Critical Archaeology

It’s been so heartening to see the swelling public imagination around Indigenous land rights this year, oxygenated from the beating heart at Ihumātao. Imagination has not yet led to the categorical return of land, but without SOUL’s imagination-stoking we’d be a lot further away from that outcome. I am currently writing an English thesis that critiques settler representations and explores possible anti-colonial modes of writing on and about education institutions that stand on colonised ground. I pay particular attention to the University of Auckland. Why this place? First off, this university provides an excellent case study in the sort of institutional legitimation that erases the  provenance of the first people that cared for the land. Its official histories make no reference to the lives lived on this site for hundreds of years prior to colonisation. Second is the matter of proximity and propinquity. I am a teacher and a postgraduate student. If I care about place pedagogy and working locally to understand colonialism through textured stories of place then I need to start right here, where I am. I have been completing papers and programmes at this institution since 2009, but before now I have never substantially interrogated the grounds – both literal and figurative – on which this university is built and operates. That’s ten years now that I’ve been associated with this campus and the adjacent Albert Park. For me this has been a place of leisure, learning, stress, connection, awe, kinship, frustration, and sometimes fear (if only of the personal, I’m-being-stalked variety). Rarely has it been a place of productive unease and site-based past-present learning.

I don’t know what I thought was here before the University of Auckland. So mature the trees, so gaudy the neo-gothic clocktower, so stacked the layers of concrete that it simply seemed an inevitability: of course this is the home of the University. Only in my postgraduate years did I come to interrupt my ignorance of the locus of European military control and the inscription of power on this site. Governor George Grey made refugees of those living at papakāinga (including Ihumātao) from the control centre of the current-day University of Auckland. The Albert Barracks used the original home of mana whenua as home base for the settler militia and their campaign of land seizure in the Waikato. I’ve been lucky to have tauiwi lecturers in English that take the task of questioning this site seriously. I’ve been even luckier to have access to the thinking of mana wāhine writers such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Jacqs Carter, both of whom connect this site to a constellation of concerns and connections and care in their own hapū and beyond. I’ve been plagued with ethical concerns: why should I, a European person that still benefits from the structures of colonialism, think that I have any place in doing this kind of interrogation work? One of my first answers to this unanswerable question has been, perhaps, a maddening one: none of us truly ‘wins’ when it comes colonialism, so none of us can do nothing. Of course the current system creates winners and losers. I am not denying my material privileges and my ease of passage through colonial institutions, but I am denying the ‘sense’ of colonialism.

It makes no sense for me, you, us, or the earth to keep living this way with our settlement logics of extraction, hierarchy, competition, atomisation, and denial of ways of life that make the most sense for these rich lifeworlds. Having to think that we are ‘right’ in order to avoid letting in systems of sense-making and governance that we have categorised as ‘inferior’ is no success at all. Such is the unexamined life of the settler that cannot bear to address the legacies of violence for fear of losing their grip on a poisoned cup. This is not an argument for a sycophantic ‘lean in’ to pre-colonial Indigeneity (yet another extractive and othering ploy). Indigeneity is not reified but is – through resistance and love – thrumming and thriving and now. Mine is an argument for settlers to learn to live with intervals of difference, learning to be okay with not knowing, learning to give up what we have been programmed to believe in for the ‘success’ of making over a land that is not our own, in our own image. There’s not long now until the thesis is due. But I’m trying to walk my unsettling talk and treat it as the learning exercise that it is: deeply uncomfortable, filled with grief and shame, sedimented with layers. At some point it has to be handed in but I will never, ever be finished with this work of questioning the grounds on which we stand, teach, learn, move, and write. An end in its own right, but also a means: through this imaginative interrogation we can get closer to decolonisation – the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous hands, for the health of all.

