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Toward a Response-Able Worldview

Entangling hospitality and critical theory through Indigenous literature

*This version is without footnotes. If you’re interested in reading the version with footnotes, please get in touch.

Joe Sheridan and Roronhiake:wen “He Clears the Sky” Longboat, in The Haudenosaunee Imagination (2006) and Walking Back Into Creation (2013), outline the entangled nature of Indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK), Indigenous knowledge (IK), and animist realism or imagination, as impacted by colonial forms of knowing-being. They say,

IEK, or more appropriately Indigenous knowledge (IK), is the intellectual and spiritual recourse to both change and continuity in physical and temporal environments. More specifically, it is a dynamic and daily encounter with the expression of an environmental epistemology found in the nuanced peripheries where those ecological changes first take hold. IEK is an epistemology embedded in the wisdom of cultural practice and familial relationships to Creation; that is, it is witnessed in the spruce cone load, the behavior of the raven, the smell of the coming rain, and the lunar cycles that compose minds who think with these phenomena. IK, in this sense, is how one lives in the shifting and sensitive biocultural realms, which seek long-term stability within traditional territory and culture alike. (Sheridan and Longboat, 2013, p. 4)

This way of being-knowing can be described as ethico-onto-epistemological, a term I flesh out below, and highlights the entangled nature of life. This entanglement is founded on a ‘response-ability’ — i.e. the ability to respond — where, ‘Like everything else Haudenosaunee, imagination has a place because imagination is a place, and because everything is connected to everything else, the encounter with imagination is a living communication within a sentient landscape’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2006, p. 369). This living communication is not one-sided or ethereal, as ‘The Haudenosaunee Creation Story explains and situates mind and territory in simultaneous origin and speaks to their timeless symmetry’ (Sheridan and longboat 2006, p. 366). Imagination, knowledge, and mind in this formulation are not some disembodied feature of the rational human, but are material and produce real material effects. What’s more, ‘The principle that every being participates in everything immunizes against anthropocentrism and through a satisfaction with Creation, offers a conscious humility that keeps humans in their place of thankfulness, respect, and appreciation’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2006, p. 369). This position is one of hospitality and sustainability or continuation. It differs greatly from the falsehood of stability that Enlightenment epistemology is based upon because it is not about fixing, but rather actively creating the ability to continue. Working from and through this articulation of Haudenosaunee worldview, this essay attempts to sketch a possibility for enlivening this unfixed, generative positionality, by breaking Western philosophical tradition which, in many ways, has been founded upon an opposite move, that is the move away from Indigeneity.

I do this primarily by working with, on, and through, one question and its implications. That question, which serves as both the basis for and the means of this work is as follows: How can critical theorists be hospitable to Indigenous literatures? This question, as my guide, my host, seeks to highlight the relationship between those who write and do the work of critical theory — a term which refers to an interdisciplinary practice that is able to absorb many thoughts and fields within its purview (e.g. social science, literary studies, philosophy, etc.) and those works which have been created by those who are considered/identify as Indigenous . In other words, my focus is on the practice (or tradition) of Theory in the academy and how those who do this practice can be hospitable to the practices, products, and practitioners of Indigenous literature; those who historically have not had a ‘place’ in the academy. More specifically, throughout this essay I will be exploring this primary question with and through the work of Hodinohson:ni (Haudenosaunee or People of the Longhouse) literature. Aiding me in this exploration are single and co-authored works by Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) writers Maurice Kenny and Roronhiake:wen “He Clears the Sky” Dan Longboat, and Joe Sheridan [who ‘was raised in the 30,000 Islands of the Georgian Bay, traditional territory to the Anishinaabeg peoples (Sheridan and Longboat, 2013, p. 17)]. The Sheridan and Longboat texts I focus on throughout this essay have been introduced above. Regarding Kenny’s work, I will be focusing primarily on treatments, experiences, and readings of a collection of his short stories entitled Tortured Skins and Other Short Fictions published in 2000.

Kenny is prolific, highly influential and, as Penelope Myrtle Kelsey (2011, p, 5) explains, ‘Although there exists an extensive record of interviews of Maurice Kenny, only a small body of literary criticism has been published, amounting to four articles in scholarly journals and short reviews of his works.’ While this is a compelling reason in itself to focus on his work, I have chosen to do so for other reasons. As Qwo-Li Driskill (2011, p. 25), a Queer, mixed-blood, Two-Spirit Tsalagi poet and critic, points out, ‘Kenny’s poetry does important rhetorical, theoretical, and political work. His poetry argues for Native people to engage with our lifeways as a means not only to resist colonialism, but also to ensure the continuance of our communities and traditions.’ And, as Laguna Pueblo-Sioux scholar Paula Gunn Allen writes, in her introduction to Kenny’s (1981, p.2) Dancing Back Strong the Nation, ‘it is quite possible for each of us to join in Dancing Back Strong the Nation.’ In short, Kenny’s work is a materially alive entanglement. It engages with traditional teachings, keeping them healthy (Sheridan and Longboat 2006), and reminds his readers how they can do the same in their living-being-knowing. In this way it is attentive to the living communication of Haudenosaunee imagination and concerned with how people live their lives in an on-going open-ended fashion.

While Sheridan and Longboat’s works engage with the academic discipline of environmental studies and ecology, Kenny’s works tend to be thought of as ‘creative’ insofar as they typically take the form of poetry and short story. While perhaps an interesting point of contrast and comparison, the borders separating the academic disciplines these writers tend to be located in are of little concern to me. While their work and indeed their physical selves may be located in different places within a university, I believe we arrive at much more compelling and useful insights when we pay attention to how their work merges and diverges, rather than what demarcates their disciplines.

As will become clear throughout this essay I am not concerned with either maintaining boundaries or simply doing away with them, but instead I’m interested in understanding how they come to be embodied, lived in and through our practices and theories, worldviews and experiences, and ultimately, embedded in the living of our everyday lives. This sentiment is at the core of my engagement with Haudenosaunee literature in the first place, as Haudenosaunee territory is international, a blurring of boundaries itself, with Mohawk territory specifically existing both on and without the dividing line of the United States-Canadian border. I too am someone who blurs, disturbs or ignores boundaries in my everyday life. I am a non-Indigenous scholar from North America, residing in the United Kingdom, with varied and various academic and personal affiliations and interests, few of which I readily use to Identify (i.e. define) myself. My ethics, which is at the core of my work here, is one of openness and material engagement; a positionality that seeks to dissolve barriers and explore boundaries of understanding, knowing, and experiencing being in the world. With this in mind I wish to make note of two aspects of this project. First, the collective pronouns I employ in this piece are informed by my being non-Indigenous, but do not inherently exclude Indigenous persons. I [like Carolyn D’Cruz (2008), explained when writing about a specific debate over Aboriginal identities in Australia] am not seeking to determine who can or who cannot speak in relation to identities and experiences that I do not specifically hold myself. In the desire to determine that right to speech, according to the binary opposition of can/cannot, ‘there is a tendency to reduce the complexity of the issues at stake, firstly, to a choice between two polarised political positions: either it does matter who speaks or it does not. Of course, this matter is important, but there is an impulsive proclivity to reduce all argument to the identity of the subject doing the speaking’ (D’Cruz 2008, p. 13). I seek here to diminish the ability for such reductionism while not ignoring its implications. Thus I am simply highlighting the fact that I am non-Indigenous and that those pronouns, which I use in this piece of writing, include that I. This is not to gloss over an imbalance of power that someone may read here or to erase other voices, or to muddle my own. It is a fact of the matter — an ontological truth of my own materiality. What’s more, here, like D’Cruz (2008, p. 13) I am ‘not taking up an either/or position over the matter of speaking’, or determining if Indigenous scholars ‘seem to be capable of doing theory’, or determining who is or is not capable of claiming Indigenous identity (Pulitano 2003, p. 16). While I am aware that these matters are at the root of a debate in Native literary studies (see e.g. Womack 1999; Weaver, Womack, and Warrior 2005; Pulitano 2003), I am more interested in the conditions, apparatuses, and techniques which materialise the ability for identification at all. I am seeking to do something different and differentiating here; I am seeking to engage in a culture which is non-polarizing and non-dogmatic. That is a culture which can be sympathetic to both sides of such a debate, without privileging either, while still analysing to what extent they are or are not hospitable. Which brings me to the other aspect of this project I want to make note of. Secondly, quite simply, the hospitality aspect of my guiding question is necessarily a question of and implication in an ethics. This is a point that I develop below.


