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Afterword: Unsettling Modernist Studies

The articles gathered in this cluster will, I hope, provide the necessary spark to blow open the continuum of (settler) colonialist methodologies in modernist studies today. Extending the work of scholars such as Robert Allen Warrior, Christopher Teuton, Beth Piatote, Shari Huhndorf, Scott Richard Lyons, Philip Deloria, Daniel Heath Justice, Sean Teuton, Jodi Byrd, Lisa Brooks, Jace Weaver, and others, they challenge the unthought settlement upon which modernist studies has been revolutionizing itself for decades now. Together, they constitute an ethical demand that mainstream modernist studies scholars revise how we work. As they make plain, it’s time to face up to modernity’s—and thus modernism’s—ineluctable relationship to settler coloniality. Huge strides in this direction have been made in the adoption of postcolonial and critical race methodologies in the last few decades, but the field of modernist studies has been astonishingly slow to embrace Indigenous studies methodologies and concerns. My hope is that this collection will break that jam and unleash a flood of innovative, responsible work.

To that end, non-Indigenous modernist scholars need to learn how to work with our Indigenous colleagues, crediting their insights and embracing their methods from a place of critical collaboration. We need a methodology that privileges, as Bold reminds us, “respect, responsibility, reciprocity, relationality, and usefulness.” Non-Indigenous scholars must learn to listen more, to attend to Indigeneity wherever it appears—and perhaps especially where it appears not to appear at all. We have to go looking for it. Doing so means recognizing our relationships to one another, to one another’s diverse histories and temporalities, to divergent and overlapping modernities, and thus also to multifarious modernisms.

It also means—perhaps above all—recognizing that not all Indigenous scholars and thinkers agree, about anything, really. “Indigenous thought” is anything but homogenous; there is no singular stance on any given issue. There’s nothing monolithic here, no “safe” avenue of approach. There is only bona fide engagement with individual Indigenous thinkers, a thoughtful and ongoing navigation of difficult terrain. Truly respectful, reciprocal, and relational approaches require all of us—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—to be willing to ask difficult questions of one another, to challenge assumptions, and to accord one another the respect of critical inquiry. It’s a fraught enterprise, as Parker warns us in his contribution here, and yet it is one from which we cannot shrink. That said, the onus remains upon non-Indigenous scholars to educate themselves about Indigenous knowledges and methodologies, and to advance and amplify Indigenous scholars’ work, respecting long-standing ways of knowing that often unsettle the unmarked assumptions by which we so often proceed. Above all, we must listen to Indigenous people when they tell us what matters, what is important, even simply whether there is any there there. The imperatives are the same as they are in any field—learn, respect, contribute responsibly—though perhaps they are more intensely experienced in this instance.

I don’t propose to have all the answers, of course, not least because of my own positionality as a descendant of Scottish and English settlers who came to these still-unceded Coast Salish territories two hundred years ago, and have benefitted for generations from the dispossession and displacement of the local First Nations. I have been unsettled in my day-to-day life by encounters with the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples on whose territory I live. My approach to modernist studies has been unsettled by reading and talking to Indigenous people. I have been made uneasy—unsettled—by my learning this past several years, and offer the below as something of an attempt to outline one way forward, a way to abide with that uneasiness, to continue to be unsettled and unsettling.


I choose the language of settlement—and more pertinently of unsettling—in conscious distinction from the language of decolonization.[1] On one hand, decolonization is a powerful term that names, in part, the need to face up to and undo how a long history of colonialism has shaped not only who can and cannot access education, but what even counts as knowledge itself.[2] Everywhere we find the academy, we find the legacies of colonialism, and the only responsible approach is to try to live up to the obligations that history imposes upon those of us who benefit from the academy today. It’s a familiar and powerful logic. It animates the argument for slave reparations and for rebuilding relationships with Indigenous peoples the world over, and insists upon our contemporary relationship to that history. It doesn’t matter if we personally did not hold slaves, steal land, rape, murder, burn, torture, or simply dispossess: our privilege today derives from a history of these actions. Our privilege is embedded in it, and indebted to it. Our relationship to it is inescapable. We may forget it, but it won’t forget us. Nor is this just a settler-colonial problem: as Tommy Orange’s brilliant There There attests, the burden of descendants—of survivors—is every bit as demanding, if not even more so.[3]

