For an Intensified Cyborg Assemblage: Interventions Against An(a)esthesia Under Speculative Capital

This essay is an expanded version of a paper submitted to the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research, sponsored by the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Full references can be found by clicking through at the bottom of the text. 

Nearly three decades on from first publication, Donna Haraway’s path breaking Cyborg Manifesto remains a deeply moving, uniquely evocative text; charged perhaps moreso than ever before with political, aesthetic, and ethical possibilities for a world–this world–in crisis. Indeed, as our so-called smart devices codify a new informational metatopography of daily life, and as those devices increasingly shift from hand-held into more wearable forms, we seem to be bearing witness to the return of Haraway’s anti/alter/post-protagonist, that ambivalent technobody that departs from no original unity and shirks all telos; one that “is not made of mud,” and “cannot dream of returning to dust.”

For those of us invested in excavating the embodied and affective valences of this moment of speculative circulation and emergent technical and biopolitical formations (though I would follow Butler [2013] in suggesting that this “biopolitical moment” is neither singular nor evenly distributed), this return is of particular interest. A resurgent cyborg assemblage holds forth the promise of turning us toward a conception of the body as negotiable and assembled, rather than simply given; a not-strictly-human body that gathers together and concretizes the novelties, the detritus, and the variable speeds of a world in which the liberatory promise of the digital is both unevenly distributed and erratically circulated. In this sense, a revitalized cyborg assemblage would probe the question of where and in what form(s) the human appears or does not appear within prevailing geopolitical and affective regimes; a question that, as Butler (2004) notes, constitutes a central problem for the humanities today.

This potentially emergent technical assemblage would name the loose centre of what Munster (2013) has recently called the “aesthesia” of life inside the network; the affective condition of being ensnared in and impinged upon by relations that necessarily wade through domains that are not necessarily human. It is where the speed(s) of information and the speed(s) of bodies fall into an asynchronous relation with one another, subject to any number of gaps and lags; the sort of negative spaces that open the body-technology relation to a range of critical interventions.

Yet when we attend to the ways in which digital devices and environments circulate within contemporary discursive formations, what we find is not an elaboration of these possibilities, but rather their unfortunate attenuation. Publications both popular and academic seem unwilling to approach developments such as the (by no means unproblematic) proliferation of wearable technologies on terms that exceed technocratic considerations of efficacy: “how do social media impact social movements?” “How will wearable technology change law enforcement?” Indeed, it seems to me that the ambivalent terrains forced open at the site of the cyborg as Haraway theorized it, and the potentialities implicated in its intensification or revivification, are increasingly under threat of foreclosure from a number of directions, only one of which I have sufficient leave to address here.

The vector to which I turn is that of speculative capital and the aesthetic forms it instantiates, fixated as they are upon a smoothing out of precisely those errant, deviant temporalities that emerge within a cyborg assemblage. In their 2009 study of pre- and post-2008 financial industry advertisements, De Cock et. al uncover just such an image universe. The images in their sample almost universally envision a world of friction-free connectivity and circulation (Brophy, 2006), wherein all distance is collapsed into flows of (commodified) data that operate irrespective of geophysical constraints. Fictive megacities, stitched together seamlessly out of the glass-and-steel spires that populate the world’s financial centres and presumably synchronized to some universal time (a time already under development in the board rooms and labs of today’s global corporations; see the Swatch-MIT “dot.beats” experiment), tumble upward elegantly, brushing against the lowest reaches of the atmosphere.

These spectral landscapes mimic the ways in which the network broadly construed circulates as an aesthetic object today. As Munster (2013) contends, networks of all sorts (financial, military, activist, terrorist) increasingly appear to us in a pseudo-sublime register, wherein one may be seamlessly mapped onto the next, regardless of the qualitative or temporal disjunctions between them. “Dominated by links and nodes, visualized as direct lines connecting dots” (p. 2) networks today assume a visual form very much at home in the image universe of speculative capital. Like so many abstract financial instruments, they appear “infinitely transposable” (ibid.), one fusing seamlessly to the next, leaving no trace of whatever violences or resistances this fusion may have provoked. In aesthetic terms, we might say that the contemporary capitalist imaginary is infected with a “pervasive mimesis barely concealing a visual and conceptual slide into…network anesthesia” (p. 3, emphasis in original).  

This anesthetic (anaesthetic?) quality, however, is by no means confined to representative visual texts such as advertising images. Rather, it both underwrites and overdetermines the various devices we now encounter in the course of our daily lives. In a number of recent press interviews (see Segal, 2013; Bosker, 2013), for instance, representatives of Internet megalith Google have declared that Glass, the company’s recently unveiled, headset-style smart device, represents a major step toward their ultimate ambition of producing “invisible” technologies. While such an aspiration seems to be at odds with an industry wedded to the multi-billion dollar business of advertising, marketing, and image-making, Google nonetheless seems eager to locate and occupy a space beyond perception; indeed, beyond the very possibility of perception.

This tendency, of course, is already latent within other Google products. The fine-grained personalization capabilities built into the latest iteration of Google Maps, for example, have rightly raised important questions around what is and is not apprehensible in situations where the boundary that delineates the two domains is relentlessly contoured to match the supple flow of capital (Badger, 2013). Integrated with a device like Glass (and integration seems inevitable), these capabilities would enable Google to quite literally–and quite selectively–territorialize visual space; to set limits on what forms, what bodies, and what relations are permissible within a marketized lifeworld. And though these claims make repeated recourse to spatial metaphors, it seems to me that such a movement toward invisibility also opens onto the temporal register. Glass emerges as a device that would neatly align, in the interest of shoring up profit, the peaks and troughs of biological time with its own machinic velocities, anaesthetizing the relation between the two and attenuating those moments arrhythmia that might make the body-technology relation sensible, and by extension, open to intervention.

It is also worth noting that the sort of fully integrated technobody imagined by devices like Glass appears before us as a paradigmatically male one. I recall here the words of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who during a speech at California’s annual TED conference in February 2013 made the rather curious (but telling) claim that handheld smart devices are “kind of emasculating.” In his words: “Is this the way you’re meant to interact with other people? Is the future of connection just people walking around hunched up, looking down, rubbing a featureless piece of glass…Is this what you’re meant to do with your body?” (my emphasis). For Brin, it would seem that to so much as acknowledge the disjuncture between body and device–to avert one’s commanding, full-forward gaze (we are in Laura Mulvey’s company here) so as to apprehend a smart phone external to the body–is to risk lapsing into a kind of slumping, disfigured, even grotesque form that he powerfully identifies with femininity. His comments, in this sense, reanimate those discursive and representational regimes that have historically configured women’s bodies as out-of-order, chaotic, and volatile. The feminine, in Brin’s imaginary, emerges as a site of intense anxiety that threatens to dissolve the biopolitical and economic interoperabilities that thread patriarchy and capital together. In light of such claims, it becomes all the more urgent that we attend to devices such as Glass on feminist and queer terms, so that we might excavate the ways in which particular technological assemblages shore up the resources of a capitalism shot through with the violences of misogyny, patriarchy, gender essentialism, and heterosexism.

And so while I began this essay with the rather sanctimonious claim that we seem to be in the midst of a return to the cyborg, the preceding considerations make it clear that under present conditions, such a return is simply not enough. If we are to elude the anaesthetizing force that contemporary capital exerts upon the ambivalent relations–temporal, spatial, visual, aesthetic, gendered–between body and technology that define the cyborg assemblage, while rescuing the critical possibilities towards which those relations gesture, we require more than a circling-back-upon pre-given forms. We require a defense by way of (re)in(ter)vention. We must press the affective and aesthetic conditions of this assemblage further, toward new and emerging terrains of contestation; we must multiply, intensify, and illuminate the relations that cross and recross its boundaries.