Following Karen Barad (2012c, p. 49), ‘Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we can not do without, but a destructive practice meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down — another scholar, another feminist, a discipline, an approach, et cetera.’ In other words, it is too often a practice focused on lack, subtraction, and obtaining mastery, driven by negativity, distancing, and othering (Barad 2012c). Similarly, Bruno Latour (2004, p. 248) inspired by Alan Turing’s (1950) notion of the critical rather than critique, asks ‘What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction?’ Following these sentiments, the approach taken to addressing my question is diffraction. I borrow the term from Donna Haraway (1992) and Karen Barad (2007). Haraway’s concern with ‘the way reflexivity has played itself out as a methodology, especially as it has been taken up and discussed by mainstream scholars’ prompted her to suggest a new (physical) optical metaphor for the construction of knowledge (Barad 2007, p. 29). Working from this suggestion (and not Latour’s) Barad (2012c, pp. 49–50) has developed a practice of diffraction, ‘of reading diffractively for patterns of differences that make a difference. And I mean that not as an additive notion opposed to subtraction…I mean that in the sense of it being suggestive, creative and visionary.’ This is a method of ‘reading insights through one another, building new insights, and attentively and carefully reading for differences that matter in their fine details, together with the recognition that there[,] intrinsic to this analysis is an ethics that is not predicated on externality but rather entanglement. Diffractive readings bring inventive provocations; they are good to think with. They are respectful, detailed, ethical engagements’ (Barad 2012c, p. 50). Diffraction is a non-representational approach that, rather than attempting to locate systems of sameness via reflection based upon representationalist models that do not trust matter, begins by assuming matter is not only trustworthy, but part and parcel of all potential systems of understanding. That is to say, rather than the instability of matter as a source of disturbance that necessitates binding, in order to critique, theorize, or experiment, diffraction begins by assuming that the instability of matter, as entangled in all processes, is the inherent source of all being, knowing, and understanding in the world. This approach echoes the form of Indigenous Knowledge or Haudenosaunee imagination introduced above. Instability and entanglement enable the difference from which any sort of modelling or representation –and thus assertion of lack — could develop. So, while reflexivity for example attempts to create orderly systems of sameness, diffraction attempts to enliven possibilities of generative difference. This is decidedly not a method founded on binary oppositions and dualisms.

As ‘Deleuze and Guattari have postulated, beyond the postmodern obsession with representation and discourse, with forms of order and organization, that is, with systems and structures, that philosophy develops nothing but concepts to deal with, to approach to touch upon, to harness, and live with chaos, to take a measured fragment of chaos and bound it in the form of a concept’ (Grosz 2008, p. 27, original emphasis). This binding is an attempt at separation and stability, that are necessary for reflexivity, and that intrinsically deny the possibilities inherent to our being of the world and to the chaos of the universe. Chaos speaks back, communicates with and composes imaginative minds. As Grosz explains, chaos

abounds everywhere but in and through the sign. It lives in and as events — the event of subjectivity, the event as political movement, the event as open-ended emergence. The sign and signification, more generally, are the means by which difference is dissipated and rendered tame. Difference is the generative force of the universe itself, the impersonal, inhuman destiny and milieu of the human, that from which life, including the human, comes and that to which life in all its becomings directs itself (Grosz 2011, p. 94, original emphasis).

Diffraction is an attempt to get before and beyond the dissipating and taming of matter, the reduction of the self and experience to a sign, and the ordering of the world which oppresses our own communication, creativity, and worlding. This is largely about paying attention to the boundaries that separate and attempt to delineate the entanglements in and of the world and noticing the ways that they are not fixed and stable but able and open to reworking (or a different process of worlding).

This is crucial not just in our practices of thinking — and realizing that thinking has never been disembodied — but in our ways of being of the world. For example, as Barad (2012, p. 50) explains:

the entanglement of matter and meaning calls into question this set of dualisms that places nature on one side and culture on the other. And which separates off matters of fact from matters of concern (Bruno Latour) and matters of care (Maria Puig de la Bellacasa), and shifts them off to be dealt with by what we aptly call here in the States “separate academic divisions,” whereby the division of labor is such that the natural sciences are assigned matters of fact and the humanities matters of concern, for example. It is difficult to see the diffraction patterns — the patterns of difference that make a difference — when the cordoning off of concerns into separate domains elides the resonances and dissonances that make up diffraction patterns that make the entanglements visible.

Therefore this is not just a bringing together or a working between, but an attentiveness and a commitment to how resonances and dissonances function, how they are materially entangled — not the same but also not entirely separate — coming together and moving away in important and telling ways. This calls for a critical consciousness that is fundamentally not geared toward sameness, replication, and stability and all the baggage those Enlightenment practices carry. As Haraway (1997, p.273) explains, ‘diffraction patterns record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference. Diffraction is about heterogeneous history, not about originals. Unlike reflections, diffractions do not displace the same elsewhere, in more or less distorted form, thereby giving rise to industries of [story-making about origins and truths]. Rather, diffraction can be a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness.’ This, in many ways, if taken seriously and personally, undoes many of the foundational understandings of our being in (and of) the world. It challenges the basic taken-forgranted ‘truths’ that condition humanist conceptions of the self and therefore to do this work, requires an ability and openness to destabilizing the self (who, for example, does the work of critical theory).

At the very least there needs to be a recognition of the nature of materiality as alive, openended, and on-going, not as some stable, passive substance (as I explore below) and that the subject/object distinction needs to radically change. We can begin this move by taking Indigenous Knowledge seriously. What is perhaps most important and indeed exciting about this opportunity for a critical theory which materializes through Barad’s development of diffraction — that includes nonclassical insights from quantum physics — is the ability to study both the ‘object’ and the ‘method’ of study together. This means not simply being self-reflexive, but becoming critically aware of worlding in which we participate, as and through our theorizing. While ‘it is impossible to grasp these points and their importance without an in-depth investigation of the physics of diffraction’ (Barad 2007, p. 73), which I do not have space for here (for such a discussion see Barad 2007, a text that is itself diffractive), I can sketch the aspects which are most vital for this project.

What diffraction enables us to do is ‘to explore the nature of entanglements and also the nature of this task of exploration’ (Barad 2007, p. 74). We cannot take any apparatus or analytical framework to be stable or fixed, but need to consider how the materiality of practices impacts our findings. We can do this

if we learn to tune our analytical instruments (that is our diffraction apparatuses) in a way that is sufficiently attentive to the details of the phenomenon we want to understand. So at times diffraction phenomena will be an object of investigation and at other times it will serve as an apparatus of investigation; it cannot serve both purposes simultaneously since they are mutually exclusive; nonetheless, as our understanding of the phenomenon is refined we can enfold these insights into further refinements and runnings of our instruments to sharpen our investigations and so on. (Barad 2007, p. 74)

This notion may become untenable or scary for those who do critical theory and related practices, because the analytical instruments we are working with are often ourselves. Our work is often embedded into our worldview, our practices of reading and thinking, and thus can be very difficult to develop an awareness of the self that approaches this level of attunement and refinement. But this is where the political power of this type of work lies and is why it is crucial for the humanities and science sciences to take up this challenge; beginning with the commitment to understanding how reading, theorizing, and knowing are direct material engagements. They are

a cutting together-apart, where cuts do violence but also open up and rework the agential conditions of possibility. There is not this knowing from a distance. Instead of there being a separation of subject and object, there is an entanglement of subject and object, which is called the “phenomenon.” Objectivity, instead of being about offering an undistorted mirror image of the world, is about accountability to marks on bodies, and responsibility to the entanglements of which we are a part. (Barad 2012c, p. 53)

What happens to critical practices of study when accountability and responsibility re-place objectivity? What happens to theorizing when we notice the ways in which we are intimately entangled with that which is being theorized? Already, it may be clear that this approach is more than merely a method or a technique. It includes a new lexicon, a new orientation, and a new way of proceeding. It challenges some of the basic held truths of what it means to be a person in the world, and it includes a new understanding of ethics. Before moving onto the matter of ethics, I want to briefly outline the project as it unfolds.

Diffraction is the approach taken to my work here. I mean this in both senses of the word: one, to come nearer and two, the act of coming nearer. That is to say, diffraction is my moving closer to answer the question and is my way of moving closer to a response. It is both a response in and of itself and a moving nearer to a response. Here movement, a material act or function, and technique, an embodied system or practice, for said movement are entangled. This entangled approach is evident in the organization of this piece of writing, where both a response to my guide question (raised above) is fleshed out alongside a method or system for responding it to. This approach recognizes answers and techniques are not always clear-cut articulations or step-by-step practices and that the process of responding is more vital than anything that may resemble an answer. In the simplest terms, what unfolds below is a series of diffractive readings.


