Audra Simpson, Empire of Feeling
Word frequency cloud for the entire text of Audra Simpson's "Empire of Feeling"
Identities & Stories

Audra Simpson, Empire of Feeling

An academic review of the 2020 journal article, “Empire of Feeling” by Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, published in General Anthropology

Publication Date
Byline
Calendar Icon
Dateline

In this post, I survey and discuss the 2020 journal article, “Empire of Feeling” by Audra Simpson, published in General Anthropology. This is an academic literature review that provides a chronological overview of the discussion presented with a brief interpretation of the themes and/or arguments. I may or may not agree with the content I am reviewing here and the critical lens of my summations and annotations reflect the research I was doing at the time.

Navigation

Summary

Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson provides a critical lens on the Canadian politics of reconciliation, recasting it as not benevolence but a continuation of a violent form of settler colonialism, cloaked in expressions of supposed contrition. She refers to this form of colonialism as forming a “reconciliation industrial complex” designed to move onus for “healing” onto individual Indigenous subjects rather than upon colonial systems and to sublimate Indigenous anger so the ongoing processes of settler colonialism are “not disturbed.”

Annotations

Reflecting upon former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for Indian Residential Schools, Simpson presents her critique of the Canadian empire’s “move to sorrow” or presenting itself as feeling for Indigenous peoples (“Empire of feeling”) which is actually another tactic toward the continuation of settler colonialism:

…I consider the move to sorrow, expressed above, a new technique for what liberal theorists might call “righting wrongs” through the expression and cultivation of public feelings. My argument is twofold: (a) colonialism continues under another cover but with the same drive, to take and control land, to move people, systems, meanings out of the way or assimilate them, and (b) this form is forceful and violent, but is couched in the expression of emotion and feelings of sorrow, of contrition, of regret.

Simpson, 2020, p. 1

Simpson succinctly defines what it means to be a “survivor” within the “subject position of those who went to residential schools” which is used by some survivors self-referentially and by others to describe those who went to residential schools:

To be intact is to survive, to survive the attempt to destroy you.

Simpson, 2020, p. 2

Simpson succinctly unpacks the function and intent of residential schools:

…residential schools were the location where forms of bureaucratic life met corporeal and psychic forms of violence, and embedded their efforts in the minds and bodies of Indian children.

Simpson, 2020, p. 2

Simpson argues that the imperative behind reconciliation is not for the benefit of the native, but for the state:

What kind of state averts not a revolution but international shame to find redemption through reconciliation talk, through reconciliation practices and distance itself from its beginnings: dispossession, enslavement, differently bonded labour and radical inequalities.

Simpson, 2020, p. 2

Simpson describes a number of settler colonial logics, which I interconnect more closely here.

Regulation of bodies, sex:

…marriage became a mode of recognition and regulation (Rifkin 2011). Sex, or presumed sexual activity, lay beneath it and the Church atop.

Simpson, 2020, p. 2

Regulation of minds, education:

…the carceral logics of the schools as spaces of confinement, and of simultaneous social and political transformation.

Simpson, 2020, p. 3

Regulation of community, interrelationships:

They were regulated out of status for reasons that completely denied the authority of their own legal systems, kinship systems, modes of relatedness and responsibility or obligations to land or to water. Matters of their own governance system were similarly rendered moot.

Simpson, 2020, p. 3

Regulation of gender, heteropatriarchy:

Colonial recognition, or status, was conferred by the state for relations between status Indians or a status man and whomever he wanted – staging a mandate for Victorian, heteropatriarchal conjugality and in this, a banishing not only governance by women but queerness as well.

Simpson, 2020, p. 3

Simpson considers the process of reconciliation as anything but benign, which has become a colonizing force onto itself:

…the reconciliation machine, or reconciliation industrial complex. By this I mean the bundle of institutions, sentiments, attitudes, affects and individuals that have either experienced first-hand the schools, or are otherwise hailed into the project of making sense of Canada in light of these schools and the emotions they generate.

Simpson, 2020, p. 3

I trace the critique of the project of reconciliation for what its therapeutic and political effects were and are — namely, to ‘heal’ a citizenry and politically to keep the Indian Act in place, to address but only one sliver of the problem of settler colonialism, a focus upon the schools rather than material dispossession of lands, waters, the endurance and stability of the Indian Act over time.

Simpson, 2020, p. 4

One of Simpson’s anonymized residential school survivors critiques how some Indigenous peoples are responding too quickly to every twitch and flex of the empire, often in a state of desperation, which needs to be reconsidered:

“We’re constantly pushing back. Right now, it’s Enbridge and whatnot else. Nobody has the time to just sit there and think, ‘Okay, this has happened before.’ We’re just rerunning. And I remember saying this to a group of young men, we have to sit and think about it first. We have to think about these things first… we were scholars before. You know, our people sat around and talked a lot before they did something. You know, now we’re pushing back, pushing back, pushing back.”

Simpson, 2020, p. 4

One of Simpson’s anonymized residential school survivors sees reconciliation as a way to get Indigenous people to accept their own colonization:

“This reconciliation is the newest way to pull the rug out because then we’re talking about, ‘Oh, we could get along now. You stole it fair and square. Everything’s fine.’ And I said sorry. And so, it’s a way to get us to accept our colonization.

Simpson, 2020, p. 4

One of Simpson’s anonymized residential school survivors reframes why some did or did not choose to attend and share their stories of abuse via testimony at one of the seven Truth and Reconciliation commissions:

“And thirty-eight thousand people went forward. And, you know, I think those thirty-eight thousand people wanted white people to accept them. They want some white person to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and accept them as human beings. I feel sorry for them because the acceptance of ourselves as human beings has got to come from here.”

