More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.

I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.


Ajay, you raise the crucial question of the relatability of different groups of cosmologies, specifically those of the Abrahamic tradition visavis indigenous traditions. All are diverse, of course, there is no singular.

Neither are they necessarily oppositional.

I would just want to make the case that “indigenous Christianity” as one of my Māori teachers calls it, is in no way necessarily a fatal contradiction, derivative discourse, or inauthentic inhabitation. Indigenous Christianity can be an acculturation and renewal of extant non-Abrahamic cosmologies. This, in any case, is the path of the Māori prophets that I walk in the book.

In some ways, Ajay, you start to address this question of apparent incomensurability yourself. But I think it is an important one to dwell upon. As I make clear in the book, grounding is often an ongoing and painful pursuit; Olivia’s reflections confirm this.

I also want to repeat, in this respect, another claim that I make. “Decolonial science” cannot be pursued in the abstract but only through living knowledge traditions and their relationships to each other, and not only that, but with some kind of commitment to these traditions by the participant. I will admit: this claim makes of the term “decolonial science” a heuristic device at best, perhaps simply an (academic?) place holder for an intention.

Olivia, you ask a series of probing questions about the practicalities of researching “deep relation”. You clearly ask these in order to promote reflection rather than to demand an answer. I think reflection is key here. As I’ve just suggested, I don’t think these questions can be answered in the abstract, or before the fact. (I suspect that many of us will intuitively recognize this “problem” – or retrospective inscription – of “methodology”).

Olivia, you situate yourself as a child of Homeric Hermes/Legba. Later, you gesture to the children of “Arcadian Hermes”. Let me explain that move a little more to your reader. Against the Hermes that Homer has colonized on behalf of the Greek city state, I retrieve the uncolonized Arcadian Hermes, a humble spiritual agent and one that can relate to other indigenous agents on a level. In contrast, Homeric Hermes doesn’t care to relate; rather, he is intent upon singularly determining meaning through an imperial universalism.

The Pākehā (white settler) allies of Black Power and RasTafari that I engage with in the book have switched allegiance from Homer to become children of Arcadian Hermes. So I am suggesting, and this follows Ashis Nandy and others, that colonizers always colonize their own resources too. I would, then, like to hold out for the prospect and urgency of European/Western decolonial sciences. (I wonder, what names would they take and what living knowledge traditions could they work with and through; would they have to learn Europe anew?)  


Rufus Collins from Keskidee reasons with school children in Masterton, in the Wairarapa

Now onto Krishna’s powerful critique. And I want to engage with you, Krishna, at some length because I have found that in replying to you, I have had to push myself to express and articulate some of the key arguments of my book. Which is difficult. Thanks for this learning process!

You are ambivalent about the politics of the Black Pacific. You draw out this ambivilance by way of Glen Coulthard’s recent book. Red Skins, White Masks is a groundbreaking critical deployment of Frantz Fanon to the problem of “recognition politics” in Canada, and the present and ongoing dispossession of indigenous lands. You finish by describing Coulthard’s book as a “bracing counterpoint” to mine.

Your key criticism, it seems to me, is that because I am emphasising, as you put it, a prelapsarian we-ness, I rob analysis of a political sensibility towards – even urgency over – the present materiality of indigenous dispossession that is explicitly evident in Red Skins, White Masks.

To demonstrate the suspiciousness of this “we-ness” you are, rightfully, at pains to demonstrate the ongoing schisms and struggles between (post)colonized and indigenous peoples, in, for example, Guyana, Fiji and Hawai’i.


And as you admit, “this is, of course, known to Shilliam”. Indeed, my book more than once turns to and dwells upon such schisms between Māori and Pasifika, and Māori, Pasifika and African-Diasporic sojourners. I conclude one chapter with a firm critique of “identity politics”.

Additionally, you state that Coutlhard refuses to accept the “past-ness of the past” (this lies in his critique of Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation) and, instead, anchors his politics to the contemporaneous recovery of indigenous lands.

But isn’t that what I am explicitly contributing to as well? Albeit not in such a direct and urgent way, for sure; certainly my investment in this issue is not and cannot be of the same kind as Coulthard’s. Nonetheless, my narrative is framed explicitly around indigenous struggles over dispossession – independence claims, broken treaties, and 19th century and 20th century resistance. Although the substance of my argument does not venture into the 21st century, I am clear that dispossession is ongoing and that it frames the present.