Sisters of Mercy

This place gave me:

– a best friend;

– countless get-out-of-PE passes to play the viola, signed off by a music teacher too keen to be our friend;

– an alto’s addiction to singing harmonies;

– a love for English words and Latin incantations;

– a single solitary term of te reo Māori taught by a Swedish teacher, lovely but ill-equipped to inspire that deep-time, re-worlding kind of love;

– a loyal group of friends that now either have children or talk about having children, which makes me feel both utterly warm and entirely alien;

– the shame of too-big second-hand blazers;

– the good girl’s quest to gather excellence credits like thousands of luminous spheres;

– the inability to name and ask for what I want;

– the third speaker’s way: rebut, rebut, rebut;

– a bemused appreciation for the dexterity of religious education teachers and their attempts to find tolerable loopholes for our intolerable parts of the Catechism;

– a drive for social justice and mercy;

– a denial of self-mercy;

– a disposition to be a dancing monkey for unimaginative ends;

– the training to speak like a public relations consultant instead of a messy, exuberant, whirligig thing;

– an abiding love for peach plaster and kitsch rituals;

– the loss that comes with being a ‘winner.’

Retellings

Somewhere someone is sitting in a car outside a bar, the rug of their life pulled out beneath them just this morning. Somewhere someone is running out of battery. Somewhere someone is closing down a project with a winking promise to re-start it twenty five years from now. Somewhere someone is weeping into their bowl of barley soup, tears chalking their tastebuds. Somewhere someone is genuflecting at the trunk of a prolific ginkgo. Somewhere someone is selling clothes on a Saturday.  Somewhere someone is surfing with seals. Somewhere someone is removing an item from their carefully-calculated shopping basket. Somewhere someone is lying under the ground, roses still fragrant about them. Somewhere someone is climbing a mountain they shouldn’t be climbing. Somewhere someone is reckoning with unflattering feedback. Somewhere someone is finally stripping off that wood chip wallpaper. Somewhere someone is listening to a man’s ugly bellow, eyes glazing over in a contradiction of frozen flight. Somewhere someone is shivering on a concrete floor in unwashed clothes, skin raw with fungus and fear. Somewhere someone is browsing flights back home for Christmas on SkyScanner. Somewhere someone is attending a market research screening of a locally-produced film starring Daniel Radcliffe. Somewhere someone is sharing their coins. Somewhere someone is counting the number of different yellows in a winter valley. Somewhere someone is waking a child up from a nap and half-listening to their day’s retellings.

Juggling

Since I left my teaching job I have simultaneously stretched my mind and cramped my instincts. These two things should not be possible together. In some respects I have become crunchier and curlier but in others I have become more slick and straight. The slickness is exhausting – not unlike an oil slick, iridescent shine belying feather-gunking suffocation.

Every interaction feels like a test or assessment at the moment. I race ahead to predict how each possible phrase might land and carefully select the best one for the occasion. I pause, clasp my hands, avoid fillers, but also avoid anything like an exchange. I am on eternal trial, my choices either the making or the breaking of me.

When I was a teenager I won a prize for gaining the top mark in the national classical studies exam. At the Beehive, after accepting the award from the Governor General, my school principal approached me and said, “well done on the award but just imagine what more you could have achieved if you hadn’t been head girl.” Just imagine.

A Reader’s Digest/Digress

An incomplete scratch of a list of media digested back in February. I meant to flesh out these notes into a post but never did. I’ll never quite know how I would have articulated the digressive threads of my media diet but perhaps the list is enough as is. I want to be less spelly-outy, anyway. A strange thing about becoming a teacher is that you have to learn to be clear and direct, which paradoxically dilutes the mystery required of a reverent (or irreverent) supplicant to language – a trait you so desperately want to affirm in your students. Any opportunities for students to join the dots must be planned out and deliberately delivered as ‘discovery learning.’ It is kinder and more democratic to take everyone on the same journey (an essential edu-cliché) rather than leave curly allusions uninvestigated or cryptic lines hanging like indulgent dust motes in the fractious air between students. But that clarity and directness sounds dull and didactic outside of the classroom. Which makes me wonder if it even has a place in the classroom after all. It will be my life’s work to abandon and unlearn the knowing tone of a trumped up teacher. Didacticism and auto-didactisism would have to be the thread this list:

Educated, Tara Westover (autodidactism, not knowing, thirst, binary family split of PhDs and zero formal education – all or nothing: eduction is addictive, worlding, re-worlding, un-worlding; climbing a perilous roof with abandon because you have the same two feet as you do on the ground),

Not Working, Josh Cohen (idleness is necessary; keep hobbies as hobbies, not hustles),