On the other hand, decolonization has its own problems. When we were assembling this cluster initially, I suggested to one prominent Indigenous scholar that we might use the following as a prompt: “Can modernist studies be decolonized? Should it?” Their response was enlightening. In addition to my own misgivings—if decolonization is taken to its logical conclusion, does that not entail the eradication of the university itself?—they added the more sophisticated problem that the term “decolonization” itself is predominantly academic. It is used almost exclusively by those in the academy and can feed into a simplistic fantasy of pre-Contact authenticity. It enables a binary in which modernity is fundamentally distinct from—indeed predicated upon the elimination of—indigeneity. If colonization is coextensive with modernity—as Scott Richard Lyons has asserted elsewhere and as Robert Dale Parker persuasively argues here—and the only way to be authentically Indigenous is to decolonize, then the price is modernity. And, as the scholar I was corresponding with put it to me, most Indigenous peoples don’t want to give up modernity. They just don’t want a modernity that is predicated upon their extinction. As the essays gathered here illustrate, the evidence of this desire is everywhere, “hiding in plain sight,” as Bold says. Quite naturally, Indigenous peoples the world over resisted (and continue to resist) efforts to exterminate them. But they also innovatively, and at times enthusiastically, took part in the new modes of cultural production, new social and political formations, and increased opportunities for travel and intercourse presented by modernity.[4]

For all these reasons and more, I want to suggest that we seek to unsettle modernist studies instead of decolonizing them. Such an approach bears in its favor a fidelity to the truth of the modernist event, to borrow from Alain Badiou. In all its various manifestations, what we have come to call modernism seeks to unsettle: to challenge hegemonies, whether cultural, aesthetic, social, political, racial, sexual, or economic. The same goes for modernist studies. After decades of efforts to settle the debates, to name and claim the messiness under singular titles—The Pound Era, for example, or “the men of 1914”—modernist studies’ own hegemonies were in turn unsettled at the dawn of this century. The study of modernism itself took up the mantle of unsettling practices, challenging the critical hegemonies of muscular modernism, Anglocentric modernism, colonialist modernism, white modernism, male modernism, and so forth. Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz charted some of this in their landmark “The New Modernist Studies,” specifying temporal, spatial, and vertical expansions of the old constraints on definitions of modernism.[5] Unsettling is in modernism’s DNA.

And yet . . . settlement dies hard. For decades, perhaps from its very outset, the vast majority of modernist scholarship today has come to terms—settled—with the erasure of indigenous populations, and the basis of modernity in a critical terra nullius. As Taylor reminds us in his essay, for the most part scholars of modernism proceed on silent, unmarked assumptions about the character of modernity, assumptions that have bought into the very equation of modernity with the erasure of Indigenous peoples that makes decolonization such a fraught proposition. It’s been a willful settlement, a blindly accepted stable ground upon which to stage manifold other modes of unsettling. It has been their condition of possibility. That time is now past. We must reckon with it. As the contributions gathered here prove, there is no longer any excuse for accepting such terms of settlement, particularly if we subscribe to the notion that our scholarship, our work, has a material impact on, and thus a responsibility to, the world around us. It is time to unsettle the assumptions that have underwritten our understanding of modernity and modernism, time to recognize that modernity and modernism are irrevocably embedded in—and thus indebted to—indigeneity. That relationality can no longer be ignored if we are serious about the real-world political effectivity of our scholarly work.