It seems to me that your discomfort arises from the temporalities of my book, and how through these temporalities I bind back the material and spiritual domains. The “unreconstituted historical materialist” in you wants to re-emphasise the “materiality” of dispossession, the critique of which you believe my temporalities disarm, especially with my focus on a “transcendental” prelapsarian unity.



At this point I want to dwell a little on the conceptual elements of “we-ness” that all my interlocutors bring up in one way or another.

In the book these elements come together through the pronouns tātou tātou and “I and I”. Heloise and Ajay, you provide some very useful and insightful remarks in this regard. I want to embellish your commentaries in order to address Krishna’s critique.

Tātou, in the Māori language (Te Reo), is a pronoun that refers to all of us – specifically, the speaker and her/his people and the peoples being addressed. This stands in distinction to mātou, a pronoun that refers to “we” as only the speaker and her/his people in the presence of the peoples being addressed.

The RasTafari pronoun for me is “I”, “you” – “the I”, and we – “I and I”. The “I” concept seeks to repair the dehumanizing logic of racialized enslavement that makes African-being profane and in fact de-sacralized  (the slave as “black thing” outside of the protection of natural law). So the RasTafari pronoun-complex is avowedly political: that separation which results in “me” existentially opposed to (all of) “you” is a technology of slavery and must, therefore, be dispensed with.

But there is also a nascent politics to tātou. “Tātou tātou”, especially, is not a term that is “at rest”. As I understand it, the term was first used by Sir James Carroll Māori politician, to refer to the politics of inter-tribal relationships.

Tātou is also inscribed in the broad history of colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand. At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, British consul to New Zealand, William Hobson, intent on proclaiming something in Te Reo to each Māori signatory, is provided by an influential missionary with the phrase “he iwi tahi tātou”. This can be glossed as “we are all one people/tribe”. The (in)sincerity of this inclusive gesture is questioned time and time again by various Māori in the violent colonization that follows.

The first thing I want to say, then, is that there is no innocent or staid we-ness in these pronouns. They are, to a greater or lesser extent, already invested with movement and politics.

Moreover, these energies, in my opinion, must be conceptually resolved to cosmological premises and ethical dispositions. And I want to start here with the phrase that you pick out of the book, Krishna, “seminal relation”.

Seminal: from the seed or semen.

(I prefer seed: it’s not a male-only thing.)

Seminal relation infers something that is “carried through”. Hence, the cosmological constitution of relation – even in the manifest world. Yes, creation itself is carried through all entities as they travel, take on integrity, and manifest in space and time.

So “seminal” infers that there is a relatability in all things, no matter how disparate or distant they seem.

Nonetheless, the cosmos is so complex, so interwoven, so pluri-dimensional, that to relate means to have to be able to tell the cosmic story, or, at least, a part of it. This requires the retrieval and recounting of genealogies that, sometimes, must bind back dimensions – including manifest and spiritual ones – in their cultivation of relationality.

There is no “fiction” here, in terms of just making something up; in fact, there exists recognized experts who deal with whakapapa (“genealogy”). Yet retrieval is sometimes a necessary re-creation – a partial re-telling of Creation – especially when it references what seem to be manifestly “new” connections or conditions.

This is the spiritual agency of, for example, Hermes (from which academicians derive the term “hermeneutics”), and all the “messengers of the gods” that populate many diverse cosmologies. Relation is what makes an entity an entity, and the cultivation of the meaning of relation is what makes relation.

As I note in the book in no uncertain terms, the seminal nature of relation that I am referencing here is one that recognizes the integrity of entities qua entities at the same time as confirming that this integrity is composed of relation. To proclaim tātou tātou, therefore, cannot mean that one group sacrifice their integrity – especially, their self-determination – in the coming together. That is the colonial interpretation of tātou.

The same principle also applies to the diverse domains that are not collapsed but are sometimes connected through relating. In “deeply” relating, the spiritual does not become the material, neither does the material become the spiritual. And certainly, the material is not entirely disconnected from the spiritual or vice versa. Yet some domains are deeper than others. Hence my pithy phrase – I could not find a more elegant way to put it – the material is material-and-spiritual.

