Colonial Kettle Logic: Settler Colonialism as Wish Fulfillment

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As Daniel Justice has pointed out, settlers have opinions. Many of those opinions are ill-informed, hateful, and, grounded in an ill-founded, but nonetheless unwavering certainty about Indigenous identity, rights & responsibilities, authenticity, and treaty. Settlers hold these opinions despite their incoherent logic and internal contradictions.

Justice writes that,

The Settler with Opinions believes herself to be above critique or even questioning, as she is The One with All the Answers. She assures us she knows our problems better than we do. Her lack of knowledge is no obstacle: She claims her ignorance as a badge of honour, for it confirms that she’s Objective.

Her solutions are a tiresome regurgitation of devastating imposed policies that have failed time and again. But because she doesn’t do any careful research, because she feels no need to actually engage with people who’ve experienced these things firsthand, she’s unfamiliar with this long and ugly history.

If we are committed to working against settler colonialism, from whatever positionality you take up that fight, we need a system to untangle and diffuse settler opinions. We need to cut the logic off at its root. Half the battle is already lost when we engage an argument that we cannot win, because winning was never a possibility.

Colonial Kettle Logic (CKL) is a method of appraising and undermining settler opinions. It is based in psychoanalytic interpretive structures and situates the unconscious in relation to Empire. It is defined as such:

CKL is an interwoven set of mutually exclusive arguments employed within settler colonial discourse that tacitly function to disavow settler histories of erasure and dispossession.

Read alone, these arguments are baseless and without political import but taken together, they illustrate precisely what they are attempting to deny—namely that the Empire has no clothes.

In Canada, the national imaginary is built from a belief 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]. At the same time white men in Canada kill Indigenous peoples in cold blood and in broad daylight. Kettle Logic helps to illustrate the disavowal and wish fulfillment implicit to the banality of the settler unconscious, which allows these two ideas to function simultaneously, without dissonance.

Colonial Kettle Logic, paraphrases an idea Sigmund Freud played with in The Interpretation of Dreams. According to Freud, ‘Kettle Logic’ refers to an old joke that is used to illustrate the inconsistency of the unconscious and the ways in which a careful analyst can interpret denial as an expression unto itself and use that reading as a means of intervention.

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 responds 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, at least as Freud explains it, is that while each of the three arguments that the borrower makes are on their own logically viable, offered together as part of a single defence they cancel one another out, rendering visible the hard kernel of the borrower’s disavowal. It is the sum of the whole that confirms precisely what the borrower is attempting to deny: that he broke the kettle.

As intent expressed through lack (we learn that the borrower broke the kettle by tracing its outline through his disavowal) kettle logic articulates what Freud famously calls, in the same text, ‘wish fulfillment’: the satisfaction of desire through an involuntary thought process. Wish fulfillment looks to fill a want that the superego has repressed. We repress desire for any number of reasons: because it is associated with trauma, because we have been told it is shameful, because society or our family demands it. But repression is not the same as erasure. While a desire can be locked out of the conscious mind, it persists within the psychic mechanism. An itch that begs to be scratched, but can’t be reached. The longer it goes without being being attended to, the itchier it gets–until something has to give.

Wish fulfillment allows us to scratch around that itch. We can’t get our fingernails on the exact spot, but we can relieve some of the discomfort, if only temporarily. 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]. In other words, dreams, in the psychoanalytic framework, are a kind of psychic back scratcher. They allow for the articulation of a desire in the unconscious that is forbidden or impossible in real life. Even so, in order to bypass the scrutiny of the superego, that desire is often distorted, not a direct representation of what we want. This is your run-of-the-mill, bubblegum pop psychoanalysis: when you say one thing, but mean your mother.

Kettle logic follows wish fulfillment in form if not in function. Like wish fulfillment, it demonstrates the lengths by which the repressed seeks to surface itself. The difference being, with kettle logic it is not so much desire that takes shape in latent form, but truth that is surfaced through the unconscious. Kettle logic gives the lie to the manifest content (the innumerable excuses why the kettle was not broken) by tracing the outline of the truth those lies try to cover up.

