simulation that seems to come straight out of Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics, the twentieth edition of the Ethnic and Third World Literatures Review of Books poses “Self-determination, Resistance, and the Dissentient Body: Sovereignty in the aftermath of colonization,” as a theme to interrogate the politics of the body in both its material and immaterial manifestations. We aim to celebrate scholarship that pays particular attention to the ways that minoritized populations have resisted colonial formations of power in their respective communities. Central to this year’s review is work emerging from E3W alumni Naminata Diabate and Kirby Brown who discuss and problematize notions of sovereignty in emancipatory moments. 

As we are currently in the throes of what some have posed as a critical moment for structural change and what many of us hope to be an emancipatory moment, our community of scholars calls on work that disrupts colonial formations of power, recognizes revolutionary ideals, and radically imagines other ways of living in the world. Our general section attempts to read this moment from a variety of vantage points—indigeneity and race, labor practices, black feminist epistemologies, feminist activism, gendering politics, and re-formulating methodology and discipline in order to achieve sovereignty in the aftermath and afterlife of colonization(s). 

Signaling the current reincarnation of a strain of xenophobia (spearheaded by the President’s insistent repetition of the phrase “Chinese virus”), we begin with Kerry Knerr’s review of Simeon Man’s Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Decolonizing Pacific, which discusses a key, underrepresented chapter in the narratives of US empire—the interrelation between the war-making project of the US and its race-making project. Knerr’s accentuation of the making of “good” versus “bad” Asians, “model minorities” versus “subversives,” to support US geopolitical desires during and post-WWII, provides a crucial reminder to not forget histories of racialization lest we forget their instrumentalization for war and domination. We are reminded that domination takes several forms and lives on the body. Joshua G. Ortiz Baco looks to Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh as an example of historiography that seeks to put the human back in narratives of enslaved bodies. Berry’s work actively protests its title, and the author fashions two terms, “ghost value” and “soul value,” to underpin that a body is more than flesh and to challenge us to quantify something as abstract as a soul.

Jesse Ritner’s review of Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States allows us a glimpse into Audra Simpson’s goal of re-structuring anthropological thought, which generally privileges the voice of the outsider in the telling of a cultural story—“exterior orientation of anthropology.” Ritner’s review points to the ways that the author refocuses attention on the indigenous populations themselves, particularly their act of “refusal,” denying dominant definitions of sovereignty. Emily Harring’s review of Kim Tallbear’s Native American DNA extends debates over defining sovereignty, particularly the obsession with tribal affiliation by blood quantum. 

Diana Leite reviews Jennifer Nash’s Black Feminisms Reimagined, a love letter to intersectionality from its optimistic critic, one who believes in the potential of intersectionality to create new visions in the world. These new visions often require new writing practices, as seen in Hershini Bhana Young’s Illegible Will, reviewed by Joshua Kamau Reason. Indebted to Saidiya Hartman’s notion of critical fabulation, Young listens closely to the silences in Black archives, and imagines what conversations may have taken place and what radical thought may have emerged from those elided words. Rosy Mack’s review similarly highlights innovated methodologies employed by Kristen Ghodsee in Second World, Second Sex, which traces feminist activism through a rigorous review of United Nations projects “crisscrossing between the historical record, personal testimony and out-of-the way archives.” This attention to new forms of knowing is taken up in Margaret Mendenhall’s review of Animate Literacies, a beautiful homage to the success of Nathan Snaza’s argument that literacies move beyond the boundedness of textuality into the realm of affect, nature, and the spiritual. 

We end the general section with two reviews of work that demand attention to be paid to the vulnerable. Mariana Rivera’s review of Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juarez: Challenges to Militarization provides an account of the ways that Kathleen Staudt and Zulma Méndez successfully gender narratives on resistance; and Ipek Sahinler’s review of Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies allows us entry into the ways that institutions dictate stratifications along long established class lines, causing a rupture between liberatory work and the places where it is allowed voice. 

Our special sections take up the task of illuminating self-determination, resistance, and the dissentient body. The first section, “Be/Longing: The Flight and Fight for Home,” edited by Alhelí Harvey and Hartlyn Haynes, stages a conversation about our current conditions as raced, gendered, and classed individuals living at the break of a global crisis. Contextualizing their reviews through the lens of COVID-19, the special section editors introduce varying forms of resistances as discussed in the works reviewed. 

Jessica Sánchez Flores and Juan Tiney Chirix’s section, “Rethinking Cultural and Political Spaces: Intersectional Indigenous Hemispheric Dialogues,”notes the ways that Indigenous and black bodies have routinely been the subjects of study; however, in this section the editors ask us to problematize knowledge productions of Indigenous and Black scholars, and follow Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s mandate to situate “the importance of Indigenous scholars to fight, and resist the perpetuation of colonial legacies by (re) membering, (re) connecting, (re)writing, and (re) righting our histories.” In an effort to walk the talk of decolonizing academic practices, this section offers, for the first time in E3W history, a review written in Spanish. 

In the section, “Blackness, the Body, and Ontology,” Nicholas Bloom and Gaila Sims ask us in light of the “ontological turn” in critical race studies, “who is capable and who is responsible for imagining a world unencumbered by the structures of racial dominance?” The reviews in this section as well as the following sections work through the difficulties of even attempting to hypothesize answers to this question. In “Catastrophe, Contradictions, and Decoloniality: Caribbean Perspectives for a Global Scale,” Sophia Monegro and Wilfredo Burgos map a “written geography of possibilities”: diasporic works that take up the re-signifying and re-imagining of the complex aftermaths of colonization in the Caribbean. 

Rhya Moffitt Brooke and Iana Robitaille introduce their section, “Figuring Futurity: The Body as Speculative Frontier,” by questioning the politics of the speculative, especially when complicated by the materiality of the body. Their provocative query—“What power do we have to chart the future when the body is compass?—suggests that we still have much to discover about the form of the body and what it can express.

We end the review with Jeremy Goheen and Claudio Eduardo Oliveira’s section, “Infrastructure in the Aftermath of Colonialism,” a culmination of desires to move disciplinary theories into the realm of practice. Introducing reviews that take up the material—ships, trash, railways, roads, bridges, telegraph wires, etc.—the editors ask us “if Bruce Robbins is right in saying that the project of making infrastructure visible is a ‘materialist version of the politics of human rights,’ then how might we mobilize it in the service of decolonization?” Reviewers in this section highlight the possibility of mobility in the unlikeliest of sources.

By ending our review on this idea of movement, we would like to insist that the work done in these pages is not contained to these pages. If we believe that crises bear opportunities for meaningful change, if only because many are unsure about how to move in the dark, then this review of books is our attempt to hold up the voices we would like to see at the fore of that change. We, like many intellectuals faced with the impending collapse of superstructures, ask where do we go from here? Contrary to pervasive feelings of panic and pessimism, we feel strengthened and emboldened by the collected works and the collaboration that made this review possible. We hope to share this unlikely but welcomed affect with you by offering the following voices and visions of those who have been mired in questions of liberation, sovereignty, and self-determination for many years.