Colonial Kettle Logic: Settler Colonialism as Wish Fulfillment

Colonial Kettle Logic (CKL) provides a new theoretical appraisal of settler colonialism based in psychoanalytic critique, situating the unconscious in the continuing history of Empire. CKL is an interwoven set of mutually exclusive arguments employed within settler colonial discourse that tacitly function to disavow violent settler histories of dispossession. The enumeration of these arguments illustrates precisely what they are attempting to deny—namely that the settler state is built on the strategic disavowal of Indigenous peoples, histories, and rights. In Canada, where popular discourse re-imagines that ’[w]e have a government who is unlike any government to have walked the face of the earth in its commitment to doing what’s right’ [1], Kettle Logic illustrates the disavowal and wish fulfillment implicit to the banality of settler discourse.

‘Kettle Logic’ refers to an old joke that Sigmund Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, used to illustrate the inconsistency of dreams and the ways in which a careful analyst can interpret denial positively. The joke goes like this: a man borrows a kettle from his neighbour, breaks it, and then tries to return it broken. When the neighbour complains that the retuned item has been damaged, the offender retorts with a series of denials, each contradicting the last, ostensibly to get himself off the hook for replacing the kettle. The three arguments he levies are:

1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
2. I returned it to you unbroken;
3. The kettle was already broken when I got it from you. [2]

The humour of the joke, as Freud explains it, is that while each of the three arguments that the borrower offers in his defence are on their own logically viable, offered together as part of a single defence they cancel one another out, thus confirming precisely what the borrower is attempting to deny: that he broke the kettle. Kettle logic, is thus an reiteration of what Freud famously calls, in the same text, ‘wish fulfillment,’ the satisfaction of desire through an involuntary thought process. For Freud, wish fulfillment allows for the camouflaged expression of a repressed desire, which would, if expressed in its undisguised form, inflict traumatic damage to the ego. According to Freud, ‘in every dream an instinctual wish has to be represented as fulfilled. The shutting off of mental life from reality… which makes this possible enables this wished-for instinctual satisfaction to be experienced in a hallucinatory manner’ [3].

Settler colonialism is wish fulfilment insofar as it is based on the deferred desire of the settler to be properly ‘of’ a land which history insists belongs to an other, the Indigenous occupants. This wish if ‘fulfilled’ via the hallucinatory dreams of terra nullius, and the Doctrine of Discovery, which evade the reality of Indigenous presence in order to affirm ‘ownership’ of stolen land. According to Johnston and Lawson, ‘the typical settler narrative [has] a double goal. It is concerned to act out the suppression or effacement of the indigene; it is also concerned to perform the concomitant indigenization of the settler’ [4]

As wish fulfillment, settler colonialism has its own set of kettle arguments, which are deployed to downplay the grievances of Indigenous people and fulfill the wishes of the State. Taken individually, these arguments are difficult (if not pointless) to argue against because they are not based on any logical assertion, but are rather revisionist acts of history aimed at retrospectively creating grounds for contemporary debate. As Frantz Fanon argued, colonialism does not work within the rules of the equation it is handed; it sets its own: ‘colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures and destroys it’ [5]

However, like the man in the kettle joke, the Settler Colonialist reveals the contradictory core of his or her position, and thus a more secure point of intervention, by flooding the conversation with a series of contradictory arguments, ostensibly offered in affirm the appropriateness of his or her position. What follows are the three core arguments of Colonial Kettle Logic that support settler wish fulfillment.

1. Colonialism never happened (terra nullis)
2. Indigenous people need to get over colonialism (forgive and forget, or ‘get over it’);
3. Colonialism actually benefited Indigenous people (the ‘gift of civilization’).