In this sense, CKL functions in how it conceals to reveal, or how it provides access, via close reading of the distortion, to the unconscious of settler colonialism.

What does colonialism want? The literature is clear: settler colonialism wants to erase itself. It wants to create subjects that “belong” to land and waters which are demonstratively not theirs. The wish of settler colonialism is’ fulfilled’ via the hallucinatory dreams of terra nullius, and the Doctrine of Discovery, which evade the reality of Indigenous past, present, and future in order to affirm a desperate need to be of these territories.

In this sense settler colonialism has both manifest and latent content. It is two-pronged, although one of those prongs is necessarily hard to see. Johnston and Lawson argue that, ‘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]. Johnson and Lawson affirm that settler colonialism wants to be in the business of producing indigeneity.

The story of erasure and replacement is one that has been told many time, far better than I can reproduce here (I prefer Margery Fee’s essay of Totem Transfer narratives). However, if we concede that settler colonialism is a form of wish fulfillment, (i.e it works to produce the distortion/dissonance of simultaneously belonging/coming from elsewhere) then we are also responsible for reading against it.

In this sense, we take on the psychoanalytic role as analysts, whose job it is to read the dream work for what it is. Psychoanalytic intervention happens at the level of interpretation and how the analyst makes visible, through careful close reading, the truths and experiences that manifest the symptom. As analysts, it is our job to gather, study, and disrupt the pieces of dream work that render the wish legible, by which I mean consistent and stable. Because it is wish fulfillment, colonialism comes with 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.

Of course, I am not the first to argue that colonialism is nonsensical. Frantz Fanon was quick to print out that colonialism does not work within the rules of the equation it is handed. It sets its own. Canon writes that “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]

In The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi similarly points to the logical incoherence that makes up the colonizer point of view. In his assessment, the colonized is understood only through negation, which works to support the colonizer’s superiority, but is simultaneously an act of erasure. Memo writes that,

The traits ascribed to the colonized are incompatible with one another, though this does not bother his prosecutor. He is depicted as frugal, sober, without many desires and, at the same time, he consumes disgusting quantities of meat, fat, alcohol, anything; as a coward who is afraid of suffering and as a brute who is not checked by any inhibitions of civilization, etc. it is additional proof that it is useless to seek this consistency anywhere except in the colonized himself. At the basis of the entire construction, one finds a common motive; the colonizer’s economic and basic needs, which he substitutes for logic, and which shape and explain each of the traits he assigns to the colonized (127)

Settler colonialism does precisely what Memmi and Fanon suggest, twisting logic so that it serves the narrative of the state. Around the hard kernel of desire it constructs a fortress of contradictions, which don’t as much deny desire as displace it, again and again and again. However, like the man in Freud’s kettle joke, the Settler Colonialist reveals the core of their position, what Memmi pinpoints as “economic and basic needs,” in the structure of the refutation itself. The goal is therefore not to expose the illogic of a single argument. There is no winning an argument that makes no claim to sense nor has any special attachment to it. The fruit of our labour lies in our ability to parse these arguments as a data set: to read them as a whole so that we might better understand what is unsaid. For some of us, what is unsaid in ourselves: what we relegate to the unconscious in order to make sense of our positionality. The contradictions that Fanon and Memmi point to, help to outline that space. They are a spattering of content sprayed against a stencil, which, make no mistake, will not outline truth, but may further articulate the shape of desire. Memmi touches on part of that desire of course: economics and basic need. However, for many of us who know no other place than the colonial territory we have been born into, desire reaches much deeper into the folds and subtleties of belonging and of a wish fulfillment that, if not directed at being of this place then articulating or making sense of what it means to belong to a place that isn’t ours.

