SFRA 2019 paper: A teaching, and a remembrance: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder

Here is my paper for SFRA 2019, which is a highly edited version of the first half of chapter 7 in Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. (Which is to say: the first half of chapter 7 in the project’s current form, which is a bit different than what the proposal linked here describes).

To start, my thesis: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder deploys a pedagogy of active presence through which subjects come to understand their places in a larger whole. In contrast to certain Eurowestern understanding;s of subjectivity, notably those influenced by Hegel, this subjectivity is neither abstract and therefore exchangeable, nor is it reliant upon a granting authority. I will clarify all of this in a bit.

For now, note that Justice’s trilogy comprises seven cycles, most of which begin with an introductory story that calls attention to its nature and affordances as story. Cycle one, for example, begins as follows: “I want to tell a story.” Cycle two begins with “a story of the First days, and the beginning of the Kyn.” It also tells us that “this is a teaching.” The introduction to cycle six ends by telling us that it is both “a teaching, and a remembrance,” a line I take for my title. That each cycle, and the whole of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, can be called a teaching makes clear how the past, even an ancient past unexperienced and unexperienceable by those who listen to the tale, maintains an active presence in the present. This past is not merely a condition of the present, what came before in such a way as to make what comes now possible. This past remains immanent to the present and participates in it as a story whose pedagogical weight has nothing to do with representation and everything to do with the treatment of the other—here another time—as kin. Such kin is an equal subject whose relationship with other subjects does not require an abstract scale according to which both can be measured to determine their relative values. The present is shot through with a past that maintains itself and its power as the past. As a result, remembrance has nothing to do with organizing the events of the past into a narrative about how the present came to be this way rather than another way. That is, remembrance has nothing to do with the meaning of a rectilinear plot along Cartesian coordinates that allows for clear, abstract distinctions among a past/beginning, a present/middle, and a future/end. Rather, remembrance has to do with a becoming that is a putting-together, a put-together-ness of what already is put together. That is, remembrance does not take the form “Let us remember what has happened.” It takes a form closer to “Let us remember what is,” where the verb “to be” suggests neither a totality nor an indeterminate part of that totality. Rather, this “is” suggests a dynamic space-time made up of parts whose finitudes collectively define its unboundedness. It suggests an indigenous thought that escapes the abstractions upon which contemporary, neoliberal capitalism depends even as it makes clear that this thought, far from being a superstition, articulates a form of story possessing a potency that promises and threatens to change the world.

In order to circle back to a clarification of some of the concepts I just identified, and a further discussion of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, let me offer two comments on this paper.

First, it belongs to a larger research project many of you have heard me discuss before, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. It is based on half of a chapter in that project’s final third, in which I turn to contemporary examples of fantasy in order to demonstrate how they actualize and transform certain concepts I develop out of readings of earlier fantasy. Justice, I argue, actualizes a particular form of affectivity, my term for the relationship between the subject of fantasy and her world. Affectivity speaks to how the subject of fantasy entangles with conflict. Whereas realist and mimetic texts often understand such relationships as accidental, produced, contingent, or historical, fantasy, at its best, actualizes them as essential, given, and even natural—although no two fantasies accomplish such actualization in the same way, and many fail to accomplish it at all. The point of my research is not to dismiss historicism or related methods or concepts. Rather, I want to develop concepts that such methods necessarily cannot understand except as other to themselves.

Second, I want to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of my discussion. The givenness of the concepts I associate with fantasy bespeaks the genre’s ahistorical nature, one that hews closely to how we understand faith and belief, or even irrationality and superstition. Tolkien’s belief, his primary belief in god and his secondary belief in Middle-earth, provide ammunition for historicist claims about the dangers of genre fantasy. However, if we think about this belief alongside Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” Frank Kermode’s notion of “conditional assent,” or Michael Saler’s modern “ironic imagination,” we can quickly understand something about belief in the post-Enlightenment West, namely that all forms of belief, for the modern subject, are always already compromised. They are all self-conscious forms of belief. Such knowingness declares the extent to which a true belief, one not tempered by modern sobriety, the adulthood Kant speaks of in his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?”, cannot exist for modern thought. To put all of this another way, one that makes clear the potential pitfalls I just mentioned, when we posit something like a pure belief opposed to modern rationality, we run the risk of upholding racist, masculinist, colonialist binaries that assume white, Christian, European, male subjectivity as the norm.