Perfectionism meditation podcast, Tara Brach (making me think of misplaced ‘vulnerability’ at work, where presenting one’s faults is less like a liberation and more like the biosecurity line at customs – I will declare this so that I can’t be punished for it),

Not Your Negro film (ugliness and lyricism forever twinned, squirming through the decades and pulsing through the screen in colonised New Zealand),

Free Solo film (climbing with privilege and oblivion; the universal void of fatherly disapproval yawns not far below),

Email Newsletters: Austin Kleon, Anne Peterson, Warren Ellis, Victoria Hannan (the treat of delivery; regularity like a metronome of hyperlinks to other worlds; freedom from the linkless land of Instgram, where the arrogant totality of the sealed square reigns supreme),

Deconstructions, Michael Frayn (discovered recently in the Red Cross op shop but recommended many years ago by Michael Hutching (not Hutchings) – a teacher, a friend, a chronic vacationer and sharer of holiday snaps in class (what else is school for?)),

Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel (frightening and familiar and another grimacing corkscrew through the decades);

Ariel, Sylvia Plath (thinking about the gifts of neurodiversity but also the life-truncating peril of pathology – what is real? Both?).

 

 

Waitangi Day 2019

I am scared of the Treaty. I am scared of Waitangi Day. Not because it threatens my place here in Aotearoa as a European settler. No, precisely the opposite. I am scared of Waitangi Day because it secures my place here in Aotearoa as a European settler.

The Treaty principles (1975) speak of partnership and imply biculturalism. In the past my problem with these terms is that they were under-realised, under-honoured, or even under attack by the dominant Pākehā culture. But this year my misgivings have migrated to the level of the concepts themselves. Many seem to take this as an ongoing fact: if iwi and the British crown first signed the Treaty then that makeup (European/Pākehā and Māori) is what counts today as far as biculturalism and ‘power-sharing’ is concerned. This is what I mean when I say I am scared of the Treaty. Not only does the Treaty seem to edify and entitle European settlers and their descendants to a greedy share of the power pie at all, but the Treaty also reifies one relationship and enshrines it. What about the whakapapa and manaakitanga that tangata whenua share across the mighty Pacific? What about the incredible non-Indigenous but non-European communities that have been in these islands of Aotearoa since the 19th Century? Or more recently, for that matter – what about newer migrants and refugees? The Treaty makes Euro descendants too comfortable here. Too comfortable with our assumed version of governance and culture, too comfortable with seizing a quasi-Indigenous status, too comfortable forgetting about our own wilful transplantation across the earth. There is nothing wrong with being a traveler, a relocator, or a migrant. Migration is often one of the highest acts of hope, courage, and grace. But it is graceless to arrive, transform a place to your image, and do your darnedest to erase the rich language and systems by which this land was already occupied and accounted for, not to mention the bodies and minds that did that accounting. This lack of grace is not an act of evil but a failure of imagination; an unchallenged, incurious obliviousness to worlds other than your own. Iwi, hapū, and whānau survivance is at once miraculous and obvious: of course they fought and keep fighting to secure the ways of being and knowing that best serve and make sense of this place. Not a blind fight for the sake of power, but a carefully-imagined line of knowledge. Since these ways of being and knowing have been actively suppressed, they have had to be actively imagined and reimagined. If evil is banal then imagination is the opposite. Imagination is grace.

Grace is missing in the way that those signing moments of the Treaty are overblown and allowed to disproportionately govern the way Pākehā then and now expect power – especially seeing as some iwi chose not to sign, and those that did sign never ceded sovereignty. Rather than Māori and Pākehā, biculturalism really means iwi and tauiwi: those with Indigenous ancestry here and those with ancestry from other lands. The language and the (as yet unfulfilled) practises of biculturalism and partnership might be insufficient but perhaps they are necessary – not as a positivist politics or desired end point, but as a way of being now. Waitangi Day is good for something: it forces me to be a creator rather than a consumer of meaning. To read, puzzle, question, and synthesise. And to write. I cannot passively soak up the narratives of the day. Waitangi Day is, therefore, a heuristic or learning device that pushes me off the tarmac of sealed surety. No bitumen here; no optimal way to encounter Waitangi Day. Colonisation is a structure and not just an event. This one event and this one anachronistic, poor faith, breached treaty (at least on the crown side of things) is insufficient as a way to grapple with the structure of settler-colonialism, but is necessary all the same. Waitangi Day is not the answer, but it at least gives me some hope that there may be an answer ahead: some way out of the inequities and topsy-turvy power arrangements that we Pākehā enact or, more to the point, reenact today.