The ethics I take on in this approach do not just rest on my shoulder, I am not burdened with them, they are not obligatory. They are part and parcel of me. In other words, ‘ethics is not simply about responsible actions in relation to human experiences of the world; rather, it is a question of material entanglements and how each intra-action matters in the reconfiguring of these entanglements, that is, it is a matter of the ethical call that is embodied in the very worlding of the world’ (Barad 2007, p.160). Again, this is not a matter of sameness, of everything being the same, or an entrenching of difference (as the opposite of sameness), but attentiveness to entanglements. To reiterate, we have to move away from the notion of discrete stable entities that are ‘in the world’ and move toward the ways we are readily of the world. This is an ethico-onto-epistemological imperative. Where ethics, ontologies, and epistemologies are not terrains of separate academic disciplines or interests or approaches, but are at the core of the very way we live. Where at the very least knowing and being are entangled and inherently have ethical implications — because how we know and the ways we live will always include matters of cutting together and apart. The concept of hospitality can help us in our agential cuts.

When I invoke the concept of hospitality, I am firstly calling upon a Derridian concept. At the very basis of this is a deconstruction of the host/guest relationship, where the stable categories of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ are no longer enough in guiding ethics. For example, in the instance of this essay, I feel I am both host and guest to the Haudenosaunee literatures I am working with as well as the other writers I lean on for guidance in developing a response to my question and the traditions within which I am working. My ability to experience both positions at once is not a hybridity of identity nor a fragmentation of experience, both of which imply some stable core self or selves that are either brought together or broken apart; it is an awareness and an attentiveness that extends beyond the false stability of a category. As McQuillan (2009, p. 111) explains, ‘On the one hand, hospitality is an unconditional openness to the other. The other is not the same as the stranger, although the two are indissociable and the ‘stranger’ [etranger] is the locus of hospitality. Hospitality is not a matter of receiving a thing or being; it is enigmatic beyond both intention and object. Nor is hospitality itself an object of knowledge or a mode of being present. Rather, hospitality…is what happens.’ In short, ‘Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others…Ethics is hospitality’ (Derrida 2001, pp. 16–7). This ethics I believe can be enlivened through practices of diffraction that are inspired and guided by an attentiveness to Indigenous Knowledge. Barad’s agential realist account of being offers us a way into Derrida’s hospitality. ‘Agential realism does not start with a set of given or fixed differences, but rather makes inquiries into how differences are made and remade, stabilized and destabilized, as well as their materializing effects and constitutive exclusions’ (Barad 2012, p. 77). In this approach we are not stable, bounded entities in the world who may have the ability to be hospitable or to act ethically. Those possibilities depend on how agency or the power to act is not a given but rather something which coalesces in particular ways according to all elements of a phenomenon. This differs greatly from the Cartesian epistemology at the core of Enlightenment reason, humanist subjectivity, and the Western philosophical tradition, that ‘is built on the given-ness of a distinction or a Cartesian cut between subject and object, the epistemology of agential realism, or rather its entangled ethico-onto-epistemology, goes to a set of prior questions (Barad 2012 p. 77). For example, the Enlightenment subject (who is most often theorised as an autonomous, white, middle class adult male who never had a childhood) is a sealed-off, stable entity who both has a body and has agency. Both the passive body and the power of agency are simply given traits of that individual. Whereas an agential realist or posthumanist account seeks to locate the ways in which the intraactions that enable the materialisation of one’s ‘choice’ of behaviour or power to (re)act (i.e. agency), are based upon the entangled nature of a given social situation (including the presence of human and non-human elements). It also considers how these intra-actions are at the same time the materialisation of one’s sense of stability as an individual who can express that choice. As Barad (2007, pp.149–150) explains,

agential realism’s posthumanist account of discursive practices does not fix the boundary between human and nonhuman before the analysis ever gets off the ground, but rather allows for the possibility of a genealogical analysis of the material-discursive emergence of the human. Human bodies and human subjects do not preexist as such; nor are they mere end products. Humans are neither pure cause nor pure effect but part of the world in its openended becoming.

These two approaches — humanist and posthumanist — offer very different opportunities for ethics, but when it comes to hospitality only one of them is viable. This is the case, because ‘The injunction of hospitality is that one must make decisions — for decisions are always made — without the assurance of ontological foundations’ there is no room for ‘a well-intentioned liberalism of private conscience’ here (McQuillan 2009, p. 109). Similar to Indigenous Knowledge, which is not stable but an on-going, open-ended ecological communication, hospitality demands an unknowing and the unknowability of a particular causal relation. That is to say, ‘Hospitality places incompatible injunctions on the moment of decision. It has no program; its mode is always singular and specific to a particular instant…Just as this unconditional opening [to the other, i.e. hospitality] would be heterogeneous to any politics, law or ethics which attempted to condition it by rule or by programme, it is indissociable from these conditions’ (McQuillan 2009, p.109–10). While this may be so, hospitality, in order for it ‘to be effective as a welcome, rather then merely opening itself onto ruin, it must take place within certain conditions’ (McQuillan 2009, p. 110). Thus I am attempting here to sketch some conditions for the possibility of hospitality. Those, thus far, include diffraction, agential realism, Indigenous Knowledge, and posthumanism.

These conditions are about radical openness, difference, and indeterminate entities. They are a ‘queering’ of Enlightenment epistemologies that potentially ‘welcome’ rather than ‘ruin’. This queering is not about ‘queer’ as a way to describe someone or some thing but rather an approach to understanding the inherent possibilities in and of the world. As Barad (2012, p. 81) explains:

Politically speaking, it has been and continues to be important that “queer” is not a fixed, determinate term. It does not have a stable meaning or referential context, which is not to say that it means anything anyone wants it to. “Queer” is itself a lively, mutating organism, a desiring radical openness, an edgy protean differentiating multiplicity, an agential dis/continuity, an enfolded reiteratively materializing promiscuously inventive spatiotemporality…Ultimately, the point is not the queerness of this or that critter, but the queerness of phenomena in their iterative intra-active becoming. The queerness of phenomena unsettles the presumed separateness of questions of being-knowing-responding.

That separateness, necessary for Cartesian epistemology, inherently precludes the possibility of Derrida’s hospitality. For the task at hand I’m most interested in the ways that the notion of responsibility is queered through Barad’s approach since it is fundamental to a viable ethics. She explains this as follows:

According to agential realism, “responsibility” is not about right response, but rather a matter of inviting, welcoming, and enabling the response of the Other. That is, what is at issue is response-ability — the ability to respond. The range of possible responses that are invited, the kinds of responses that are disinvited or ruled out as fitting responses, are constrained and conditioned by the questions asked, where questions are not simply innocent queries, but particular practices of engagement. So the conditions of possibility of response-ability include accountability for the specific histories of particular practices of engagement. Much like our friend the ultra-queer atom, who is open to reconfigurings of spacetimemattering that signal the undoing of the metaphysics of individualism (including assumptions that fall under the heading “the metaphysics of presence”), the temporality of responsibility is not one’s own. “Past” and “future” bleed into the “now” of the questioning. Presence is not a matter of a thin slice of now, but rather the hauntology of inheritance, inheriting the future as well as the past (a reference to Derrida). (Barad 2012, p. 81)

Therefore, response-ability is a way of creating an hospitable or ethical culture by considering the heterogeneity of all possible pasts and futures. It takes into account how that heterogeneity has been patterned, habituated, and selectively chosen to reflect ‘stability’, ‘linearity’, ‘progression’ in the name of a false homogeneity and attempts to disturb those patterns and disrupt those habits, reopening them to new possibilities that once again seek to generate heterogeneity. While we are encouraged by McQuillan not to think of hospitality as a ‘mode of being’, Barad’s diffractive agential realism offers us a mode of being — response-ability — that allows us to begin to generate a new culture of possibility.

Furthermore, Barad’s move addresses the problem of individualism, the Enlightenment need for presence, as well as the metaphysics of substance (which I will address below), that haunt us in the ways we continue to make ourselves and live our lives in the contemporary West (Blumenthal 2013). The ghosts we have inherited but that we must unearth in our move toward hospitality are in and of ‘Enlightened’ and ‘Savage’ bodies that prop up the anthropocentrism that delineates who and what can be ethical. In order to begin to sketch the possibility for an ethics that involves the livingbeing-knowing of all beings, I follow Ngāti Pūkenga (Māori) scholar Brendan Hokowhitu, who states that ‘the colonial ghosts haunting the Indigenous body must necessarily be exhumed’ (Hokowhitu 2009, p. 101).