When read with and against each other, these three arguments can be employed to parse colonialist discourse and illustrate precisely what they aim to deny: the continuing violence of colonialism. For example, consider Stephen Harper’s 2009 insistence, at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, that Canada ‘has no history of colonialism’ [6]—an almost laughable insistence of CKL argument number 1: a statement made even more stark given that it was offered only months after his official apology to survivors of Indian Residential Schools [7]. Take for example as well the racist letter published in the Nanaimo Daily News [8], in which the author attempts to list all of the things Indigenous people ‘lacked’ before the onset of colonization including, the wheel, astronomy, and written language (taking for granted, of course, that all ‘knowledge’ comes from a Western framework). In its egregious, and massively fallacious appeal to the ‘gifts of civilization’ this letter to the editor embodies the logic of CKL argument number 2. Take also, as example, Rex Murphy’s disturbing op-ed on the Elsipogtog protests [9] in which he condemns an #IdleNoMore activists that would dare continue to continue to levy critique and protest against such a sincerely apologetic government for the crimes of colonialism:

Going all radical, hitting the racial/racist buttons and constant invocations of empty pseudo-academic framings of ‘colonialist, settler, imperialist’ mentalities do nothing but burn time, waste energy and alienate a large section of the public.

Get over it, Rex Murphy insists, with his typical sanctimonious tone, baldy appealing to CKL argument number three.

Despite the fact that these examples (and there are many, many more; once you start looking you’ll begin to find them everywhere) were shared in different times and place and were offered by different speakers, these arguments must always be held in relation to one another. Indeed, they are always already of the same structure.  While each egregious in its own right, the interruption of settler discourse comes not from deconstructing the logic of each disillusioned speaker, but from addressing the contradictory pieces as part of a whole, thus exposing their ultimate contingency on one another. To put it differently, the contradictions are not incidental to the debate; the contradictions are the discourse.

Held together, the sum of these arguments confirms precisely what they attempt to deny–that colonialism has inflicted irrevocable violence on Indigenous peoples, that activism and resentment are indeed still necessary in a nation state that insists on the primacy of its benevolence, that the colonial state is built on the blood of Indigenous people who–under the precepts and principles of the very state that displaces them–have real claim to restitution, sovereignty and self-determination. In Canada, where the fallacious narrative of moral benevolence maintains such pre-eminence in nation state identity, illustrating this antithetical core is a necessary act of decolonization.

As Cherokee author and critic Thomas King suggests, ‘the truth about stories is that that’s all we are’ [10]. The persistence of Canada’s own story of its moral benevolence, the insistence by which that story is encoded into the definition of who ‘we’ are is a story that needs to change. And it will change when we begin to question its naturalization. Colonial Kettle Logic is an indictment of a ‘rational’ democracy built out of the historical and continuing dispossession and murder of Indigenous peoples. In a country that insists on its ‘commitment to doing what’s right’ illustrating the wish fulfillment that structures its discourse is a significant step in the movement towards decolonization.


Works Cited

[1] Daniel Friedman, ‘Gov’t has finally righted a historical wrong.’ The Canadian Jewish News. April 14, 2005.

[2] Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, ed and trans James Strachey (London: Hogarth). 119-20.

[3] —. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, ed and trans James Strachey (London: Hogarth). 18-19.

[4] A. Johnston & A. Lawson, ‘Settler Colonies.’ In H. Schwarz & R. Sangeeta (Eds.), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies. (Boston: Blackwell, 2000). 360–376.

[5] Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, [1961] 2005.

[6] Stephen Hui. Shawn Atleo criticizes ‘Stephen Harper over ‘no history of colonialism’ remark.’ The Georgia Straight. October 2, 2009.

[7] Stephen Harper. Statement of Apology. June 11, 2008. Transcript:

[8] Huffington Post. ‘’Racist’ [sic] Nanaimo Daily News Letter About First Nations Sparks Outrage.’ March 28, 2013.

[9] Rex Murphy, ‘Natives need to tone down the anger.’ The National Post January 12, 2013.

[10] Thomas King. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: Anansi Press, 2003.

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