Deeply relating is what re-creates and refreshes I and I, tātou tātou. Again, and as Ajay recalls from the book, I want to insist that it is not a practice that seeks to collapse domains, but one that seeks “to make their agents relatable and their energies traversable”.

And, I should say, within the broader context of that textual excerpt, to re-make.

“Re” indicates another force to relating: separating, or segregating. Recognizing this force demands that “grounding” – the practice and skill of “deeply relating” – cannot be only an “interpretive” exercise but always an ethos.

Let me explain.

Tāne cut something deep when he inaugurated the manifest world of human existence by forcefully separating Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father) from their loving embrace. But Tāne also races against his evil brother Te-ika-a-whiro to ascend to the realm of Io-mata-ngaro (the begotten, i.e. the hidden face) in order to bring back to the manifest domain three baskets of knowledge that will aid humanity in their new condition. I think Tāne feels that he must try and re-bind humanity to creation even after he has made their manifest world via a deep cutting.

Cross now into the manifest world with human traffic from Africa as they arrive in Caribbean plantations. Legba comes with them, a “messenger of the gods” and intercessor of the crossroads. The crossroads is the place that connects the land of the dead – the enslaved and downpressors in the Americas – and the domain of the living – the spiritual agents and ancestors of Guinea.  Legba helps to repair the breach suffered by those enslaved in the land of the living dead. Massa cut humanity deep when he tried to render a whole peoples dehumanized at the point of a whip. Legba helps those peoples to “get over” – over to the other side, the domain of the living.

Grounding, then, is not just a practice of relating, but an ethos of repair: a binding back of different domains so as to cultivate useful knowledge through which to provide restitution for a disadvantaged position. In short, we ground in the pursuit of global justice.

So Krishna, this is some of the cosmological, philosophical and political/ethical architecture of tātou tātou – I and I. I hope you can see how, at least from where I am standing, your worries about the depoliticizing and only transcendental universalism of these pronouns are misplaced. In fact, these pronouns are brimming with politics.

I think your misgivings might be linked to your introduction of the term “prelapsarian”, meaning, “before the fall” – the time of innocence before corruption. (Just for the reader’s info, it’s not a term that I use in the book.) And this links to a misaprehension of the temporalities that I am working with and through.


Whetū Mārama – Rātana church

You initially equate the prelapsarian period, in my account, to that which precedes colonialism – pre-Cook, pre-Columbus. But I do not actually centre (European) colonialism as, as you eloquently put it, the “event that broke the world”. That is not where my cosmologies begin. They begin, necessarily, at creation; and with that variegated story, they include the activities of Tāne and others.

I actually centre colonialism as an event that sought to break the world.

In other words, I resolve European colonial rule to deeper cosmological apprehensions of fracture and repair that provide for the consistency of “seminal relations”, their movement, and the “ethos” of humanity that European colonialism then comes to so fundamentally challenge.

I guess what I’m trying to show is that I am working in a non-linear temporality. It’s not that linearity is absent, it is there, but it exercises force in parts of the manifest domain. Meanwhile there are other, deeper, temporalities that constitute Creation.

As I glean them, the uncolonized spiritual hinterlands do not exist pre-Cook or pre-Columbus (before and after) precisely because the hinterlands are not manifest. That would be a ridiculous thing to posit! The manifest domain, and its linear colonial logics, presses against the hinterlands, but that is all.  The hinterlands are, then, connectable, but in their own time on their own terms. Paradoxically this is precisely what allows them to be used as a compass and energy source in the manifest domain. The agents of the hinterlands can be mobilized to leak power, exert influence and inspiration that is excess to what is profanely available.

In short, the hinterlands are not constituted through profane linear time. They cannot be “before”. They exert presence.

Krishna, you then make a telling association. You talk of the “prelapsarian or seminal sense of “we”-ness”. Despite the conjugation “or”, the  sentence, to me, seems to infer more of an “and”. In other words, I think you associate the seminal nature of “we” (from tātou, and I and I) with a prelapsarian sensibility.

But from my length explanations above, I hope it’s clear that there is no such thing as innocence or timelessness in these pronouns nor in the sense of relationality that I use to illuminate their political nature.