An attentiveness to mattering is central to a diffractive approach and thus we must begin with the matter of ourselves, the materiality of the body. This ‘is a commitment to understanding which differences matter, how they matter, and for whom. It is a critical practice of engagement, not a distance-learning practice of reflecting from afar’ (Barad 2007, p. 90). The question we are now faced with, when working through an agential realist approach is who and how can one be response-able? We must disrupt the humanist exceptionalism — with which notions of the ‘Enlightened’ and ‘Savage’ body are built — that usually frames both ethics and the possibilities for analysis. This move will allow us to create a path for being response-able, where

responsibility is not an obligation that the subject chooses, but rather an incarnate relation that precedes the intentionality of consciousness. Responsibility is not a calculation to be performed. It is a relation always already integral to the world’s ongoing intra-active becoming and not-becoming. That is, responsibility is an iterative (re)opening up to, an enabling of responsiveness. Not through the realization of some existing possibility, but through the iterative reworking of im/possibility. Responsibility does not follow from any set of distinctions or individualist conceptions of the nature of the subject. Rather, responsibility flows out of cuts that bind. Since responsibility is not conditioned by any preordained determinate distinctions, such as that between human and nonhuman, the ethical response cannot be to merely widen the circle and allow in nonhumans as well as humans, or for that matter any other group of excluded Others. (Barad 2012, p. 81)

This attempt to get before and beyond the inherent nature of individualist subjects does not seek to entirely level the social world nor does it create a singularity of everything, instead it is open and responsive to the various intensities, possibilities, and experiences that are the indeterminate (because always already unfolding anew) phenomena of our worlding. This response-ability, rather than ‘a superimposing of human values onto the ontology of the world’ (Barad 2010, 265) –for example, by ‘allowing’ an Other into ‘our’ realm because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, as in the case of giving Native American studies a place in the academy, out of a sense of obligation or moral imperative — this is a fundamental acknowledgement of how ‘The very nature of matter entails an exposure to the Other’ (Barad 2010, p 265). Openness entails vulnerability but that vulnerability, no matter how hard we try to deny it through force, corrosion, erasure, or otherwise persists. It is the inherent nature of our materiality. As Barad (2012b, p. 217) states, ‘Ethicality entails hospitality to the stranger threaded through oneself and through all being and non/being.’ This vulnerability or openness, which is closed and ignored by humanist conceptions of the self and the world, entails an ‘infinite alterity that lives in, around, and through us’ and by doing the work of response-ability we can begin to wake up ‘to the inhuman that therefore we are, to a recognition that it may well be the inhuman, the insensible, the irrational, the unfathomable, and the incalculable that will help us face the depths of what responsibility entails’ (Barad 2012b, pp. 217–8).

Getting at and Enfleshing Entanglement

To better understand how to get where we are going it is useful to look from where we have come and tug at the ghosts that may threaten to cloud our ability to respond. As mentioned above, we must begin with the matter of being and the materiality of the body because any ability to forge a hospitality will necessarily be embodied. This is the case because, as Brian Massumi (2002, p. 83) explains, ‘Flesh is the condition of possibility of the qualities of the world, but it is never contained within or defined by those qualities.’ Just as ‘impossible acts’ (in the Derridian sense) ‘make the impossible possible beyond the power and agency of the subject. They are at once acts of intention but they also invent beyond intention, interrupting the self and ruining intention’ (McQuillan 2009, p. 111). Response-ability bridges flesh and intention –materiality and consciousness — and enacts the impossible. While, as McQuillan (2009, p. 111) explains, ‘Hospitality asks us to invent a new, on every occasion, a unique act of hospitality which seems to occur for the first time in history and which moves beyond the rules and law of hospitality even if it is only an application of those rules.’ Therefore, at the very basis of our response-ability to the question of hospitably approaching Indigenous literature is the materiality of the bodily-self as directly entangled with the im/possibilities in and of our worlding. In other words, we are materially entangled with what, how, and who can exist in the world. As Barad (2012b, p. 217, original formatting) explains, ‘Entanglements are relations of obligation — being bound to the other — enfolded traces of othering. Othering, the constitution of an “Other,” entails an indebtedness to the “Other,” who is irreducibly and materially bound to, threaded through, the “self” — a diffraction/dispersion of identity. “Otherness” is an entangled relation of difference (différance). Ethicality entails noncoincidence with oneself.’ My attempt here is to draw out the ‘indebtedness to the other’ by exposing where the ‘savage’ and the ‘subject’ have been pushed apart and where we continue to draw together; those material facts of the matter. With this notion at hand we are committed to an ethics which desires to rework the material effects of the past and the future (Barad 2010, p. 266).

Embodiment is fundamental to our being human and while that takes various forms and formations, it is an undeniable and unalienable condition of human life on earth. We all, both have and are bodies and this initial and enduring condition of being is not superfluous to what we do in the world, how we create knowledge, or live our daily lives. Embodiment is not merely the basis for being, but is part and parcel of everything we do and are. Embodiment is. Therefore a critical theory that is hospitable to Indigenous literature also needs to be embodied. As Barad argues, ‘theorising must be understood as an embodied practice, rather than a spectator sport of matching linguistic representations to preexsisting things’ (2007, p. 54).

Many who may be described as ‘critical theorists’ have explored the relationship of the materiality of the body and the social world. This includes for example, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Elizabeth Grosz, among many others. Much of this exploration centres on the interplay of the critique of metaphysics and the (dis)engagement of the biopolitical in and through a relation to an understanding of discourse that shapes bodies, but to which the materiality of the body had no recourse. As Povinelli (2011, p. 106) explains,

The problem critical theorists faced was how to address substance, materiality, and embodiment without treating substance as a singular, stable, independent, and ultimate referent of an immovable and unmoving being against which social and culture forces brace, qualify, or relate? The difficulty of finding a space between the metaphysics of substance and some other ordering of substances has led to accusations that critical theory simply evacuated substance — or, “the body” — or made everything “socially constructed,” docile, and perfectly malleable to language games.

Indeed as Butler (2004, p. 198) herself admits, ‘I am not a very good materialist. Every time I try to write about the body, the writing ends up being about language.’ This difficulty remains an important challenge for critical theory. In my employment of the terms ‘material’ and ‘bodily materiality’, I, like Rosi Braidotti, seek to explicitly refuse ‘the metaphysics of substance’ while continuing to be concerned with the concept and practices of being (Braidotti 2002). This is key to the unfolding response-ability because of the ways that the metaphysics of substance prop up the humanist conception of the person ‘and the humanist governance of populations through a notion of the proper life’ reliant on ‘the body’ (Povinelli 2011, p. 107). In other words, ‘Humanist conceptions of the subject tend to assume a substantive person who is the bearer of various essential and nonessential attributes’ (Butler 1999, p. 14). This notion is entangled with hegemonic Western representation ‘that structures the very notion of the subject’ (Butler 1999, p. 14). For example, regarding the construction of the ‘native’ as it appears in and through hegemonic colonial discourse, (that is reliant upon a system of representation), as a ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’

substance, as, metaphysically speaking, a self-identical being. This appearance is achieved through a performative twist of language and/or discourse that conceals the fact that “being” a [Native] or [an Other] is fundamentally impossible’ (Butler 1999, pp. 25–6).

The Native as the ‘relation of difference, the excluded, [that] by which’ the ontology of substances ‘marks itself off’ can never ‘be’ (Butler 1999, p.25). This is because, according to the metaphysics of substance, those substances of the bodily-self are not ‘alive’, they are passive and unchanging. They are used to demarcate those things in the world that can be. The Western philosophical tradition, hegemonic discourse, and their entangled systems of representation are built out of and onto a fundamental mind/body dualism (that reappears in different forms throughout Enlightenment epistemology). That is inherently an indefensible, inhospitable way of understanding the world. The ‘native’ has traditionally been cast as the ‘savage’, the ‘body’ to Enlightenment’s (and thus colonialism’s) ‘mind’, or simply, pure immoveable substance. As Hokowhitu (2009, p. 108) explains,

Enlightenment philosophers avoided questions of inconsistency in equality and autonomy arising from colonial subjugation by locating the Indigenous being in the realm of the physical and irrational, a site that denied full humanity itself

By ignoring these questions, humanism and humanist conceptions of the self continue to reproduce individuals in direct opposition to those traits that were used to define and represent Indigenous peoples. This is a structure of denial that functions through a multiplicity of entanglements.