Deep Spatiality

How, then, are we to unsettle modernist studies? The essays here indicate several directions, to which I would add the method of deep spatial reading. The deep spatial is consummately relational: it marks the relationality of the temporal, spatial, and vertical expansions indicated by Mao and Walkowitz. In it the temporal, spatial, and vertical must be read collaboratively, not independently or even in functional pairs. Its way of understanding space, time, and materiality accords with many Indigenous approaches to the world. That understanding takes space, time, and material as intertwined elements of the same reality, bound up with the present moment and each individual’s relationship to it. It cannot brook a temporal expansion of scope, for example, without asking about where that temporal expansion is situated, and in what materials we might find it. Likewise, it rejects the notion of spatial expansion without a clear sense of the temporalities embraced by the expanded territory and its materials. It finds incomprehensible an expanded attention to previously-neglected materials that does not ask about when and where those materials appeared, about their histories, geographies, and ongoing relations to specific peoples, places, and cultures—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, both human and other-than-human. Finally, it demands an accounting of each person’s relationship to those conditions and to the entire network of wider relationships thus implied.

But a deep spatial approach also transcends the nexus of temporal, spatial, and vertical dimensions. It recognizes that in the end such categories are stubbornly governed by two-dimensional spatial thought. The “temporal” axis of the New Modernist Studies, for example, only spatializes history, moving markers on the timeline back and forth. It treats the space that is thus temporalized as homogenous. Expanding the spatial axis likewise is only two-dimensional, even when it leapfrogs around history to locate disparate modernities. The “vertical” axis, which is promisingly named, ends up being about unconventional materials of study, and not a new axis in space-time. By contrast, the deep spatial model insists on adding the z-axis to these tendentially horizontal models. It demands that we consider every place as saturated with all the time that has passed there.[6] To stand where you are is not just to stand in a space that is differentiated from other spaces in relational or positional terms, still less to belong to a network of relations in a horizontal configuration (even n-dimensional networks tend towards horizontality and stasis). It is to become part of a deep, relational, spatiality.

To adopt a deep spatial approach is to belong to a deep history anchored in that space, to exist simultaneously with everything that has ever happened on that spot, as it is recorded in every material we find there. It is to recognize and avow one’s relationship to that thick history, including the contemporary moment, to be embedded in and implicated in all of it, all at once. As Radocay puts it in reference to Alfred Gillis’s work, “This specificity and locality . . . simultaneously index a Wintu geography that brings a Wintu past into the literary present. It provides a lyrical typography of Wintu place-worlds around which memory and history cluster.” This is what it means, at least to my secular settler mind, to call the land sacred. To ignore these relationships is to desecrate the land, the history, the people, and the material that it shapes and is shaped by.

In this respect, the relational nature of a deep spatial approach requires that we attend to the Indigenous ground on which modernism, and modernist studies, take place. We must attend to the deep spatiality of modernist studies itself, to the Indigenous lives and ways whose attempted eradication became the condition of possibility for modernism in the first place, and whose ongoing suppression has sustained the academic enterprise of modernist studies for a century now. We must investigate and evaluate our relationality to that past. As Robert Parker has put it in this cluster, “There is no space in modernity independent of indigeneity.” There are deep ecologies to modernity and modernism as twin products of globality, imperialism, and thus inevitably indigeneity. This is why contemporary modernist studies must be inextricable from the history of climate change, petromodernity, and racial and species extinction events. This what a truly planetary modernist studies would look like.

A deep spatial approach would honor the place-based knowledges cultivated by millennia of Indigenous peoples on the very terrain where colonialist modernity attempted to uproot, slaughter, and erase them to install itself—processes evident and continuing all around us today. It acknowledges that there are multiple modernities, not just in historical sequence but overlapping in the same spaces at the same times, though with markedly divergent temporalities. That, against the colonialist modernity that staked itself on Indigenous genocide, there stands also “a revolutionarily different Indigenous modernity, one that emphasizes solidarity over isolation, mobility over stasis, and multilingualism over illiteracy,” as Taylor urges us to recognize. These modernities overlap, infuse one another, and give the lie to the notion that Indigeneity is modernity’s other.