And there is no prelapsarian era in my retelling of creation, certainly not one that is manifest. In fact, the one mention in the Black Pacific of the Garden of Eden, most famously associated with the Prelapsarian period, occurs when I reason with Hone Heeney of the “Ruatoria Dread”. For Hone, the Garden must be protected because it is indigenous land.  Here is how I recall his explanation:

The Dread are the cherub who, with a flaming sword, guards the Garden of Eden. The task of the cherub is not to guard Eden from entrance by the sons of men; rather, it is to protect the people of the land of Eden from incursion by Babylonian forces. This indigenous RasTafari has never left Zion, but has trod (spiritually journeyed) in it from creation; and he will stay to protect it.

Life in the Garden is not innocent, rather, the land is at risk of being colonized!

The word for land in Te Reo is whenua which also means placenta. Papatūānuku, the earth mother, births into the profane land. This Ruatoria Dread is channelling the present-day, material defense of his land through the sublime mother Garden.

Time in the deeper dimensions of existence is retrospectively cultivating; the past is agental material that we work with creatively, sometimes with the agents of the spiritual hinterlands, to rebind cut lines back into a rich lattice for healing in the profane present.

Thus, when I retrieve the meeting between Legba and Maui in the spiritual hinterlands at the dawn of creation, it is not in innocence, i.e. the “before” of innocence versus the “after” of the fall. Rather these agents meet in their biblical guise of Ham and Shem, and they are on a mission of redemption.

They are working for us, right now.


I don’t want to dismiss Historical materialism, Krishna. It is an excellent profane science of the profane. I would never want to deny its usefulness.  I can work with materialism because my ethos of knowledge cultivation outlaws any segregation of knowledge into the sciences of the knowers (profaned moderns) and the folklore of the known (traditional mystics). In the cosmologies that I have worked with and through (only these, no more) there is always an understanding of materiality and profanity – and more..

There is a difference between profanely understanding materiality and raising that profane understanding to the level of providence –a religious concept (paradoxically) that references the sublime force driving human history. Historical materialism has always struggled with this. So let me pause here for a moment.

Many have debated the unfulfilled expectations of Marxism that the proletariat become a force for world-historical change. It is certainly the case that various proletariat have, at certain times in certain places, resisted and even moved to create something different (e.g. the Hungary Workers’ Councils of 1956). I would not want to deny that at all. But I want to dwell specifically on the “world-historical”, because historical materialism claims to provide a profane science of the “totality”.

From Lenin to Gramsci to Lukács, to Diamat, analytical Marxism and Robert Brenner: I get the sense that historical materialism, in the pursuit of praxis, must propose a profane understanding not just of world-historical dominion (which it does provide) but of world-historical resistance too. Yet, in my estimation, the latter usually crystallizes in historical materialist thought either at an abstract philosophical level or as a faith in the “will” (with many way-stations in-between).

I want to take this back to the source.

The Communist Manifesto is a beautiful text that tries to explain why the proletariat will/must come together to make world-historical change. And that is because, fundamentally, they have “nothing to lose”. In other work  I have demonstrated that this premonition does not arise out of the logic of a profane materialist investigation of the condition of the working class.

Here’s why.

Both the compassionate conservatives and the Chartists of the late 18th/ early 19th century claimed that the Caribbean slave-plantation system necessitated absolute unfreedom and created the conditions for absolute anarchy. Why? Well, there could be no enslaved patriarchs among chattel property, only one master-proprietor. And because there could be no formal families amongst the enslaved, slavery threatened to collapse the fundament of order, namely patriarchy, which had to be transmitted all the way down seamlessly. Without this order: absolute anarchy.

Therefore the fact that (male) “slaves” had nothing to lose, nothing to bind them to an order, made them a radical force in the eyes of the conservatives and Chartists. These eyes then gleaned in the Caribbean-present the future of commercial society in England. Except that workhouses, rather than plantations would be the site wherein patriarchy would be destroyed and anarchy blossom.

Engels picks up on this discourse in his Condition of the Working Class in England and Communist Credos to analogize the contemporary-prospects of the working class with that of the enslaved whom he – unlike the conservatives and Chartists – now places in the historical past (the proletariat are now their future). Marx then provides a Hegelian gloss of dialectical movement for the Manifesto. And so it is announced that the proletarians, that most radical force, can and must unite because they have “nothing to lose but their chains” and a “world to win”.