My hope here and now on Waitangi Day 2019 is that I can keep that small heuristic hope as a motivator and not let the lack of an answer be a de-motivator. I want to remember that tension creates amplitude and space for possibility. So I hope for less surety, less reenactment of consumed narratives, and words that can start tiny revolutions of the imagination.

Here are my previous Waitangi Day thoughts – reading back on them I can see the tiny shifts and expansion in how and what I’ve been able to think and do:

Waitangi 2016

Waitangi 2017

Waitangi 2018

A Reader’s Digest/Digress

A reader’s digest, complete with digressions.

Everyone knows the link between reading and writing. As Nora Ephron says, “reading is grist, reading is bliss.” If you want to be a writer you have to be a reader; it’s reciprocally enriching – you are what you eat. But sometimes I have a case of the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. The more I read and listen and watch, the more the paralysis sets in. Everyone has said it; everything has been made so knowable, and in such an elegant or ironical or lyrical way. I can’t possibly contribute – all I feel is fog.

Something has to change. Because when it comes to reading I no longer believe that you are are what you eat. All eating has done is usher in moments of recognition followed fast by fogginess and bloating. Instead I now commit to this: you are what you digest. So here is my reader’s digest, complete with digressions. I am chronically distracted; I cannot adhere to a straight line or a straight review. But let’s see what lines emerge from my tumble of media consumption. I don’t place books above other forms of media. Books are beautiful but articles, lectures, interviews, films, tv, poems, and podcasts are fair game for digestion, too. Of course part of me knows that this insistence on the quality of media sources other than books is a self-soothing kind of permission slip. Academic or investigative articles may be brilliant but often come to me via Twitter accounts or email newsletters: excellent selections or plugs from people that I trust and admire, but such curation comes to me most often via distraction and addiction and the abandonment of the little life of my own work. Even when I’m not at a screen trying to get work done I don’t always let myself stretch my legs and get off the media train. Podcasts keep me company a little too often when I am cooking or walking. I need to get back to enjoying just hanging out with my own mind. It is my tentative hope that future instalments of this Digest/Digress may contain less internet-based media. Not because such media possess inferior quality, but because I yearn for a different, if not superior, quality of life.

It has been a big week in Aotearoa New Zealand for sexual assault stories. Perhaps even more traumatic than the trauma inflicted (impossible, utterly impossible, but almost) is the poor apportioning of consequences to the perpetrators. I am not for prison as a solution, but I am for responsibility and acknowledgement and apology and transformation. To witness remorse is a healing thing. To know that the harm will not transmit, transmute, mutate into the next iteration of pain is an even greater peace. But we’re not doing well on any of these fronts. This week I’ve read excellently reported stories of the Roastbusters and terribly reported stories of (hastily retired) Massey University Head of Journalism Grant Hannis. My skin roils with an infestation of dis-ease: the kind of disgust that telegraphs us back to our own moments of violation. I tell myself it’s good to be informed; that reading these stories is almost an act of solidarity with the survivors and victims: if they can’t opt out of their nightmare then why should I have that luxury? But that almost is important – it is not solidarity. Information is not action. Can words count as action? I know, for sure, that the absence of words can signal inaction, as in the terribly bleak case of Lyn Dawson. Missing, most likely murdered, but not spoken for. No one agitated for her. No one spoke aloud their misgivings. Maxine Beneba Clarke has just become the poet laureate for The Saturday Paper in Melbourne. Her brief is to write a poem in response to the world at her feet each week. Her first contribution makes me feel that words might matter. Melbourne has seen its own fresh hell of violent rapes and murders of femmes, and Clarke makes the point that so many of us suffer at home, in the dark, without spotlight or mourning. But Clarke’s words came on the same day that I learned of the public vigil for Xi Wang. Finally named; finally remembered. Naming is powerful. But there have been other times this week where, despite reading powerful testimony to the contrary, I lost my faith in the potency of calling things by their true names.