Simpson, 2020, p. 4

The survivor adds that this theory of acceptance by white people may have short-term gains, but the demand for sovereignty will continue to simmer above settler colonial conceptions of parity and assimilation:

“So, it might be better for their children and their grandchildren, but one of these days their children are going to come forward and say, ‘Not good enough.’ Just not good enough.”

Simpson, 2020, p. 4

Simpson adds a supporting key reference to Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, about the individualization that Canada imposes upon the healing processes for Indigenous survivors:

Glen Coulthard argues that this focus on personal injury post-residential schools produces the sense that ‘the problem’ is the individual, is within the individual — an individual who has not gotten over the past, who pathologically refuses to forgive rather than the state which produces the pain in the first place.

Simpson, 2020, p. 5

Simpson argues that the testimonies gathered through the TRC are analogous to New France missionaries’ Harvest of Souls, the conversion of Natives to Christianity, turning story into property, separating soul from body:

It is hard not read in this an alienation of spirit from body, of taking, like a harvest to then be stored, sold, accumulated. Now we have with TRC and its valuation of narrative something I, too, value deeply for its truth-promising and critical value, the story perhaps takes the place of souls.

Simpson, 2020, p. 5

Simpson offers a positive regarding the TRC as part of an effort to “humanize” Indigenous peoples, which bewilderingly, continues to be needed in Canada:

The TRC in some ways “worked” in that political effects were produced that were beneficial to some, that tilted a balance perhaps towards Indigenous peoples as humans who had been subjected unjustly and who were suffering from the lingering effects of this violence in the present.

Simpson, 2020, p. 5

Simpson expands on how the TRC could be seen as an effort by the Canadian empire to quell rebellion — often sparked by anger, leading to organzing — and to keep Indigenous peoples as pereceived as being in a state of perpetual healing:

It is “crazy-making,” some might say, to expect Indigenous people to play this game of pain for healing of a sublimation of legitimate anger so that matters are not disturbed.

Simpson, 2020, p. 5

One of Simpson’s anonymized residential school survivors offers a community-based truth and reconciliation ceremony that stands in stark difference to the colder, bureaucratic process of the TRC:

We do the testifying with each other, what happened to us, and then those that didn’t go stay in the village, and those that went to residential school leave, and they come back home. It’s hard to talk about it. And we say to them, we missed you, and we’re sorry that this happened to you and we didn’t want it. And so then they become part of the community again. And those people that went through that ceremony didn’t testify.

Simpson, 2020, p. 5

Simpson details the violence of the settler colonial Canadian state, to reinforce how the TRC frames only a sliver of the issues needed to be confronted, some acts against Indigenous peoples’ that were so heinous that leaves the reader wondering: could these issues ever be reconciled?

The project of reconciliation in its impetus was focused exclusively on “moving on from this sad chapter in our nation’s history” – that sad chapter being residential schools, not the violence, starvation, the gendered and raced nightmare of the Indian Act that moved our nations away from traditional government to sometimes at the end of a gun. Nor the mass hangings of Indigenous men in what are now British Columbia and Minnesota – spectacular forms of violence that proclaimed the capacity to kill to interpret treaty violently, like contracts, like agreements that Indians had transgressed. Heidi Stark links these mass, politicized murders to the masking of a violent, criminal state on both sides of the border (2016). These are the pasts that can’t find their life in theatres of contrition* even in a presumably caring, listening and benevolent state.

Simpson, 2020, p. 6
*I bolded for this for emphasis

One of Simpson’s anonymized residential school survivors offers a description of the detached, individualizing framework of the TRC:

This interlocutor saw distance and detachment in the process, and the individualizing effects of “telling one’s story” in this public venue, they were writing furiously, they weren’t looking people in the eye. Both for the witnesses and those offering their experiences as testimony. What could be therapeutic or healing about listening to people alone, speaking in front of so many?

Simpson, 2020, p. 6

Simpson reminds that the TRC redacted names of perpetrators, many of whom could have (and still could) be held to justice:

The names of all perpetrators were expunged from the records.

Simpson, 2020, p. 6

Simpson clarifies why she avoided the use of the word “survivors”:

I deliberately stayed away from the emotion saturated language and experience of so called “survivors” people who were being resubjectivized away from their nations and communities into something else, something depoliticized and I thought, helpless and victimized.

Simpson, 2020, p. 7

Simpson sees the continued existence of Indigenous peoples in Canada as a failure of the settler colonial structure, which she believes offers hope of a life “beyond… these sorts of states”:

The pipelines carry a lethal threat to land and water, citizens continue to devalue the lives of Indigenous women that are in their way, Indigenous people are still, to borrow Wolfe’s words again, but only briefly “in the way” and we might hope, if we are to hope for things, will always be “in the way.” But the persistence of these other structures, something I think many theorists of settler colonialism fail to account for, is again a failure of the elimination a failure of assimilation, absorption, and also a failure of settler colonialism itself, and offers hope for futures beyond states or these sorts of states.

Simpson, 2020, p. 7

Simpson forwards that gathering a majority to simply recognize the evils of colonialism is the first building block toward “a better kind of world”:

There is also the assertion to govern oneself with nothing other than the credo, “I believe that colonialism is bad, period.” That may be quite a start to a better kind of world.

Simpson, 2020, p. 7

Bibliography

Simpson, A. (2020). Empire of Feeling. General Anthropology27(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1111/gena.12063