We must ferment aesthetic practices that animate “new political sensoria, and new sensoria of the political” (Taylor, 2013, para. 8); practices that trade not simply in forms already perceptible (the strictly human body, the link-and-node network) but in the domain of perception and perceptibility (Munster, 2013), where reality itself is plied as a medium rather than accepted as neutral substrate (cárdenas, 2012). This will require that we commit to thematizing the gaps, lags and crashes immanent to digitality (Munster, 2013), and be willing to depart from rather than disavow such asynchronicities.

Where much new left theorizing (Dean, 2012; Dean, 2013; Williams & Srnicek, 2013) would and does resign such sense-making to the post- or non-political, for Munster (2006), it is of the utmost importance. In bringing forth “sets of lived circumstances in which our senses are encroached upon, engaged and felt differently,” it is what grounds and makes operative “a socio-ethical-technical assemblage of relations” (p. 166) that might fundamentally intervene in any number of contemporary political struggles; struggles over the conditions of transnationality, over gendered and sexualized injustices, over practices of neoimperialism and neocolonialism, over climate refugeeism and other forms of coercive/coerced migration.

For a sense of what form(s) this intensified assemblage might assume, we can look to the work of media artist Ricardo Dominguez, whose projects take up Munster’s call for an ethically engaged technical-aesthetic practice while pushing it firmly in the direction of political struggle by eschewing her taste for the gallery. Instead, Dominguez trains his attention on ostensibly low-tech (though he would surely prefer the term “Mayan” tech [Dominguez, 1999]), disjunctive, and geopolitically ambivalent spaces of display that take shape within and across transnational and migratory zones. It is here that Dominguez deploys what I have elsewhere called in rather remote terms, a “radical poetics of collective action and futurity” (Morgenstern, 2012, para. 4). This poetics, however, is only made operative through the refuse of contemporary capitalism, through those objects that have fallen out of sync with the accelerationist regime of speculative invisible capital.

Dominguez’ 2007 work, Transborder Immigrant Tool, is paradigmatic of this practice. For the project, Dominguez transformed low-cost, aftermarket cellular phones into devices that point Mexican immigrants toward clean water sites and safe houses along the treacherous migration routes that cross the Mexico-US border. In this sense, the Tool makes an accessible and overtly political intervention into the material conditions of transnational survivability. Yet at the same time, it operates within what micha cárdenas (2012) calls a political aesthetics of “crossing,” insofar as it seeks to make legible, through a provisional and asynchronous meeting of body and technology, those bodies-in-transit that do not cohere with such state- or market-located frames of apprehensibility as the citizen or the consumer. More fundamentally, it intervenes in the conceptual, spatial, and temporal parameters that would constrain in advance where a human body can and cannot exist.

Similarly, we might look toward cárdenas’ own work. By thematizing, through an experimental aesthetic approach to wearable technologies, the sorts of lags and crashes so prominent in Munster’s account of digitality and situating them within their own experiences as a transgender/genderqueer member of the Colombian diaspora (implicitly indexing J Halberstam’s work on “the queer art of failure” [2011]), cárdenas makes visceral that which is externalized by “seamless” technical assemblages such as Google Glass: the experience of transness; the condition of being dislocated and undone, of vibrating between any number of frequencies at once, of being suspended in the ethically charged domain between here and there (Butler, 2012). cárdenas’ work issues to their world a defiant declaration, one that is instructive to all those who would seek to intervene in this moment of foreclosure, who would intensify rather than ossify the conditions of cyborg affectivity, who would multiply and electrify the ties that hold us together in coalitions against violence and injustice: “to all the people who have tried to make me choose between man and woman…I choose to be a shape-shifter, a dragon, and a lightwave.”

When Dominguez calls for “a geo-aesthetics that can construct ethical and performative complexities for the new earths to come, that can touch new geographies for new bodies–transbodies with transborder rights” (as quoted in Bird, 2011, para. 22) then, it seems that he is in some measure calling for the sort of intensified cyborg assemblage for which I have argued here. And it is my sense that, if we are to intervene in and finally oppose the more wretched valences of our present conditions, bonded to one another not by the mute, seamless sychronicity of capital but by shared political struggles and robust ethical commitments, it is a call that we would do well to heed.

For references, click through

Continue reading

Works Cited

As a general rule, I tend to stay reasonably quiet (at least in public) on the question of same sex marriage. This is not because I don’t care about the issue, nor because I feel it unimportant. Quite the opposite. I disengage largely because the affective toll of engagement is usually too high for me to manage. As a queer person who has, on multiple occasions raised questions around what it might mean for queer people to enter into as conservative an institution as marriage, I have often found myself the subject of off-hand dismissal, harsh personal attacks, and even accusations of self-hate.

I am, at the best of times, thin-skinned. I always have been and suspect I that I always will be. This being the case, it’s no overstatement to say that these charges devastate me.

They’re the sort of thing that keep me awake for days on end, wondering if, maybe, I really am an enemy of the movement simply for wanting it to be more complex, more sensitive to how institutions like marriage are implicated in a litany of historical injustices by which I–and I should hope all queers–simply can’t abide: the reduction of women to the property of men; the colonial extermination of indigenous peoples and the displacement of their kinship and family structures by the European marriage bond; the state-backed deployment of marriage as a cornerstone in various programs of national and racial purity, either spoken or unspoken; the systemic exclusion of trans* people from the legal protections of marriage on the grounds that many legal regimes still configure them as non-persons simply for the fact that their gender presentation doesn’t match what is printed on a passport or birth certificate; and the apparent insensitivity to the fact that, while marriage rights might give a spouse the right to hospital visitation, the vast majority of people in this world (particularly queer people, and particularly trans* people, people of colour, and trans* people of colour, among whom poverty rates and other economic challenges are disproportionately acute), can’t even afford to send their loved one(s) to the hospital in the first place.

To avoid speaking only in broad, systemic terms, let me also make a practical claim here: the pro-SSM lobby is, to my mind, a massive misallocation of advocacy dollars. In the final weeks of the 2012 presidential election campaign, for example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (not-so-noted champion of other civil rights, like those of assembly and protection from unreasonable search and seizure) sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into pro-SSM lobbies in four states where the issue was included, in some form, on the ballot. And this is in excess of the enormous corporate, private, and foundational funding that major SSM advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) attract on an annual basis. The HRC took in almost $43 million in 2011 alone.

It is almost physically painful to ask the kinds of questions that follow from such sums: how many shelters beds could we have opened for street-involved or homeless LGBT youth? How many social workers and counselors could have been hired by schools and hospitals and government departments to intervene when a queer youth is threatening self-harm or suicide? Could we have expanded the availability of HIV medications or hormone therapies among queers in low-income communities? Could we have developed new transition houses and support spaces for trans* people working in the sex trade?

These issues raised, however, I am willing to acknowledge and affirm the value of marriage as a civil right. As another blogger has forcefully put it: we know it’s not a route to the structural transformations that might undo the injustices enumerated above. Or if it is, it’s not the best one. But we also know that to dismiss queer desires for recognition and protection under the law out of hand is to commit the same error against our brothers and sisters and allies as is so routinely committed against us.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that, despite my fear that it will foreclose upon potential queer solidarities against structural injustice, the legal right to SSM might also open up new terrains for queer exploration. No law, no policy, no sign ever exhausts all of its potential interpretations. There is no guarantee that a legally protected right to same sex marriage will not mutate in exhilarating and deviant ways. For laws to have any force, our courts need to interpret them, our practices need to rehearse them, and our communities need to negotiate them. And at every one of these points of citation, we find the possibility of deflection, deviance and disarticulation. Anyone who has been to a drag show knows that, when it comes to repurposing the refuse of straight society in wonderful and exquisite ways, the queers have it in spades.

