Past Event

"Heritability and the Ancestral Present" Seminar by Elizabeth Povinelli, Social Anthropology Series at Harvard

September 13, 2021
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
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As many scholars have noted, the concept of settler colonialism has broadened from its original use to describe European demographic domination of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand to social dynamics in, among other places, Eastern Europe, Nepal, Palestine/Israel, South Africa, and Taiwan. Concomitant to this extension is the rise of new forms of white nativism whose politics stretch from the anti-immigration populist right to the progressive pre- or anti-Christianity and Capitalism left in Europe, US, and Australia. Instances of white nativism include the Lega Nord’s use of Native American Prairie images for its anti-immigration campaigns; white supremacist uses of Nordic signs and paraphernalia; and New Age Celtic paganisms and shamanisms. Rather than a failure of late liberal settler critique, this talk understands the proliferation and diversity of white cultural archaeologies as a cultural counterreformation—a reaction to the threat of a politics of decolonization. No longer able to anchor themselves in the presupposed superiority of European Christianity and capitalism, white nativists in Europe and its colonial diaspora search for new moorings in their own premodern heritage. This twist in the history of cultural politics and political theologies threatens to intensify as the unevenly distributed economic and environmental consequences of climate change and new viral contagions spread. This talk approaches this turn in the politics of difference by discussing how two sets of clans have moved through changing forms of the ancestral present, from the beginning of the 18th century to the present. The ancestral present refers to the changing imaginaries of social form, time, and heritability; and the affects, habits and habitats that materially sedimented into human bodies and the more-than-human world. The clans are, on the one hand, the Simonaz clan, patronym, Povinelli, and Bartolot clan, patronym, Ambrosi from Carisolo, Trentino; and, on the other hand, the totemic clans of the Karrabing that stretch down the coastal region of Anson Bay, Northern Territory, Australia. Each set has been absorbed into monarchical empires and liberal nationalisms and each has moved through various forms of frontier violence and the career of settler colonialism. Neither are reducible to nationalism nor are their relations to settler colonialism equivalent to each other.