I’ve made this detour because I want to quote from one of the most important historical materialists of the 20th century: Walter Rodney – a Black Power advocate and Pan-Africanist from Guyana. What follows is “Bro Wally”, reflecting on his time in Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1960s. Disgusted with the “white curriculum” of the University of the West Indies, he sojourns into the “dungles” (dung-hills, the most impoverished ghettos) to ground with RasTafari:

tumblr_nhtw5ya6z71s9zzmvo1_1280“I got knowledge from them, real knowledge .. You have to listen to them and you hear them talk about Cosmic Power and it rings a bell. I say, but I have read this somewhere, this is Africa. You have to listen to their drums to get the Message of the Cosmic Power. And when you get that, know you get humility, because look who you are learning from. The system says they have nothing, they are the illiterates, they are the dark people of Jamaica … Now not only have we survived as a people but the Black Brothers [sic] in Kingston, Jamaica in particular, these are brothers [sic] who, up to now, are every day performing a miracle. It is a miracle how those fellows live. They live and they are physically fit, they have a vitality of mind, they have a tremendous sense of humor, they have depth. How do they do that in the midst of the existing conditions? And they create, the are always saying things. You know that some of the best painters and writers are coming out of the Rastafari environment. The black people in the West Indies have produced all the culture that we have … Black bourgeoisie and white people in the West Indies have produced nothing! Black people who have suffered all these year create. That is amazing.

That amazement. From a profane materialist. “How do they do that?”; “how do the sufferers create?” Perhaps that amazement is borne from the fact that the sources of creative survival and resistance exceed the profane.

This challenge of explanation/action is where the politics of my book lies. As I put it at various intervals in the text: from where do you get your compass and energy store with which to creatively survive – and even resist – the downpressor, despoiler, dehumanizer of 400, 500 years? If that is not a political or urgent question, I don’t know what is. I really don’t.

Bro Krishna, I guess all of this is a long way of saying that I think my book is, in some way, complementary to Coulthard’s.


When I presented my work at the University of Hawai’i last November (the gracious invitation was extended by Akta Kaushal), I was drawn into a challenging and edifying discussion on Blackness in Oceania with some fantastic intellectuals. At some point, I dearly hope that this crucial discussion will  be included in the documented responses to and reflections on the Black Pacific.  

***UPDATE (7th feb): Ponipate  Rokolekutu (University of Hawai’i) has provided a very valuable critique: you can read it here, along with my response*** 

In the meantime, thank you all, so much, for your contributions. It’s been a total thrill! Thanks also to Pablo, the unseen editorial hand without which none of these forums would materialize.


Keskidee Aroha reunion in 2010 at Te Herenga Waka marae, Victoria University of Wellington



3 thoughts on “More Groundings

  1. What wonderful discussion! Congrats, Robbie, once again on this book, and thanks everyone for introducing me to a host of new viewpoints and literatures. Apropos the latter: I haven’t yet read Coulthardt’s book yet, but I have listened to my colleagues here in Canada talk about it a lot. The argument about the layered racialized power structures of colonial states that Coulthardt deals with seems to go back to Rayford Logan’s concept of “inter-minority oppression.” Vitalis covers this wonderfully his latest book, suggesting that that Logan’s ideas presage subsequent research on “interethnic conflict” in the colonial context, i.e., Indo-African conflict in Kenya (Stay tuned for the symposium on the Vitalis book here on the blog). There are also parallels/complementarities? with Falguni Sheth’s Toward a Political Philosophy of Race, which talks about the structure of inter-minority oppression in contemporary liberal democracies.

    PS Ajay, you’re in Ottawa! Hope to meet you soon.


  2. The argument about the layered racialized power structures of colonial states that Coulthardt deals with seems to go back to Rayford Logan’s concept of “inter-minority oppression.” Vitalis covers this wonderfully his latest book, suggesting that that Logan’s ideas presage subsequent research on “interethnic conflict” in the colonial context, i.e., Indo-African conflict in Kenya (Stay tuned for the symposium on the Vitalis book here on the blog).


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