In order to be hospitable to Indigenous literature we need to attempt to get before and beyond the representationalist discourse and related ways of being, knowing, experiencing, and understanding which has contributed to the equation of Indigeneity with self-same substance and which also equates the Enlightenment subject with a mind that can control that substance. Or as Hokowhitu (2009, p. 101), who calls for an ‘Indigenous Existentialism’, explains, we need a way to ‘conceive of the Indigenous body as recognisable beyond the invisibility of such a [biopolitical] power complex; rejecting the idea of the Indigenous body as passive material inscripted upon, in favour of its materialisation as an existential ‘active biological entity.’ At the same moment we also need to recognize the disembodying humanism that is at the centre of the Enlightenment subject as well. This is similar to how, ‘in Irigaray’s view, the substantive grammar of gender, which assumes men and women as well as their attributes of masculine and feminine, is an example of a binary that effectively masks the univocal and hegemonic discourse of the masculine, phallogocentrism, silencing the feminine as a site of subversive multiplicity’ (Butler 1999, p. 25). Following this formulation, if on the one hand we recognise the Native and their ‘traditional’ attributes as one part of the Indigenous/Enlightenment subject (or Native/Settler or colonizer/colonized, etc.) binary, but we do not readily problematise the structure that creates the binary, we continue to mask the possibilities inherent to the original recognition through a perpetuation of the falsehood of that binary, which doesn’t give an ‘Other’ any ability to speak and to be heard. Put simply, despite the appearance of a binary, the representation of an Other, there is not equality, but instead there continues to be the one ideal, white male Enlightenment subject who continues to be primary. Even if we take the binary to be relational, that is the two sides are fundamentally entwined, we must also recognize that it takes serious work to change the experience of the relations because those who are the subject of power tend to have little influence in shifting that dynamic. In short, representation is not an enlivening, but rather a fixing. As Tejaswini Niranjana explains, one of the strategic moves of colonial discourse ‘is to present the colonial subject as unchanging and immutable’ (1992, p. 37). Thus, we too must change.

To put it even more simply, in the mind/body dualism, when we equate the native with the savage, out of control, yet passive body, and the Enlightenment subject with the logical, rational, reason-driven, controlling mind, despite all efforts the Enlightenment subject does not somehow lose their body. The body remains, but this subject, who is indeed a subject and not a savage, is thus because they believe they have the power of the mind to override the body that remains. It is necessary for the humanist subject to control their body so that they appear unchanging and immutable. Therefore, if we attempt to unhinge this binary without also taking into consideration how this fundamentally challenges how Enlightenment subjectivity continues to be central to how we still construct identity in the West by making the body into a passive entity through the presumed ingenuity of our ‘civilized’ minds, we are seriously failing at our response-ability (Blumenthal 2013). Enlightenment constructions of the subject and the savage are both formulations of disembodiment, because they are inherently reliant upon notions of the materiality of the body as being an inherently, stable and passive substance, albeit via two different forms or methods; One is located in the past, while the other is in the future. As Hokowhitu (2009, p. 116) reminds us, ‘If we are able to conceive of our bodies beyond the discursiveness of power, then we will realise that we do not know the potential of our bodies at all. Enlightenment rationalism determined the universe to be knowable and inherently that the bodies were matter and, therefore, understandable.’ Therefore, we need an approach that does not ignore or do away with Indigenous practices, traditions, or knowledges, but also one that does not equate those onto-epistemologies with an authentic, pre-colonial past. As Povinelli (2006, p. 21) asserts, ‘The goal is not to produce a hermeneutics of the Self and Other, but to shatter the foundations on which this supposedly simple relay of apprehension has historically established a differential of power as a differential of knowledge.’ In order to move away from such a hermeneutics, we have to be willing to be open to and learn to recognize difference as generative, as alive and immediate, part of the everyday, and to experience the difference threaded through and entangled with the materiality of the self as a way of knowing-being and being-knowing. Consider how Kenny’s work helps us make such a move.

Alan Steinberg and Karen Gibson argue that ‘Kenny’s formal strategies alienate the reader from the normalizing of the settler culture’s destruction of Native peoples and their lands’ (Kelsey 2011, p. 6). This alienation has a huge amount of potential, where readers are opened by and out onto the text as it disturbs what they have come to take for granted according to Enlightenment notions of self and other. Alienation of this kind is not necessarily negative; only when met with Enlightenment fear and the desire to control and stabilize does this threshold become problematic. Alienation is an embodied response and when it can be felt and explored, it can become generative. Those who embrace this alienation or instability in the encounter of Kenny’s work open a space for response-ability.

Steinberg and Gibson (2011, p. 68) discuss teaching Kenny’s work to non-native university students, explaining that the students

initially may have trouble identifying and making sense of the symbolism used by Native writers. Further complicating this issue, meanings for these symbols may actually shift depending on tribe, locality, and any number of other issues that separate and diversify Native cultures. Dealing with shifting signifiers as well as shifting narrative perspectives might be frustrating for some students, but it also can offer a rewarding challenge. As the students work to “fit” the story together, they can understand and appreciate more fully the complex history, mythology, and symbolism of Native American cultures.

What is exciting here is that these experiences directly work against Enlightenment notions of stability, structure, and rational know-ability. Consider how non-native students understand one of the several ‘bear tales’ in Kenny’s (2000) Tortured Skins. In “Visitation” an unexpected and unknown young man shows up at and is invited into the home of Agnes and Monroe and then proceeds to slowly shift into a bear:

The essential point that students quickly pick up on is that the story is told from the point of view of Agnes, not Monroe, and Agnes is afraid. Rather than welcoming the bear spirit into their home and celebrating the gifts he brings, she wants to shut him out, especially to deny his gifts and the spirits of the ancestors out of fear that she will be asked to join them. If Monroe had been telling the story, students point out, they would have viewed the bear’s visit differently. Monroe, perhaps because of his blindness, is much more open to the wonderful magic offered by their visitor. (Steinberg and Gibson 2011, p. 68)

This observation, of who is talking and how their experience may radically differ from someone else’s is very powerful in opening people to others and disturbing notions of how people can live. This point becomes especially important when we consider how these non-native students, as readers of Kenny’s, are invited ‘to witness a world of natural forces and Native symbolism, they remain uneasy visitors in this space. The non-Native reader, especially, is forced into the awkward position of witnessing events that he or she either fears or must struggle to understand’ (Steinberg and Gibson 2011, pp. 68–9). This awkwardness and confrontation with the unknown, like alienation, is a vital form of indeterminacy that opens the self to the other. When understood as a possibility for hospitality, fear and awkwardness–embodied emotions–have the ability to foster a becoming beyond the self, when not met with rational techniques of control. But, these opportunities of openness have to be fostered; otherwise they risk closure by rationalist ‘reason’. As Steinberg and Gibson (2011, p.70) explain, ‘Students struggle with this dislocation. They want easy answers and stories that unfold in familiar territory. If the story does not provide this, their first impulse is to offer their own “reasonable” explanations: The man on the beach is crazy; Agnes hallucinates the bear’s visit, a side effect of her arthritis medication.’ It is interesting that when it comes to bodily-narrative shifts, material-discursive moments of uncertainty, non-native readers call upon a Western medical narrative of the body, where individuals are diagnosed (a rational process) or held at the mercy of their failing bodies (an ‘out of control’ body). Instead of such a disembodied approach, Kenny’s work invites us to understand the bodily self not as passive materiality in need of medication, but as entangled with nature. Humans are incredibly dynamic and have a great ability for adaptation. As Steinberg and Gibson (2011, p. 70) explain, it doesn’t take much to shift their students’ points of view, ‘Students, whose lives are essentially made up of a series of transformations — from underclassmen to upperclassmen; from legal dependents to adults — find this [transformative] aspect of “shifting realities” especially relevant and engaging once they open themselves to its possibility in fiction.’ By understanding their own inherently shifting nature and entanglement in a shifting landscape and narrative, the transformative power of such a worldview, becomes understandable and readily available to the students. They are then able to embrace the potential in other situations they encounter in their life. These experiences show how Kenny’s work has the potential to open the space for response-ability in his non-native readers that fundamentally undoes a stable, representable, notion of self and other and teaches a form of Indigenous Knowledge.