The approach I’m recommending, following the pathbreaking work in the essays gathered here, would be resolutely place-based, refusing to treat any object or phenomenon without taking into consideration its deep spatiality. It would recognize that places are witnesses, alive with knowledge that is there to be read, if only we can learn to look. If only we can bring ourselves to listen.[7] We should ask ourselves in every study of any aesthetic object where it is set, where it was written or created, what the deep history of that place is, what peoples, animals, and materials once occupied it (and still do), and how they form the conditions of possibility for, trouble, or complicate conventional readings and reading practices. We should ask ourselves what they are to us, and who we are to them.

Two examples:

What histories of colonization, erasure, and genocide allow Paterson, New Jersey to be the “Paterson” recorded by William Carlos Williams? What was that place called before it was called Paterson? How did it come to be called Paterson? How was it respatialized, reterritorialized, retemporized, rematerialized so that the poem itself became possible? How is the local/regional history Williams asserted itself based on erasing another history? Indeed, what languages, cultures, knowledges, and peoples previously invested that place with meaning and significance? How can we read the traces of these processes in the poem? How does our awareness of those histories lend a deep spatiality to a work so resolutely anchored in place?

Nor is this just a problem for “new world” modernisms:

Take Mary Butts. How do logics and rhetorics of place, land, belonging, property, identity, and the sacred travel from colonial encounters with indigeneity to inform her representations of Dorset? How does coloniality itself become the deep spatial material of resolutely local work like Butts’s, informing her conceptions of essentialist ties between the long-standing stewards of the land and its deep ecologies? To what extent is she attempting to claim a mode of indigeneity (and why are there so many references to America in her works)?

Such questions can be awkward to ask. They can be unsettling. They can make non-Indigenous scholars (like me) profoundly uncomfortable in our complicity with ongoing cultural violence. And yet it is imperative that non-Indigenous scholars learn to ask these kinds of questions of the works and phenomena with which we are most familiar. More, we need to learn how to listen to Indigenous people when they tell us about those works and events. Such listening need not be abject or passive—indeed, it should be critical and engaged. As Christine Bold notes in her contribution here, it will almost certainly be surprising and worthwhile. It’s a tall order for any individual scholar, but it’s not by any means beyond our community at large. It’s a large-scale collective project we can tackle in solidarity, even if individual acts are local, partial, even fragmentary. I’m describing—and calling for—a shift in orientation in modernist studies. We need not remake modernist studies into Indigenous studies, but we do need to proceed with a wider vision, with an enhanced sense of embeddedness and indebtedness, with a more meaningful sense of relationality.

I won’t presume to tell Indigenous scholars what to do. Their work is inspiring and powerful. It makes me cautious of assuming the priority accorded to me as a white settler scholar even as it compels me to assume a deep, relational, spatial responsibility. They drive me to commit to take what I have learned and continue to unsettle modernist studies. The future depends upon their determination to keep doing their work, and upon our commitment to keep listening.


I would like to thank Fabio Akcelrud Durão, Corinne Bancroft, Kevin Tunnicliffe, Graham Jensen, Amy Tang, Glenn Willmott, and, of course, my coeditors of this cluster for their incisive feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

[1] Paulette Regan has likewise argued that “unsettling” is necessary to any legitimate efforts at decolonization. See her Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[2] Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 2012) is the locus classicus for this argument.

[3] This term is not figurative or even necessarily multi-generational; the violence of colonization continues today all around us, and its survivors are just as contemporary as they are historical. See Tommy Orange, There There (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018).

[4] Lyons’s concept of the “x-mark,” a conditional assent to modernity under externally imposed conditions—often under coercion—in the hopes that something good might come of it, is invaluable here. See Scott Richard Lions, X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[5] See Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48, especially 737.

[6] LeAnne Howe’s notion of “tribalography” furnishes an especially lucid account of this orientation in Indigenous practices. See her “Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 14, no. 1 (1999): 117–25.

[7] I am indebted to Kevin Tunnicliffe for this phrasing.