In short, if the extension of marriage rights to a privileged segment of the queer population produces exclusions and/or abjections along the lines of race, ability, class, and/or gender (it does), then I think we also have to consider what possibilities lie in abjection for queers, without apologizing for it or finally accepting it.

Judith Butler, in this vein, suggests that “‘queerness’ might be understood…as a specific reworking of abjection into political agency…This is the politicization of abjection in the effort to rewrite the history of the term, and to force it into a demanding resignification. Such a strategy, I suggest, is crucial to creating the kind of community in which surviving with AIDS becomes more possible, in which queer lives become legible, valuable, worthy of support, in which passion, injury, grief, aspration become recognized without fixing the terms of that recognition in yet another conceptual order of lifelessness and rigid exclusion.”

I wonder, then, what it might mean for the pro-SSM lobby and its associated visual and rhetorical lexicons, to deny the abject and to shade instead into the triumphal; to deploy images and narratives that not only fail to address the discriminatory and abjecting foundations of the marriage bond, but that indeed reproduce them in such a way that they become disingenuously bound to a vaguely progressive political horizon. To illustrate, I want to make an example of one image in particular that has been making the rounds on social media networks in response to the impending US Supreme Court decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

603640_10151315190455881_2041824232_n

The image is attributed to visiblefriends.net, the web imprint of what appears to be a performance and stage/production management organization rooted in the “skeptic/freethought movement.” Its creator describes it as a mashup of the Human Rights Campaign equals-sign image and an original illustration by designer Mirk Oilic, and notes that as of 3 PM on Tuesday March 26th, it had been shared more than 2500 times on Facebook (surely more now). A subsequent update declares that it has reached the #1 spot on Reddit.

My trouble with this image, then, starts at the site of production. The skeptic/freethought movement and its associated online spaces have been repeatedly shown to be radically unsafe for women and queers. In recent months, a number of women who once identified with and actively supported this “movement” have published important, brave columns on the toxic culture of misogyny that runs through it, only to find themselves once again subjected to vicious rape and death threats.

It is also a movement that, with a grim frequency, advances the same sort of racist and culturally-essentialist attacks on Islam deployed by the architects of the War on Terror to justify the murder and persecution of of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and people of colour the world over.  As a queer who has literally been kept alive in my weakest moments by women, and as the beneficiary of a gay/queer politic that would collapse entirely without the brave and tireless community organizing efforts of women and people of colour, I have absolutely zero interest in accepting an offer of allegiance from a movement so thoroughly couched in misogyny, male violence, xenophobia, racism, and military apologism.

And the apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree. Visually speaking, the image is suffused with these same problematic political commitments. In the first place, it implicitly indexes, through the positioning of the two statuesque bodies, that icon of American visual culture, the Time’s Square “Kissing Sailor.”

A jubilant American sailor clutching a white-unifo

Though fixed in the popular imaginary as the height of romance, this photo is heavy with the trace of violence. In the first place, it depicts a large public celebration in response to the end of the Second World War, a gruesome and genocidal conflict whose end had only been hastened by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. Aside from ushering in a terrifying new age of instantaneous mass extermination and accelerating the movement towards deep militarization and permanent global war, this attack is widely acknowledged as one of the single worst war crimes in human history.

 This violent matrix bleeds into the ostensible subject of the photo. It has recently come to light that the kiss was in fact an act of sexual assault. In the words of Greta Friedman, the woman depicted: “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!…That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.” It was not romance, but the confluence of male privilege, booze, and the overcharged machismo of American military culture that produced this image.

In this sense, the kiss photo testifies to the ways in which sexual violence, misogyny, rape culture, American triumphalism, military violence, and technologies of representation are implicated in one another. This is, of course, not a new observation. Rape and other violences against women are endemic in military environments, both within the ranks of military personnel and on the ground in conflict zones, where civilian women are routinely brutalized by invading armies. The subsequent re-presentation of those acts in media texts, further, operates as a means of weaponizing them to an even greater degree, insofar as it allows them to be constantly and endlessly redeployed.

But in the context of the War on Terror, this entanglement between sexualized violence and military force takes on new valences that directly engage the question of queerness. As both Jasbir Puar and Judith Butler have noted, within the visual lexicon of global terrorism, the image of the “fag” or the feminized man has emerged in relation to the body of the foreign Other as a way of constructing it as penetrable, submissive, weak…quite literally there to be raped by the decidedly masculine military apparatus  One need only recall the images of Abu Ghraib to see this image-work in full force: captured Iraqi prisoners posed in sexually explicit positions with other men, smeared with menstrual blood, sodomized. Puar provides another example when she recalls a poster that appeared in the New York subway system in the days following 9/11, depicting a caricature of Osama Bin Laden being sodomized by the Empire State Building. Homosexuality and femininity as torture.

And so in referencing the kiss photo and resituating it in the context of of contemporary debates around gay rights, the visualfriends graphic (perhaps unwittingly) activates troubling circuits of citation and elision. What it consciously cites is a kind of romantic American triumphalism that belongs to a broader narrative of Western liberal progressivism, a narrative that hypocritically valorizes human dignity to such an extent that it is willing to harm and even kill certain humans to protect it. What that citation elides, however, is precisely this hypocrisy. It erases the fact that American military triumphs have historically come, and continue to come, at the expense of rape, misogyny, racialized exterminations, torture, war crimes, and virulent homophobia; how else are we to understand the powerful links established by the contemporary war machine between, in Puar’s words, “the fag,” “the monster,” and “the terrorist?”

The whole effect is amplified by the graphic’s comic book look and feel, which locates it as part of a shared cultural archive populated by its own triumphalist narratives and individual hero figures who, more often than not, overcome their “improper” or “flawed” bodies precisely by standing guard over the American way of life.

And this is all to say almost nothing of the actual subjects of the image: the animated figures of the Statue of Liberty and Lady Justice, locked in a moment of ostensibly lesbian desire. Some might read this embrace as subversive, insofar as it seems to profane, on queer terms, two of the symbols most powerfully identified with the exercise of American law. Yet given the ensemble of historical violences gathered up in this graphic, I am compelled to take a decidedly less rosy view.

After a decade of war in the Middle East, after a decade of indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, after a decade of sham and show trials carried out in American court rooms, and after a decade of seeing both “Justice” and “Liberty” tireless invoked as a way of justifying all three, it seems to me reckless to so quickly divorce those statues from the violent, decidedly non-subversive agendas they now so readily serve. Liberty and Justice, far from signifying equal access to and equal standing before the law, now stand for so many  broken promises, so many desecrated bodies, so many civil rights arbitrarily suspended, so many women, so many queers, so many trans* people, so many people of colour, and so many immigrants denied even the most basic of social guarantees: health, legal counsel, shelter, free speech, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, protection against torture.

Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy once wrote that “‘Union’ (racial/ethnic/religious/national) and ‘Progress’ (economic determinism) have long been the twin coordinates of genocide.” When I see the way this graphic quite literally entangles the figures of Justice and Liberty, I am moved to rework Roy’s statement; to suggest that where the invocation of Justice so often works to erase the injustices on which it is balanced, and where the invocation of Liberty seems to stand for the freedom to reproduce those injustices, Liberty and Justice have become the twin coordinates of their own negation.