In contrast to the knowledge practices associated with this subjectivity, Paula Gunn Allen claims, “American Indian thought is essentially mystical and psychic in nature.” If Allen is right, then the challenge for the indigenous fantasist, and scholars of indigenous fantasy, involves avoiding both accusations of childishness such that plague lovers of fairy-stories and judgments that find non-Eurowestern sciences to be primitive. And here I want to acknowledge work by Grace Dillon (Anishinabaabe), Helen Young, and Nisi Shawl, among others. Dillon refers to indigenous knowledge practices as sciences that stand alongside other forms of science and thus refuses to acknowledge the abstract measures that judge difference in moral terms such as “primitive” and “modern.” Young offers one the few scholarly treatments of The Way of Thorn and Thunder as well as an excellent discussion of the challenges facing would be indigenous writers of fantasy, including the devaluing of indigenous knowledge techniques. Shawl offers a discussion of knowledge practices that inform her own writing, practices she would call science despite their constitutive differences with conventional understandings of that term. As Justice himself puts it, “The challenge, then, for contemporary indigenous peoples is a contemporary recognizability—to ourselves as well as to others—that extends beyond the limitations of the phantasmagoric Eurowestern imaginary.”

In order to circle back to The Way of Thorn and Thunder, I want to focus on one of Justice’s terms in this passage, recognizability or, more simply, recognition. Some people here may understand this term by way of John Clute’s discussion of the four season model of generic fantasy. More importantly for present purposes, many of us understand “recognition” as a concept associated with how subjects become subjects in Hegel’s dialectic of history. However, Justice and Grace Dillon each use this term in a manner not so much opposed to Hegel as outside of his mode of thought altogether. In Hegel, the process by which a subject becomes a subject involves someone who is already a subject recognizing someone who wishes to become one as one, finally. Thus recognition distributes power to certain individuals to determine who is and who is not a proper subject—to people in positions of power who can deny claims of subjectivity on the part of marginalized and colonized people. Thus, the problem with Hegelian recognition has to do with how it conditions subjectivity itself, how it provides a procedure by which all subjectivity is determined as well as the framework through which that subjectivity takes on meaning. The power of recognition, by which all potential forms of subjectivity are excluded save for that of which power approves, exerts itself on the writer of fantasy who wishes to actualize an indigenous concept of affectivity but risks remaining unrecognized for doing so, on the one hand, or being recognized as, and only as, a Eurowestern subject, on the other. As John Rieder might remind us, reversing the colonial gaze may grant some power to the formerly colonized, but this procedure does not do away with the conditions that necessarily distribute power in an uneven fashion. Dillon writes, “The constraints of the traditional point of view in mainstream [science fiction] have it both ways: you’re an alien if we invade your realm from our far-away homeland, and you’re an alien if you come to our homeland from far away. Indigenous peoples thus experience a double bind. They become other as a colonized culture, and they become other as a diasporic culture.” In other words, the structures of Eurowestern thought might allow indigenous people to be, and perhaps even to prosper, but only for very narrowly defined notions of “be” or “prosper.”

Although she is not explicitly refuting Hegel in her use of the term, Dillon nonetheless begins to make clear how an indigenous understanding of “recognition” departs from the assumptions of Eurowestern historicism. She writes, “Originated by Charles Taylor in 1994, [the politics of recognition] suggests a mutual interdependence and the struggle to have our identities recognized in the context of our larger society on a more philosophical plane. Implicitly it argues for balancing group rights with individual rights and an active recognition of the collective identity’s related cultural and social goals.” At first glance Dillon’s definition appears Hegelian with “interdependence” sounding a bit like “dialectic.” However, nothing could be further from the truth insofar as indigenous recognition does not derive from a single process nor does not it produce a single form of subjectivity.

Such becomes clear in The Way of Thorn and Thunder. The trilogy’s first volume, Kynship, begins with Wears-Stones-for-Skin, one of the Eaters of Old. Wears-Stones-for-Skin has been ravaging the villages of the Kyn, one of the Seven Sister Nations of the Everland, and a group of Redthorn warriors has been sent to stop him. One of these Redthorns is Tarsa, who will become the center of the story in The Way of Thorn and Thunder, the chosen one in this portal-quest fantasy. Tarsa plays an instrumental role in defeating the Eater and thus earns herself a new name, Tarsa’deshae, She-Breaks-the-Spear. However, the significance of this scene has less to do with a glorious triumph over Wear-Stones-for-Skin than it does with demonstrating, in the opening pages of this fantasy, the nature of recognition in Justice’s writing. Even as they kill the Eater, the Kyn feel its pain and regret what they must do; the sensory stalks that grow from their heads force them to experience the emotions of others, including the pain of those who die. They understand that the Eater has been driven from its home in part because of the human invasion of the Everland and the genocide that follows. Most importantly, the Kyn experience sadness at the loss of the Eater. Whatever violence it caused, however many Kyn it killed, it was an ancient thing with its own value: “When they were finished, Fa’alik gathered them together and shared stories from the time of the Ancestrals, when it told that a Stoneskin, though brutal and bloodthirsty, was also one of the wise ones of long ago, and that with his death came great knowledge.” The death of the Eater has a profound effect on Tarsa, although one she does not fully understand at the time: “And as she watched the Stoneskin’s body crumble into gritty ash, she felt a voice singing to the drum inside her head and heart. It was the voice of the Stoneskin, but there was no rage, no pain or hunger.”