Classes of Argument Within Colonial Kettle Logic

What follows are the three classes of arguments within Colonial Kettle Logic. Individually, they represent three of the core fallacies that prop up colonial logic. Held together, they illustrate how wobbly and inconsistent that structure is.

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

When read with and against each other, these three arguments provide key insight into settler colonialist discourse by illustrating precisely what they aim to deny: the continuing erasure of Indigenous peoples as an articulation of belonging. I unpack those three arguments in the case studies below.

Case Studies

Case Study One: “No history of colonialism”

In 2009 at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, prime minister Stephen Harper argued 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].

Justin Trudeau, despite all of the leader’s gestures towards reconciliation similarity stated that, “without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have — either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism.” While Trudeau’s cabinet suggested that the prime minister was referring to Canada’s role as a peacekeeping nation (not the nation-to-nation relationships within Canada), the qualification only helps to illustrate how the nuance with which CKL functions: here, Canada’s role as an international peacekeeper is a distraction from the ongoing colonialism that functions inside the state. This is a piece of long-standing Canadian rhetoric, what Luke Savage names as “maple washing”. Savage paints the picture of CKL #1:

It’s the Canada inhabited by hewers of wood and drawers of water, where pluralism is the law of the land and the ship of state is guided by the pragmatic beacons of Peace, Order and Good Government; the Canada of wry self-deprecation and reflexive politeness; of beavers, maple syrup and Mounties, where most everyone is middle class, industrious, tolerant and hospitable. It’s the Canada of Pearsonian peacekeeping and universal healthcare; the always-welcoming country of immigrants; the cultural mosaic which somehow forges, out of difference, an ethereal unity.

The Canadian exceptionalism that Savage paints so beautifully here is “the home and native land” of Canadian Colonial Kettle Logic. Tolerance and hospitality abroad works to obfuscate the fact that Canada continues to appropriate land and resources for Indigenous peoples. It allows the Canadian government to loudly applaud Ukrainian land defenders, while simultaneously jailing Wet’suwet’en land defenders.

Case Study Two: “Get over it”

“Get over it” is what Frances Widdowson is arguing when she writes that “a certain amount of ‘cultural loss’ was inevitable if aboriginal people were to survive in the modern context.” “Get over it” is what Rex Murphey is insisting when he argues that “Natives need to tone down the anger” and that “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.” “Get over it” is behind what Canadian Senator Lynn Beyak was asking when she insisted that the public look for the “good” in residential schools and argued that “none of us are leaving, so let’s stop the guilt and blame and find a way to live together and share.”

The following is Chief Justice Murray Sinclair’s response to the Canadian public’s demand that Indigenous peoples “get over” residential schools:

Because this is about memorializing those people who have been the victims of a great wrong. Why don’t you tell the United States to “get over” 9/11? Why don’t you tell this country to “get over” all the veterans who died in the Second World War, instead of honouring them once a year? … until people show that they have learned from this, we will never forget, and we should never forget, even once they have learned from it, because this is part of who we are. It’s not just a part of who we are as survivors and children of survivors and relatives of survivors, it’s part of who we are as a nation. And this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.

Case Study Three: “Be grateful”

Take for example 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 3.

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. Settlers want colonialism to not exist at the same time they want Indigenous peoples to “get over it.” That is what is key here.

To put it differently, the contradictions are not incidental to the discourse; 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 nation 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 the antithetical core of colonial kettle logic can be an act of resistance.

Thomas King suggests that ‘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 and perverse logic that structures its discourse is one 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: https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1100100015649

[8] Huffington Post. ‘’Racist’ [sic] Nanaimo Daily News Letter About First Nations Sparks Outrage.’ March 28, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/28/racist-nanaimo-daily-news-first-nations-letter_n_2971956.html?

[9] Rex Murphy, ‘Natives need to tone down the anger.’ The National Post January 12, 2013. http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/rex-murphy-natives-need-to-tone-down-the-anger

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

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