I want to return now to my earlier suggestion that in queer contexts, the act of citation carries with it the possibility of deviant rearticulations and that these rearticulations might be seen as a form of queer agency that transforms our abjection into a resistance to injustice. Indeed, these are the terms on which I personally am able to find space to affirm SSM as a civil right.

Through this lens, though, what can we make of the graphic at hand? Certainly, it is dense with cultural references. And I think one could certainly make the argument that it does have a kind of citational aesthetic. It samples and mashes up and resituates disparate signs into new forms. But is this enough? Can the simple manipulation of signs satisfy Butler’s call for a citational politics that reworks abjection into new forms of survival that protect all queer people? Can this image and the contemporary LGBT discourse to which it belongs unsettle the terrain mapped by the “twin coordinates” of a Justice that has been hollowed out and a Freedom that fraudulently tells us it is full?

No. It will take more than that. The abjections that continue to harm, police, and even destroy queer lives are not and will not be made legible through the simple rearrangement of symbols if those symbols continue to operate in the service of abjection itself. Our languages as activists and organizers will only ever draw out abjection–unleashing it as a transformative political force–if they are backed by a truly coalitional queer politic. A politic that relentlessly demands that the most vulnerable and abjected among us are heard and empowered in equal and greater measure to those already in positions of privilege. Especially those who will once again find themselves on the losing end of the power differentials sure to be ushered in by the “new normal” of same sex marriage.

In this image, we see the gathering up and deployment of all kinds of symbols. But what we don’t see–or at least what I don’t see–are the (queer) lives that have been harmed in the effort to make these symbols mean something very particular and very narrow within the confines of an already very particular and very narrow population. And so for all it seems to include, for all the terrain it seems to cover, what it excludes remains far more vast, far more meaningful, far more rich and unpredictable. And, if I’m right, far more likely to be the genesis of a truly just and liberatory queer politic.

Making Eden in Our Image: Colonial Seeing and the Management of Memory in Occupied Hawai’i

In early January, as actions associated with Idle No More were escalating across Canada and around the world, I visited Hawai’i with my family. Carrying with me the questions raised and challenges issued by this urgent movement of indigenous peoples, I set to some reading and writing as a way of understanding what it meant, as a white beneficiary of colonialism and indigenous dispossession, for me to leave one occupied territory for another, what that act of crossing said or didn’t say, what was done, not done, or undone in the act of crossing lands that are not mine. A three-part essay.

When I was a child, my mother was a travel agent. Or as my father, fearing the working class stigma associated with the term would call her: a travel and adventure consultant. For several years while my sister and I were in grade school, she owned and operated a one-woman corporate travel shop, first out of a downtown office tower, and eventually, when she decided she wanted to be closer to the kids, out of our basement. This means that for much of my young life, the closets and shelves of my family home were stuffed with all manner of travel industry refuse.

You know the kind: those big cardboard cutouts, usually emblazoned with the logo of some global hotel chain, that hang in the windows of travel agencies everywhere; faded from decades of roasting in the sun, their over-saturated shades of azure and emerald made dull by untold varieties of dust and grime. Some kids have posters of television and movie stars, some have pages torn out of magazines featuring glamour shots of new bands. I had pictures of lagoons, mountain ranges, and Boeing 747s hanging impossibly, effortlessly, above thick blankets of cloud. I also had a very large, very autographed Jann Arden poster but I hardly see how that’s anyone’s business.

I suspect that, as far as perks go, being a travel agent to socially inept rich people is second only to being a socially inept rich person. Granted, my mother was perpetually stressed by CEOs and head administrators of various sorts calling from the Philippines at 4 AM, wanting to know how one goes about finding a decent coffee in Manila (CEOs are basically infants. Never let anyone tell you any different). But usually that stress was more than offset by various tour operators courting her with complimentary vacations to emerging destinations and cushy half-work conferences in warm, half-working places. More than anything, it meant lots and lots (and lots) of glossy brochures, nicely saddle-stitched pamphlets that waxed lyrical about the glorious getaways awaiting her clients in every corner of the world.

To kill boredom, I would often spend hours in her sweltering study, thumbing through these seemingly endless guides, developing a particular fondness for the massive hotel index catalogues that the industry clearinghouses would send annually. Every glorious, gleaming property (we called them properties in our house, because that’s the industry term for hotel. I also knew most major airport codes and the alpha-bravo-charlie alphabet before I reliably knew my multiplication tables) situated on every glorious, gleaming white sand beach, captured in one enormous volume. They were tomes. Everywhere, every amenity, every rating, and every devastatingly expensive blended cocktail: they were indexed, cross-referenced, and heartily bound. No saddle stitching here. In another age, they might have had their edges gilded and cost a docile priest the use of his good transcribing hand.

In these massive tourist mythologies, which seemed to suggest that basically everywhere that wasn’t Alberta or Saskatchewan was a lush paradise (which might, in some sense, be true), one name was always an anchor, repeated with the frequency of an incantation or prayer: Hawai’i.

Without fail, the Hawaiian Islands were the Holy Grail of the catalogues. There they were, a shining gem dropped as if by accident in the middle of a vast, unforgiving ocean. No shallow lagoons to speak of, no chalky reefs to protect the beaches from the punishing Pacific surf, no geographic neighbours whatsoever. But they were there, somehow: heavy with luscious tree fruits, populated by an apparently forever-smiling-and-dancing people well-versed in the art of threading of flowers into necklaces to be given away for free at the airport. If the book was to be believed, there was something impossible about these islands. They were mystical and untouched, swaddled in a rich mythology that us white people, with our one grumpy cloud-sitting God who seems to prefer chores and guilt above all else, could only dream of.

No one, of course, ever bothered to explain how a place could be both untouched and accessible via twice-daily direct flights from Vancouver. But, as they say, bibles aren’t to be taken too literally.

By the time I was in high school, I’d made the trip to the archipelago six times, partly as a function of my mother’s industry perks, partly as a function of my father’s truly pathological hatred of Canadian winters. I have had the good fortune to visit Kauai (better known to most white people as Jurassic Park), Oahu (origin of pretty much every piece of tropical b-roll in American cinema), Maui on two occasions (origin of pretty much every non-Arizona related golf tan in both the contiguous and non-contiguous United States), and what’s known as the Big Island, or more simply, Hawai’i.

Situated at the southwestern tip of the chain, Hawai’i is the largest and youngest of the islands. As the teenager of the bunch, it is perhaps predictably a bit of an outlier and moodier than the rest. With more active volcanoes than any other island, and a surface pockmarked by enormous lava fields, it lacks some of the touristic curb appeal of its siblings. Maui, after all, is relentlessly groomed for the benefit of golfers who think they are better than they are. Oahu has historically been and remains the centre of Hawaiian commerce, and in more recent decades has cornered the market on overwrought rum cocktails. Kauai, for its part, really is an absurdly beautiful tangle of vines and flowers that overbrim every attempt to contain them.

But Hawai’i is different. Where the other islands approximate the lush promises made by my mother’s travel bibles, its unique geography insists on splitting the fantasy.

When you touch down at Kona International Airport–about halfway down the island’s western coast–much of the experience is predictable. It takes little more than a passing glance to locate at least one of those smiling, dancing souls, and before you can even sheepishly try out your best “Aloha,” you’ve been christened with a gorgeous wreath of plumeria. If you’re really in on the joke, you can even dart to the gift shop and grab one of those t-shirts or mugs that says “I got lei’d in Hawaii.”