On Saturday, in a perpendicular fold at the waist, I half-stood-half-lay at the bed as a familiar dull throb of something like depression sat in my throat. Ryan entered the room and sat near me on the floor, saying nothing. He waited long enough that my numb little thrum turned to pins and needles. Like a tentative blood supply returning to pressed nerves I started pricking and picking out threads from the knot of nothing. Not nothing, after all, but something. Isn’t depression a reasonable response to witnessing pain and suffering and creeping environmental oblivion and systemic racism, I asked? Isn’t it rational to become numb after feeling so much? After feeling and trying and failing and feeling and trying and failing and feeling and try-. I listened to Robin Diangelo’s lecture on the Wheeler Centre podcast last night in the bathroom as I combed oil through my hair. Everything she said sounded familiar, except the part where she (a white lady – a white, progressive lady) said out loud and with full, personal pronoun-filled, active voice: “I am racist.” Not because she feels superior or performs aggressions or cruelties or personal slurs, but because she benefits from systemic racism. I suppose that utterance is what must have pressed down onto my sensory nerves. Not a fragile, knee-reflexive denial but a whole-hearted, open-palmed YES – me too, that’s me. I am the nice, informed, empathetic, well-worded, service-minded, yet inexorably racist person, too.

The pressure of that hypocrisy – the knowledge and inchoate acceptance of it – must have started to press on my nerve endings (fragile, after all). I live in a borrowed house on a heavily white-populated island in a gulf that was peacefully and productively and meaningfully occupied for centuries before I came to be here. In conversation with Toni via Instagram’s DM backchannel I realised that each day I visit the little promontory near our house and look out at the bay in order to swap my personal wavelets of worry for those soft sea swells. How dare I critique settler-colonialism when my own heart and health rests upon the knowledge of the sea; when my own shelter and residence rests upon the title of the stolen land. I’ve felt like making myself small and dialling down my voice – my loud, privileged, racism-enabled voice – and started questioning the merits of language. In another Instagram DM backchannel Betty talked about words as acts: that using words to unsettle fellow settlers is a legitimate contribution, increasing understanding and awareness and rippling outwards. I was sceptical but when forced to think about my own ways in to colonial consciousness I had to admit that they had all come from reading the writing of settler-colonial theorists and poets.

My next concern, though, is why that consciousness matters – what can we do with it; how can we mobilise our understanding and shame and horror and curiosity toward liberation? Even though my privilege (my racism) allows me day-to-day freedom, I am not truly free until all are free. The is not what matters, anyhow. Any priority placed upon an I not only centres me and my privileged experience, but it centres human beings – all those beings that occupy an I as they traverse their tiny speck of time on earth. We (all of the I‘s) should not be the units which matter most. Decolonisation is nothing more and nothing less than a new-old (past, present, future) world order for the overthrow of anthropocentrism. Last year my thesis supervisors listened to some of these themes and commented that I seemed to have let myself get caught up in an ethical tangle. One of my weaknesses is that my first reaction to appraisal is often one of incense. But their words have stuck with me and my first reaction abides: isn’t is necessary to be in an ethical tangle? Is there any other way to be? I am scared of people who do not sit with tangles and tension – scared of those who attempt to extricate themselves from their necessary ensnarement in nets of ethical concerns. The trick, of course, is to avoid becoming so tangled as to become unable to move or act or think or give. But that disavowal of I, the simple demotion of people from the podium of importance might be the way. If am not important, then my shame and horror and guilt are not important. I can act and contribute because the I-on-a-pedastal has died. The heart-head knowledge of the sea and the safety-shelter of the land have to work for everyone. We can’t transcend a people-first mentality if we’re still not recognising the personhood of all people. We need to take up as little space as possible – and by that I mean in the sense of domination. Expression is different: there is space, enough, for expression and words and earnest (yet ever-tangled) acts. Infinite space. So perhaps we need words to chip away at domination over our fellow I’s and over this earth, in this small corner of space. Infinite space.

There’s always the possibility that this bigger-than-human logic is just another self-soothing free pass.

But I digress.