Critical Theory

Following Karen Barad, we need a ‘new philosophical framework that…entails a rethinking of fundamental concepts…including the notions of matter, discourse, causality, agency, power, identity, embodiment, objectivity, space, and time’ (Barad 2007, p. 26). Representational systems of knowledge create disembodiment through an understanding of the body as passive substance. These approaches work by denying the ontological basis of being by rendering the body into a thing through representationalist ways of being based upon an epistemology which is deeply sceptical of matter. As Barad (2007, p. 133) posits:

Is not, after all, the common-sense view of representationalism — the belief that representations serve a mediating function between knower and known — that displays a deep mistrust of matter, holding it off at a distance, figuring it as passive, immutable, and mute, in need of that mark of an external force like culture or history to complete it? Indeed, that representationalist belief in the power of words to mirror preexisting phenomena is the metaphysical substrate that supports social constructivist, as well as traditional realist beliefs, perpetuating the endless recycling of untenable options.

Before we even get near theorizing Indigenous literature, we must consider the extent to which what and how we know is predicated upon an understanding of not only Indigenous disembodiment that is fundamentally violent and disempowering, but the extent to which that understanding inherently lies at the core of how Western subjects conceive of themselves, live their daily lives, create knowledge and practices used to understand the world. In short, we must begin to recognise how discursive representationalist systems are inherently disembodying, the necessarily entangled nature of knowing and being, and the various ways that theory is utterly mundane.

In response to the swing in critical theory between the metaphysics of substance and the complete elasticity of social constructionism, Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) has sketched the emergence of four general positions that critical theorists continue to be concerned with. These help clarify what is at stake in an embodied critical theory that functions through a response-ability that is committed to open-ended hospitality. They are as follows:

First, critical theorists take great care not to separate an order of immovable and unmoving substance from the ordering, coordinating, and distributing of biopolitical substantialization, even as they do not reduce materiality/substance to this mode of substantialization….Second, [they] emphasize that the biopolitical is not a space of life but a spacing of life; not a living difference but a differential within the living….Third, [they] focus on the conditions of emergence of the otherwise rather than the origin of the other…And further, critical theorists consider these differentially distributed zones of vulnerability and abandonment as spaces in which, at least potentially, a new ethics of life and sociability could emerge. (Povinelli 2011, pp.108–9)

These four points highlight how critical theorists have not forgotten or ignored the body but have ‘attempted to specify carefully what aspects of the body and matter are implicated at different levels of social, political, and cultural analysis’ (Povinelli 2011, p. 110). Though what we can also ascertain from this list is where and how, ‘at various moments a division opened within ethical work (travail ethique) between those who reflect on and evaluate ethical substance and those who conduct their lives in relationship to it — or perhaps are it: are the prime material of ethical substance’ (Povinelli 2011, p. 110, original emphasis). This is a split between those who maintain a distance from their ‘objects’ of study, who deny and ignore the inherent vulnerability in and of being, the matter of radical openness and indebtedness required for a hospitable ethics, and those who are open to and embrace the ‘inhuman that therefore they are’. Diffractively reading Povinelli through Barad enables us to understand how those who perhaps ‘are’ the ethical substance, are those who enliven our infinite alterity and most blatantly enable and require a response-ability. Furthermore, if we continue an ethics of entanglement, the aforementioned positions and the split between theory and practice cannot be thought of as distinct or separate, but rather as composing intra-acted positionalities. It is my suggestion that in order to be hospitable to Indigenous literature, critical theorists must not merely critique or theorise, but must recognise the inherently ethical and embodied nature in all practices, even those which seem detached from the materiality of their ‘object’ of study. This is an ethico-ontoepistemological approach that is attentive to the entanglement of ethics, ontology, and epistemology and is aware of the always already nature of ways of being as constituting ways of knowing and that those being-knowings implicitly have ethical consequences.

These entangled positions enable us to get at the matter of living in relation to and living through ethical work and ultimately help us realize that everyone already ‘does theory’. As Deleuze and Foucault (1980, p. 206–8) discussed in 1972:

Deleuze: Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall…
Foucault: …theory does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice: it is practice. But it is local and regional, as you said, and not totalising. This is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious…
Deleuze: Precisely. A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others…A theory does not totalise; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself.

Theorizing is an embodied sense-making of the world. It is not static or divorced from practice. It is an entanglement of living, being, becoming. It is Indigenous Knowledge and the Haudenosaunee imagination. As Barad (2012b, p. 207) explains, ‘Theorizing, a form of experimenting, is about being in touch. What keeps theories alive and lively is being responsible and responsive to the world’s patternings and murmurings…Theories are not mere metaphysical pronouncements on the world from some presumed position of exteriority. Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world.’ What’s more, even those ‘traditional’ academic processes of theorizing, for example thought experiments, are material processes. Theory happens at all scales of life, regardless of what we call it. This is why we cannot cleanly separate the positions introduced above or the ‘different’ forms of doing ethical work.

Thinking has never been a disembodied or uniquely human activity. Stepping into the void, opening to possibilities, straying, going out of bounds, off the beaten path — diverging and touching down again, swerving and returning, not as consecutive moves but as experiments in in/determinacy. Spinning off in any old direction is neither theorizing nor viable; it loses the thread, the touch of entangled beings (be)coming together-apart. All life forms (including inanimate forms of liveliness) do theory. The idea is to do collaborative research, to be in touch, in ways that enable response-ability. (Barad 2012b, p. 208)

Those Western Enlightenment subjects who are disembodied, ignoring the materiality of the body and denying its vulnerability, are not able to fully respond to the theories alive in those Indigenous persons who have been disembodied by Enlightenment reason. Following Hokowhitu (2009), Indigenous subjects must have a materially alive existentialism afforded to them, and we must become aware of the inherent embodied nature of theorizing. If we want to be hospitable we have to be willing to work from and through this understanding and be in touch with the materiality of theory and the theories of materiality which enable the everyday lives of those who ‘are the prime material of ethical substance’.

Povienlli (2011, p. 111), when speaking of her Indigenous friends in Australia with whom she has been working for about 30 years, explains that while they ‘do not use the term “ethics,” they constantly discuss the proper way of living within their world when what they believe to be proper action is not supported by the power of action as this action is embedded in the everyday life and bureaucratic orders.’ Through Povinelli’s friends, we can easily understand how ethics, ontology, and epistemology are entangled, even — or perhaps especially — for those who have not read the books, or attended the seminars on the topic. This may be a simplification of the academic concepts, but it does not lessen the value of those who live this ethics. As outlined in the beginning, an hospitable ethics is not built upon a framework that can be applied to a situation, but is rather fundamentally an openness, an ability to respond. Similarly, with regard to ontology and epistemology, Povinelli (2011, p. 112) explains, ‘For my indigenous colleagues to know is to practice an embodied commitment to place that over time becomes an embodied obligation. To know is an exercise, an askesis, whose goal is to produce embodied obligation between places and its peoples.’ And similarly, as Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p. 368–9) explain,

Keeping tradition healthy allows the system stability that in turn perpetuates the identity of their system — in other words, relationships to landscape and cultural identity become ongoing, selfsupporting processes. The autochthonous archetype is mind in and on nature, and that reciprocal reality understands the realm of relationship between the system that is Haudenosaunee culture and the terrestrial, aquatic, atmospheric, and spiritual domains of landscape.

In these examples, we can see how knowing, being, and doing are intra-related phenomena that are on-going and ethical. They establish a material relationship to place that is lived in and through the body. Theories, ethical engagements, ways of living and knowing are all derived in, of, and through a relational existence that enables the ability to respond. Here we can clearly see how the body is not merely the basis for rational thought, but the possibility for enlivening material relations, processes, and knowings. The embodied self is a materially alive, entangled entity, who inherently does theory, experimentation, and knows by living. When we approach theory and ethics through this understanding, it becomes vitally apparent that these are not static relations to place, but are ongoing, open-ended materializations. People and place are entangled, responsive, and alive everyday.