But shortly, the picture changes. Much of the western coast is a moonscape, buried under vast, hardened lava flows that tumble toward the ocean from the island’s two highest peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Only weird, twisted mesquite trees, which look nearly dead even at their most verdant, manage to penetrate the unforgiving ground cover. Jagged, brittle volcanic basalt, piled high on either side of a narrow freeway, stretches outward in every direction. Even the sky, which the brochures had always promised would be an impossible shade of blue, is different; frequently made dim and flat by a mixture of volcanic steam, suspended dust, and sulfur dioxide released by the craters sunk into the island’s bedrock. It is beautiful, but in the sublime sense: a terse reminder of the tremendous subterranean forces that come to bear on this place; forces that pay no mind to where a highway might conveniently be located. Beautiful, but a travel advertiser’s worst nightmare. This is a landscape continents away from the Promised Land sketched out in the bible stories I had memorized in my mother’s office.

The whole island it not like this, but the Kona lava field leaves a staggering, and for the would-be Eden revivalist, sorely disappointing first impression.

As one heads north, though, towards the district of Kohala, there are signs of change. At seemingly sporadic intervals along the freeway, boulevards lined with palm trees, cushioned at their edges with perfectly green turf, appear from nowhere. They point seaward, towards enormous tracts of land carved out of the stubborn volcanic stone. The clearings are populated with perfectly groomed palm trees, rolling, spongy lawns, overfull gardens that droop heavily with the weight and perfume of a thousand blossoms, sprawling homes with walls that open themselves to the gentle ocean breezes, gleaming hotels whose wings are organized around multi-tiered pavilions and swimming pools.

It is almost as if someone has cut enormous canals from the East coast of the island–much wetter and greener–to the West, draining its rich foliage into these strange little pools by the sea.

These little pools are what tourists and those who shepherd them rather daintily refer to as “resorts.” The entire western coastline is peppered with them: Waikoloa (which is apparently Hawaiian for Hilton), Mauna Lani, Hualalai, Kona Village, Mauna Kea, Hapuna. I say daintily because, even to my travel-jargon addled brain, the term ‘resort’ calls up something decidedly less elaborate than these lush outcroppings. Perhaps a hotel with a swim-up bar and a buffet breakfast that is always disappointing but makes up for its general lousiness by being gloriously included in the price of the trip.

These are sprawling complexes, in every sense of the word. Tirelessly manicured and staffed by a medium-sized army of groundskeepers, receptionists, servers, bartenders, kayak rentalists, experience coordinators, valets, bellhops, housekeepers, and palm frond threshers of various sorts. Typically, they touch the ocean with a powdered sugar beach, dotted with umbrellas of electric white or navy blue. Towels, handed out by one of many recreation experts, are colour-coordinated to match the area’s branding scheme. Perched behind is usually an enormous hotel offering ludicrous views: of the beach, of blackened-steel torches flickering against the breeze, of overfed gardens spilling onto pathways of crushed volcanic rock, of waves shattering against dramatic promontories.

It’s in the resorts where my mother’s bible stories begin to hold water.

Beyond the central hotel, you will typically find two or three overlapping golf courses that, for reasons that are unknown to me, are distinguished as separate entities and given their own names. I suspect this is mainly because it gives white branding experts from the Continent an excuse to “dive into the culture” (read: Wikipedia search Hawaiian History) and dredge up arbitrary, exotic-sounding nouns.

I wonder how many golf courses might actually have names that translate to something like “deadbolt,” “carafe,” or “paving stone.”

Such potential inconveniences, however, are easily explained away by the elaborate mythologies and creation stories that the resorts construct for themselves. “Our cocktail lounge is built on the site where Ancient Hawaiians once tied their sandals before going elsewhere to do more interesting things. We honour this mystical heritage by offering 2-for-1 mai tais between five and seven, long referred to by ancient Hawaiians as The Hour of our Happiness.”

To deny the beauty of these places would be a losing game. You could rightly, easily argue that they are wasteful, decadent, exclusionary, and exploitative, but one would be hard pressed to reasonably claim that they are truly ugly, at least to look at.

In fact, as I write this, I find myself in Hawai’i for the second time. I am sat on the back patio of a condominium in an area known as Wai ‘Ula ‘Ula, a small cluster of time-share and rental properties belonging to the Mauna Kea-Hapuna Beach resort complex. From my seat, I can see the serrated coastline that envelops Mauna Lani, Waikoloa, Hualalai, and the other mega resorts that mark the distance between here and Kona. The empty dark of the lava field presses against and all at once disappears into an ocean performing a shade of blue that has no business existing in nature. There is a gentle breeze and songs from mourning doves.

But just as there is no denying the beauty of this scene, there is no denying the uncomfortable nuts and bolts that make it possible. On the roads that twist through the resort, there is the constant, faint din of landscaping equipment. Small tractors and hedge trimmers, operated by either native Hawaiian or immigrant labourers, thresh at the pathways to keep them immaculate for the walks I might take. Utility vehicles and mowers of all sorts keep trails to and from the beach appropriately broken.

I recall some of the more common words from my mother’s resort catalogues, words like “untouched” and “pristine.” Set to the droning tune of maintenance equipment, they take on a more ambiguous, more uncertain timbre than they once had. Rather than naming an absolute, they suddenly beg all kinds of questions: is this place really untouched, or are we simply unable to see (perhaps even prohibited from seeing) the people who do the touching? To what ends are those touches put? In whose interests do they operate? By what force are they legislated?

They start to signify in unexpected, disobedient ways, pointing toward stories they aren’t meant to tell. They start to give dimension, unintentionally, to a perverse sort of labour politics wherein those displaced by my presence are tasked with the duty of maintaining and reproducing that displacement. It is, after all, resident and native Hawaiians who have hacked and ground through the volcanic stone not to make way not for their own homes, but for my temporary residency, for the enjoyment of me and my tourist ilk. The resorts and the Hawaiian tourist industry writ large are balanced on this primary displacement. And despite the best efforts of a coordinated infantry of experience architects, it is a displacement that (re)appears as a kind of surface in the moments when my leisure overlaps with another’s labour.

Inside the hotels, this physical displacement is duplicated in the cultural register. On every beach, in every restaurant, we find an excess of luaus, hula shows, musical performances, and art displays crudely stitched together, as Cultural Survival blogger TraskHaunani-Kay has forcefully written, out of an incoherent mishmash of vaguely Polynesian-looking icons. Twice-nightly drumming and dance performances at the shopping pavilion. Just as the landscape is remade in the image of touristic desire, so are Hawaiian lives, practices, and ways of being pulled taut across that regimented terrain, held up to fun-house mirrors.

This torsional rearrangement of landscapes and lives around the boundaries of white, continental fantasies, stands as an (ins)urgent testament of a Hawaiian history that has been willfully forgotten in official record and persecuted as revisionist in the universities: the ongoing history of the American colonization, annexation, and occupation these lands. A history of exploitation, consolidation, and expropriation that stubbornly refuses the politics of forgetting wrapped up in the image of Hawai’i as a comfortably united state, a living fiction in the centre of the ocean.

***

Against the broader backdrop of Pacific colonization–which by and large rehearsed the same miserable story of infection, extermination, and racialized violence written by imperial projects in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East–the taking of Hawai’i stands as something of an anomaly.

Though the specifics of how the archipelago was initially “peopled” remain a point of contention among archaeologists and historians, it’s generally accepted that the first Hawaiians were Polynesian settlers from the Marquesas, who probably arrived in the third century. Over the next six hundred years, more-or-less unaffiliated and self-governing settlements were established on all the major islands, through this trajectory was interrupted in about 1200 AD with the forcible taking of the chain by a second wave of settlers from Tahiti.