Much later, as the Eternity Tree falls and the power of the Everland seems lost forever, Tarsa experiences something. As she begins to drown in the waters released with the death of the Tree, Wears-Stones-for-Skin comes to her:

He reaches out with a gnarled grey hand and I pull away, but he keeps singing, and the fire rises in my blood. In life he was one of the Eaters of Old, and he’s still dangerous in the Spirit World, but not to me, not now. His blood is my own. The song endures from the ancient days through the lives and deaths of those who hear it, and I’m just one more thread in a woven cord that travels through the Deep Green to the first days of the People. It will endure long after my own flesh has joined the rich soil and stars, but only if I survive now. If I’m lost in this place, I’ll be lost forever. That’s why he returned. He’s come to keep me a part of the wyr-woven pattern. I’m no more special than all those who came before and those who will come after me, but each is needed in its time and place for the pattern to endure. And my time is now.

This passage actualizes a profound affectivity, an essential, given, true relationship between the subject of fantasy and her world by way of the present conflict entangling her. Tarsa and Wears-Stones-for-Skin fought each other until one died. This conflict could not have been reconciled in any other way. However, this conflict does not exclude a profound recognition, in the sense deployed by Dillon and Justice: an acknowledgment of something shared, something vital, something meaningful that includes an irreducible conflict and the difference such conflict involves even as it binds the subjects of that conflict to one another and the rest of the world. Wears-Stones-for-Skin does not recognize, in the Hegelian sense, Tarsa because she defeated him in combat and thereby gained his respect as a subject. The conflict between them always already assumes their fundamental relationship, their power to affect and be affected by one another in manifold ways, and that relationship always already assumes the conflict. Tarsa and the Eater do not participate in a history through which one achieves meaning by asserting one’s ideals against those of another. They involve themselves in a becoming that impersonally includes them as subjects whose differences and finitudes make up the intensive space-time of that becoming.

In other words, the affectivity Justice actualizes in The Way of Thorn and Thunder does not involve transcendence; nor does it involve any individual immortality, an elevation of one subject over others according to a measure that abstractly includes them both. Here, in contrast to the fungibility and endless exchange that characterizes neoliberal capitalism, everything is equal to everything else even as each subject remains distinct from and incomparable with every other subject. This equality without norm or measure is part and parcel of the kinship Justice describes as being fundamental to certain indigenous forms of identity and collectivity. This qualitative practice of kinship stands opposed to a quantitative discourse on blood, the latter of which, for Justice, remains bound to the logic of the colonizer by way of its insistence that authenticity can be measured with numbers or empirical science. In Justice’s description, kinship involves not only rights, but responsibilities. If one behaves as kin, one will be recognized as kin. Kinship is thus “potentially ever-expansive and inclusive” as well as being “attentive to a broad constituency” that includes human life, non-human life, and that which has never been alive in relationships that are difficult if not impossible to standardize. Justice writes, “As such, kinship is very much embedded in both a local and localized matrix of relationship, one that is much suited to distance, large scale, or national policy. Recognition in this context is thus a context—and a community specific response to adaptive and dynamic action—it is behavior and relationship that are that interwoven measure of acknowledgment, not simply a fixed state of being.” Kinship and indigenous recognition thus stand opposed to history and its attendant and particular concepts: the subject (of history), politics, final meaning, progress, the nation, modernity, and so on.

In other words, kinship stands opposed to the terminal creed, Gerald Vizenor’s term for an abstract oath or affirmation one pursues at all costs, to the end of time or until death, and at the expense of anyone and everyone who does not hold to this creed. As Brian Attebery argues in a somewhat different context, “In the postcolonial world, only those who deliberately ignore the existence of mythic traditions other than their own can assert, as fundamentalists of all faiths do, that theirs is the sole path to the sacred. A cognitive majority generally seeks to impose its way of understanding the world on minorities and outsiders, or at least hush them up.” The stakes in such fundamentalism are high. Any challenge to it must be met with violence lest this challenge demonstrate that another way of life is possible. In contrast to the terminal creed’s power to limit all possibility to a single one, Tarsa’s survival and that of the Folk suggests a concept that has become important to the study of indigenous futurism, what Vizenor calls survivance, something “more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories of survivance are an active presence.” In short, they are teachings, and remembrances.


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