One of the primary concerns of Hokowhitu’s (2009) Indigenous existentialism is the move away from a focus on the past in favour of an ability to respond to the everydayness of indigeneity in the various and varied forms it takes. He explains, ‘Fundamentally, the search for pure traditions and precolonial authentic identities relocates an Indigenous sense-of-being in the past. In so doing, it fixes what should constantly be in flux (that is, culture) and, in turn, debilitates Indigenous existentialism. The idealism Indigenous people locate in the pure-past limits how we conceive of ourselves through the immediacy of experience’ (Hokowitu 2009, 103). This is a recognition of a biopolitical spacing, one of the four positions introduced above. Povinelli describes this spacing as a problem of tense. She explains that within the nation-state, there are ‘differential narrative structures of belonging’ and ‘When we look at these differential narrative structures we find that not all people are located in the same narrative tense of social belonging, even if all people are absorbed into the same political logic of the governance of the prior. In other words, the temporality of social belonging that emerged with democracy, colonialism and capitalism emerged not merely as a dialectic but also as a division’ (Povinelli 2011b, p. 23). This division of belonging is such that the ‘autological subject’, who is singular and individuated, is oriented and understood in ‘a variety of present and future tenses…written against a perfecting or perfected horizon’, whereas the second mode of belonging is the ‘genealogical society’ (Povinelli 2011b, pp.23–4). In this second mode,

some sort of human supraindividual force is imagined as constraining this individual struggle to author life and destiny, fixing the subject’s place in a past perfect social order, and inflecting every personal and social obligation with the spectre of individual determination. All claims spoken by the governed and spoken in the present tense are renarrativized as indexing their relation to the inhumanity (because radically constrained) of the past perfect coherent.

Here the autological subject is the rational, Enlightened, individual and the genealogical society consists of those ‘savage’ bodies that can never ‘be’. Those bodies cannot become individuated subjects, because they are the ‘stable’ substance upon which the delineation occurs. Consider the example of the modern family versus kinship. On the one hand, the autological subject, who is seemingly pre-individuated, and freed from the constraints of kinship, via the ideal modern family model, is able to move forward in the world, to progress. On the other hand, we have the genealogical society, describing Natives, where for example, kinship constrains subjects, keeping them ‘in the past’, because they have not yet been ‘freed’ by the modern model. This tautological discourse, ‘already partakes in the narrative organization of tense and voice as defined by the politics of the governed’ where ‘the modern is said to consist of voices freed from the constraints of kinship, the premodern to consist of those constrained by kinship’ (Povinelli 2011b, p. 24). Yet, both kinship and family derive from the same system of understanding.

While this awareness of past/future tense alone is an important way of being response-able to the nature of (Western) discourse and how it impacts those who live it in various ways, it remains disembodied, where the materiality of the body is a stable unchanging thing. We have to work to understand how such a biopolitical spacing as tense actually impacts lives. The labeling attempts to fix, stabilize, and disembody rendering us fundamentally disconnected from our ecology. This can be understood from a different angle, where those ‘modern families’ who are disembodied and dislocated from place, also suffer from a spacing of tense. As Sheridan and Longboat explain, ‘When we succumb to a dysfunctional relationship with landscape, what follows is a dysfunctional relationship with time. Together the two establish a compression of the past and the future in the present. The effect violates the carrying capacity of the present by overburdening it with what since the beginning have been the duties of the other tenses’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2006, p. 372). And

…coercion by the modern mentality and its inevitable surrender to the exclusivity of the monotemporal nanosecond present has made the antiquity of mind seem archaic despite archaic minds articulating a consciousness beyond an anthropocentric and therefore monolinguistic and mono-temporal worldview. Despite being required to live in the present as well as looking backward toward the future (circular time perpetuates cycles continuously doing so), one is immunized by the present when temporal ecologies tease the tenses. (Sheridan and Longboat 2013, p. 13)

When the present is overburdened with either the past or the present, there is inherently a disjointed relationship to materiality. Therefore, we must take it a step further, as Povinelli does, and realize the fallaciousness the division is based upon.

As Povinelli (2011b, p. 25, my emphasis) keenly asserts, ‘kinship and family are not modes of sociality that constrain or are constrained. Kinship and the family are not things at all, but systems of social relations and their imaginary resources.’ It is only through a representational framework that notions of family and kinship can be specific things; where things are that which can be known and rationally mastered, ordered, controlled, and contained. Simillarly, an individualistic and tautological framework is pointed out by Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p. 366) in regard to the conceit that imagination is purely a feature of human cognition:

From a Haudenosaunee or Mohawk perspective, we notice that minds colonized by these assertions concerning the universality of imagination’s origins and functions are contributing dimensions to larger conceits maintained by anthropocentrically biased cultures. Cultures colonized by these conceits tautologically confirm the interior sources of their intelligence. Minds colonized by such conceits think and conceive of themselves in this grammar of possessive individualism.

It is precisely this possessive and pervasive individualism we must get before and beyond in order to be hospitable to Indigenous literatures. As shown earlier, Kenny’s work can help us make such a double move, especially when we understand mind as place.

Recognizing the ways that identity is not placeless and that place is always already a spatiotemporal different and differentiating multiplicity is vital. Following Indigenous Knowledge, ‘Knowing place is ultimately to know identity outside the narcissism and supersaturated temporality of the nanosecond present’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2013, p. 6). To do so, it is vital that those processes and material engagements, ways of being and knowing — both habits and traditions — are responded to as such. They are processual, relational, and material. It is not enough to just listen, or to just read, we must be materially responsive and in order to do so we must attempt to shed the individualism inherent to Western onto-epistemology. As Povinelli (2011, p. 26) explains, ‘to care for difference is to make a space for culture to care for difference without disturbing key ways of figuring experience — ordinary habitual truths…thus to assess care in late liberalism is to assess the capacity of culture as an agent of care.’ This requires a materially steeped response-ability.

Before and Beyond Individualism

In order to better flesh out the hospitality I am working to embody through a materially engaged response-ability, in this section I will more directly entangle Haudenosaunee perspectives. I seek to make this move with the preceding in mind and at hand. This is both a going back to the original concern of hospitality by moving forward and a sidestepping away from representationalism and toward non-Enlightenment worldviews. To reiterate, this move is a material matter, insofar as we are material beings who are inherently open, active, and vulnerable to that with which we come into contact. Contact takes different and differentiating forms. Reading, for instance, is one such form. In other words, bodies are never merely discursive or material, but rather, ‘always already materialdiscursive’ (Barad 2008, p. 141). If we conceptualise our engagement with literature and discourse as material-discursive, that is, as phenomena through which agency happens, we can directly access the ways that ‘boundaries do not sit still’ (Barad 2008, p. 135). I point this out to highlight the moments at which the singular, bounded I breaks down. The presumed physical individuality, based on the conception of the self as a closed, stable entity, the monadic homo clausus (Elias 2000), is a falsehood. The singular bounded self is not a pre-given but rather an onto-epistemology that requires a huge amount of social and cultural inculcation and on-going work in order to maintain the imagined boundaries of the self (Blumenthal 2013). The scholars I have thus far leaned on the most have focused their work, in various ways, on revealing the ways that the materiality of the self is always already open to and threaded through the other in a dynamic and intra-active way. I now want to drill down deeper into those entanglements.

As introduced at the start of this essay, Sheridan and Longboat explore the relationship of Haudenosaunee imagination and ecology and do so in ways that dialogue Barad’s approach (which is informed by quantum field theory). It is neither strange, nor surprising that quantum field theory and Haudenosaunee onto-epistemology have affinities. This is precisely the sort of queering knowingbeing-becoming that is not only at the heart of response-ability, but is an example of the ability to respond. In fact this is recognized by Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p. 369), who say, ‘One needs look no further than contemporary physics theory to recognize that normative realism and the languages that support it make for a lousy Weltanschauung’. When we consider recent developments in quantum physics, we see just how restrictive, damaging, and incoherent Enlightenment reason, representationalism, and individualism are. In order to accomplish this task I will undertake a close reading of sorts. A slowing down and drawing out of differences, which together generate a robust opportunity for hospitality. This entails working through Barad’s agential realism and Sheridan and Longboat’s (2006) ‘animist realism’, which together offer a grounded, embodied understanding of consciousness, agency, materiality, and time. In this process, I follow Barad, who had this to say when commenting on her theory in relation to Judith Butler’s, ‘I don’t see these theories as analogous but rather as always already intra-actively co-constituted, and so diffractively (re)reading insights from different theories through one another has the potential to materialize remarkably insightful and productive patterns that dynamically shift, not over time, but in the making of spacetimemattering’ (Barad 2012, p. 80). In this endeavor, I have attempted to put my reader in a position of being able to respond and in this moment we ‘must leave the plane of reductionist distraction’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2013, p. 4).

Haudenosaunee imagination (or animist realism) is theoretical and philosophical. Indeed it ‘has been around far longer than ecological theory’ and it takes into consideration both ‘temporal and spatial totality by accounting for the unseen and the dreamt in a complex implicature that intersects with and provides passage to other domains of knowledge and understanding’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2006, p. 368). It is indebted to a being-knowing-becoming that ‘embodies what is and was and what can be in a cycle that is always returning to sacred time’s forever’ (Sheridan and Longboat 2006, p. 368). This approach to time and space has more in common with new quantum physics than Enlightenment reason and representational logics indebted to linearity. As Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p. 372) explain, ‘ecological connection is never arithmetic or linear, imagination connects to that entity, and in that connection to the seen and the unseen and the past and the future reveals the experience of everything expressing itself.’ This connection is a material threading through; it is a spacetimemattering.