Governance and administration in these early centuries was, in turn, decentralized and highly contested. Inter-island warfare was commonplace as chiefs, warriors, and heirs jockeyed for power and privilege within overlapping chains of succession. In the absence of a shared political apparatus, violent efforts to consolidate power, redistribute lands, and establish resilient chains of command became the norm.

But as these factional skirmishes escalated and intensified over the centuries, so too did the colonial ambitions of the Western powers. Russia, Spain, Portugal, England, The Netherlands and France, in this period, were making quick, brutal work of transforming indigenous cultures and territories in all corners of the world into resource colonies, marrying the demands of a nascent market capitalism to violent new experiments in the administration of “modern” government.

Yet despite the swarm of European ships crossing and recrossing the world’s oceans in the early 19th Century, Hawai’i remained independent and indeed, unknown. Though there is some evidence that Spanish sailors had at least located and mapped the islands by the mid-1500s, it wasn’t until 1778, when British captain James Cook arrived off the coast of Kauai [1] that documented contact with the West was made.

Rather than triggering a quick and brutal colonial appropriation however, such as had been foisted upon Tahiti twenty years earlier, Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i initiated a curious historical trajectory. He and his British crew quickly recognized the chain as an important waypoint in the development of trans-Pacific trade routes, a rare and valuable provisioning station in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. In turn, Hawai’i became both a strategic boon and a precious secret–a secret to which other nations quickly caught wise.

As a result, the decades following first contact saw a steady parade of international ships arrive in and pass through Hawaiian waters. Regional chiefs and administrators quickly established trading relationships with white sailors, swapping imported Polynesian and indigenous Hawaiian crops for steel, weapons, and other European implements. This incipient trade economy had a direct impact on the wars of succession that continued to rage across the archipelago. Western weapons, ships, and military strategy were grafted onto long-standing power struggles, allowing prominent chiefs to consolidate their authority, organize larger armies, and wage more protracted and ambitious wars of conquest.

The influence was so profound and immediate that according to most sources, the last pre-unification battle to be fought with all traditional weapons took place in 1790–a mere twelve years after Cook’s arrival, and only ten years after he was killed in a violent confrontation with native Hawaiians, ignited when, in retaliation for the theft of a landing vessel, his ships blockaded Kealakekua Bay and attacked several natives attempting to pass by canoe.

Indeed, it was through the astute leveraging of this technological integration that Kamehameha I, an ambitious warrior chief from the Kohala region of the Big Island, managed to shore up his designs on conquest and in 1810, unify the archipelago. Thus, where in much of the world, the arrival of Western weapons had meant the swift extermination of indigenous populations by whites, in Hawaii, almost the exact opposite occurred: an independent nation, grounded in a powerful native sovereignty, had emerged.

Following Kamehameha’s seizure of power, sweeping changes came to Hawai’i. As the nation’s first monarch, Kamehameha implemented a number of land use, resource distribution, and administrative systems that, while making room for a number of Western practices, political figures [2] and technologies, firmly entrenched his own authority and that of the Hawaiian people. Though, to be certain, early monarchial Hawai’i was not without a strict and deeply gendered caste system that put most native islanders on the margins of political power.

Perhaps the most important of these instruments was the kapu, which translates into English variably as forbidden and/or sacred. The kapu was a politico-religious instrument deployed in order to place certain resources, cultural structures, social norms, and ways of being firmly in the realm of the sacral, deliberately beyond the reach of those in the lower castes. For instance, as the sandalwood trade became more lucrative throughout the 1800s with the expansion of trading ports in colonized Asia, Kamehameha, anticipating an eventual shortage in the stock, placed young sandalwood trees under a kapu, restricting the right of access to his descendants.

Importantly, the kapu system also prohibited white settlers (haole) from owning certain lands and taking profit from certain crops. As such, it served as a powerful bulwark against any attempt to reduce native authority and sovereignty. Generally speaking, the haole had been well received by the Hawaiian establishment. Kamehameha was even known to proudly fly a Union Jack, given to him as a gift by Cook, at his various residences throughout the islands. But at the level of policy and legislation, the kapu ensured that the balance of political power was clearly and deliberately raked.

Following Kamehameha’s death in 1819, however, this balance began to shift in ways that would prove to be corrosive. Upon assuming the throne, Kamehameha’s son Liholiho took the major step of abolishing the kapu system, throwing the legislation of daily life and political authority into a period of rapid transition. With whites suddenly authorized to own and develop land once reserved for the king and his kin, American missionaries, primarily from New England, flocked to the islands.

On top of their religious and moral proselytizing, many of the settlers quickly established themselves as sugar cane farmers, keen to profit from the increasingly lucrative global sugar trade. As a result, island economies and social structures became increasingly complex. Sugar cane, after all, is difficult and exhausting to maintain, demanding about five times the labour power required to cultivate other available Hawaiian crops. To backfill the labour deficit, haole farmers began importing indentured labour from Asia, inadvertently creating coercive diasporas of stateless and rightless subjects.

What emerges in the wake of Kamehameha’s death, then, as Benton has written, is a Hawai’i governed by native islanders but, thanks to haole influence, increasingly organized around a number of ostensibly colonial structures: export capitalism, elected legislative and judicial bodies yoked to a constitutional monarchial system, profit-driven land use and labour politics, and owing to the missionaries, the policing of Hawaiian bodies–particularly women’s bodies–along the lines of New England Protestant moral code [3].

Curious though it may seem, as Benton, Merry, Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, and others point out, this incipient, anticipatory, almost-spectral form colonization was in fact an intentional and highly calculated attempt to resist outright colonization by whites. Hawaiian politicians and monarchs were well aware of the brutal theft of the Pacific by the colonial powers, and so resolved to take what measures they could to avoid the same fate. The development of an extensive legal and legislative infrastructure was an attempt by native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) to be known as a ‘modern’ nation, to be seen as stable, self-governing, and firmly under the rule of law. To be known, in short, as more than a resource colony.

Clearly, the subtle threat performed by the constant parade of colonial ships marshalled by Cook’s arrival had not been lost on the kanka. By this time, the colonial guns had been drifting offshore for decades. And that’s where Hawaiian politicians intended to keep them.

And for many years, it worked. Even as other island nations became little more than pools of resources to be violently expropriated and consumed as luxury items in the West, Hawaii remained an independent kingdom. Now this is not, of course, to erase or forgive the subjugations often performed against the other minoritarian subjects who were present on the islands at this time. For example, where many haole had entered positions of authority in law and politics upon arrival, indentured workers from Asia were treated as non-subjects, invisible both to and in law. They gained legal recognition only once the term of their indenture had lapsed, but as they had no standing before the Hawaiian courts during indenture itself, those terms could be and often were arbitrarily extended by haole landowners. No recourse, no accountability, no judicial response. In turn, the promise of legal subjecthood, for many migrant labourers, turned out to be illusory.

Similarly, the traditional Hawaiian caste system and the social division of labour it underpinned were deeply and strictly gendered, and often served to keep women to the margins of public life. In this sense, monarchial Hawai’i was a complex terrain where privilege, power, gender, and race overlapped in messy circuits that demand nuanced consideration. Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to take up that project.

Artificially suspending those important caveats, though: the development of this majority-native Hawaiian government, more or less balanced on the accommodation and non-assimilationist integration of foreign subjects, speaks volumes against the racist civilizing missions that, along with the greedy demands of commodity capitalism, anchored the colonial project in the broadest sense.

But as the 1800s drew to a close, this anomalous case took a perverse turn. As haole landowners solidified their influence both by winning the favor of continental capitalists and consolidating their legislative pull, the kanaka began to see them as a threat to Hawaiian sovereignty. By 1887, as Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio writes, “kanaka faced the very certain possibility of having the Legislative Assembly dominated by haole nobles and representatives who were hostile to their king, and, they believed, hostile to the kingdom’s independence.” These fears would turn out to be well placed.

The path to this crucial tipping point had been broken the year before, when King Kalakaua (who belonged to Hawai’i’s fourth and last monarchial dynasty) had dismissed both his Prime Minister and his cabinet in response to “months of heated criticism by a small group of haole who had formed themselves into the secret organization that called itself the Hawaiian League. Unhappy with the king’s administration and its policies, unhappy with monarchy, and unhappy even that Hawaiians simply showed no desire to become Americans, the league was determined minimally to replace Kalakaua’s ministry and ultimately to secure annexation by the United States” (Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, my emphasis).

Influential haole seized on this moment of uncertainty. Using the parliamentary dismissals as a strategic pressure point, coalitions like the Hawaiian League deliberately inflamed divisions within the kanaka vote [4], yoking grievances specific to Kalakaua’s rule to a much broader and decidedly American “contempt for monarchs in general,” which itself was stitched to a racialized distain for “Native monarchs in particular and Native voters altogether.”

With the king isolated from both his parliament and the electorate, in 1886 the Honolulu Rifles–a haole-backed paramilitary force of about 400–threatened and humiliated Kalakaua into signing what became known as the Bayonet Constitution, a document that reduced him and the Hawaiian monarchy in general to little more than a formality.

After Kalakaua’s death in 1892, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili’ukolani. Thanks to Bayonet, Lili’ukolani inherited a nation squarely in the sights of American imperialists. The sugar trade had grown more lucrative, and continental politicians and capitalists (often the same people) were salivating. Sensing the acute threat of annexation, the Queen worked quickly to develop and install a new constitution that would undo many of Bayonet’s humiliations and block the road to colonization. She never had the chance.

I leave it to American journalist Teri Sforza to tell the rest: “On Jan. 16, 1893, U.S. Marines landed in Honolulu armed with Howitzer cannons and carbines. A group of 18 men–mostly American sugar farmers–staged a coup, proclaiming themselves the ‘provisional government’ of Hawaii…Imprisoned in Iolani Palace, Queen Lili’uokalani issued a statement: ‘I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister, his excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu…Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said force, yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall undo the action of its representative and reinstate me.’”

Then-President Grover Cleveland, for his part, harshly condemned the coup. He immediately fired Stevens and refused to approve the annexation. But shortly thereafter, Cleveland was succeeded William McKinley, who upheld Lili’Ukolani’s displacement and gave assent to the theft of the islands.

With annexation thus sealed, 120 years of American occupation began.

***

This history is devastating for countless reasons, but maybe chief among them is the sheer scale of the betrayal committed against native Hawaiians. The crude abandon with which the haole landowners and their continental allies had orchestrated the annexation was immense; a cynical negation of the relative kindness they had been shown by Hawaiian nobles and legislators. As Lauren Benton puts it, “for Hawaiians, alternatives to annexation were both desirable and possible, and Westernizing legal changes were alternately tolerated and encouraged in an effort to prolong autonomy.” In this sense, the accommodation of Others was not, as it remains in the Western nationalistic tradition, regarded as opposed to autonomy and self-determination. Rather, in monarchial Hawai’i, it seems that identity and otherness required one another, helped one another flourish.

This betrayal is matched in scope only by the silence with which history has treated it. The extension of American nomenclature, symbols, and utopian fantasies in the wake of annexation has done much to organize a national practice of forgetting when it comes to Hawai’i. In most accounts of European colonialism, the Pacific is merely a footnote, and most accounts of American imperialism in the Pacific tend to emphasize 20th century interventions in Asia. This temporal and geographic frame shifting tends suggest that Hawai’i simply is, and always has been, American. It is implicated in the history of Pacific imperialism not by virtue of its own status as an occupied territory, but rather by its role as a staging ground for other American colonial projects.

This silence mimics the unique and distressing ways in which the annexation was orchestrated. In her important book Colonizing Hawai’i, Sally Merry writes that Hawai’i, unlike most colonies, was taken not with the barrel of a gun but with the tip of a pen. The annexation of Hawai’i, in Merry’s view, was ultimately an exercise in discipline and Foucauldian governmentality. It was not so much about punishment and slaughter as it was about calculation, strategy, and management. It was about that constant, lingering threat of forced annexation and the anticipatory implementation of colonial structures that the threat compelled. It was about the subtle and not-so-subtle cynicism with which the haole manipulated the Hawaiian legal apparatus; the gradual re-organization of native voters into sectarian camps through a series of rhetorical displacements; the selective regimentation of Hawaiian and Asian bodies such that those bodies could be used shore up the resources of haole privilege. It was about the suspension of sovereignty from within the limits of sovereignty itself.

Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, melancholically, puts it this way: “What does it mean that Native voters refused to use their legal advantage to limit haole influence and that haole were willing to use force to change the law to enhance theirs? I think it means that Hawaiians believed that law meant more than mere political opportunism. I think that in the short time that Hawaiians had lived in a nation governed by laws, they had come to appreciate their authority and significance. Their laws had allowed kanaka, Chinese and haole subjects to live together despite considerable differences and suspicions, and that was a powerful and vulnerable authority indeed.”

And so while the coup against Lili’Ukolani was certainly an exercise of  force, it is chilling to recall that what finally closed the deal on annexation was not the Howitzers, but a regularly scheduled change in continental political office. Cleveland condemned and rejected the annexation. But as the due course of institutional American politics would have it, an election occurred. McKinley took office, and with the stroke of a pen, gave assent. It was no more and no less pressing an issue than any other that simply had to be “dealt with,” administrated out of existence.

Now, looking upon this landscape–this carefully stitched together, oddly populated, and meticulously maintained landscape–it is this cold, managerial violence that seems to persist. The mega resorts carved into Hawai’i’s western lava field suddenly appear to me, even moreso than before, as bewildering exercises in control. The trees and the vines are imported from the northeastern side of the island, matched up with the clearer skies and more intense sun of the west, paired with delicate beaches combed and cleared of detritus, quietly but constantly pruned back, watered, fertilized, restocked.

But the control, of course, starts well before that. It starts with my mother’s travel bibles, with the careful and strategic organization of my fantasies, with the subtle redirection of those fantasies toward a particular set of coordinates somewhere in the middle of a punishing ocean. The resort, and the desiring industries that sustain it, rehearse the theft of Hawai’i daily: managing, organizing, redistributing, redirecting, shoring up, consolidating, deflecting.

We should not, however, think that the exercise of colonial power over Hawai’i is purely legal and legislative. Rather, the bodily and social costs of this managerial regime are immediate and acute. With the explosion of the tourism industry since the 1970s, for example, property values and the cost of living have skyrocketed across the archipelago. To meet the demands of haole tourists, shops and even whole towns have been expanded and “upscaled,” putting a tremendous strain on food production and basic infrastructural necessities like access to water and electricity. Yet as the costs rise, opportunities shrink in equal measure.

To again quote Hawaiian blogger TraskHaunani-Kay, young Hawaiians are increasingly told that tourism is now “the only game in town,” the only way to make a living. But in this game, the deck is stacked firmly in favor of the (primarily foreign) resort owners. Tourism and service work simply doesn’t pay enough to keep up with the inflation that the industry catalyzes, trapping native Hawaiians in a double, maybe triple bind that is perverse in its overlapping tautologies: tourism becomes the dominant industry, concentrating employment in one sector and driving costs up elsewhere, yet in being explicitly organized around an ethos of expropriation that sends wealth back to the continent and to Asia, cannot and will not provide the wages necessary to sustain those who sustain it.