The understanding of ecological connection as an ‘experience of everything expressing itself’ can also be located in Barad’s approach. Consider how she explains the experience of a beginning:

This ‘beginning’, like all beginnings, is always already threaded through with anticipation of where it is going but will never simply reach and of a past that has yet to come. It is not merely that the future and the past are not ‘there’ and never sit still, but that the present is not simply here-now. Multiply heterogeneous iterations all: past, present, and future, not in a relation of linear unfolding, but threaded through one another in a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering, a topology that defies any suggestion of a smooth continuous manifold. (Barad 2010, p. 244)

For Barad there is no fixity or delineation that precedes experience; time is an indeterminate matter. Rather, ‘It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of the ‘components’ of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful’ (Barad 2003, p. 815). She explains (Barad 2007, p. 33)

The neologism ‘intra-action’ signifies the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. That is, in contrast to the usual ‘interaction, ‘ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action. It is important to note that the ‘distinct’ agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute, sense, that is, agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements.

This signals a move beyond ‘the assumed inherent or Cartesian subject-object distinction’ which believes ‘that independently determinate entities precede some causal interaction’ (Barad 2007, p. 130–31). That is to say, rather than individuals with stable identities interacting (or not) with other stable individuals — an understanding that would enable the reflection of norms — ‘intra-action’ considers how (all) elements in an ‘interaction’ are co-occurring rather than socially prescribed or ‘naturally’ destined. This enables one to access how norms are actively engaged and reproduced and in doing so, how a range of possibilities are systematically precluded. This notion calls to mind the shape-shifting bears in Kenny’s stories that, when opened by the direct and intimate intra-action with others, are able to change form.

Through shifting narrative perspective, morphing characters, and narrators who lack a distinct identity Kenny offers excellent examples of how intra-actions give way to the coalescing of boundaries. In Kenny’s “Salmon,” “Blue Jacket,” and “Visitation”, as briefly introduced above, there are bears who shift into humans and humans who shift into bears. These characters blur the boundaries of individuality, identity, and humanity, reminding us that we too are threaded through and entangled with the natural world. This is vital because as Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p.379) point out, ‘Humans should need no reminding that they are part of nature, although they still believe in ways antithetical to that reality, and education in any normative sense brokers that falsehood to the point where students regard nature as a prison to escape or resources to manage.’ Kenny’s work helps us broker that falsehood for a move toward embodiment. His tales of shape-shifting bears reminds us that we ‘are obligated to reciprocate our kindness and hospitality to them by giving of themselves to ensure that both we, and the other natural world beings making up the web of Creation, will survive together into the coming generations and beyond’ (Dragone 2011, p. 62). When we live from a place of response-ability, giving of the self is always already entangled in the giving to the self. This obligation of reciprocity is, as Derrida (1993, p.10) says, ‘a debt that is the condition of possibility of giving/receiving.’

Similarly, the Haundenosaunee worldview I’ve been discussing seeks to get before and beyond the boundaries that constrain what it means to be human. As Sheridan and Longboat (2006, p. 376) explain,

Modernity’s confusion with the boundaries of the real begins in educated denial not only despite the powers that are trying to speak with and through these minds but also in fear at what recognizing these powers may do to identities that have yet to absorb the ecological realities of this continent. Speaking the sacred dimensions of North America profoundly anchors mind in landscape and landscape in mind by manifesting qualities of each in the other. Practicing this dissolves insistent settler identities.

These are fundamentally material entanglements that can become practices by being response-able to our own embodiment. That is by being attentive to our own radical openness, otherness, and unfinishedness. Afterall, ‘Closure cannot be secured when the conditions of im/possibilities and lived indeterminacies are integral, not supplementary, to what matter is’ (Barad 2012b, pp. 214–5). Consider that ‘Even the smallest bits of matter are an unfathomable multitude. Each “individual” always already includes all possible intra-actions with “itself” through all the virtual Others, including those that are noncontemporaneous with “itself.” That is, every finite being is always already threaded through with an infinite alterity diffracted through being and time. Indeterminacy is an un/doing of identity that unsettles the very foundations of non/being’ (Barad 2012b, p. 214). Then, along with Derrida (1993, p. 10), we may realize that ‘identity…can only affirm itself as identity to itself by opening itself to the hospitality of a difference from itself or of a difference with itself. Condition of the self, such a difference from and with itself would then be its very thing…the stranger at home.’ Therefore, as Barad (interpreting Derrida), explains ‘“Individuals” are infinitely indebted to all others, where indebtedness is about not a debt that follows or results from a transaction but, rather, a debt that is the condition of possibility of giving/receiving’ (Barad 2012b, p. 214).

Kenny’s Tortured Skins and Other Short Fictions, enables us to access this condition of possibility. Following Dakota/Lakota scholar Nicholle Dragone (2011, p. 47), this collection of stories is not merely concerned with ‘colonially imposed assimilation programs and the resulting fragmentation of Indigenous identity’, as she originally thought. Instead, when Tortured Skins is read diffractively (through the cultural context, oral traditions, native epistemology, etc.), it can be understood ‘as twenty-first century allegories about human relationships with and reciprocal responsibilities to all natural world beings, from blackberries, to salmon, to bears, to other humans’ (Dragone 2011, p. 47). Kenny’s ecologically grounded message becomes enlivened and potentially embodied when it is read through a position of openness. Where instead of looking for tropes and identifications, we can receive guidance from the text itself. For example, as Dragone (2011, p. 50) concludes, the bear tales in Tortured Skins seek to inform Kenny’s readers that ‘once human peoples cease to recognize other natural world peoples as being reciprocally related to them, they have a tendency to reconceive the natural world as objects to be possessed, as resources to be profited from, and, therefore, as expendable.’ Kenny’s work makes this point while offering ways to reconnect with the natural world and its peoples.

By opening us to all the others that are threaded through us and that enable there to be an ‘us’ at all, Kenny’s work diffractively enlivens the possibility for an hospitable response-ability. This condition of possibility or indeterminacy troubles not only separation ‘but also a claim about sovereignty — what carnal forms, and in what configurations, have the right to exist, survive, be killed? What can be exhausted because this exhaustion is necessary for the endurance of something else?’ (Povinelli 2011, p.123). What can we learn about what it means to be alive from those Indigenous people who have endured? What happens to identity and the ability to give and receive when it is open to difference? As demonstrated above, Indigenous Knowledge, Haudenosaunee literature, and quantum field theory have affinities that more readily enable a fuller and more responsive entangling of the structures that separate and dis-able an hospitable ethics, fundamentally through a reconceiving of self, mind, and place that explodes Enlightenment metaphysics. The posthumanist approach I have been working through here, is both response-able to Haudenosaunee knowledges and enlivened by them; an entanglement which creates the conditions for a robust and on-going hospitality; a space for giving and receiving before and beyond the self.

Moving forward by going back

Throughout this essay I have introduced the possibility of hospitality. I have done so while attempting to create a space of and for hospitality in and through the writing itself. That is to say, I have attempted to create entanglements across disciplines, cultures, and worldviews that respect various ways of making knowledge, that are ignored or rendered impossible by Enlightenment reason and the Western philosophical traditional, through an ethics of response-ability.

Derridean hospitality may be an impossibility but it is powerful in helping to articulate an ethics of living that is needed today. The ethics of living that I have attempted to create space for here is that of response-ability, a responsibility that is implicated in and of the ability to respond. Central to this approach is an understanding of materiality and particularly the materiality of the bodily-self as an open, on-going, and entangled phenomenon; where the other is always already threaded through the self. I have focused this discussion on Indigenous literature, precisely because the ability to respond must be embodied and Indigenous bodies are entangled with the way we understand our bodies and ourselves in the West. I have argued that until we fully come to terms with this entanglement we will not be able to be hospitable to Indigeneity. Furthermore, the mode of this coming to terms I have suggested here is one of diffraction. By diffractively reading insights, experiences, knowledges, and practices with and through Indigenous literatures we are greatly advantaged in our ability to be and become response-able and to foster a reciprocal hospitality that honours our natural entanglement. Rather then entrenching already assumed positions of individuality, by taking that identity as granted, this approach fosters the ability to get before and beyond the individuated self who could never be hospitable.

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