And so it is that 15% of all native Hawaiians now live in poverty (x) and nearly half of native households “experience a problem of affordability, overcrowding, and structural inadequacy” (x). We find young Hawaiians, either unable or righteously unwilling to work in the tourism industry, leaving their lands in search of suitable employment elsewhere. Families and lineages are broken apart and what modes of specifically Hawaiian sociality remain are painfully remade in the interest of satisfying my touristic desires. We find native Hawaiians clustered into the poorest corners of the state (x), earning a median household income of $49,214 (according to 1999 data), the lowest of all major ethnic groups on the islands, with 16% of native households below the poverty line and Hawaiian children in single-parent homes almost four times more likely than their Japanese and white counterparts to be living in poverty (x). Native per capita income slumps to just $14,199, less than half of what whites earn on an annual basis (ibid).

This is colonial disciplinary management exercised at its most macro and micro of levels; simultaneously at its most systemic and abstract, and its most incisive and acute. It is a practice, that like the act of annexation itself, is sweeping in its effect(s) but mostly cold and dispassionate–legal–in its execution. It is the manicuring of horizons, the redistribution of populations along the contours of prevailing power structures, the strategic arrangement of what is (un)thinkable, and the careful opening up and shutting down of opportunity, of choice, of possibility.

It undulates like waves, lapping at the beaches over and over and over again. Quietly, but with the force of a whole ocean.

The disciplinary valence of this landscape appears to me now largely thanks to Idle No More, a decentralized international movement of indigenous and first nations peoples, begun in Canada in late 2012, working in solidarity against the persistence of colonial structures in all corners of the globe. By January 2013, Idle No More had reached Hawaii, with hundreds taking part in a solidarity rally and march in downtown Honolulu. The Hawaiian adoption of Idle No More’s central challenges builds on a history of sovereigntist and anti-colonial organizing that has been alive and well on the islands since, and even before, annexation. That history of struggle is preserved and articulated most clearly today by Ka Lahui Hawai’i, likely the largest and most active organization in the islands advocating for native sovereignty.

Recently, amid this exhilarating global resurgence of indigenous resistance, celebrated Canadian first nations author Thomas King has released newest novel, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. I have yet to read King’s book, though there is in that title something that seems salient and uniquely urgent. There is some hard, small kernel in that phrase, “the inconvenient indian,” that lodges itself as much in the circular reiteration of Hawaiian dispossession as it does in Canada’s brutal reservation system, in its miles of broken treaties, and in the draconian legal instrument that underpins them all: the Indian Act.

After all, in managerial liberal democracies, like those ostensibly at work in Canada and the United States, convenience is king. The easy sliding from campaign donation to policy reform to social infrastructure is celebrated as an achievement of effective governance. That same ethos penetrates the policies that both nations deploy to “deal with” indigenous and first nations communities. Take, for example, the Harper Government’s nauseating response to the stunning poverty that ravages first nations communities like Attawapiskat–home to Chief Theresa Spence, whose recently concluded hunger strike was the match that lit the Idle No More powder keg. Rather than making any kind of moral, ethical, or judicial injunction into the situation, Harper simply assigned to Attawapiskat a third party financial manager, charged with the task of evaluating efficiencies in reservation spending. As if the problem was somehow restricted to a neutral question of bookkeeping.

Efficiency and convenience, in this sense, are deeply implicated in colonial practices, insofar as they function as critical instruments of elision and forgetting, a smoke and mirrors game in which injustice disappears beneath the false equivalences imposed by the force of capital. In the Canadian context, The Media Co-Op puts it this way:

“The problem seems to stem at least partially from differences in how treaties are understood. For government officials, treaties seem to be largely a matter of creating the appearance of consistency for legal purposes, after which colonial policies can continue apace.

For Indigenous nations, treaties are a ceremonial commitment to mutual understanding and co-existence. Their spokespeople may sign the treaty and participate in the ceremony, but the commitment and the relationship lives among the people. For Canadians, the opposite is the case. The ceremonial relationship and the commitment begins and ends with the treaty negotiator, and ignorance reigns among the beneficiaries. The courts handle the details, but knowledge stops with the lawyers immediately concerned, for the most part (my emphasis).”

Note here the parallel to Osorio’s account of how haole landowners manipulated Hawaiian legal structures to consolidate their authority and pave the road to annexation. For Hawaiians, the rule of law, as that which meaningfully legislated a social life marked by settlement and cultural intersection, was to be taken seriously. But for the haole, it was simply one more thing to be callously appropriated as instrument of outright domination, a way to grease the wheels of commodity expropriation, a tool in the meticulous construction of elegant tourist fantasylands.

And so it seems to me (at the risk of being incorrectly prescriptive) that on all occupied lands–in Canada, in Hawai’i, and beyond–there is both for indigenous communities and their allies an insurgent potential in being, becoming, and insisting upon being inconvenient. Given that calls for efficiency, consistency, and convenience operate as instruments of colonial subordination, interruption and insurgence stand as blockades against the violences that those calls perform. The conveniences that colonialism affords occupying powers–easy access to first nations and indigenous resources, revisionist histories that write extermination out of existence, the organization of landscapes and territories such that they are relocated to the intersection of white fantasy and market capitalism–can and must be disrupted by the “inconvenient” entry of calls for native self-determination into political life.

Because in the end, to see Hawai’i and to see Canada, as a white beneficiary of colonialism, is to see those lands remade for the purpose of my colonial seeing. It’s to see them structured around my ways of knowing, my ease of movement, my desires for legibility and apprehension. It is to see a particular version of them, designed to be conveniently assimilable as my own.

Perhaps it’s more fitting than I once realized, then, for my contact with occupied Hawai’i to have begun with my mother’s images of Eden. In what other story are paradise and dispossession so closely tied? What other symbol so deeply entangles fantasy with struggle, with displacement, and with the painful exercise of “law?” The ideological work of colonial seeing, however, is the asymmetrical and selective suppression of these entanglements; of isolating the terms of the equations that link the violent and unjust exercise of colonial force directly to the privilege of its beneficiaries.

It is the making of an Eden precariously balanced on a deliberate politics of forgetting; the compression of history onto a single plane, no thicker and no more substantial than a piece of cardboard hung in a shop window.


[1] Quite by accident, by the way. But colonial histories rarely acknowledge the accidents of powerful white men.

[2] Two of the most important figures in post-unification Hawaiian governance were white. Isaac Davis and John Young served as governors in Kamehameha’s government after playing instrumental roles in his pivotal 1790 invasion of Maui.

[3] And, hypocritically, the pushing of those newly-colonized bodies into sex work and prostitution in the brothels that began to thrive along the waterfront, serving white sailors on leave.

[4] Many native Hawaiians resented Kalakaua’s lenient rule and identified instead as supporters of Queen Emma, a descendent of the Kamehameha line.

Note: I recognize that, in writing this in the first person and by recounting my own learning, I have reinstalled the colonial voice at the centre of an essay meant to disrupt and challenge it. I cannot escape my subjectivity and in acting as an author, cannot decenter it. To claim that I am able to do so would be, I think, disingenuous and, in its own way, closely aligned with the vectors of colonial power (by incorrectly presuming that the beneficiary can somehow step outside of or suspend their status as beneficiary). As such, corrections, challenges, and amendments to what I’ve written here are absolutely welcome.